Concerning the Poor

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

Concerning the Poor

by Rev. Daniel Arturo Vásquez Ordóñez, CM Rector of the Major Seminary Nuestro Señora del Carmen Archdiocese of Villavicencio (Meta) Colombia


We recall here the words of the Pope’s friend, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, a Brazilian and a Franciscan, who when he congratulated the newly elected Pope, whispered in his ear, don’t forget the poor! It seems that those words united the heart and the soul of Francis with all the pain and suffering, all the hopes and joy of the poor who live in the slums of Buenos Aires, in the favelas of Rio and San Palo, in the shanty towns of Bogota, in the marginalized villages of Haiti, Mexico and Central America … in summary, those words united the heart and the soul of Francis to all those suffering faces of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean.

It is most interesting to observe the ecclesial turnaround of Pope Francis as he rediscovered the poor at the precise moment of vocation to the Papacy. It was a profound, personal conversion that immediately involved the whole Church. On March 13th, during a meeting with reporters, the Pope exclaimed: Ah! How I long for a Church that is poor and a Church for the poor. Those words become a theological conclusion in paragraph #198 where the Pope reflected on the option for the poor: that is why I want a church which is poor and for the poor. One of the most pleasant surprises that the Pope offers in his Apostolic Exhortation is the prominent place that is given to the poor and the social commitment that is implied in the evangelizing mission of the Church. The poor, the excluded, the discarded … all those individuals are referred to in the various chapters of the document and occupy a central place in the reflection and in the action which we are called to engage in as part of the process of the new evangelization. In Evangelii Gaudium the poor are present in every chapter. The manner in which the poor are affirmed by the Pope reveals the fact that he has not forgotten them … he speaks about the Church’s need for conversion, about the social reality and the economy of the market, about the centrality of the gospel message and the sacramental life of the Christian community

Vicente Altaba, the episcopal delegate of Caritas (Spain) believes that the teaching of Pope Francis can be summarized in three key affirmations: [1] evangelization is impossible if the poor are ignored, if there is no charitable or social commitment, if there is no commitment to the social inclusion of the poor and to the search for the common good; [2] the beauty of the gospel cannot always be adequately revealed by us, but there is a sign that we must not forget: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards (EG, #195); [3] the missionary conversion of the Church becomes a conversion toward those who are poor and thus, the Church becomes a Church for the poor. Therefore, a Christian community that is not concerned about cooperating in the struggle of the poor to live with great dignity betrays its identity and runs the risk of becoming non-existent.

Thus in the fourth chapter of the Exhortation, the Pope develops in an unprecedented manner the social dimension of evangelization, especially the social dimension in relation to the proclamation of the gospel and the social implications of faith. The Pope takes up once again, in a profound and reflective manner, the option for the poor and insists on the need for a different economic structure, one that resolves the structural causes of poverty.

Mindful of the words of the fourth chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, especially the section entitled, the inclusion of the poor in society, and paragraph forty-eight of the same document, I will attempt to highlight the most relevant elements for us as Missionaries in Latin America and the Caribbean. I am not going to present here something distinct from Pope Francis but I will make note of the Pope’s emphasis and the points that he stresses with a certain urgency … I will do so as I reflect on our reality as sons and daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul. Yes, these points are emphasized by Pope Francis and he wants all the missionary disciples of Jesus Christ to take these seriously if they want to experience the joy of the gospel.

The poor are the privileged recipients of the gospel

This is an affirmation that is made at the beginning of the Exhortation and is present throughout the document (Cf. EG, #48). Evangelization freely directed toward those who are poor is a sign of the arrival of the Kingdom. There are no valid reasons to deny or give less importance to this theological, pastoral and spiritual principle: there can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. Today and always the poor are the privileged recipients of the gospel … and therefore we have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them (EG, #48).

The whole Church, every Christian and every Community ought to be attentive to and ought to listen to the cries of the poor so that they might comfort them

We recall that this exhortation to listen to the cries of the poor was made in Medellin (Poverty of the Church, #2) and in Puebla (#88-89). In five different places in the Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis speaks about the need to listen to the cries of the poor (EG, #187, 188, 190, 191, 193). In one of those paragraphs the Pope refers to the duty of listening to the cries of the poor (EG, #193). The arguments that are put forth to prove the validity of that duty are founded on the Word of God and the Church’s tradition (EG, 189, 193, 197). Furthermore, the Pope states: Sometimes it is a matter of hearing the cry of entire peoples, the poorest peoples of the earth, since peace is founded not only on respect for human rights, but also on respect for the rights of people (EG, #190). In this way the clear and urgent position of the Church’s social doctrine with regard to the rights of people is affirmed and ratified. That position moves beyond the letter of the law with regard to human rights since even human rights can be used as a justification for an inordinate defense of individual rights. Poverty not only stigmatizes individual men and women but entire peoples. The Pope wants all Christians, with the help of their pastors, to listen to the cries of the poor (EG, #191). Pastors are called to be concerned about and to care for those who are poor; they are called to opt for the poor. They have a very serious responsibility and cannot allow other Christians to grow lax before the unjust and sad reality in which the poor find themselves. In light of the difficult situations that the poor must confront, pastors ought to take on the role of the prophets of the Old Testament and the prophets of our time: Bishop Helder Camara, Bishop Leonidas Proaño and Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, etc. We, as Vincentian missionaries and as pastors, cannot allow ourselves to become insensitive and unaware of the situation of those whom we serve, care for and accompany.

The option for the poor is theological

For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy”. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5). Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness”. This option – as Benedict XVI has taught – “is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty”. This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor (EG, #198). This absolute and clear affirmation of the Pope places, once and for all, the option for the poor within the context of the Church’s theological reasoning and therefore, such an option cannot be contradicted or given less importance because it must now be viewed as a conclusion of a particular theology. In other words, the option for the poor is an essential part of the spiritual, pastoral and theological pilgrimage of the People of God who journey in the midst of the lands of Latin America and the Caribbean. Pope Francis grounds the option for the poor on the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He refers to the twenty-fifth chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel and some texts from Saint Luke’s gospel. He concludes his biblical-theological reflection with this clear affirmation: the entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor (EG, #197). In other words, we can conclude that all of this leads us to a clear and precise awareness of the fact that the option for the poor is theological in nature: the option for the poor corresponds to the faith that we profess … more and nothing less.

The option for the poor is a sign of evangelical authenticity

The Pope reminds us that the key criteria that reveals the authenticity of the ministry that the Apostles conferred on Paul was that he should not forget the poor if he does not want to run in vain. This important principle, namely, that the Pauline communities should not succumb to the self-centered lifestyle of the pagans, remains timely today when a new self-centered paganism is growing. The Pope then goes on to state: We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards (EG, #195). Later, referring to the words of John Paul II, the Pope states: 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” (EG, #199). People live in accord with the gospel when they are close to the poor, when they embrace the poor and serve them.

Our commitment to the poor involves various levels

Cooperation in order to resolve the structural causes of poverty (EG, #188 and 189); cooperation in order to promote the integral development of the poor (EG, #188 and 192); cooperation with the small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter (EG, #188); as Saint Vincent would say: Let us serve the poor in their spiritual and corporal needs.

Solidarity means the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few (EG, #188) … solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them (EG, #189).

Solidarity means that we know the Social Doctrine of the Church and also know how to apply it to specific situations. Pope Francis joins the option for the poor to the social commitment that is derived from faith, a commitment to build up society. Without forgetting the need to provide immediate assistance to those who are poor and the need to engage in a process of promotion on behalf of those who are poor, it is, nevertheless, more urgent than ever before to provide for the participation of those who are poor and the participation of whole Christian community in the building up of a just society that overcomes the structural causes of poverty. Our commitment to the poor ought to be integral, that is, it ought to take into consideration the whole person and all persons. Living life in accord with the Social Doctrine of the church ought to lead us to an integral humanism and ought to enable us to create bonds of solidarity and all of this should be sealed by a preferential option on behalf of those who are poor. A new just society, a society in which people live together in solidarity and peace, must be created together with people who are poor.

The importance of loving attention and closeness to those who are poor

There is a special level of commitment to the poor that goes beyond activities or programs of promotion and assistance. Such activities can lead us into a form of activism especially when we find ourselves confronted by the enormous amount of needs and problems of those who are living in poverty … needs and problems that we are called to respond to. The Pope invites us to allow ourselves to be inspired by the Spirit so that we can be attentive to the poor and thus on the basis of real and sincere closeness we can properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation. Here we are dealing with a spirituality that reveals our concern for those who are poor, a spirituality that entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in the experience of life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith. The Pope is bold and profound when he exhorts us to be contemplatives in order to serve the poor not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances. If the poor are loved then they are esteemed as of great value … and that makes the authentic option for the poor different from any other ideology, from any other attempt to use the poor for some personal or political advantage. All of this has been pointed out by the Pope in #199 of his Apostolic Exhortation. Since the Pope proposes that evangelization be done person to person it should not be surprising that such evangelizing service on behalf of the poor impels us to be close to the poor so that we might also encounter the suffering Christ who is present in them. Only in this manner will the poor experience the need and the desire to travel along the authentic path of liberation. The poor will be empowered and will begin to be active and responsible subjects of their own process of liberation and development when they feel truly loved and taken into consideration. Perhaps we, as Vincentians in Latin America and the Caribbean lack, this loving attention and this real and sincere closeness to our lords and masters. In order to achieve this we must abandon our own comfort and our self-interest.

We must allow ourselves to be evangelized by the poor

In the same paragraph in which Pope Francis explain the concept of the option for the poor, he states: the poor have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, 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 (EG, #198). Our Vincentian spirituality would have a unique characteristic if we truly allowed ourselves to be taught by the poor.

The preferential option for the poor should be primarily translated into a privileged and primary spiritual concern

The Pope expresses his regret when he proclaims the fact 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 (EG, #200). The proclamation of the gospel, the kerygma, on-going catechesis, the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation but not forgetting Baptism and Confirmation, are services that are offered to the poor so that they might grow and mature in the faith … so that they might travel along the authentic path of liberation.

Obligation to stand with the poor

In paragraph #201 of his exhortation, Pope Francis extends a twofold call to Christians with regard to the poor: No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice: “Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone” (EG, #201. According to Vincent de Paul, the poor are our heritage.

The clear, direct, simple and eloquent message invites us to enter into a relationship of love as we serve in a humble and generous manner those who are poor … at the same time we are invited to serve the poor with justice and mercy and that message cannot be drowned out or overshadowed.

No ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize that message; we should not simply be concerned about falling into doctrinal error, but about remaining faithful to this light-filled path of life and wisdom. For defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situation of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them (EG, #194). These words of the Apostolic Exhortation with regard to the poor and to justice cannot remain are mere words but must have a practical effect (EG, #201).

Prophetic warning

Aside from the section which deals with the inclusion of the poor, in fact in the section where we find a reflection on the economy and the distribution of income, the Pope makes an urgent and emphatic admonition: Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritual worldliness camouflaged by religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk (EG, #207).

Previously, in #196, the Pope stated that an alienated society will find it more difficult to make an option on behalf of the poor: Sometimes we prove hard of heart and mind, we are forgetful, distracted and carried away by the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society (EG, #196).

I believe that for us as Vincentian missionaries, regardless of the branch of the Vincentian Family to which we belong, our challenge is to revitalize our charism, thus imitating Pope Francis who stands before us as an example and a prophet. Our evangelization, that is, our missionary outreach, is substantially related to our evangelizing option on behalf of the poor. With the authorized voice of Pope Francis let us be bold in the here and now as we embrace our proper identity as evangelizers of the poor in spirit and in truth. Our foundational charism is evangelization of the poor and mission. Let us, through prayer and virtue, allow ourselves to be configured to Christ so that we might be effective servants of the poor.

Translated by: Charles Plock, CM