The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor
by Bishop Kenneth E. Untener
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.
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.
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).
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?
a reason. Perhaps an analogy will be helpful.
The 'key' in sports
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
imagine a conversation that goes something like this:
Lord, along the way I contributed to some good causes now and then."
"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
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."
"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...."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
make me an instrument of your peace..."
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."
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
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.
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.
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
by Judy Ball
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."
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.
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