Even in the good times, soup kitchens and homeless shelters were reporting steady business. But the mortgage crisis, rising unemployment, and restrictions on government aid and services have all contributed to a growing number of families and individuals in need of assistance today. Many are single parent families, or families that have had to deal with loss of employment by a primary wage earner.
And at the same time, most of the rest of us are being squeezed as well. Tuition, food costs, medical expenses and gas prices are going up, while savings, investments and salaries are stagnant or declining.
The great challenge in this environment is to think about what is expected of us as Christians. What do we have to do when we are already feeling squeezed by the economy? And what role can there be for our parishes, even as they are feeling strapped for cash as well?
Even a casual reader of the Bible is struck by its concern for the poor, the elderly and the oppressed. This concern runs from the Psalms to the parables of Jesus, and such references far outnumber other prohibitions such as those regarding sexual behavior.
The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, outlines a Catholic perspective on the issue of poverty and Christian responsibilities.
The Catechism for Adults talks about the role of government in fostering the common good (see Page 326). But it also emphasizes the personal responsibility of all humans: "Social justice is both an attitude and a practical response based on the principle that everyone should look at another person as another self."
While society is admonished to care for its most disadvantaged, the Church too is challenged to care for the needy. The Catechism for Adults recalls the words of St. John Chrysostom: "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are theirs, not ours" (Page 425).
These are hard words, but Jesus himself said: "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise" (Lk 3:11).
Our challenge -- as individuals, families and parishes -- is to assist those who are needy in our community and elsewhere, while at the same time being mindful of the stress that nearly everyone is feeling today. When have we given enough?
Not every parish will agree on the answer. Some may take up collections of food and money, helping to stock food pantries and support homeless shelters. Others may feel called to extend help in a more personal way Ñ opening their doors to the needy, opening a soup kitchen or a shelter, or helping their families come face-to-face with the needy in their community in personal ways.
The solution is not one-size-fits-all, but, at the same time, the Gospel does not let us off the hook when we say that times are tough for everyone, or that we have to look after our own first.
The current economic decline is an opportunity for the laity to take a position of leadership in their parish. Lay leaders can identify projects of need in their communities and develop the means to respond to those needs.
At our Last Judgment, we want to be able to tell the Lord that when he was hungry, we gave him food, and when he was thirsty, we gave him drink. When he was a stranger, we welcomed him. When he was ill, we cared for him. He who knows all things will surely know what efforts we made to share our portion with others.
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