Aparecida frames the question in terms of “Jesus at the service of life.” There are other ways to phrase it. We can think about loving the Church, and then focusing on the parts of the Church that we find most difficult to love. We can think about loving the image of God – the human nature taken up by Christ, designed for fulfillment by his divine nature – and focusing on the faces on which it is hardest for us to see that image: “Jesus in his most distressing disguise,” said Mother Teresa.
But Aparecida poses the question of “Jesus at the service of life.” The whole third part of the document is “The Life of Jesus Christ for our Peoples.” Do we believe that Jesus is for all people? Do we believe that he truly brings life to all? Do we believe that all can be saved?
Do we believe that Jesus brings the fullness of life? Do we know that he can heal all ills, no matter how deep, and no matter what kind? And do we live for that fullness of life, or do we prefer the pseudo-fullness of life without Christ?
In one of the most stirring passages of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote:
“I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.
“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas.”
First: to say our lifestyle demands attention to other areas is to say that we find our happiness not in what Jesus offers, but in what man offers. The poor are important precisely as those who are too difficult, and those who have little to offer us. We would rather be with those who are easier, more fun. But if Jesus is life, we don’t need to be so stingy. We should fear that stinginess.
Second: do we see that “discrimination” of the lack of spiritual care? If we really live for evangelization, let us evangelize those whom no one else cares to evangelize. And let us not say that the poor are too difficult to evangelize.
The poor are a privileged place of encounter with Christ precisely because avoiding the poor and pursuing privilege, in all its forms, means denying Christ.
Francis goes on to say, “I fear that these words too may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect.” This is a struggle. It seems easy to talk about the poor, hard to do anything.
But Aparecida’s way of framing the question might provide a helpful middle ground. The section is entitled, “suffering faces that pain us”:
- Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity
- Suffering Faces that Pain Us
i. Street people in large cities
iii. Sick people
v. The imprisoned
Perhaps the language is a little saccharine, bleeding heart. (Though remember that “bleeding heart” is first of all a description of Jesus.) But being “pained” is the middle ground between just talking about things and doing things. On a biological level and all the way up, pain is motivation to move.
So let us not stop with “commentary or discussion” – but let us begin there. Let the faces of the poor pain us.
Aparecida helps to stimulate us by offering a concrete list. “The poor” is pretty vague. But think about migrants – take the time to contemplate their face. They are people whom poverty has forced to leave their home, to go somewhere they do not know, where they often do not speak the language and may not be welcomed. We can talk “immigration policy.” But more importantly, let us spend time being pained by their suffering.
So too with addicts and the imprisoned. Yes, on one level we can blame them. But let us also see their suffering, the suffering of a broken life. The first step towards reaching out – and, really, the heart of reaching out – is to love. That begins with feeling the profound need of the poor: with letting their suffering faces pain us.
Mercy, misericordia, is a heart (cordis) stirred by other people’s misery.
Can we imagine Jesus bringing healing even to the suffering faces that pain us? What would it do to our prayer life, and our active life, if we spent some time imaginging that healing?