Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. I remember a missionary priest telling me a story of his 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.
In 2017, Pope Francis instituted the first World Day of the Poor at the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. This fifth World Day of the Poor has as its theme: ‘The poor you will always have with you’ taken from Mark 14:7. With the choice of this theme, Pope Francis asks us to ponder the reality of poverty all around us and particularly in ourselves so that we can empathize with those who are lacking in any way. This was the valuable lesson learned by the priest in the story. The poor helped him see his own poverty in a way that brough him closer to his people.
So what then are the things that make us blind to our own poverty? Thinking of an answer to this question reminded me of what the philosopher Charles Taylor described as ‘the buffered self’ which is our tendency to 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. In its pride, the buffered self is fiercely independent. It is blind to its own poverty.
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. 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.
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 each ‘rejoices with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’.
When such a togetherness happens, transformation occurs for all. No longer do we see the poor as a group apart from us but begin to see ourselves as one with them as brothers and sisters. When we acknowledge our own poverty and risk personal involvement in the plight of the poor, the buffered self becomes a porous self and fresh air can enter the lungs of the soul to revive it. This is why Pope Francis in his message insists that ‘ the poor, always and everywhere, evangelize us, because they enable us to discover in new ways the true face of the Father’.
May the celebration of the fifth 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 for those who both give and receive.