Called to Care for the Poor: Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation and the Christian Vocation

This week’s post on Themes from Catholic Social Teaching is authored by Tom Southard, Administrator of Community Partnerships in The Wolfington Center at Cabrini College. He will be a regular contributor to this weekly conversation on Catholic Social Teaching. 

In the first week of Advent, we see the world start to turn to thoughts of Christmas.  Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.  Students at colleges across the country counted their blessings last week at Thanksgiving, and are now considering how to run food drives and clothing collections to help the poor.  Catholics around the world lift up the poor and vulnerable in their thoughts, prayers, and actions.  This year, however, Pope Francis I reminds us to pray for our politicians.

I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their ho­rizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? (205)

On November 26th, the Vatican released Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).  Thematically, the pope considers the Church and its relationship to society.  He examines ways to propagate peace and the inclusion of the poor.  Once again, we see themes of a poorer Church for the poor.

No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice… (201).

Pope Francis’ deepest criticism, however, is reserved for the financial systems that dominate our world.  In keeping with the CST theme of community and the common good—organizing our society in a way that promotes human dignity and the capacity of individuals—the pope speaks of the financial systems that have kept the poor poorer.  His focus, however, is not on sharing the wealth, but on asking political leaders to create a system based on ethics and balance, of keeping money in trust for the poor, rather than “steal[ing] from them and tak[ing] away their livelihood” (57).

While he calls for a reform of the system (and indeed, of many systems, including the Church hierarchy and the way the Church serves the world), he also calls the people of the Church to consider how they can best serve others.  Politics, he explains, is a “lofty vocation.”  In calling it “one of the highest forms of charity,” he reminds us that charity is not just how we directly serve the poor—feeding or clothing an individual—but how we change the systems that have created those economic disparities.

Once again, we are called to walk a very fine line: to practice the charity that Jesus calls us to…“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25: 35-36)…while working to change the conditions that have led to our brothers and sisters being hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill and in prison.

See: Evangelii Gaudium, November 26, 2013. The parenthetical references above correspond to paragraph numbers in the Apostolic Exhortation.

See also: Chapter 25 of the Gospel According to Matthew.

Submitted by: T. Southard, Administrator of Community Partnerships, The Wolfington Center, Cabrini College

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