In Pope Francis’ Lenten message, he offered a rich reflection on 2 Corinthians 8:9: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Francis asked, “What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today? What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean to us today?”
Francis went on to offer a number of answers to this question, but true to form he did not mince words when reflecting on the material poverty that persists in our world and its ramifications for people of faith: “We Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.” This statement echoed his powerful words in Evangelii Gaudium that “Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others,” that we must avoid the ever-present modern temptation “to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length.”
I’ve been fighting that temptation for almost five years. Until I started college, I thought I had this “being a good Catholic” thing all figured out. I worked hard in school, volunteered, went to Mass, tried to be a nice person – yet I was deeply sheltered “from the maelstrom of human misfortune,” as Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium. It wasn’t until I took a course called Common Human Diseases and learned about a group of diseases afflicting over a billion people in poverty that I began to fully comprehend the scope and depth of poverty in the world. These diseases – neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) – can be treated and prevented for a full year for just 50 cents per person. Yet hundreds of millions of people are still blinded, disfigured, and disabled by NTDs, trapped in poverty by their exclusion from the benefits of modern science. I was truly shocked to learn about the reality of NTDs my freshman year at Notre Dame. It shook me out of my affected ignorance about extreme poverty and forced me to examine my place in a world where some have so much and others so little.
I spent the rest of college fundraising for NTD treatment programs and advocating for the global elimination of these poverty-promoting diseases. Today, I coordinate grassroots outreach for the END7 campaign at the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, working to inspire people of all backgrounds to contribute what they can to this movement to end 7 NTDs by 2020. It’s tempting to think that in my day-to-day work I’m doing enough to live out my call to “a life of evangelical poverty,” but Francis doesn’t let us off that easily: “Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
This Lent, I’m going to try to remind myself daily that a life of “evangelical poverty” requires sacrifice, and even discomfort. Donating $5 to a worthy cause is a start, but giving has more meaning if it hurts a bit. “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial,” Francis reminded us in his recent message. “We would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.”
Perhaps you will consider joining me this Lent in giving up something you like – something that makes you comfortable, something that you would have a hard time going without – to join in solidarity with our brothers and sisters whose daily reality is struggle, discomfort, and scarcity. Perhaps you will consider contributing the cost of whatever it is that you go without to an organization providing essential goods and services to those in need. If you are interested in supporting the END7 campaign in its mission to see the end of NTDs, you can contribute to a special Lenten donation page just for Millennial readers. 100% of END7 donations go straight to NTD treatment and prevention programs, and with the cost of a year of treatment just $0.50 per person, it’s easy to calculate the impact of your gift. I myself am a diet soda addict and have calculated how much I will contribute based on the (embarrassing) cost of 40 days of my soda habit. That’s a tiny sacrifice, but every time I forgo pop for water this Lent, I hope it will remind me of the more serious needs borne daily by families around the world.
Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe (God gives, but does not share) is not a Francis quote, but this Haitian proverb certainly sounds Francis-esque if you stop to consider its meaning. We have been given all of the necessary resources to bring about a world free from unnecessary suffering, but we must share these gifts from God – modern medicine, the technology to purify water, shoes to protect children from preventable diseases – with one another. As people of faith, we believe that we have a crucial role to play in the realization of God’s promise of a better world. A better world won’t be given to us – but it can be achieved and shared by and among us. Let’s start this Lent.
Emily Conron is the outreach coordinator for END7, a campaign of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Sabin Vaccine Institute. For more information about END7 and how people of faith can be involved in the effort to end NTDs, please contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.