I once overheard two lifelong Catholics discussing before Mass a collection envelope for relief of Third World victims. They agreed there were plenty of problems closer to home and confided that they had each thrown away the offending envelope.

Their conversation suggests that the church's "preferential option for the poor" has not been universally understood. Many seem unaware that the concept, if not the phrase, is deeply rooted in our faith tradition. We are in covenant with a God who prefers mercy over sacrifice. Prophets in the Jewish scriptures have scathing words for any religious practice, from fasting to Temple offering, that seeks to please God while the poor are neglected.

The gospels reveal a Jesus whose mission centers upon the poor. Lepers, cripples, blind beggars, and public outcasts are the beneficiaries of his healing. The emphasis of Luke's gospel is unmistakable. "Blessed are you who are poor," Jesus says, "but woe to you who are rich." "How hard it is," he reflects, "for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" He says that God brings "glad tidings to the poor." And the nameless rich man who ignores Lazarus, the poor man, is condemned. Clearly Luke and the Jesus he describes reflect what today's church might well call a preferential option for the poor.

"People are bound to come to the aid of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods."

In every age of the church there have been conspicuous models of commitment to the poor-a Barnabas, a Francis of Assisi, a Vincent de Paul, a Katherine Drexel, a Dorothy Day, a Mother Teresa. And for most of our history there were groups with a shared lifestyle of service of the needy. What may be distinctive about today's call is its universality. Not only is the challenge addressed to the entire community of believers, but the poor to be served live everywhere on our shrinking planet.

Our responsibility to the world's poor has been unequivocally proclaimed by recent popes, the assembled bishops of the Second Vatican Council, and the bishops of Latin America and our own country. The refrain is inescapable: We are all summoned to make the needs of the poor a priority in our lives.

The Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World epitomizes the message, its opening sentence a clarion call: "The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well." The document affirms that "today, there is an inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbor of every individual, without exception." And it repeats an ancient teaching that "people are bound to come to the aid of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods."

Three years after participating in that council, the bishops of Latin America met in Medellin, Colombia and drafted a pastoral vision that included the expression that became our "preferential option for the poor." They committed themselves to the needs of poor people even if it meant hardship for the rich. They pledged to favor the freedom of dominated people over the claims of the dominators. And they endorsed the rights of the marginalized over the institutions that excluded them. It was a pact that some of them, notably Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero, would seal in their own blood.

Our U.S. bishops affirm that the parable in Matthew's 25th chapter "instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first." They conclude, "Our parishes should be measured by our help for the hungry, the homeless, the troubled, and the alienated-in our own community and beyond."

The vision is challenging and unequivocal but evidently unfamiliar to my envelope-shredding pew mates and probably many others in our Sunday assemblies. This is especially sobering in light of our bishops' conclusion: "We cannot be called truly 'Catholic' unless we hear and heed the church's call to serve those in need and work for justice and peace."
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