My first assignment as a young priest was in the Near South Side neighborhood of Milwaukee. It was there, for the first time in my life, that I encountered people in relatively large numbers living below the poverty line. Our parish ran a food pantry out of the basement of the church. The St. Vincent de Paul Society was very active in our parish, helping people with furniture and basic household needs. It was not unusual for homeless people to ring the doorbell and ask for a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
However, even with that kind of exposure to the hard economic realities of our neighborhood, I was not awakened to the reality of extreme poverty until I decided to take a six-week Spanish course in Mexico one summer. I went to a language school in Cuerna Vaca, a beautiful city known for its climate, flowers and magnificent homes, some owned by millionaires and movie stars from the United States. While I was there, though, I saw another side of the city. On the fringes of the community, there were whole neighborhoods of tiny houses constructed out of cardboard. It was the first time in my life that I had seen anything like that – people living in poorly constructed hovels without the basic necessities of life.
A few years later, when I worked as a missionary priest in our archdiocesan mission parish in the Dominican Republic, I became very familiar with people living in poverty. In the poorest barrios and villages of our parish, there were people whose homes lacked running water and proper sanitation, and who struggled with problems directly and indirectly related to their impoverished situation, including malnutrition, poor health and illiteracy. I began to understand how important it was for the Church to aid and accompany the poor.
I remember reading that when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes told him, “Don’t forget the poor.” Bergoglio began his papal ministry choosing the name “Francis” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated himself to service of the poor.
Throughout his pontificate, concern for the poor has been an ongoing theme for Pope Francis. In his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et Misera, Nov. 20, 2016, Pope Francis declared the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time “World Day of the Poor.”
This year, the Fifth World Day of the Poor is Nov. 14. In his “Message for the Fifth World Day of the Poor,” Pope Francis focuses on the theme of “The poor you will always have with you.” (Mark 14:7) It recalls the story of Jesus at a meal in the home of a certain Simon in Bethany, a few days before Passover. A woman enters the home with an alabaster jar of spikenard, a costly perfumed oil. She breaks open the jar and pours it on Jesus’ head.
Some of the people present become indignant at the waste of perfume, which could have been sold in order to help the poor. Jesus tells them, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9)
When Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” he is not dismissing poverty as an inevitable reality, but rather making a contrast between the continuance of the presence of the poor, and his own fleeting presence in this world. He praises the woman for her sensitive recognition of this reality.
Pope Francis writes that in this moment, Jesus reminds the people that he represents the poor, that he is poorest of the poor, and on behalf of the poor and the marginalized that he accepts the woman’s kind gesture. He goes on to say that poverty is a sign pointing to the presence of Jesus among us. In the Gospel tradition, “Jesus not only sides with the poor, he also shares their lot.” For Jesus, the poor are not outsiders, but rather his brothers and sisters. That the poor will always be with us is a call to understand that they are our brothers and sisters, “whose sufferings we should share,” in order to help alleviate their difficulties, restore their dignity and ensure their inclusion.
To engage the poor requires a process of conversion, according to Pope Francis. Too often, we look upon the poor as a category in need of specific services. What the Gospel calls us to do is to see the poor as persons, and to “embrace the challenge of mutual sharing and involvement.”
“The poor you will always have with you,” is a summons to be alert to every opportunity to do good for those in need. Pope Francis writes, “It is not a question of easing our conscience by giving alms, but of opposing the culture of indifference and injustice we have created with regard to the poor.”
There are many positive signs in the Church today regarding the mission to the poor. Many Church members are involved in the good works of food pantries, homeless shelters, meal programs, as well as different forms of advocacy services. Young people are gaining experience engaging the poor through parish mission trips and service projects in preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. Many parishes have entered into twinning relationships with poorer parishes both locally and internationally, forming bonds of friendship and support.
Pope Francis expresses his hope that the World Day of the Poor will inspire a movement of outreach to encounter the poor personally, wherever they are. Urging all of us to reflect upon our own poverty of spirit, he writes, “The poor are present in our midst. How evangelical it would be if we could say with all truth: we, too, are poor, because only in this way will we truly be able to recognize them, to make them part of our lives and an instrument of our salvation.”