When Pope Francis reflected on the end of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in November 2016, it is telling that he decided to embed genuine and visible mercy even more into the everyday life of the Church. He did so by designating a World Day of the Poor.
The only surprising part of this action was that it took so long: Next spring will mark five years with a pope who, days after his election, when explaining his choice of the name Francis, said he longed for “a Church that is poor and for the poor.”
This day of the poor falls near a time when Americans focus on gratitude, and many especially remember the less fortunate. We are about to celebrate Thanksgiving. Then the commercial Christmas season will begin, and charitable agencies know to expect a pronounced uptick in donations and volunteering. Just as inevitably, organized charities realize that all this generosity will ebb in the months to follow, until late November and December of next year.
Pope Francis is aware of this pattern among people worldwide as he calls us all to observe the first World Day of the Poor on Nov. 19: “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. However good and useful such acts may be for making us sensitive to people’s needs and the injustices that are often their cause, they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life. Our prayer and our journey of discipleship and conversion find the confirmation of their Gospel authenticity in precisely such charity and sharing.”
There is much here. The pope is awakening us to the real and reminding us that Christian charity is not “do-gooding.” Nor is it occasional or seasonal.
The pope is urging us to make active concern for the poor a virtuous habit, part of us and of how we think and set our priorities as Christians. It must be genuine. So, Pope Francis calls us literally to encounter the poor and the poverty that exist around us.
His stress on encounter pierces to the very heart of his vision of the Church and to his definition of evangelization as it appears in the Gospels. Repeating what he said during the Jubilee of Mercy, he points us toward people like those whom Jesus explicitly identified in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew as the “least of these.”
As David Werning writes in this issue of OSV Newsweekly (online Nov. 19), “so that faith does not wither and die, the believer must encounter Christ continually ... among other ways, through the sacraments.” And chief among the “other ways” is attention to the poor (not just warm feelings for them) and care, along with nothing less than repugnance for any influence in society that creates or tolerates poverty.
The Christian who gives to his neighbor only around the holidays, therefore, isn’t fully living out his or her responsibility to the poor. A Church that isn’t encouraging, and indeed insisting, that its members realistically combat poverty is not fully representing Jesus. It is that stark.
“The poor are not a problem: They are a resource from which to draw as we strive to accept and practice in our lives the essence of the Gospel,” Pope Francis writes.
The poor are part the human family. We all, rich or poor, are in the most profound and deepest of relationships, bound together not only in common human nature but in union with Christ, Son of God and son of Mary, born in Bethlehem of Judaea.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, Greg Willits, York Young