By Patrice Critchley-Menor
Several years ago, there was a woman who would occasionally call the diocese asking for financial assistance. Maybe she needed help with an electric bill or help paying for a prescription. She became very friendly with a couple of staff members. She would sometimes call us to tell us about social service events she heard about to help us provide better outreach. She also came several years at Christmas to bring gifts to the staff members she had befriended. Despite her poverty, she had beautiful sewing skills and a used sewing machine. She didn’t have much, but she was determined to give what she had.
One staff person, who was very generous and kind, repeatedly told the woman she needn’t bother giving her gifts because she had everything she needed. One year, this staff person became frustrated that someone in poverty would waste their limited resources to give gifts. I simply told her that everyone has something to give, and we can make her happy by accepting the gifts.
This year, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has chosen the theme “Extend Your Hand to the Poor” for the fifth annual World Day of the Poor, which will be Sunday Nov. 14. In his statement announcing the theme, he related the story from Mark’s Gospel where a woman brought a valuable flask with even more valuable ointment and dumped it all over Jesus’ head. People were livid that she would waste the expensive oil and yelled that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus, in his loving way, said, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Jesus shows himself to always be on the side of the poor, and he recognizes that this poor woman wants to give him a gift. He reminds them, “The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me.”
Pope Francis tells us that the poor have much they can give us, if we make the effort to encounter them. He reminds us that poor people understand Christ’s sufferings because they themselves have suffered, and he encourages us to be evangelized by poor people and “be their friends, to listen to them, to understand them and to welcome the mysterious wisdom that God wants to communicate to us through them.” He continues by saying, “In short, believers, when they want to see Jesus in person … know where to turn. The poor are a sacrament of Christ; they represent his person and point to him.”
As we approach World Day of the Poor, let us engage in prayerfully asking ourselves:
• Who do I think of when I think about “the poor?” Might this include anyone I know?
• What are the feelings that come up when I think of or hear about “the poor?”
• Are my first thoughts about the poor usually negative or positive?
• Is it hard to see them as individuals?
• Do I feel any personal connection to someone who is poor?
• Does Jesus want me to feel a connection to people who are poor?
• How does Jesus see the poor?
• Do I seek to learn more about those who are poor and the issues surrounding poverty?
• What changes can I make in my life to see the poor the way Jesus would see them?
Spend some time talking to God about these feelings, and ask God what changes you can make. Ask for the grace and strength to be the person God calls you to be.
Encountering the poor is essential to being a follower of Jesus, and knowing that one in four Minnesotan children live in poverty means we likely know someone. Pope Francis continues in his World Day of the Poor statement: “It is crucial that we grow in our awareness of the needs of the poor, which are always changing, as are their living conditions.” This requires a deep listening when we are engaged in conversations about poverty. Listening to understand, to feel, and to discern a call to action.
Such encounters can lead us to greater solidarity that can only enrich us; evangelize us. There is much they can give us if we are willing to receive their gifts. Just like the gifts from our friend who frequently visited our office.
Patrice Critchley-Menor is director of social apostolate for the Diocese of Duluth.