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The Joy of the Gospel – Option For the Poor is Fundamental; Wealth Does Not Trickle Down

The message of Pope Francis has swept the world, inspiring Catholics and the media, some previously disillusioned Catholics, and even atheists.

His new Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, profoundly illustrates why this is so. In the style which has become familiar in his papacy of less than a year, Francis challenges us to work to make a better world where the Gospel is preached to the poor, where there is not so much inequality.

Many have admired Saint Francis of Assisi, but not so many have followed his way.

If we admire this Francis, like his namesake, if we take seriously what he asks of us in this document, our lives will be changed.

From the beginning, Pope Francis calls us to a deeper interior life and, from that wellspring, to reach out to the poor, to those who most need our care, for their sakes and also for our own:

“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.

“This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

At Casa Juan Diego

People are coming to Casa Juan Diego mentioning that Francis has asked us all to touch the wounds of Jesus in the poor. They ask how they can help in our service to immigrants and refugees.

One friend of Casa Juan Diego, inspired by Pope Francis’ words and example, recently made a commitment to drive a woman who had no reasonable transportation for her breast cancer treatment. We had been afraid that the patient would abandon her daily treatments. The friend-volunteer organized her own circle of friends and they took Sara (the names have been changed) to her daily appointments.

Others visited the sick and injured in personal care homes for whom we provide support. Two women recently visited Lupe. Lupe has very serious health problems after a car accident. In addition, several teeth were falling out. These volunteer co-workers from Spring, took Lupe to a Catholic dentist who did the dental work for free. In the middle of a lengthy pro-cedure, Lupe began to cry. The dentist stopped working, saying, “Am I hurting you? I will stop.” “No,” she replied, as she cried harder. “I am weeping with joy. I could not imagine that my teeth would ever be fixed!”

The Joy of the Gospel encourages us at Casa Juan Diego in the Works of Mercy as opposed to the works of war. As Dorothy said, Jesus made Heaven hinge on our response to him in the least of the brethren. We know that when we receive the poor, the wounded, the person is not Joe Smith or Jose Smith or Josefina Garcia, but Jesus himself.

As, for example, the man who came in the other day, very ill, and shaking and shivering in the 30-degree weather. Carlos is not eligible for disability or any government help. We asked him, Carlos, do you have any heat in your home? No, he answered. We looked at his thin sweatshirt and asked, Do you have a warm jacket? No, he answered. Do you have gloves? No. As we prepared his food, we found a space heater, a warm jacket and gloves to send with him. These things are available to help people like Carlos especially because of the generosity of Catholics in the parishes.

New Evangelization and the Option For the Poor

Pope Francis encourages the Christian faithful to “embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by the joy that comes from an encounter with Jesus and with the Gospel, pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.” He immediately outlines his priorities in this new evangelization:

   Go First to the Poor

“If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neigh-bors, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and over-looked, “those who cannot repay you” (Lk 14:14). There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. Today and always, ‘the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel,’ and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.”

The Poor in God’s Heart

Francis tells us that God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9):

“The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Savior was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev 5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread.

“When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’ (Lk 4:18). He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart: ‘Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God’ (Lk 6:20); he made himself one of them: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food to eat’, and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven (cf. Mt 25:5ff.).”

Two Great Issues

In bringing together the themes of the common good, evangelization, solidarity, and better economics, Pope Francis focuses on two issues that he says are fundamental to our times.

These issues are the inclusion of the poor in society, and peace and social dialogue.

No One Is Off the Hook

Francis excludes no one is in his challenges:

“None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice: Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone.”

Francis asks us not only to go to the poor, but to help them on their way:

“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.

“The poor person, when loved, ‘is esteemed as of great value’, and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation. Only this will ensure that ‘in every Christian community the poor feel at home.’”

“Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effecttive cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritual worldly-ness camouflaged by reli-gious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk.”

Farm Workers and Landscape Workers Defended in the Scriptures

Holy Family Farmworkers, by Fritz Eichenberg

Our experience many years ago in supporting the United Farm Workers and now our daily encounters with day laborers has helped us to deeply appreciate the section where Francis quotes the book of James on the cry of poor laborers:

“The old question always returns: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ (1 Jn 3:17). Let us recall also how bluntly the apostle James speaks of the cry of the oppressed: ‘The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts’” (5:4)

Change Structures, But First Our Hearts

“In this context we can understand Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You your-selves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37): it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual.”

Bringing Hope in the Midst of Despair

In the face of evil in the world, the economic disparities, the violence which can be overwhelming and discouraging, Pope Francis brings his profound faith perspective:

“The joy of the Gospel is such that it cannot be taken away from us by anyone or anything (cf. Jn 16:22). The evils of our world – and those of the Church – must not be excuses for diminishing our commitment and our fervor. Let us look upon them as challenges which can help us to grow. With the eyes of faith, we can see the light which the Holy Spirit always radiates in the midst of darkness, never forgetting that “where sin increased, grace has abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). Our faith is challenged to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds.”

Popular Piety

One of his answers is the encouragement of popular piety:

“Once looked down upon, popular piety came to be appreciated once more in the decades after the Council. It manifests a thirst for God which only the poor and the simple can know. It makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief.”

“Genuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture. For this reason they entail a personal relationship, not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints. These devotions are fleshy, they have a face.”

Pope Francis advocates the popular piety of ordinary people in preference to the gospel of wealth and the gospel of spirituality for my own well-being rather than a faith life in the Church: “In other parts of our society, we see the growing attraction to various forms of a ‘spirituality of well-being’ divorced from any community life, or to a ‘theology of prosperity’ detached from responsibility for our brothers and sisters, or to deper-sonalized experiences which are nothing more than a form of self-centeredness.”

Spiritual Care for the Poor

“Since this Exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.”

At Casa Juan Diego we especially are conscious of the lack of spiritual care for the poor who are imprisoned. The privatized prisons and detention centers strictly control prisoners’ access to, for example, assist at Mass. The priests who visit the detention center in Houston tell us that only a tiny percentage of those detained are permitted to come to Mass there. Security issues are cited. We receive letters from prisoners lamenting this lack of opportunity for spiritual care even when priests come to their prisons.

Wealth Does Not Trickle Down

Pope Francis directly challenges the economic theory and practice which has done so much harm in recent year, increasing inequality:

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and in-clusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Thou Shalt Not Kill

In his new document Pope Francis criticizes “the evil crystallized in unjust social structures.” He asks us to say no to the idolatry of money.

The Holy Father goes so far as to equate “Thou shalt not kill” with killing through the economic system:

“Just as the commandment   ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills…. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

“We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the leftovers.’”

Primacy of the Person

“One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols.”

Tyranny Of the Autonomy Of the Marketplace

“While the earnings of a minority are growing expo-nentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born…which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power… The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

Don’t Fire the Work Force to Increase Profits

“We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market…,  the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.”

Neocons Reject The Joy of the Gospel

While many have enthusiastically responded to The Joy of the Gospel, others have reacted rather violently to Francis’ words on the economy. Rush Limbaugh called the Pope a “commie” and Sarah Palin expressed her “doubts” about him.

Catholic neoconservatives who have worked for years to promote and implement the trickle-down economics that the Pope condemns, have stated that he does not understand reality, that the conditions he describes do not really exist, and that therefore he does not disagree with them. They deny that there is any autonomy of markets. None of them, not Fr. Sirico, not George Weigel, not Michael Novak, acknowledged Francis’ words that “the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

The strategy of some has been to praise the Pope in general terms, saying he loves the poor, but keeping silent on his words on the economics which kills.

Michael Novak has insisted that the Pope does not understand the United States, but only Argentina. In an article rather strangely en-titled “Agreeing with Pope Francis,” he contradicts the Pope, claiming that the economics Francis condemns has actually been quite beneficial.

Not Just Culture Wars

A few have criticized Pope Francis for saying that we should talk less about certain issues which have become associated with culture wars, and rather begin by presenting the heart of the Gospel. He speaks to this question in “The Joy of the Gospel,” telling  us that in the basic core of the Gospel, “What shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.”

“In today’s world of instant communication and occasion-ally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning.”

Concern For the Vulnerable

Francis makes clear his commitment to the unborn in the section where he points out that “the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favor an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life. He includes the unborn under the most vulnerable, also emphasizing the importance of accompanying women in difficult situations. In this context he also speaks of migrants, of human trafficking, of the homeless, the addicted, the elderly who are marginalized, and always the poor. Like his namesake, he includes all of creation.

Peace With Justice

Francis preaches the Gospel of peace, but a peace built on justice. His message is creative, but  challenging:

“Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges.

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

   No To the Inequality Which Spawns Violence

 The poor and the poorer peoples are “ of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode…This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Respect the Grandeur of the Neighbor

Francis teaches “a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does.”

We encourage our readers to study the entire document. The Joy of the Gospel is available at vatican.va (click first on your language, then on Pope Francis), or in book form online.