The following words from Pope Francis take us to the heart of the “preferential option for the poor.” They are a brilliant challenge.
Francis points out that the poor are not only to be recipients of our largesse. They should teach us. We need to see in their faces what suffering really means – especially us middle-class Americans who are so isolated from true suffering. He contrasts an “activist” way of approaching the poor with a “contemplative” one.
The latter part of the quotation urges the importance of including the poor in the Church. Think of all the pastoral initiatives you know: how many of them are not directly focused on the rich and powerful – missions to lawyers, to intellectuals, to colleges, to people online, through middle-class white pop culture, etc.? But if we need to contemplate the poor, what happens to us when we exclude them? What happens to our witness if we only go to those who can materially benefit us?
Notice, by the way, that the harshest, most challenging words here on the centrality of the poor to our apostolate are quotations from St. John Paul II.
This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei [i.e., they too have insight into the meaning of our faith], but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.
The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.
Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other “in a certain sense as one with ourselves” (St. Thomas). This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good.
This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith. True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances: “The love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely” (St. Thomas).
The poor person, when loved, “is esteemed as of great value” (St. Thomas), and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation.
Only this will ensure that “in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the kingdom?”(JP II) Without the preferential option for the poor, “the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications” (JP II).
Since this Exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, 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.
-Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium