Aparecida on “Suffering Faces that Pain Us”

brazil-popeToday we delve into the Aparecida document’s teaching on the “preferential option for the poor.”

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.

HomelessParis_7032101Second: 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”:


  1. Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity
  2. Suffering Faces that Pain Us

i.      Street people in large cities

ii.      Migrants

iii.      Sick people

iv.      Addicts

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?

Aparecida, Reclaiming “Social Justice” 

brazil-popeWe are in Part Three of the Aparecida Document: “The Life of Jesus Christ for Our Peoples.”  Having discovered Christ as life for ourselves, we turn to bring that life to the world we live in.

This is about evangelization: if we really believe that Christ is Life, we must share that Life with others.  But it is also about ourselves.  Ultimately, the question is whether we let Christ be life-giving to us.

In Chapter 7, we saw “the Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life.”  Christ who is life does not just affect one part of life, but all of life.  He makes everything better: family, community, culture, the intellectual life, our appreciation of nature.


In chapter 8, we apply this teaching to the infamous words “social justice”:

1.Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity

a. Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Christian Charity

b.  Human Dignity

c. Preferential Option for the Poor and Excluded

d.  A Renewed Pastoral Ministry for Integral Human Promotion

e.  Globalization of Solidarity and International Justice

f.  Suffering Faces that Pain Us

“Social justice” has gotten a bad name among many Catholics.  It is vaguely associated with liberalism: both an unrestrained welfare state and wimpiness on the “social issues”: marriage, abortion, etc.  But look at that second part first: those who do not defend marriage don’t really care about social justice.  If you care about marriage, you believe in true social justice!  Don’t dismiss this phrase too quickly!

Nor does social justice mean an unrestrained welfare state.  In Centesimus Annus, St. John Paul II argued we might often oppose welfare systems precisely because we do care about social justice: because we do not think they “promote human dignity,” or the kingdom of God.

Listen when Pope Francis talks about the “right to work”.  Work is part of human dignity.  A welfare system that lets people sit on the couch all day watching television is a system that does not care about human dignity.

Let’s take back the words “social justice.”  Christians are supposed to “hunger and thirst for justice,” and they are supposed to be engaged in politics and in non-political social action.  “Social justice” doesn’t mean you have to vote for Hillary Clinton.


Chapter 8 poses the question in terms of the “Kingdom of God.”  What does God want for our social life?  What does it mean to pray “thy kingdom come”?  Ultimately, only God can bring about the true heavenly kingdom.  But if we are people who long for that kingdom, we must also be people who work for that kingdom, who choose for that kingdom, every day.

The first section of this chapter puts together “Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Christian Charity.”  There are those terrifying words, “social justice” – but in a theological context.  Those who love as Christians love are moved to act, socially.  “Social” means politics, yes: we cannot separate our faith – or our love of neighbor – from our politics.  But it also means non-political action, in all the other ways we treat our neighbors.

What does true social justice want?  First, to “promote human dignity.”  To treat people like people.  Again, that doesn’t mean blind support for welfare, which sometimes treats people like mouths to feed, without dignity.  But it also doesn’t mean we can shrug our shoulders at the disadvantaged.  We are called to be creative: to look for ways, both in policy and outside of politics, to restore the human dignity of all people.

Aparecida goes on to speak of “integral human promotion.”  This is a phrase that comes from Paul VI’s great encyclical Populorum Progressio – a favorite encyclical of Benedict XVI’s, on which he based his Caritas in Veritate.  “Integral human development” means we promote all aspects of the person: we don’t just give them food stamps, we also worry about their soul, and their relationships, and their education, etc.  It means we feed the hungry, but also promote marriage, and education reform, and evangelization.  That’s real Catholic social justice.


We do this here at home, and also, in this globalized world, internationally.  In our politics, our economic choices, our travel, our education, and our prayers, we should work to discover the dignity of all people.  That doesn’t necessarily mean new rules: the main point is not that there’s now a ban on chocolate.  The main point is just that we should think about other people, including people far away.

Finally, we should think especially about “the poor and excluded” – because it is they who most need our aid, they whose dignity is least respected, and they whom we are most inclined to forget.  Next week we will consider in greater depth the “suffering faces that pain us,” and call us to mercy.

How does your faith impact your politics?  Your view of society?