“Christ is at once rich and poor: as God, rich; as a human person, poor. Truly, that Man rose to heaven already rich, and now sits at the right hand of the Father, but here, among us, he still suffers hunger, thirst and nakedness: here he is poor and is in the poor.” -St. Augustine
Christ “is poor and is in the poor,” says St. Augustine, providing a most succinct justification of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Structurally, the poor share an intimate identity with Christ that demands our special solicitude, service and love. Ours is not a heroic faith, a religion for “winners” in the worldly calculus of success and failure. Rather, in the words of someone (though, I’m reliably told, not James Joyce), Catholicism means “here comes everybody.” And since most people alive, dead or yet unborn are, were or will be poor to one degree or another, it is the mission of Christians to provide them with the succor we would offer Christ.
I’ve been an active member of the Society of St. Vincent dePaul for about fifteen years. My involvement began at the strong suggestion of my spiritual director. I had only been reconciled to the Church for a short time and already the lesser angels of my nature were exerting their influence in the usual way: pride and a tendency toward harsh judgment. My director prescribed sustained, intimate service to the poor as a remedy. By placing myself at the disposal of my brothers and sisters, he hoped I would gain in humility, the indispensable virtue for salvation and sanctity. Working with the poor has been an eye-opening experience; the losses they suffer, the opportunities denied them, their daily struggle for dignity, even the self-defeating mistakes they make. Through my work in the Vincentian movement, I discovered new reservoirs of compassion, gentleness and, yes, humility. And I have come to understand better the words of Mother Teresa, who once said that “only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”
Lately, there has arisen some dispute over whether the corporal works of mercy are intended to be strictly private and personal, or whether there is a social and political dimension to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” There really is no dispute. Any supposed boundary between the personal and the political is a clumsy fiction trotted out on behalf of one ideology or another. We shouldn’t tolerate that fiction when it’s offered by politicians excusing their support for abortion rights, and we shouldn’t tolerate it when it is offered by politicians excusing their abandonment of the poor. The notion that compassion and social justice is strictly a private affair has no basis in Catholic teaching. In fact, nothing about the Catholic faith is a private affair.So, am I responsible for helping poor people that I know personally? Yes. Am I personally responsible for helping the poor in my community? Yes. Am I responsible for working toward a just social and political order in which poverty itself is eventually eradicated? Yes. Am I responsible for helping the poor in foreign lands? Yes. The poor who are in this country illegally? Yes. The poor with substance abuse problems or criminal backgrounds? Yes. The poor who don’t appreciate my help? Yes. The poor who disgust me in their helplessness? Yes. All the poor? Yes.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Working with the poor, one is quickly disabused of romantic notions about poverty. The poor are not always victims of others; often they are victims of their own undisciplined appetites. The poor, like the rest of us, are not generally noble; many wouldn’t give you the shirt off their backs, but they might take yours. Still, we are called to love and serve them, not because they behave lovably, but because they are our brothers and sisters, and because in their suffering they are Christ.
Jesus does not say “I was legal, and you clothed me,” or “I was sober and you fed me,” or “I thanked you profusely when you gave me something to drink.” Our responsibility to the poor is defined not by whether they make us comfortable, or whether we see the logic of it, but by their need. After all, “God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We were loved unconditionally before we “deserved” it. We are called to do the same.