“Jesus’ followers recognize themselves by their closeness to the poor, the little ones, the sick and the imprisoned, the excluded and the forgotten, those without food and clothing.”

— Pope Francis
General Audience
August 19, 2020

In his General Audience on Wednesday, August 19, Pope Francis turned his attention to the “dual pandemic” that we face as a Church and a people. Not only do we face the “small virus,” the pandemic, but recent months have exposed an even greater virus, “that of social injustice, inequality of opportunity, marginalization, and the lack of protection for the weakest.” Francis is clearly concerned with the world we will find after the pandemic. Will we have learned anything? Will we emerge with a stronger sense of solidarity and awareness?

His address was a reiteration of the message at the heart of his entire pontificate, restated in light of the unique and unprecedented challenges of the present. He once again restated the great principle of Catholic social teaching, the preferential option for the poor, but he explained that this preference is not simply for the purpose of providing the needy with assistance. The preferential option for the poor is a means of evangelization. And it is the poor who are the evangelizers:

Faith, hope, and love necessarily push us towards this preference for those most in need, which goes beyond necessary assistance (cf. EG, 198). Indeed it implies walking together, letting ourselves be evangelized by them, who know the suffering Christ well, letting ourselves be “infected” by their experience of salvation, by their wisdom and by their creativity (see ibid). Sharing with the poor means mutual enrichment. And, if there are unhealthy social structures that prevent them from dreaming of the future, we must work together to heal them, to change them (see ibid, 195). And we are led to this by the love of Christ, Who loved us to the extreme (see Jn 13:1), and reaches the boundaries, the margins, the existential frontiers. Bringing the peripheries to the center means focusing our life on Christ, Who “made Himself poor” for us, to enrich us “by His poverty” (2 Cor 8:9), as we have heard.

Here is the passage from Evangelii Gaudium to which he refers:

198. For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy”. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5). Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.” This option – as Benedict XVI has taught – “is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty.” This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them, and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

It seems to me that much of the resistance to the message of Pope Francis is a refusal to allow ourselves to be evangelized. Whether we are turned off by the words of the pope when they don’t sit well with us, or we have already made up our minds about a group of “sinners” or non-Catholics or less-than-perfect Catholics, it’s easy to view ourselves as the ones who should be doing the teaching. It’s others who should be learning, we think. In reality, all of us—even scholars, sisters, priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes—need to be evangelized.

“Sharing with the poor means mutual enrichment.” This is absolutely true. And quite often, we are enriched by the poor much more than anything we might do for them. The poor are our greatest missionaries and teachers of the Gospel.

Please read the entire address! (It’s not that long.)

Image: © Vatican Media

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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