A "Preferential Option for the Poor"

Whether or not one agrees with all the subsidiary (and sometimes off-shoot) slogans that this über-axiom of Catholic social teaching often gives rise to, the fundamental and "preferential option for the poor" is something deeply seated in Catholic Tradition. During his earthly ministry, Christ is depicted in the Gospels as having had myriad encounters with the poor, both spiritually and physically. In fact, his ministry really centered around and specifically targeted the poor as its primary aim. Certainly, there is something to be said of the inherent power of poverty if the Son of God himself chose such people to manifest the glory of the Kingdom of God.

In the end, it is precisely the same Kingdom of God that is at stake for us all. When serving the poor, Christians build up the Kingdom of God in a very real way. If Christ is the archetype of realizing the Kingdom, then love is the fundamental tool used in its construction. This love is not a disconnected reality, but flows from Christ and allows his ministry to be something inseparably connected to him. The ministry of Christ continues in the ministry of his Church; priests and bishops, who are the proper 'minsters' of the sacraments, are ordained to follow the example of the first Apostles. Pope Benedict XVI writes in Deus Caritas Est concerning the promises made by every bishop upon his consecration to the episcopacy: "[The bishop] promises expressly to be, in the Lord's name, welcoming and merciful to the poor and all those in need of consolation and assistance." (32) In this way the priest being consecrated, whose role it is to act in persona Christi in administering sacramental graces and celebrating the Eucharistic sacrifice, pledges specifically to aide the poor as an outward sign and model of his new episcopal office. The entire structure of the Catholic Church is built upon this "preferential option for the poor," and particularly upon the importance of love in carrying it out. In short the Church, by virtue of its divine appointment and mission, is a type of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Faithful Catholics, then, must never tire of being stewards of the Church's resources; the wealth of the Church, as the deacon and martyr, St. Lawrence, is quoted as saying, consists not in the beautiful churches or religious objects we enjoy as Catholics, but rather in the very people of God, particularly the poor. If Catholics are supposed to be stewards of their time and money for the service of the Church, then how much more are they called to serve the living and breathing treasure with which God has blessed us? But, how often as Catholics do we fail to remind ourselves that such treasure has even been given us? How often do we look to the work of great people, like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and say, "That's beautiful...but I couldn't possibly be called to do that"? How much time do we spend in prayer each day asking the Lord to show us his call for us? No doubt, the degree to which we give ourselves to him in prayer is the degree to which we can give ourselves to others in charity and service. If the prayer of the Church ceases, the love of the Church will cease. One is the water that nourishes us and the other the blood that generates life; both flow from the side of Christ.

A final dimension comes to mind when considering the poor and their place in actualizing God's kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." (Mt 5:3) Those who are truly poor are not simply expectant of the Kingdom, but rather are its citizens even in their earthly life. If one looks at the Greek text of Matthew, the verb used is «estin», "it is." There is no waiting for them, but simply a mysterious participation. Anyone who has served the poor would surely agree that there is a level of joy in their hearts inexplicable by human and societal standards; through the most intense suffering and humiliation, they find the simplicity of God's love so much more easily than we ever could. Not only are we called to serve the poor, but they are called to show us the fruits of God's intense and boundless love for the human person and for human life. Going out on a limb to help those in need is undoubtedly a scary thing, but so must have been the terrifying limbs of the Cross, which Christ carried all the way to Calvary only to be nailed to them. If we do not embrace the Cross of poverty, we will never be able to embrace the Cross of Christ. And if we do not embrace the Cross of Christ, we will never experience the joy of the Resurrection in supernal light.