By Hannah Brockhaus
In his message for the first World Day of the Poor, Pope Francis said that the suffering and broken bodies of the poor are where we encounter the body of Christ – and to know Christ we must know the poor.
“If we truly wish to encounter Christ, we have to touch his body in the suffering bodies of the poor, as a response to the sacramental communion bestowed in the Eucharist,” he said in his message, released June 13.
“The Body of Christ, broken in the sacred liturgy, can be seen, through charity and sharing, in the faces and persons of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.”
“We may think of the poor simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work, or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience,” he continued.
And these acts may be good for putting other’s needs more clearly before us, but what they should ultimately do is “lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life.”
On our paths to becoming true disciples of Christ, we find confirmation of our evangelical authenticity in the charity and sharing stemming from a real encounter, he said. “This way of life gives rise to joy and peace of soul, because we touch with our own hands the flesh of Christ.”
Pope Francis established the World Day of the Poor in his apostolic letter, “Misericordia et misera,” presented Nov. 20, 2016 at the end of the Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy.
To be celebrated on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – this year falling on Nov. 19 – the idea came about, he explained, during the Jubilee for Socially Excluded People, highlighting in particular the homeless, which took place at the Vatican near the end of the Jubilee.
“At the conclusion of the Jubilee of Mercy, I wanted to offer the Church a World Day of the Poor, so that throughout the world Christian communities can become an ever greater sign of Christ’s charity for the least and those most in need,” the Pope explained in the message.
Pope Francis himself will celebrate Mass on Sunday, Nov. 19 in St. Peter’s Basilica, Archbishop Rino Fisichella told journalists at a press conference on the Pope’s message June 13.
Afterward, there will be a lunch for the poor, serving around 500, in the Pope Paul VI hall.
The theme for the World Day of the Poor, which includes a special logo depicting an open door, and one person welcoming another inside, is “Let us love, not with words but with deeds.”
Words alone aren’t enough, the Pope pointed out in his message, illustrating the point with the words of St. James in his epistle.
St. James writes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body; what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead.”
Quoting St. John Chrysostom, as well, Francis continued, “If you want to honor the body of Christ, do not scorn it when it is naked; do not honor the Eucharistic Christ with silk vestments, and then, leaving the church, neglect the other Christ suffering from cold and nakedness.”
“We are called, then, to draw near to the poor, to encounter them, to meet their gaze, to embrace them and to let them feel the warmth of love that breaks through their solitude.”
The Pope said he wanted to add this day to the already established ‘world days,’ because it adds an “exquisitely evangelical fullness, that is, Jesus’ preferential love for the poor.”
This day is meant to encourage all believers, regardless of religious affiliation, to react against a culture of discard and waste, and instead embrace a culture of encounter, which shares with the poor through “concrete signs of solidarity and fraternity.”
“God created the heavens and the earth for all; yet sadly some have erected barriers, walls and fences, betraying the original gift meant for all humanity, with none excluded,” he lamented.
But though as Christians we have often failed in our duty to the poor, throughout history, the Holy Spirit has raised up holy men and women who have truly lived this out, setting an example for us all.
St. Francis, for example, is an excellent witness of how to serve the poor authentically, he explained. It was because the saint kept his eyes fixed firmly on Christ first that he was able to see Christ also in the poor and vulnerable, he said.
“If we want to help change history and promote real development, we need to hear the cry of the poor and commit ourselves to ending their marginalization,” he said. “At the same time, I ask the poor in our cities and our communities not to lose the sense of evangelical poverty that is part of their daily life.”
The poor are not just a chance to serve Christ, however, he said. They also offer us an opportunity to step outside of our places of comfort and certainty and acknowledge the counter-cultural view that poverty has a value even in itself.
“Let us never forget that, for Christ’s disciples, poverty is above all a call to follow Jesus in his own poverty.”
Poverty means having a humble heart and accepting our limitations and sinfulness. More than anything, poverty, like the poverty of spirit Christ speaks of in the beatitudes, is an “interior attitude” that doesn’t get caught up in thinking happiness is found in material goods and worldly success.
And prayer should be at the heart of all our concrete actions, he said. The Our Father is “the prayer of the poor,” because in it we ask God for our “daily bread,” expressing our entrustment to God for our most basic needs.
“When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he answered in the words with which the poor speak to our one Father, in whom all acknowledge themselves as brothers and sisters. The Our Father is a prayer said in the plural: the bread for which we ask is ‘ours,’ and that entails sharing, participation and joint responsibility,” Francis said.
The Pope asked that bishops, priests, deacons, and consecrated persons, as well as associations, movements and volunteers around the world help to make this day of the poor “a tradition that concretely contributes to evangelization in today’s world.”
“This new World Day, therefore, should become a powerful appeal to our consciences as believers, allowing us to grow in the conviction that sharing with the poor enables us to understand the deepest truth of the Gospel.”
“The poor are not a problem,” he concluded, “they are a resource from which to draw as we strive to accept and practice in our lives the essence of the Gospel.”