What happens if a parish adopts the preferential option for the poor?

Now that no less a person than the Pope himself wants to transform the universal Church into the Church of the poor, perhaps we should think about how that vision can be realised at the grass-roots level, namely at the parish and BEC levels.

Mar 27, 2014

By Anil Netto
Now that no less a person than the Pope himself wants to transform the universal Church into the Church of the poor, perhaps we should think about how that vision can be realised at the grass-roots level, namely at the parish and BEC levels.

That should set us thinking: what would happen if our parishes and BECs move towards becoming communities that put the interests of the poor at the heart of their structures and plans?

Becoming a parish of the poor is no easy matter. It requires a transformation of attitudes and vision. Now transformation has become a buzz word these days, easily tossed around in politics. But when we talk about transformation in matters of faith, that requires a fundamental shift in the way we look at life, our faith, and the people around us.

Do we even want to be the Church of the Poor in the first place? That requires a consensus at the parish and BEC levels. It is not something that can be easily imposed top down, even if it comes from Rome.

Nothing can happen if we ourselves are not convinced about this vision first. For that to happen, much reflection is required. Only when are are convinced can the parish councils adopt this vision of the universal Church as its own.

This would be no light decision, for it would affect how we relate to one another and shape our own parish priorities. There could be resistance among parishioners, including those within the parish councils, as some Christians, no doubt well meaning, would not see being the church of the poor as an integral part of the Christian faith. Others might be more comfortable with sticking to the way things are and how they have always been.

Why should parishes adopt the vision of the Church of the Poor?

The Bishop of Rome is clear about this in his apostolic exhortation, the Joy of the Gospel: “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.” It is not enough to introduce more welfare and charity projects at our parish level. As Francis puts it: “Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilises is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other ‘in a certain sense as one with ourselves.’”

Now, this would require us to re-evaluate our own priorities: how do we use our limited resources – human talent and creativity, our limited financial funds and our reservoir of spiritual strength – to build this Church of the Poor? Do we spend our limited funds on expensive ‘nice-to-have’ infrastructure projects or do we use them in the service of the community and for the common good?

What we need to do is to become parish communities that are more inclusive and welcoming to the poor. The poor are not going to come to us; we have to reach out to them. We have to discard the notion that we are somehow “helping the poor.” In many ways, the poor are actually helping us. They help us to understand that every person is precious in God’s sight, that we are all part of the human family and that if one of us is suffering, we are all responsible.

Francis adds: “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 evangelised by them. The new evangelisation is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre 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....”
Because the poor person is esteemed to be of great value, he or she must be an important part of the church community and must not be exploited merely as beneficiaries of welfare programmes so that we can ‘feel good’ about how ‘charitable’ we are and trumpet our good deeds.

Francis elaborates: “True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances: “The love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely.” The poor person, when loved, “is esteemed as of great value,” and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal
or political interest.”

Instead, we are called to adopt a position of solidarity with the poor so that we accompany them on the pilgrimage of life so that they will feel at home in our communities, whether at the parish or BEC levels:

“Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation. Only this will ensure that ‘in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the kingdom?’ Without the preferential option for the poor, ‘the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood ...’.”

This means taking a good hard look at our parishes and BECs to see what place, if any, the poor and the marginalised, the sick and the infirm, the migrants and the strangers, have in our midst. For a start, we should ponder if we are part of inclusive and welcoming parishes and BECs.

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