January is Poverty Awareness Month. To help raise awareness among Catholics of poverty and its underlying issues, the US Catholic Bishops have updated its website , and launched a Spanish counterpart. Today’s commentary is from Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa.
Poverty has a face; it is the face of Christ in poor people. As Jesus taught: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for Me.” The Gospel reminds us that the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, and those in prison are Christ.
Christ is present in the hungry child in Malawi, stunted and sickly from a lack of proper nutrition. Christ is in infants on the verge of death from preventable water-borne illnesses due to a lack of clean water supplies in Zambia. Christ is visible in refugees and strangers who flee famine, war or persecution, as in Syria today. We meet Christ in the naked child whose body is racked with toxic poisons from a polluted water source near an unregulated mining operation in Peru. Christ gazes out of the dull eyes of a mother dying of AIDS in South Africa, too sick to care for her children, soon to be orphans. We come upon Christ in a father separated from his children for a non-violent drug offense in a U.S. prison, the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Earlier this year, I saw the face of Christ in an unlikely place of poverty: a sprawling seminary in Nigeria. I was there to preside over the ordination to the priesthood of 10 Nigerian Spiritans and 15 to the transitional diaconate. Spiritan priests from Nigeria have faithfully served the Diocese of Des Moines for many years. The high school seminary has 600 students, approximately 10 percent of whom will likely become priests. The seminary provides a broad and good education, but what struck me was that while the seminary was rich in faith, it was poor in resources. The classrooms were little more than shelters. There were few books and no technology. Living quarters were below standard. For me, this seminary became a symbol of the spiritual richness and physical poverty of the Church in Africa. Although the seminarians were much better off than many poor Nigerians, poverty was still evident.
Of course, recognizing Christ in the poor is not enough. We must then meet Christ’s needs in His people. Our Diocese of Des Moines has begun in a small way to do just that. The schools of our diocese are reaching out to the seminary to provide cash assistance to address the seminary’s urgent need for resources. There is a person-to-person connection and an effort to support and enhance the resources at the seminary’s disposal.
In the same way, the broader Church in our diocese and throughout the United States reaches out to the Church and people of poor countries in the developing world. The Church in Latin America collection and the Church in Africa initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops provide grants for pastoral activities. Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, provides humanitarian and development assistance, often in partnership with the local Church, in about 100 countries. We can do our part by supporting this work.
We can also raise our voices in the public square on behalf of the world’s poor. Motivated by Christ’s identification with poor persons, we can encourage public officials to preserve and strengthen U.S. poverty-focused international assistance. This aid is less than one percent of the federal budget, but literally saves lives and creates livelihoods for the poorest people in the poorest places on earth all of whom are Christ. They are our brothers and sisters in the human family.
More information on poverty can be found at the Catholics Confront Global Poverty website.