By Fr. Cedric Prakash sj
Pope Francis has invited all Catholics and in fact, all men and women of goodwill, to observe November 19 as the ‘World Day of the Poor’. This year is the very first observance of such a day (now fixed for the 33rd Sunday of the Liturgical Year).
In a message, which was released last June, Pope Francis says, “I invite the whole Church, and men and women of good will everywhere, to turn their gaze on this day to all those who stretch out their hands and plead for our help and solidarity. They are our brothers and sisters, created and loved by the one Heavenly Father. This Day is meant, above all, to encourage believers to react against a culture of discard and waste, and to embrace the culture of encounter. At the same time, everyone, independent of religious affiliation, is invited to openness and sharing with the poor through concrete signs of solidarity and fraternity. God created the heavens and the earth for all; yet sadly some have erected barriers, walls and fences, betraying the original gift meant for all humanity, with none excluded.”
Pope Francis’ message is based on the theme, ‘Let us love, not with words but with deeds’ (1Jn3:18) which underlines the importance of concrete and substantial actions. As special days go, this ‘World Day of the Poor’ is bound to see plenty of programmes for the poor not only in the Vatican but also in Dioceses and Parishes across the world. In the Vatican, a special Mass presided over by Pope Francis followed by a festive lunch for the poor, some with the Pope and others in Catholic Institutions in Rome will mark the day. Several other noteworthy programmes are planned in other places. It will truly be a day for giving and receiving.
Pope Francis is aware of the dangers of tokenism. He challenges all to a change in attitude towards the poor. He emphatically says, “We may think of the poor simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work, or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience. However good and useful such acts may be for making us sensitive to people’s needs and the injustices that are often their cause, they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life”.
In his message, he invites all to look at the face and consequences of poverty, which suffocate millions of people across the world, “We know how hard it is for our contemporary world to see poverty clearly for what it is. Yet in myriad ways poverty challenges us daily, in faces marked by suffering, marginalization, oppression, violence, torture and imprisonment, war, deprivation of freedom and dignity, ignorance and illiteracy, medical emergencies and shortage of work, trafficking and slavery, exile, extreme poverty and forced migration. Poverty has the face of women, men and children exploited by base interests, crushed by the machinations of power and money. What a bitter and endless list we would have to compile were we to add the poverty born of social injustice, moral degeneration, the greed of a chosen few, and generalized indifference!”
Pope Francis lays bare a challenge, “Tragically, in our own time, even as ostentatious wealth accumulates in the hands of the privileged few, often in connection with illegal activities and the appalling exploitation of human dignity, there is a scandalous growth of poverty in broad sectors of society throughout our world. Faced with this scenario, we cannot remain passive, much less resigned. There is a poverty that stifles the spirit of initiative of so many young people by keeping them from finding work. There is a poverty that dulls the sense of personal responsibility and leaves others to do the work while we go looking for favours. There is a poverty that poisons the wells of participation and allows little room for professionalism; in this way it demeans the merit of those who do work and are productive. To all these forms of poverty we must respond with a new vision of life and society.”
One only needs to look at India to see how the Pontiff’s words ring painfully true. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2017, which was released recently by the International Food Policy Research Institute, places India a low 100 out of 119 countries ranked on the GHI. This is disgraceful by any standards Countries like China (placed 29) and other neighbours like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh are ranked much higher than India. Hunger is just one indicator in the measurement of poverty; nevertheless, it is a key indicator. Besides, according to Global Wealth Report 2016 compiled by Credit Suisse Research Institute, ‘India is the second most unequal country in the world with the top one per cent of the population owning nearly 60 per cent of the total wealth.’
The disparity between the rich and poor continues to grow at an alarming rate. The fact that an unbelievable amount of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, while millions are condemned to a dehumanized existence, is sheer obscenity. Many of those who have amassed wealth have done so by exploiting the poor, plundering natural resources and muscling their way with help from the military-industrial complex. Indian ‘leaders’ are not ashamed to flaunt their nexus with powerful vested interests. Corruption in high places is in charge whilst the poor of India struggle to eke out their survival.
St Francis of Assisi is given to us as an exemplar who personified poverty and identified with the poor. There are several others like St. Teresa of Kolkata, St. Martin de Porres, and St. Vincent de Paul who reached out to the poor, who gave of themselves unconditionally and did not count the cost. Pope Francis succinctly says, “We are called, then, to draw near to the poor, to encounter them, to meet their gaze, to embrace them and to let them feel the warmth of love that breaks through their solitude. Their outstretched hand is also an invitation to step out of our certainties and comforts and to acknowledge the value of poverty in itself”.
The ‘World Day of the Poor’, should also be a wakeup call for Catholics and others, to realise that poverty in our world today is largely, man-made and structural. Pope Francis reminds us that we need “to react against a culture of discard and waste.” Like Jesus, we need to embrace the poor, walk with them and ensure for all “a new vision of life and society.”- based on justice, equity, fraternity and solidarity.
(Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)