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God takes the side of the poor - so must we

Archbishop Wenski's homily at Catholic Social Ministries gathering

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily Feb. 7 in Washington, D.C., at the start of the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

In the Gospel reading, we find Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry - he's doing the things that reveal him to be the promised Messiah of God: He preaches with authority, he casts out demons, he heals the sick, he devotes quality time to prayer. He even heals - we learn - Simon Peter's mother-in-law. (And now we understand how Peter came to deny Christ three times...) Yeah, go ahead and groan but Pope Francis would have gotten away with this joke. 

But this healing is instructive - for the Gospel tells us that once "raised up" by Jesus, she got up and began to serve them. Jesus doesn't answer our prayers or bestow his gifts on us just for our own private gain or advantage - he answers our prayer and heals us (and the most important healing we receive is the forgiveness of our sins), he answers our prayers and heals us to equip us for service, the service of our brothers and sisters as missionary disciples of Christ. That's the reason that brings you to Washington and to the meeting of Catholic Social Ministries. 

I thank all of you for your presence in Washington in these coming days. Some of you are veterans of past conferences and visits to the Hill, welcome back. But a special welcome for those attending for the first time the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

Two great principles of Catholic Social teaching are in evidence here - principles that are not in conflict (although some on the Hill might think so) but are mutually complementary: solidarity and subsidiarity. Let me give a special shout out to theCouncil of Catholic Women and to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

St. Vincent de Paul, as you know, was the Mother Teresa of his time. He organized a lot of direct service to the poor but he was also a pretty good advocate on their behalf. He was what we would call today a "lobbyist.” Hopefully this week you will have the opportunity to follow his footsteps and do some lobbying.

As Catholics we must continue to be involved in the issues of world hunger, human rights, peace building and justice promotion. This social ministry is not opposed to the ultimate spiritual and transcendent destiny of the human person. It presupposes this destiny and is ultimately orientated to this end. If this earth is our only highway to heaven, then we must seek to maintain it – as Catholics we are concerned about ecology - both natural ecology and human ecology. In other words, we have to make sure to the best of our abilities that this highway is cleared of the obstacles which sin - both personal and structural - has placed in the path of those traveling on it.

For Catholics, spirituality must be more than an exercise of navel gazing (or what Pope Francis would call "being self-referential.") Too often, the adjective “parochial” - even when used in reference to a parish - means narrow-minded: concerned only with narrow local concerns without any regard for more general or wider issues. We are called to the margins: to go forth encountering Christ in the heart of the world.

In a message for a World Peace Day some years ago, Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “…How can we exclude anyone from our care? Rather we must recognize Christ in the poorest and the most marginalized, those whom the Eucharist – which is communion in the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us – commits us to serve. As the parable of the rich man, who will remain forever without a name, and the poor man called Lazarus clearly shows, ‘in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter’s side’. We too must be on this same side.”

The Pope wanted to remind Catholics that involvement in what are sometimes called “peace and justice” issues is not optional – nor is it the purview of those who would label themselves either “liberal” or “conservative.” Rather such involvement is a constitutive part of the living out of our faith. Solidarity as the pope once said is another word for justice in our day. It is “a firm and preserving determination to commit oneself to the common good.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis#38)

Today's first reading presents us with the "Lazarus" of the Old Testament: Job. If Lazarus suffered because he remained "invisible" to the rich man who was indifferent to his plight, Job suffered an even greater indignity - for his friends blame him for his miseries.

Today, in a world of increasing inequality, as Catholics we must struggle against what Pope Francis termed the "globalization of indifference" as well as that tendency inAmerican society - seen especially these days in the debate over immigration reform - "to blame the victim" for his or her ills.

As St. John Paul II said, "in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter’s side. We too must be on this same side." This conviction is born of our Catholic faith - and that conviction leads us to engagement in the public square where as "faithful citizens" we claim our rightful place. For while faith is "personal" we can never allow it to be reduced to the "private."

And, because works of charity as Pope Benedict XVI warns in Caritas in Veritate must be rooted in the truth about the human person, lest they are distorted on one extreme into mere sentimentality or on the other into “a false compassion,” as Catholics we must continue to oppose those policies born of a defective anthropology like legal abortion, euthanasia or so-called same sex marriage.

The Eucharist reminds us that our commitment as Catholics to work for peace and justice in the world is not born of some ideology or political platform; rather, it is born of a person, Jesus Christ. And therefore, our “solidarity” with the world of pain is a call to a commitment expressed in allegiance not to lofty propositions but to concrete persons in whom we are to see the face of Christ – this solidarity is lived out through the practice of what the Catechism calls the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

God takes the side of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized – through the works of mercy, the saints – like St. Vincent de Paul, Blessed Teresa of Kalkuta and Servant of God, Archbishop Oscar Romero – show us that we too can and must take their side as well.

 

Comments from readers

William Swink - 02/11/2015 05:09 PM
As a 40 year member of the St. Vincent De Paul Society in Miami I know that with the grace of the Holy Spirit given by Jesus the church is on the side of the poor. I tend to doubt that St. Vincent De Paul (the soul) ever has or ever will do as much for the poor as our Archbishop.

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