In calling Christians to take concrete action to build a poor Church, for the poor, recent popes have tuned into a contemporary abandonment of the poor as ‘hard to reach’, and a misreading of the option for the poor as optional, rather than inseparable from a decisive choice for Christ renewed by our daily encounters. Pope Benedict XVI summarises the consequences of a choice to participate in the life-giving of our loving God –
‘Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.’
Deus Caritas Est, 34
For many of us, it is not realistic to live out in full what it means to abide indefinitely in the lowest place. We are not called to become miserable and deprive ourselves of human gifts we may have received, such as an education, our talents, faith, hope and joy – to adopt a kind of poverty that makes us a burden to others. But we are each called in some way to live alongside the poor as our time and resourcefulness allow. How vital this is in our society, where long-term housing and economic policies have made concrete a segregation in cities along wealth lines, turned neighbours into strangers to be feared, and refugees into objects of indefinite detention.
What does the radical choice to live alongside the poor make possible? What is the concrete struggle such a choice calls us to face, making a poor church more real in the lives of those who are materially gifted? The Angelus shows us by steps.
‘The angel of the Lord declared to Mary, and she conceived’
Reflecting the encounter between Mary and an angel, we choose to allow ourselves to be called by our name. Fear is met face-to-face, and the means supplied to overcome it – the realisation of complementary gifts given and received freely. Profound differences are brought into personal relationship – we allow ourselves increasingly to meet each other as we are. The alternative is to abide in fear, to imitate the appearance of the poor or the rich to maintain an illusion of safety or status, and to avoid the struggle of giving birth to our vocations. How clearly our masks and mixed motivation are revealed in daily living alongside the poor!
‘Be it done to me according to your word’
Mary consents to be open to receive, within the borders of her very self, the most vulnerable being of a new life, and to walk patiently at the pace of that life. The alternative is to resist our vulnerability, by installing distractions into our lives as individuals, local churches and charities: competition, greed, and entertaining false promises of quick cures. Within this struggle lies the distinctiveness of authentic charity and being a poor church.
‘The Word was made flesh’
Mary lets the initiative of God happen, as an active participant in giving a word flesh; her being generates the physical frame of the son’s. She lets God be God to her and with us. She discovers in a most intimate way what is the common good. The alternative is to refuse the means for the life of others and thus to resign from one’s own life. Likewise, a church that is not for the poor would set up projects from outside the life of the community she embraces, and without honest evaluation. Such a church would indeed be succumbing to the idea that the poor are ‘hard to reach’. A poor church, for the poor, knows the fragility of life; she transmits a voice that is faithful to the cry of the child, the wisdom of the mother, and the creativity of our loving God.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Picture credit – Olli Wilkman (source)