JUST OVER A YEAR AGO the Holy Father established a special worldwide day for Catholics to reflect on the needs of the poor of the world, to be each year on the penultimate Sunday of the liturgical year before Advent; so today we celebrate the second Day of the Poor, the official logo of which is shown here. You will see that the motto of the day this year are these words from Scripture (Psalm 34:6), ‘This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him’, which Pope Francis reflects on in his special message for today (available in full on the Vatican website). This is the first section of the pope’s message:
“This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him”. The words of the Psalmist become our own whenever we are called to encounter the different conditions of suffering and marginalization experienced by so many of our brothers and sisters whom we are accustomed to label generically as ‘the poor’. The Psalmist is not alien to suffering; quite the contrary. He has a direct experience of poverty and yet transforms it into a song of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. Psalm 34 allows us today, surrounded as we are by many different forms of poverty, to know those who are truly poor. It enables us to open our eyes to them, to hear their cry and to recognize their needs. We are told, in the first place, that the Lord listens to the poor who cry out to him; he is good to those who seek refuge in him, whose hearts are broken by sadness, loneliness and exclusion. The Lord listens to those who, trampled in their dignity, still find the strength to look up to him for light and comfort. He listens to those persecuted in the name of a false justice, oppressed by policies unworthy of the name, and terrified by violence, yet know that God is their Saviour. What emerges from this prayer is above all the sense of abandonment and trust in a Father who can hear and under-stand. Along these same lines, we can better appreciate the meaning of Jesus’ words, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 5:3).
This experience, unique and in many ways undeserved and inexpressible, makes us want to share it with others, especially those who, like the Psalmist, are poor, rejected and marginalized. No one should feel excluded from the Father’s love, especially in a world that often presents wealth as the highest goal and encourages self-centredness.”
The pope helps us to understand why this day is so important. On the one hand, we are to reflect on the sufferings of the poor in the world and renew our resolve to help them and campaign for them. In our parish we do a great deal – although it will never be enough – to give practical help to the poor, both here and throughout the world. On the other hand, the pope is also asking us to change the way we think. The Church constantly asserts that the poor are not simply to be helped and pitied: characteristics of being poor are virtues which we should all pursue. As the pope says the prayer in Psalm 34 ‘is above all the sense of abandonment and trust in a Father who can hear and understand’.
I won’t summarise the message here as the pope is best enabled to speak for himself. It is on the internet and the noticeboard in the porch. I simply want to reflect on what he is saying about abandonment and trust as features of the poor man’s prayer in the psalm. This is because charity is never enough on its own, important as it is. We all know that it’s all too easy to salve our consciences by giving to those in need; it’s not too hard to do so without challenging ourselves.
One of the ways in which Satan can easily enter our souls is if he causes us to think highly of ourselves. The sin of pride is nothing to do with our dignity as God’s children: it is about putting ourselves above other people. It is easy, if we’re proud, to think that we deserve certain things in life, or that we have earned them by our own efforts. This is why Christian teaching about grace always challenges us. At the heart of authentic Christian belief is our knowledge that we always need God’s grace for any good we do in the world; we never, never achieve anything by our own efforts. What we do always needs to cooperate with him. It is easy to pay lip-service to this in relation to our lives of prayer – although it’s still alarming how easy it is to think that we can earn a place in heaven – but we often don’t extend this to the rest of our lives. We easily go along with false views and approaches to life in the society in which we live – views which exalt the cult of the individual, the ‘self-made man (or woman)’, the person who is sadly motivated by competitiveness, who thinks it is right to try and become rich as a result of his or her own efforts – a person who thinks there is no need for God or other people.
Today’s observance shows us how taking seriously the life of the poor – and the dependency which is central to being poor – turns upside down the false values around us.