We must look beyond material poverty

This year we celebrate the fifth World Day of the Poor on November 14, 2021 with the theme “The poor you have always with you” (Mark 14:7).

Nov 12, 2021

By Fr Frederick Joseph

This year we celebrate the fifth World Day of the Poor on November 14, 2021 with the theme “The poor you have always with you” (Mark 14:7). In this gospel, Jesus is not saying that we should not work to alleviate poverty, rather that we can show kindness to the poor whenever we wish.

The Pope goes further, saying that the encounter with the poor is more than just charity, or acts of benevolence, important as they are. Our encounter with the poor should be a genuine sharing, an establishment of community, a desire to get to know those who may have been invisible to us. Pope Francis, in his other writings, pushes us further. It is not enough to work for the relief of poverty. In Fratelli Tutti, we are called upon to challenge the structural causes of poverty. In our society, there is widespread injustice, many people who do not have what is their due, what they need to live a dignified and fulfilled life, and many people who have far more than they need. This is not a natural situation but the result of policy, which means it can be changed.

More often than not, when we speak of poverty, we think of those who are materially poor. However, we should also look at those who are poor in spirit. These individuals may be well off financially or economically and be high in the social strata, but they could be suffering from mental health issues, have lost a sense of purpose in life or, even more importantly, have lost a sense of God.

With the churches not having been in full operation for the past two years due to the pandemic, many may have fallen into this category of having lost or partially lost their relationship with God. Loss of loved ones during this period, either due to the coronavirus or other illness, has also made it hard for the grieving families. Under normal circumstances, family members, friends and BEC members would come together physically, offering prayers and support, but the new norm has restricted movement and physical contact.

In our society, we also have people who experience the poverty of isolation and loneliness, homelessness, modern day slavery, trafficking, relational poverty, being abused, or being victims of violence. These circumstances are often the drivers of, or the result of, material poverty. The Gospel calls us to a conversion of heart and this conversion, as Pope Francis says in this year’s message for the World Day of the Poor, “consists primarily in opening our hearts to recognising the many different forms of poverty and manifesting the Kingdom of God through a lifestyle consistent with the faith we profess.”

As a people of hope, we are called to rise above all these challenges and be unto others a beacon of hope, and in the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:13-16, be always reminded that “we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Our outreach to the poor, in whatever form it may be, should be advanced through the collaboration among BECs and parish ministries. We should also seek creative ways in collaborating with members and groups of other faiths for the common good of mankind.

It is crucial that we grow in our awareness of the needs of the poor, which are always changing, as are their living conditions. The prompting of this awareness becomes alive when we hear the voice of the Spirit. Pope Francis, in his concluding message for the World Day of the Poor, aspires that we inspire a movement of evangelisation that meets the poor personally wherever they may be. He goes on to say, “We cannot wait for the poor to knock on our door; we need urgently to reach them in their homes, in hospitals and nursing homes, on the streets and in the dark corners where they sometimes hide, in shelters and reception centres.”

While we engage in works of mercy, let us emulate Mary’s action who sat at the feet of Jesus listening to Him and soak in her wisdom when she uttered to the servants at the wedding in Cana, “do whatever he tells you”.

May those words always echo in our hearts and be our compass as we embark and continue in our mission for the poor.

--Fr Frederick Joseph is the Ecclesiastical Assistant for the Society of St Vincent de Paul in the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.

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