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Poverty and the New Evangelization

 

Helen Alvaré
Professor of Law at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia

Law professor Helen Alvare from George Mason University in Arlington, Va., speaks during the 2014 USCCB spring meeting in New Orleans. CNS photo/Bob Roller

I don’t suffer nerves anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sufficiently in awe of the subject you’ve asked me to consider with you today: Poverty and the New Evangelization.   The more time I spend with it, the more levels I find…
and dimensions -- ecclesiological, pastoral, legal, and pertaining to personal conversion and to language.  And I’ve got about 30 minutes to convey to you the book that could be written on the subject.  So here is how I propose to proceed:  

I will sort through Pope Francis’ and Benedict XVI’s materials and remarks on this theme of poverty and the new evangelization… for the following purposes:

First – to identify their leading themes and points;
Second – to suggest ways to realize them in practice;
and third,  to surface some of the leading likely questions, concerns and hopes arising out of them.
 
In all of this I will draw from my experience, regularly on behalf of the Church since about 1990  -- trying to find the language to share our treasures with anyone who has ears to hear, within or outside specifically Catholic environments.

Let me also say first and preliminarily, though, that I share your intuition that this is an important development in the life of our Church.   Not only did Pope Benedict speak of it in his Motu Proprio of November 2012 (On the Service of Charity), but he also referred to it in his January 2013 address to Cor Unum (Charity, Christian Anthropology and New Global Ethics).  Pope Francis then stressed it in his first homily as Pope (March 14, 2013) later that year in April, then in June, then in October, in his Lenten Address this year, in his World Day of Communications message, and of course in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelium Gaudii.  
    
What are the leading themes in this set of statements?  They are not difficult to find, and in order to preserve time to think about the practices and questions they implicate, I will summarize them as briefly as I can.

So first,  an overarching theme is the exhortation to integrate our services to the poor with an introduction to Christ.  In Benedict’s words: our charitable services must not be “just another form of organized social assistance,” but “visibly express love for man…nourished by an encounter with Christ.” And in Francis’ memorable formulation: we must not operate as a “compassionate NGO,” but as the “Church the Bride of Christ.”

Let me unpack three aspects of this first theme.

One--Francis has stated that when he says we should introduce people to Jesus, he means Jesus crucified, and in poverty… Jesus, taking on the most profound suffering of those he loves, Jesus’ undergoing profound humiliation, placing himself in circumstances of profound condescension.  Francis says that when we openly embrace the cross, when we come in poverty, we are essentially testifying that our  “wealth” is strictly “the gift [we have] received,” God.  In his World Day of Communications message he further elaborated:  it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the “ability to make myself like the other,” who is equally a “human being and a child of God,” a “fellow pilgrim.”  Shared pilgrim status is a concept Francis proposes regularly, including in Evangelium Gaudii.

Two--Still elaborating this first theme, I would add that, in Francis’ mind, style and tone count. Both in words - in Evangelium Gaudii --and with his gestures, Francis says that we need to convey physically as well as verbally the “humility and tenderness” and – one of my favorite expressions – “homely warmth” of the love of Christ.  Thus, the Pope’s kissing of hands and feet, thus his embracing the disfigured …  with the naturalness and freedom of a mother or a father toward their children.
Continuing on the subject of style and tone – Francis exhorts us to convey joy – the joy of the person who has encountered a person and an event  – Jesus Christ -- which have given his or her life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Not a joy that excludes realism, but a joy indicating unequivocally that the Holy Spirit is present.  Closely related to joy is a manner of giving that eschews proselytizing, or demanding strength or authority for ourselves. The giver rather conveys in words and demeanor that she has a beautiful thing she is excited to share.

Three, and still elaborating this first theme – the organizational structures and operations of our charitable endeavors “count” too. Particularly as described in Benedict’s Motu Proprio -- everybody involved needs to be on board with marrying practical services to evangelization, including that portion of our good news treating anthropology.  The organization’s structure, too, should harmonize:  the salary structure, the groups with whom it cooperates.  Furthermore, the organization should prioritize introducing people to the one who loves them, versus the care and feeding of the bureaucracy.   Thus Francis’ famous phrase that we are telling a “love story” but that “offices are required.”   He adds that there should be a simplicity about our endeavors which enables others clearly to see that our wealth is God, nothing else.

Now I turn to the second theme: greater attention to those on the periphery. Benedict framed this as the necessity to remember that charity is as essential to our mission as Word and Sacrament.  Francis articulates as the inseparable bond between faith and the poor, especially given Jesus’ straightforward identification with them and exhortations about them.  We know -- from our own experience and even from sociological data – that the poor are often nearly socially invisible, and that they are likely to be outside the organized life of parishes, dioceses, and other Catholic institutions.

(One week in advance of his election, the WSJ asked me to contribute a brief piece isolating one attribute I would like to see in the next Pope. The headline I delivered  --“fearless friend of the poor”  -- detailing what a jolt the world needed on this subject, and how little it was figuring in important  political and cultural circles; but the Journal decided it wasn’t a sufficiently interesting scenario and chose not to publish it .)

-- As an aspect of this second theme, especially in his Lenten address, Francis emphasizes that there is more than one kind of poverty…  that in fact, poverty can be spiritual (being without God), moral (being a slave to sin) or material  (which is what we regularly think of when we think of poverty, but which Pope Francis suggests might better be termed “destitution.”). All should provoke a particular offer of the gift of Jesus Christ.  Further, Benedict and Francis have articulated some of the more salient elements of our current spiritual and moral poverty requiring a response today: hedonistic materialism; technological prometheanism; the rejection of human solidarity, and a confused and insufficient anthropology.   

A Third Theme - Remembering what the poor have to offer:
Among the things Francis has highlighted under this theme include the possibility for finding joy in life not calibrated to consuming or to pleasure-seeking.  As he remarks in Evangelium Gaudii “the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to.”  Francis also encourages the fostering of authentic forms of popular piety that exhibit the possibility for a straightforward trust in God.

Now in Part II, I will suggest possible ways we might think of carrying out this appeal to marry our response to poverty with the new evangelization.  
They are not mutually exclusive.

1.  Well obviously, there is the most apparent option of introducing Jesus by name.  This is more than a little suggested by Francis’ statements that if we do not “confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail” and that if we are not “professing Jesus Christ, we are “professing the worldliness of the devil” (quoting Léon Bloy). Or his statement that the Gospel is a “grace” – and that we shouldn’t “leave grace a little to one side” or we will not be effective.  

2.  Based upon some literature I will note, and upon my experience with audiences across a broad continuum – from faithful to hostile -- I think there is another option:  sharing Jesus - what his life, death and resurrection mean for us and for the world -- but also attempting language and images that can act as a bridge for people depending upon their background and circumstances.
When I started thinking about this I realized there is a significant body of literature that could help us unpack this – literature dealing with successfully conveying Christ to people experiencing different kinds of poverty. This literature would include, for example, the book Atchison Blue about a reporter’s experience of the Benedictine sisters in Atchison, Kansas; Cloister Walk about a Protestant feminist at a monastery in  Minnesota; Kiko Arguello’s, The Kerygma in the Shantytown with the Poor,  Traveling Mercies by Annie Le Mott, and Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered.  If I had 30 more minutes I could lay out so many examples from this literature -- everything from the power of the psalms to plumb finally a sophisticated reporter’s experiences of tragedy, to the power of the Christian understanding of death to give meaning to grieving people’s lives, to the ways that Jesus’ thrilling displays of love can unexpectedly pierce a human being’s radical desolation, to the power of celibacy to invite a critical look at sexual idolatry.   As a reviewer of the book Kerygma wrote:  The author’s stories showed the reviewer “that hell is not only where the human living conditions are extreme in terms of poverty” but is also “where God is absent” because then “love and mercy are absent too.” The author’s experience taking Jesus to the poorest taught the reviewer that “no matter in what hell I am, God wants me out, he wants me resurrected and blessed at no matter what price...”
In recent years I have tried, in my scholarship about single moms and cohabiting couples, to perform this work of bridging explicitly Catholic teaching about love and solidarity and human sexuality, to academic and political audiences in terms that could touch their minds and hearts.  They are among my best-received works, often reaching across political divides. 
3. A third method to link the new evangelization with ministry to the poor, is one I might title “What Would Jesus Do?” It is service providers living and working in ways witnessing to, and provoking conversations about, the person of Jesus … the faith that shapes their lives. 

You know, I’m sure, many stories that reflect the potential success of this way.  The witness of the Missionaries of Charity literally picking up people left like garbage in the streets.  Edith Stein’s response to the way her Catholic friend maintained her equanimity after the death of her beloved husband, on the grounds of her beliefs.  Or for an up-to-the minute example -- for those of you who follow Italian reality television  -- the story of Suor Cristina, the sweet young singing nun who has won the televised Italian singing competition The Voice.  When asked whether her joyful, humble persona might cause him to think anew about God, her Atheist singing coach, Rapper J-Ax, replied: “The light in her eyes makes me curious.”

I want to highlight one element of the WWJD mode I believe to be especially powerful: the gift of time… an aspect of what Pope Benedict called in Deus Caritas Est: “giving every person that look of love they crave,” and Francis calls “attentiveness.”   Jesus spent a great deal of time with a relatively few people if you think about it, and provided them attention unambiguously tailored to their condition. Today, self-reports of loneliness and alienation are up, family fragmentation is up, but the potential for giving the gift of time seems to be down -- whether because of increased demands on charity in our slow economy, or because of bureaucratic efficiency demands.   Francis’ example of giving time – a call to a widow, a meal with the homeless – illustrates the “gift of time” component of the new evangelization.

4. A fourth possible manner of linking the new evangelization with our attention to poverty involves the use of religious symbols.  I think of the power of the crucifix, incomparably described in the memoir of Sister Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard’s A Memory for Wonders.  Even as a young child, reared quite deliberately as an atheist by her parents, she just knows, gazing on a picture of a crucifix in a Parisian jewelry catalog that: “this man on the cross had been killed” and that it was for everyone; “and it was for me.” She continues:  “It is very difficult to explain, because this complex theology was taught to me in a moment and it looked perfectly simple.”
And then there’s that powerful “branding” tool known as religious garb.   One of the Sisters of Life who contributed a chapter to my book tells a moving story of eating lunch on the beach with a group of the sisters when high school girls passing by exclaimed: “Oh my gosh, who are you?”  The two girls, one a nominal Catholic the other a Seventh-day Adventist, plunked down in the sand with the sisters and turned the discussion to the topics of sex and alcohol in their school.  Sister Mary Gabriel wrote that following the conversation, the girls “almost skipped down the beach” because someone “ma[de] space for [them] –regrets and all – in [their] heart[s].” Summarizing generally onlookers’ response to the sisters, she writes in the book: “They know I’m theirs, because they know I’m God’s.”

5. Finally, of course, there is this interesting possibility of marrying charity and the new evangelization by way of venue.  What is this?  It is illustrated by things like the Mass on the U.S./Mexican border, and Pope Francis’ Holy Thursday Mass with prisoners.
Another “venue” might be the Internet. How are charity and the New Evangelization married here? Because this place can signal other aspects of this imperative to marry these two: it can signal the option for the poor, some of whom “live” on particular websites.  It points toward a willingness to propose God to every single person in every age, no matter where people are “living” or what language they are speaking; and even if it’s not our comfort zone.  (Use example here of “IBelieveinLove.com ).

We don’t know in every detail what Popes Francis and Benedict have in mind in the way of practical execution of the marriage between service and the new evangelization, but I propose that all of the above qualify in some way; and that which methods we stress or combine might depend upon the precise people and situations before us.
III.  Let us turn now to some of the difficulties or concerns that might arise in connection with the call to marry Christian service with the new evangelization.  Thereafter, I will highlight the hopes for this marriage.
        
1.  A first concern of course, is the potential for reluctance --  as the bumper sticker says -- to “let go and let God ” to trust God. “Trust” is a word Pope Francis uses a lot in the context of the counsel we’re exploring today. From Catholic grade school on, we’ve learned that more hard work is a good thing.  And organizational projects have grown more complex, even if we consider only the categories of technology and government regulation. How do we even execute “let go and let God” under these circumstances? While managing the 21st century consequences?  Will we fall afoul of laws and lose government funding in a more intentionally secular age? Will we be less well respected by our multiple constituencies including, for example, other charities with whom we have partnered, or trade associations which might play accreditation or evaluation roles?  Will there be reluctance among personnel who have become accustomed in some cases to operating according to man-made standards? 
2.    Then there is the data indicating that many of the natural audiences for our work are becoming less, not more, involved with organized religion, particularly the poor and some immigrant groups. Will this hamper our effectiveness?
3    Then there are the difficulties suggested by Pope’s entreaty to “smell like the sheep” … to come “in poverty” like Jesus. This has several aspects.
a.  One, there is the practical difficulty of living in circumstances unattractive to us. Rubbing elbows with spiritual and moral poverty in the prosperous heart of an urban environment can go against the grain for some. And of course there is the harsh difficulty of living with real material destitution. (My son, volunteering with the Catholic Worker will note that the sacrifice lies mostly for him in the loss of privacy and quiet).

b. Other aspects of this difficulty involve making the sacrifice many resist the most: the sacrifice of time.  This is a gift that many vulnerable people – particularly those experiencing fragmented family environments, or physical disabilities, or chronic unemployment – need in large quantities.

c. There is also the sacrifice of position or status when we declare ourselves radically equal fellow pilgrims and sinners, as raised above.

4.    A fourth difficulty might be this: The state, leading interest groups, and privileged cultural institutions are preoccupied with sexual expression, divorced from children.  They claim that virtually unlimited sexual expression, divorced from children, is not only a leading marker of modernity, but also a necessary condition for health, happiness and constitutionally significant freedom, equality, and nondiscrimination.  In this environment, we are rightly concerned that our efforts to integrate charity and the new evangelization could be interpreted narrowly, and opposed loudly, primarily on the basis of the anthropological components of our faith, whether in the context of employment regulations, government funding, or even licensing.

Turning to my final observation now: the above are not small obstacles. But neither are the advantages of marrying charity and the new evangelization in the service of the poor.
 
1.    Let me begin by responding to the last obstacle cited. The current fixation on sexual expression divorced from children provides us the opportunity (and the imperative) to dig deeper, to be brilliant and creative -- in order to answer a situation near the heart of each type of poverty -- material, moral and spiritual:  the loss of the understanding of the natural resource that is the relationship between the man and the woman. The obscuring of the meaning and the goods provided by this relationship provokes an opportunity to articulate winsomely our beautiful and pivotal -- but also complex and underestimated -- teachings about how the male-female pair images God, models Christ’s relationship with the Church, and founds the school of love … the same love that informs, that impels the creation and operation of our charitable works.  But we are told our teaching is anachronistic, disqualifying in the rational arena, or even crafted with a “bare desire to harm”.
That the world’s “wisdom” on the imperative of sexual expression is on a collision course with Pope Francis’ wisdom on the necessity and the content of our charity, provides us, however, the opportunity to transcend, to punch through, the ignoring or misunderstanding of our teaching, and to get to the other side. Perhaps this is another aspect of the providence of Pope Francis’ taking up the family as a premier subject of his papacy.  

I should add that in this work, we are urged on by the needs and aspirations of young people, of children, and especially of the materially poor who long for the gifts of love and stability family can provide, and have thinner margins when these go missing.  We can be further motivated by the real needs of women, who are immiserated in the current sexual marketplace, and in need of solidarity to find their way out.  My experience taking this line with a group I have formed called Women Speak for Themselves (now 42,000 women strong in membership) in opposition to the HHS Mandate -- has convinced me that women in particular are longing for bold words and solidarity in this matter.

2. Obviously, when we open ourselves up to make more room for God to speak  - we have reason to hope that we are facilitating unleashing the most powerful force possible for effective solidarity. As Francis says in Evangelium Gaudii  11: Jesus can break through our own “dull categories” with “divine creativity,”  “different forms of expression,” and “more eloquent  signs and words.”   He calls God’s word “unpredictable in its power” and possessing “unruly freedom.” The images, the metaphors, the offers of love made by our God are path breaking:  the prodigal son, the Samaritan woman, the mustard seed, the crucifixion and the resurrection, the Real Presence. They are completely innovative, while also calibrated to the human soul.    
    
I can relate to you from my own work, that our Catholic insights and language about human beings as beautiful gifts for giving and receiving and forming dependable bonds, and for conceiving life – have the power to cut through the modern alienation of people from their bodies, and from the true meaning of intimacy in marital and family relations. They can, in Francis’ language “warm hearts.”  Catholics and non-Catholics  alike -- sometimes gratefully, sometimes grudgingly – have acknowledged this power.

3. Closely related to inviting the power and creativity of Christ, is the potential for changing, for newly converting and enlightening, those who perform Christian service.   If we really believe that we cannot understand the identity or mission of the human person fully, without understanding the person of Christ, then we should acknowledge the risks of trying deliver “human services” without significant, prior and explicit reliance upon the Author of life.  And we have tremendous hope that a newly robust turn toward Him will illuminate our path in ways we cannot even fully anticipate, especially in the context of answering the deep and complex well of needs of those who found special favor with our Lord: the poor.  

4.    Fourth and finally, there is the hope, the possibility, that when it becomes more apparent to lawmakers and the public that our charitable works “manifest Christ, and him crucified, “ … that our works “introduce recipients to the one who loves them,”…  that they are of a piece, as Benedict says, with the Word and the sacraments…  that lawmakers will more readily grasp the integrated religious nature of our work, understand better how we are providing “ministerial” services as the law has come to understand that term, defer appropriately to its mode, and even grow in respect for the unique constellation of goods that distinctly religious outreach provides.
    
In conclusion then, I hope I have “unpacked” this theme for you in ways you can use.  As I said at the outset, there are a lot of moving parts here: language, organizational structure, interface with other private groups and with the state, the response  of the poor, the necessity for our own continual conversion, and of course our understanding of the place in the overall life of the Church occupied by our outreach to poverty.  As with any inflection point in the life of the Church, there are genuine obstacles. There is a learning curve.  It will take time to gain proficiency in the matter of marrying our charity with the new evangelization.  The hopes and concerns I described above are simply logical possibilities, and we can’t be sure of a particular outcome.   Considered in the realm of providence, however:

 --- considering that recent events provoke reflection upon the relationship between the practice of Christian service, and the demands of the state and vocal interest groups,
--considering that every kind of poverty is rampant,
--and considering that God is the original innovator, with his unmerited gifts and his “unruly Word,” answering human needs in ways that “man made” solutions have failed to do…

We might say that the counsel to marry our thinking about poverty and the new evangelization, has arrived in just the nick of time!



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