OPENING ADDRESS BY HIS GRACE, ARCHBISHOP WILLIAM GOH
AT SOCIAL MISSION CONFERENCE, 23 AUGUST 2014
That the Church is for the poor is not new. Pope Benedict in his encyclical “God is love” reiterates that “For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.” (No 25) The Church’s service to the poor is an essential aspect of the proclamation of the Good News. This is precisely because Jesus came for the poor. The gospel is meant for the anwaim, for the poor. Those who are rich and arrogant will not be able to receive the gospel. This is what Mary in the Magnificat says. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. … He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1:46, 51-5)
Who are the poor? We find this answer in Luke 4 at the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4: 18f) The poor therefore refers to those in need, those who are marginalized and those who are oppressed and suffering. It would therefore encompass those who are materially, spiritually, emotionally and affectively poor. Indeed, regardless of whether we are affluent or materially poor, we are all poor in so far as we lack the essential basic needs for human growth and development; the love and compassion of our fellow human beings; the capacity to love and give selflessly and those who are living a life of sin and are away from God.
It is within this context that Pope Francis says, “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.” To desire a church which is poor does not mean that the Church is without financial, moral and spiritual resources to give to others. If we are all poor, then we cannot give anything to the poor. How can we be for the poor if we are poor? This goes against the axiom that we cannot give what we have not got. So what does it mean to desire a Church, which is poor?
It means first and foremost to live a life of simplicity and moderation with respect to material things. But equally important it simply means that we are in touch with ourselves, of the poverty in our hearts and in our lives. This is why Jesus in the gospel right at the very beginning of His ministry in the Sermon on the Mount began by proclaiming the beatitudes, the blueprint for a blessed life, a rich life. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:3-11) In other words, unless we experience our poverty, the sufferings of others and their pains, we will never be able to feel with them and be in solidarity with their struggles.
Passion for the poor presupposes we know and experience directly what it means to be poor. That is why those who are in constant contact with the poor and the sufferings; or have been in those situations become champions of the poor, the sick and the suffering. Without a personal contact with them, those who champion the cause for the poor would remain theoretical in their approach, unchanged in their own personal lives and often just a lip service to care for the poor. Indeed, those who suffer from cancer will help out in the hospice, those who love animals will help the strayed dogs and cats; those who suffer from injustices become advocates for those suffering injustices; those who have mental patients at home will have compassion for those who suffer from depression; and the list goes on.
Conversely, if many people are unmoved and indifferent to the poor, it is either because they have been poor before but cannot accept the fact and goes to a stage of denial; or because they have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth. As a consequence, such people cannot sympathize or empathize with the poor. Fr. Arrupe [Father General of the Jesuits from 1965-1983] wrote, “Look, you can’t speak of poverty without having experience with the poor.” Pope Francis enjoins this truth by saying, “You can’t speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn’t exist. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.” Consequently to be the Church that is poor means that we are conscious of our spiritual, moral and material poverty. It is the poverty of Spirit that is demanded of us primarily.
This is the source of Jesus’ mission as well. God sent His Son into the world because He saw the state of humanity in sin, living in selfishness and division. Poverty in the world is caused by human beings not by God. We have more than sufficient resources in the world today, but unfortunately they are being enjoyed by the few rich and powerful people. However, God in His mercy and compassion draws near to us out of love. He did not reach out to humanity from a distance, from the heavens, dictating His will and commands to humanity. Instead, He chose to be one with us and one for us in assuming our humanity so that He could be totally identified with us in everything but sin. Even though without sin, He also suffers the effects of sins. In fact, St Paul said, he took upon Himself our sins. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) And St Matthew wrote, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Mt 8:17) The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4:15f)
Indeed, when we say that God is love, it is not a sentimental and emotional kind of love. This is what St John intends to say when he wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 Jn 4:7-12) Clearly for St John the phrase “God is love” is not to be interpreted philosophically in an abstract way but concretely first and foremost in the life, passion and death of Christ; and then for us, Christians to express this love of God in us existentially in our lives by living a life of truth and charity.
Christ has taught us how to love and we are now called to walk in His footsteps, to carry the cross and follow Him. He told His disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mk 8:34-37)
Consequently, we must allow ourselves to be exposed to those who are suffering. We must meet Jesus in the flesh like the Samaritan who saw Jesus in the poor and wounded. This is why conferences such as these are necessary to conscientize and make us more aware of the sufferings in our midst. Indeed, in 2008, the theme of that conference was “Social Realities, Catholic Response.” This year the theme “Living out our Social Mission in Singapore” following the awareness campaign on poverty is again another attempt to highlight the awareness of the plight of the poor and what it means to partner the poor.
But it is not enough to attend such conferences alone. This is only a starting point. Otherwise, it will become another theoretical seminar which might enlighten your minds but will not move your hearts! As Pope Francis says we need to go out and reach out to the poor and live in their midst. He wrote, “The Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, whatever they may be, but she must step out. Jesus tells us: “Go into all the world! Go! Preach! Bear witness to the Gospel!” (cf. Mk 16:15). We need to go to the battlefield to tend the wounds of those who are hurt and injured. We do not wait for them to come. Only by going out to touch them, can we then be moved in compassion for their sufferings. He said, “Poverty that is learned with the humble, the poor, the sick and all those who are on the existential peripheries of life. Theoretical poverty is of no use to us. Poverty is learned by touching the flesh of the poor Christ, in the humble, the poor, the sick, in children.” Seeing is transforming. Unless we see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, touch with our own hands, we will never be moved to help the poor and the marginalized because we are not one with them.
The best way to be energized and cultivate compassion for the poor is to let the poor teach us. They are our best teachers. We must not think that we are giving to them and they are receiving. On the contrary, the poor have much to teach us about love and what it means to be human. They teach us compassion and empathy. In serving them, we learn not to be judgmental. Many of us lack sympathy for the poor because we have never been in that situation. We do not know how they feel and the struggles they go through. But by reaching out to them, we begin to understand their circumstances, their struggles and limitations. We will no longer condemn a prisoner, someone who is in depression or suicidal, a sinner.
Truly, it is my own outreach to those who are poor, wounded, inflicted, sick and those who suffer injustice that I learn as a priest to feel with them. When we understand the causes and consequences of their suffering, we will no longer condemn or judge them. Those who are sinners, those who are victims of injustices, even the oppressors, all of them have their own stories of a broken life, a dysfunctional childhood and a situation where there is no love or understanding. By listening to their stories, I learn to feel with the insecure young people, the abandoned elderly, the emotional hurts of couples, etc. They have taught me about life and love. So by hearing them and helping them, I begin to understand and appreciate my own struggles in life, my own pains and wounds, and most of all the blessings of God for me. Instead of grumbling and bemoaning of what I do not have or lack, I recognize that many others need my love and care as they are deprived of their basic needs, whether material or emotional and spiritual. This is what Pope Francis himself also experienced. He said, “When we are generous in welcoming people and sharing something with them – some food, a place in our homes, our time – not only do we no longer remain poor: we are enriched.” Indeed, the poor have much to teach us.
They teach us how to be poor and not be sucked into consumerism, of profits and money, which Pope Francis terms it as a culture of waste and a throwaway culture. “We have begun a throw away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling.” He also said, “men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste.’ If you break a computer it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs, the dramas of so many people end up becoming the norm.” Indeed, the sad truth as Pope Francis says is that “Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules. God our Father did not give the task of caring for the earth to money, but to us, to men and women: we have this task! Instead, men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste.’”
Accordingly, we need to help the poor not just by dishing out to them aids. Rather, as the theme in 2012, ‘Partnering the Poor, Living our Faith’ insists, we must give them their dignity by helping them to become more independent. We must help them to help themselves. The failure to do so would be to perpetuate their poverty and make them prisoners of this vicious cycle. If we just keep on giving them, they will come again and again. As it is said, “it is better to teach a person how to fish than to provide him the fish.” Give them a sense of pride by giving them work to do. We need to be more creative in our approach to helping them to gain their freedom and independence. Our services of charity must not cripple them.
We need to go to the roots of their poverty and pain; to heal and tackle these issues at the very roots. What is needed is education, a change of mindset, transformation, empowerment and creating opportunities for partnership as in the case of the café Crossing. We must work with them not for them just as parents should never do the homework for their children but with them. Otherwise, they will never learn. This will take time, patience, perseverance and most of all love and compassion.Through constant motivation, empowerment, affirmation and encouragement, they will eventually be able to overcome their limitations, constraints and lack of self-confidence. Of course, we must also keep an eye on their immediate needs whilst looking at the deeper issues that cause them to be poor.
But we cannot do all these without spiritual formation since love comes from God. Without a deep spiritual life, our works of charity will be based on humanism. Such works can even destroy ourselves when we are confronted with the depth and enormity of human sufferings, atrocities and injustices we see each day. Instead of being compassionate and loving, we become revengeful and angry with God and with the rest of the world. We become judgmental and self-righteous towards those who oppose us or indifferent to our cause. We think that we are better than others and despise those who have not yet been able to arrive at a greater generosity. Who are we to make ourselves a norm for measuring Christian charity when we lack charity in judgment of others and patience in dealing with them? Only Christ can judge us and He is the only norm of charity and compassion. Hence, Christian charity must extend to all poor, even those who are the oppressors and guilty of injustices and selfishness. To love the poor means to see in every person, the victims and the oppressors, the face of our Lord crying out to us for love and healing.
Where do we find hope and strength to serve Christ in the poor if not in Christ Himself? Thus, it is not enough to offer material and affective support. We need to pray and offer spiritual help as well. Only God can heal our hearts and deepest wounds. Only the Holy Spirit can change our harden hearts and enlighten us in the truth, convict us of our sins. Partnering the poor requires formation not just human formation or skills formation but spiritual formation in the faith. We cannot change lives until we are transformed in the Lord, in our minds by the gospel, in our hearts by His love for us. Only in prayer and contemplation, can we find strength, inspiration and encouragement to continue to give until we empty ourselves completely with Him. Indeed, Pope Francis urges us, “Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!”
Finally, we cannot do all this alone. Pope Paul VI reminds us that the proclamation of the gospel is never done alone, “on the strength of a personal inspiration, but in union with the mission of the Church and in her name” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 80). Similarly, Pope John Paul II repeated many times that the mission of the Church is communion and therefore it follows that this mission must be accomplished also in communion. So we must not try to do it alone. That is why we have organizations to support this work e.g. Caritas, Charis and the other organizations in our archdiocese. Join them and not wallow in your self-pity. Encourage each other in this work so that you never lose hope when service to the poor becomes challenging and trying. Pope Francis warns us, “At this time of crisis we cannot be concerned solely with ourselves, withdrawing into loneliness, discouragement and a sense of powerlessness in the face of problems. Please do not withdraw into yourselves! This is a danger: we shut ourselves up in the parish, with our friends, within the movement, with the like-minded… but do you know what happens? When the Church becomes closed, she becomes an ailing Church, she falls ill! That is a danger. … A Church closed in on herself is the same, a sick Church.”
So with Pope Francis, I conclude with his words of encouragement. “Go forward, look there upon the flesh of Jesus. But don’t let well-being rob you of hope, that spirit of well-being that, in the end, leads you to becoming a nothing in life. Young persons should bet on their high ideals, that’s my advice.” Let us all be involved in the social mission of the Church. Let us share the joy of loving and giving. Let us give hope to humanity and the world. We are all poor so let the poor teach us to be rich.
Those who are in business or in position of power and influence must thank God for their blessings by using their resources to help the poor. Power is given for us to serve. Authentic power is also expressed in humble service to others especially the weak. Power is not for the service of self. This would be an abuse of power given to us by God. Authority in the world is associated with control, possession, and dominion. But Christian authority is solely for humble service of the common good of humanity. As witnesses of Christ, we must give voice to the cry of the poor. Those who have finance and power must use them to transform the economic and political apathy to the poor. Those who hold positions of authority must be just and fair towards their workers and subordinates in every way. We must remember the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.”
Those of you who are not rich in resources are not exempted. We must give our time and talents to reach out to the poorest and neediest, in schools, at work, in our community and neighbourhood. We must use all our resources to make this world a better place to live in, and bring greater love, peace and unity to humanity. We are called to be those who serve and love and be real leaders in humble service to others.
Let me now conclude this opening address with the story of the blind and the lame.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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