2019 World Day of the Poor Reflection
by Fr. Jason H. Laguerta
Authentic faith is constituted by justice, expressed and embodied in our social relations as well as in our personal lives.
– John F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society:
The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (2006)
A LIVING FAITH, AN ACTIVIST LOVE
Seven years ago, I met a youngster whom everybody called Abubo (we renamed him John Paul). He had some form of autism which hampered his communication skills and verbal capacities. He lived in the streets and slept on the pavements. In spite of his condition, he knew how to make ends meet, by begging or “barking” for jeepneys. He loved to dance and had this uncanny ability to make everybody laugh every time he performed.
We decided to adopt him and made him a sacristan in the church. We gave him a room (where he never slept), bought him clothes (which he would often lose because everything was disposable for him), and tried to provide for all his needs. But he died a few months ago. His early death could have been avoided. If only he was given more attention and care. (After I got transferred to another assignment, he went back to the streets and got sick). If only he was given more kindness and empathy.
Around the time I was looking after John Paul, I also met a little five-year-old girl named Aya (not her real name). She was quite a handful. Her cursing and swearing was strange for a preschooler. Her parents were in and out of jail. Like John Paul, she would scour the streets to survive. We placed her under the care of a child center. She’s twelve now and both of her parents are still in jail. In spite of the concern and all out support being given to her, she struggles to stay in school and motivate herself to succeed. She finds her “tropa” (gang) more appealing and their escapades more exciting. She’s looking for something, I know. And I just hope that she finds herself before the turbulence of adolescence sets in.
As war has many orphans, poverty has many guardians. It is easy to lecture on hard work and determination. It is another to face inequality, marginalization, disconnect and alienation. Pope Francis says that “the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one (EG, 198).”
As followers of Jesus today, we cannot look the other way and ignore the heartbreaking circumstances of the majority of our people. Our faith would be untruthful and empty if it does not involve an intimate encounter with the pains and longings of the poor.
The Holy Father explains, “Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programs of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes in us is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other ‘in a certain sense as one with ourselves.’ This loving attentiveness is the beginning of a true concern for their person which inspires me effectively to seek their good. This entails appreciating the poor in their goodness, in their experience of life, in their culture, in their ways of living the faith (EG, 199).”
My experience with John Paul, Aya and many others like them have taught me that addressing poverty starts with a dedicated focus on the person of the poor and the excluded. It is to listen to them and embrace them as Jesus would affectionately welcome them. This does not mean, of course, that we overlook the systemic and social roots of poverty. But everything has to start in what Pope Francis calls loving attentiveness to the person, the unique identity of the poor.
Sometimes church workers behave more as activists, aligned with and loyal to a certain ideology or political party. Instead of being disciples of Jesus, impelled by the love of Christ and recognizing the face of God in the victims of injustice. There are also times when we are more concerned with how many bags or items were distributed rather than being radically transformed in our lifestyle by the tragedies we have witnessed and the sufferings we have seen.
We have to admit that on many occasions we have kept a safe distance between us and the revolting conditions of poverty. Our projects and programs for the poor have become a convenient excuse for “principled opportunism”, high in quixotic advocacy but low in personal acts of charity. In times that we do, we help as a way of feeling good about ourselves. Altruism is in reality a disguised form of vanity and narcissism. Solidarity is more of a slogan than a profession of faith.
John F. Kavanaugh, author of Following Christ in a Consumer Society, says that “in answer to the problem of faith ineffectually isolated from justice, (what is needed) is neither more interiority nor more activism, but precisely an integration of both: an activism that is truly revolutionary and a faith that is fully holy: saintly revolution.”
The truly revolutionary is one who reverses the world order through the power of the beatitudes. The truly holy is one who has fully embraced humanity and finds that “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Rom 5:20). What we need nowadays, according to Fr. Kavanaugh, is a “living faith” and an “activist love”. We are neither fideists nor activists alone. Our faith is fueled by our pursuit of justice. Our activism is colored by our faith. We are revolutionary saints.
Pope Francis sounded the alarm for a revolution of tenderness. This is what the disciples of Jesus can offer to the world today. As the early Christians were known for their love of one another and priority to the poor and abandoned, so are we to mark our places and communities again. With the sign of the crucified Savior, we shall defeat evil with good, hatred with forgiveness, poverty with generosity and self-denial.
There is a thought-provoking verse in the eleventh chapter of Matthew where Jesus asks the disciples of John to tell their master what they hear and see, “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Mt.11:5).” After a series of answered prayers or straight up solutions to human adversities (blindness to seeing, lameness to walking, leprosy to cleansing, deafness to hearing, death to being raised back to life), Jesus stops at saying the poor being made rich. He declares instead that the poor have the good news preached to them.
Why not just solve poverty directly like giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf? Why preach to the poor when the good news for them, even today, is that they’re going to have cash and goodies? What did Jesus mean by “the good news being proclaimed to the poor”?
My crude interpretation is this: For Jesus, the answer or solution to poverty is not necessarily economic. There is a pathway to liberation and redemption that goes deeper and more lasting than provisional satisfaction and illusory abundance. This makes the message of Jesus difficult to accept and understand, even for the most pious among us. Blessed are you poor is counter-intuitive. Seek ye first the kingdom of God is counter-cultural. Prone to be abused and misinterpreted as many have done.
We are living in a world where the dominant currency are the idols of capital and power. We are surrounded on all sides by technology and dehumanizing artificiality. Our culture is colonized by secularism and consumerism. Individuality is more exalted than community. Self-expression and preservation take precedence over common good and self-donation.
When Jesus chose to be born in a stable when it could have been in a palace. When he chose an anawim girl from Nazareth to be his mother when it could have been a queen. When he chose to be a carpenter when he could have been the Caesar. Jesus was telling us something about poverty and riches. And he is still telling us today, “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me (Mt.11:6).”
The good news proclaimed to the poor is the assurance of God’s fidelity, justice and mercy. The covenant of Jesus with the poor is the promise of a sacramental body that will never abandon her suffering members. The good news then is the confidence of Jesus in us to continue his mission, to constantly show his compassionate love for the poor.
Pope Francis tells us this year for the 3rd World Day of the Poor, “If the disciples of the Lord Jesus wish to be genuine evangelizers, they must sow tangible seeds of hope.” Early on in his papacy, he also challenged us, “An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it (EG, 183).”