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Millennium Moment
Pilgrim Power

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The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor
by Bishop Kenneth E. Untener

The Jubilee Year in ancient Israel wasn’t practiced to perfection. But some debts were canceled, some servants set free and some land returned to those who had lost it through foreclosure. One of the reasons for this was their economic system. Unregulated interest rates, for example, resulted in huge, unpayable debts, and many lost their property and/or ended up in servitude. This was not good for their economy, and the periodic Jubilee Year was a good "course correction" because it set a lot of people back on their feet.

The millennium is a time for course corrections. Maybe a better image is the corrective lens put on the Hubble Space Telescope because it was out of focus. We need to correct our focus when it comes to the poor, not just in the year 2000 but into the future.

In his apostolic letter, The Coming Third Millennium, Pope John Paul II is very clear: "It will be necessary, especially during this year, to emphasize the theological virtue of charity...love of God and neighbor...the summing up of the moral life of the believer. From this point of view...how can we fail to lay greater emphasis on the Church’s preferential option for the poor and the outcast?....Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world" (#50, 51).

Why does the pope talk so much about the poor? Why do preachers talk so much about the poor? Come to think of it, why did Jesus talk so much about the poor (18 times in the Gospels)? There’s a lot more to living a Christian life—like raising our kids right, doing an honest day’s work, taking care of aging parents. Why single out helping the poor?

There’s a reason. Perhaps an analogy will be helpful.

The 'key' in sports

Most sports involve complicated moves, and athletes try to find the "key"—one thing that makes the rest happen. For example, the racquetball swing: In a split second you coordinate the movement of your arm, wrist, knees, feet. You can’t think about all those at once, so you try to focus on the key. For me, it’s the elbow. If the elbow is ahead of the rest of my arm as I’m coming at the ball, the rest happens.

In hockey, meanwhile, the key is to skate with the puck while looking up, not down. That forces you to skate well, handle the puck well and pass well. (It also helps prevent you from getting clobbered.)

The key to goodness

I know what the key is in real life. I learned it from the Gospels. I learned it by watching good people lead good lives. The key is the poor. There’s a lot more to leading a good life than simply being kind to the poor. But if we do that, the rest will happen.

That’s why Jesus talked so much about the poor. Caring for them is not simply one item in a long list of good works. It’s the key.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins recognized this. Robert Bridges, a fellow poet, was struggling with his faith and wrote to Hopkins for advice on how he could learn to believe. Hopkins sent back a two-word letter: "Give alms."

In trying to rear a child well, parents have hundreds of things they want to pass on. If I were a dad I would teach my children how to tie their shoes, how to play "Chopsticks" on the piano, how to swing a bat, to say "please" and "thank you." I would try to pass on to them the love of good music, the value of good friends. And for sure I would teach them to see God’s face in the face of the poor, to hear God’s voice in the cry of the poor, and regularly to give to the poor. I’d want to plant this in their hearts from their earliest days because it would affect everything else: their attitude toward money, their attitude toward people in general, their attitude toward life, their attitude toward God.

This past Lent the parents of a three- and a four-year-old let them earn money for the U.S. bishops’ Rice Bowl collection by doing small tasks around the house. One day, shortly after Lent ended, they came to their mother and said, "We want to do some more work for the poor." As a result, these youngsters now have a bank with a slot for "Savings" and another for "Spending" and another for "The Poor." The effects will be long-range, and nothing but good.

Getting it right

The word righteous, used so frequently in Scripture, can have for us a negative ring, probably because we may connect it with self-righteous. The meaning of righteous, however, is wholly positive. Simply put, it means getting it right, seeing things as they are: Two plus two equals four. The earth is round. We are all brothers and sisters. The Lord’s is the earth and all that is in it. If we see things any other way or act as though these things were not true, we don’t have it right.

In the parable of the rich man feasting at his table and the poor man lying at his gate, each was looking from a different angle and their views were different. The rich man was looking over the top of his table and across the lawn down to the gate. The beggar, however, was looking up from the ground and through the gate. Imagine how the food looked to the rich man and how it looked to Lazarus. Imagine how the house looked to each man. Imagine how they saw one another. Imagine how life itself looked to them. Which one saw things accurately?

Jesus does not leave us without an answer, as is clear when both men die. The rich man wants to send Lazarus back to explain things to his brothers because they think as he did, and he had it all wrong.

Jesus had a way of turning things upside down and explaining that this way of seeing things was actually more accurate: The last are first; the least are the greatest; death is the way to life. It is the narrow door, not the wide one, that leads to life. The way to deal with violence is kindness. We should love all people, including our enemies, and give to those who ask of us.

I’d have sworn a lot of those were the other way around. I must have had a bad angle and missed something, which is why some sports use the instant replay. The angle can make a big difference, as the rich man learned after he died.

God's money managers

If indeed the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, then we are God’s money managers. It would be a strange money manager who thought that the funds entrusted to him were "gifts" for his own use. Talk about not getting it right.

After we die we’re going to be asked about how well we managed the goods entrusted to us by God. How do I know that? Because in his last sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave us a sneak preview of the judgment, and in this advance look we see the risen Lord take the judgment seat and talk about the distribution of food, drink and clothing...about the people on the margin ("strangers"), the sick, the imprisoned.

We might imagine a conversation that goes something like this:

"Well, Lord, along the way I contributed to some good causes now and then."

The Lord: "We’re here to look at the whole sweep of your life, not isolated sins or isolated good works. All the things that were given to you were given so that you could put them to good use, accomplish something with them."

"Now, Lord, you keep saying that these things were ‘given’ to me. They weren’t just given. I worked for them. It wasn’t easy to get a good education, to earn a good living, to build up a savings account. I worked for all these things."

The Lord: "Some acquire money and possessions by chance, and some by hard work. But both groups keep them by choice. Regardless of how you got them, you knew that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.’ So I want to get back to the question of how you managed my goods and what you were able to do with them...."

Those certainly aren’t the exact words of the dialogue, but we can be pretty sure about the gist of it. The Lord has told us that in advance.

Room 436

Every three or four months I move into a different parish in the diocese and make that my temporary home. One time, when I was about due to move on to a new parish, I was visiting someone at St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw, and it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to live there—in one of the regular patient’s rooms. So, after making sure that I wouldn’t be depriving anyone of necessary space, I moved into Room 436.

Room 436 soon became home to me, the way any dwelling becomes home. Everything around you triggers the familiar feeling of being home: the sights, the smells, the sounds—especially the sounds. I got used to the announcements on the intercom, the helicopter coming in, a patient down the hall moaning in pain, carts and equipment being wheeled down the hall. They were all signs that I was home, like the sound of a train to someone who grows up near railroad tracks. I got to know the people on my floor, both the nursing staff and the patients. It was a surgical floor, so the medical problems varied from minor to major. These people became my neighbors. Some died while I was there. Some others were there for a long, long time.

I became familiar with the whole place. There was no resident chaplain so I told the staff that I would take the night calls. When I came in late I always walked through the emergency room and saw action there. I’d often notice the windows in the operating room, its lights frequently burning all night long.

The strangest thing happened to me. I had visited hospitals hundreds of times in my 32 years as a priest. I had dealt with emergency-room crises, death, grieving families in shock—plus deaths in my own family. But these were all extraordinary situations outside the inner circle of my normal life. I could rise to the occasion, and then it was over and life was regular again. But now this was my home. Sickness and death became the regular stuff of life.

It wasn’t simply a matter of getting used to it. It was a matter of letting all this become absorbed into the core of my life. I had to find a way to make sense out of life with these things in the center of it. No longer could I just rise to the occasion as though this was the exception. My whole life had to widen to include it. My faith had to deepen to include it.

What strikes me is that we hardly ever do that with the poor. They are exceptions to the normal run of our life. We "visit" them sometimes in our thoughts and sometimes literally. We rise to the occasion to help them. But they’re not part of our inner thoughts, our regular, real life.

We need to put them there. Then, everything changes. They are family, our brothers and sisters. We don’t have to be poor, any more than I had to be sick or dying. We simply take them into our heart. When that happens we can make the Lord’s words our own: "What you did to the least of these you did to me." When that happens, we’ve found the key.*


Kenneth E. Untener was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1980. A writer and popular lecturer, he is the author of Preaching Better: Practical Suggestions for Homilists, Paulist Press, New York, NY, 1999.




John McKay


"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace..."

The Peace Prayer of St. Francis was always a central part of the evening meal around the large table in the McKay household in Seattle. Over time, as young John McKay joined his parents and his 11 siblings in reciting the prayer each night, the word that most struck him was instrument. An instrument, he came to believe, is "a person of action who strives in some way to make the world better."

Fast-forward a few decades. John McKay, 43, is president of Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a nonprofit which ensures legal representation in civil cases for low-income persons. He is an instrument of support and advocacy on behalf of people who are "the least in our society and the closest to God," he told Millennium Monthly.

Long before he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1997 to take up his LSC post, Mr. McKay was known for his legal efforts on behalf of indigent persons. He recalls an early Legal Services client, a confused elderly man living in a homeless shelter who unwittingly signed away his house, fully paid for, and was unaware he had a pension. Working with and for people with such needs "gives more meaning and texture, it makes more complete your legal practice," he believes. Furthermore, "that is what our faith teaches us," says Mr. McKay, who attends St. Aloysius Parish in Washington, D.C., and also maintains his ties with St. Joseph Parish and community in his native Seattle.

As head of an organization that has hundreds of offices nationwide, Mr. McKay spends much of his time trying to build bipartisan support in Congress for LSC, now in its 25th year. Its funding has been slashed in recent years, but he is hopeful that Congress will approve a budget of $340 million for fiscal year 2000. His familiarity with the ways of Washington serves him well. He worked as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in the 1970's and served at the FBI during the Bush administration.

But most persuasive is his deep devotion to the right of the poor to legal services, particularly around issues of child support, elderly abuse, domestic violence, family law and landlord-tenant disputes. "The poor don’t want anything handed to them," Mr. McKay insists. "They just want to have a chance at fairness and justice."*

— by Judy Ball




Pilgrim Power


Catholic shrines and holy places have long drawn pilgrims seeking to give praise to God and deepen their faith. Tens of millions of pilgrims from throughout the world are expected to visit such shrines and sacred sites during the coming Holy Year. Rome is bracing for throngs. So is the Holy Land, where Palestinians and Israelis are working together to prepare for Jesus’ 2000th birthday in the land "where time began."

But last year the Catholic shrine drawing the largest numbers was a world away from Rome and the Middle East. It was Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine in Mexico, where the Blessed Mother appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, a poor Indian widower who lived near Mexico City. There, as he made his way to Mass one Saturday morning, Mary spoke to him. She appeared in the form of a young Native American maiden dressed like an Aztec princess.

After Guadalupe, the next most popular shrine last year was San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy, home of Blessed Padre Pio. Following were Fatima, the largest Marian shrine in the world, and Lourdes, with its healing waters. Also popular was Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland.*


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