Pope Francis Presents God’s Solidarity With The Vulnerable

Pope Francis Presents God’s Solidarity With The Vulnerable March 6, 2024

Anagoria: Mosaic Icon Of Christ The Merciful; Museum Of Byzantine Art (inv. 6430), Bode Museum, Berlin / Wikimedia Commons

The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable must never be ignored, let alone rejected, by Christians. God takes into consideration our weakness and our needs, even if some of those needs come from things we have done to hurt ourselves, and responds to them with love, coming down to meet us on our level. God did this in a variety of ways, including in the way God has revealed the truth to us: “First of all, we must realize that God did not speak to Himself, but to us, and adapted the words of His discourse to our power of comprehension, so to enable the weakness of our nature to grasp His meaning.”[1] The greatest revelation of this is found, not in mere words, but in the Word of God become flesh, in the incarnation, when God became one of us.

God has compassion for us in our weakness, indeed, God has compassion for the weakness of everyone, and because of God’s extreme love, God always addresses us and engages us in our weakness, so that those who are weaker than others, receive more of God’s compassionate love. That is, the more need someone has of God’s grace, the more God will offer it. This, likewise, was revealed to us in the earthly ministry of Jesus, for, if we pay careful attention, we will see he was constantly demonstrating the kingdom of God through the way he helped the sick and those who were oppressed or treated as outcasts of society.

Jesus showed his love for the vulnerable by joining in with their lot, indeed, by taking on and becoming vulnerable himself (as exemplified in the way he let himself be taken by Roman authorities and executed on the cross). When we give ourselves over to Jesus to be incorporated into his body via baptism, when we incorporate him into ourselves through communion, we should embrace his vulnerability and love, making it a key part of our lives as well. We should be so filled with compassion and love that our hearts will be full of care and concern for those who are needy and vulnerable. Just as Jesus revealed his love for the vulnerable by becoming vulnerable himself, we should likewise embrace our own vulnerability. Then, like Jesus, we will join in solidarity with those who need our love and compassion, helping them bear the burden as well as by showing them that their vulnerability, their weakness, does not undermine their own personal dignity. We can see this being demonstrated by Pope Francis who has shown us and that he embraces his own personal weakness, his own sickness, using it not only to further understand the condition the vulnerable find themselves in, but to highlight the way all Christians should take up the cause of the vulnerable by first understanding and embracing their own vulnerability:

First of all: to welcome vulnerable brothers and sisters, I need to feel vulnerable and accepted as such by Christ. He always precedes us: He made Himself vulnerable, up to the Passion; He accepted our fragility so that, thanks to Him, we can do likewise. Saint Paul writes: “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you” (cf. Rm 15:7). If we remain in Him, like branches on the vine, we will bear good fruit, also in this vast field of welcome.[2]

If we do this, we will be able to accept the vulnerable, those who are poor and needy, those who are sick, are people with a dignity of their own, a dignity which means they should be loved and not just treated as mere objects by us, even if we do so with good intentions: “In the Gospel, the poor, the vulnerable, are not objects: they are subjects, they are protagonists together with Jesus in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God.” [3] We are to be with them, to show them love, recognizing each one is a person with their own wants and needs which might differ with the wants and needs of others. This requires us not to assume one particular way or practice can and will help them all, because such initiatives tend to be impersonal:

Jesus spent the majority of His public ministry, especially in Galilee, in contact with the poor and sick of every kind. This tells us that for us, vulnerability cannot be a “politically correct” theme, or a mere organization of practices, however good they may be. I say this because the risk is there, it is always lurking, despite all good will. Especially in the largest and most structured bodies, but even in small ones, vulnerability can become a category, individual people without a face, service a “provision” and so on. So, we must remain firmly anchored in the Gospel, in Jesus, who did not teach His disciples how to plan aid to the sick and the poor. Jesus wanted to form disciples in a style of life, staying in contact with the vulnerable, in their midst.[4]

This does not mean we should not promote aid programs to help the needy, but it means we should not limit our engagement with them to such an impersonal means. We certainly should look into systemic (and systemic) causes to their pain and suffering, creating social justice programs which counter those causes, but we must not assume that is all we can and should be doing. We are called to love, and to do that, we must be willing to be with those in need of that love, to embrace them, to show them we truly care about them and their lives. Love without justice is not love, and so, we certainly should be concerned about what justice expects from us concerning their material well-being, but justice without love is insufficient. We must start with justice, but we can only end with love.

In what he said about how we are to deal with the vulnerable. Pope Francis echoed the sentiment of Pope St. Gregory the Great, who, in describing what a ruler (that is, a ruler in the church, a bishop, though with words which can apply to others) should be like, wrote:

The ruler should be a near neighbour to every one in sympathy, and exalted above all in contemplation, so that through the bowels of loving-kindness he may transfer the infirmities of others to himself, and by loftiness of speculation transcend even himself in his aspiration after the invisible; lest either in seeking high things he despise the weak things of his neighbours, or in suiting himself to the weak things of his neighbours he relinquish his aspiration after high things.[5]

Those in positions of authority should use their authority for the sake of the common good. To engage the common good, a good leader will engage those who are the most needy and do what they can to relieve them of their pain and suffering, sharing in it themselves if it is necessary – even as, for an example, a good doctor might risk contagion to save the life of a patient, or, in relation to God, how God, in the incarnation, took on our infirmities and embraced them all so that we can be relieved of them in the eschatological kingdom. We should follow this spirit in and with our lives, loving others, especially those in most need of it, realizing with St. Isaac the Syrian, we must demonstrate that love with a humble embrace of the other without being unnecessarily harsh with them and having them turn away from us because of how we rebuke them: “If you wish to heal the infirm, you know that the sick are in greater need of loving care than rebuke.” [6] That is, though people might, in some ways, be partially responsible for the condition they find themselves in, if all they experience from us is some sort of rebuke, they will ignore us and turn their back on us, even if we have the means to help them, because they feel that help comes at too a cost: their own personal agency and dignity.

We should take on the role of a doctor, of the one who is willing to embrace the sick, even if it puts ourselves at risk, doing what we can to help those in need, treating them as people worthy of respect and love.  “I am medicine for the sick. May I be both the doctor and their nurse, until the sickness does not recur. “[7] This is exactly what God has done for us in and through the incarnation. He is the medicine which creation needs. He shares himself and his fullness to all creation. He gave his all to us on the cross so that the power of sin and death could be overcome. Now, through his passion and resurrection, the sickness unto death will not recur in the eschatological kingdom of God. We, upon seeing God’s mercy and love, should embrace it, not only by receiving what God gives us, but also by acting upon it, showing that same love and care we have received to others. Having joined ourselves to Christ, we should take on his mission for ourselves, becoming, therefore, medicine to the sick and poor, to those who are in need, dealing with them on a personal level, making sure everyone receives the same compassionate care as everyone else, so that then, in the end, God’s eschatological kingdom will truly be a kingdom of love, where equity reigns.


 

[1] St. Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity. Trans. Stephen McKenna, CSSR (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954), 309.

[2] Pope Francis, “Message To The Participants In The Conference ‘Vulnerability And Community Between Welcome And Inclusion’” (3-1-2024). Vatican translation.

[3] Pope Francis, “Message To The Participants In The Conference ‘Vulnerability And Community Between Welcome And Inclusion’.”

[4] Pope Francis, “Message To The Participants In The Conference ‘Vulnerability And Community Between Welcome And Inclusion.”

[5] St. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule. Trans. James Barmby, DD in NPNF2(12): 12.

[6] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Trans. Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Rev. 2nd ed (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 378 [Homily 51].

[7] Śāntideva, The Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra. Trans. Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; repr. 1998), 20 [3.7].

 

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