Pope Francis instituted the first World Day of the Poor last year at the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. His reason for making this day an annual event was the hope that it may be ‘a small answer which the whole Church gives to the poor of every type and in every land, lest they think that their cry has gone unheard’ (Message for Second World Day of the Poor, 3).
The second World Day of the Poor is celebrated this year on Sunday 18th November and has as its theme: ‘This poor man cried and the Lord heard him’ taken from Psalm 34. With the choice of this theme, Pope Francis asks us to ponder how the cry of the poor ‘rises to the presence of God but can fail to reach our own ears and leave us cold and indifferent’ (Id., 2).
So what then are the things that block our ears from hearing the cry of the poor? Thinking of an answer to this question reminded me of what Charles Taylor described as ‘the buffered self’ which is our tendency to protect ourselves in our comfort zones and insulate ourselves from the bigger questions that trouble humanity, not least the cry of the poor. This buffered self blocks its ears to the cry of the poor because it doesn’t want to be bothered and most of all it doesn’t want to change. The result of this is to become cocooned while the cry of the poor falls on deaf ears as the buffered self withers and dies in its own lonely world.
It is significant that in his message for this second World Day of the Poor, Pope Francis does not exhort the Church to increase its efforts to raise funds for charities. In fact he is suspicious of efforts to help the poor ‘though meritorious in themselves, satisfy those who undertake them rather than respond to the real cry of the poor’ (Id., 2).
What the pope urges us to do before we act to help others in need is to emerge from our buffered selves and to risk allowing the reality of peoples’ lives to directly impact upon us: ‘The poor do not need intermediaries but the personal involvement of all those who hear their cry’ (Id., 3). With this in mind, Pope Francis calls for a coming together of all peoples ‘in a spirit of joy at the rediscovery of our capacity for togetherness’ (Id., 6).
This is the togetherness, he argues, that has characterized the Church from the beginning where the first Christians from all social and economic backgrounds gathered for Eucharist, ‘sharing their possessions and goods and distributing them to all, as any had need’ (Acts 2:42. 44-45). Here is a togetherness where buffered selves do not merely acknowledge each other’s existence but where each ‘rejoices with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ and where we make a deliberate choice ‘not to be haughty but associate with the lowly’ (Rom. 12:15-16).
When such a togetherness happens, transformation occurs for all. For the poor, their cry for help is heard as they experience God’s salvation who listens to those who are persecuted and oppressed. It is in this togetherness that ‘each individual Christian and every community becomes an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor and enables them to be fully part of society’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 187). For us who listen to their cry and risk personal involvement in the plight of the poor, the buffered self becomes blasted with holes (See an article by Bishop Barron ‘Blasting holes through the buffered self’, WOF, March 1st 2016). And when the buffered self becomes a porous self, fresh air can enter the lungs of the soul to revive it. This is why Pope Francis in his message insists that ‘the poor evangelize us and help us each day to discover the beauty of the Gospel. We are in debt to the poor because, in hands outstretched to one another, a salvific encounter can take place to strengthen our faith, inspire our charity and enable our hope to advance securely on our path towards the Lord who is to come’. So in this coming together, we evangelize the poor in their poverty while they evangelize us in ours. Coming together in closer friendship and solidarity helps us see what others lack but to see what we lack as well. Charity works both ways.
To illustrate this point, I remember a priest friend of mine telling me a story of his missionary experience in Africa. He spent many years giving his life to the poor as best he could. To this he had dedicated himself selflessly, to help those he considered to be less fortunate than himself. By and large, he saw himself as the giver and the people he served as the recipients of his charity. One day, something happened that changed him. Despite the little they had, the people of the village presented him with a gift. With this gift they wanted to thank him for his service but also because they considered him to be afflicted with the great poverty, as they saw it, of having no wife or children. So all the time, while this priest identified his people as the poor, his people identified him as the poorest of all. The people helped the priest to see his own poverty in ways that he was blind to. For this he was changed and grateful. He evangelized them but they also evangelized him.
May the celebration of the second World Day of the Poor be for all Christian communities an opportunity to make tangible the Church’s response to the cry of the poor and to experience it as a privileged moment of new evangelization for those who both give and receive.