Earlier today, Pope Francis released a message for the Church in preparation for the First World Day of the Poor, to be celebrated on November 19th. This particular Sunday—two weeks before the beginning of Advent and the Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King, which concludes the liturgical year—is given focus by the gospel reading for the day. The passage, Matthew 25:14-30, is called the “parable of the talents.” It is a sobering reminder that much is expected from those to whom much is given (to paraphrase Luke 12:48), and sets the stage for the following passage (Matthew 25:31-46, the gospel for the Feast of Christ the King), when Jesus surprises his disciples by saying that final judgment is not a matter of belief or belonging, but results from how a person uses his or her freedom. Specifically, Jesus identifies himself with the least, the last, and the lowly, telling his followers: “what you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40).
These passages are part of the biblical foundation for the preferential option for the poor in Catholic social teaching. This teaching calls Christians to love God by loving their neighbor, giving special priority to the neighbor in greatest need. It is crucial to remember that when we use the word “poor,” we’re not just talking about scores of people barely making ends meet. Poor and low-income people make up 71% of the global population.
In Hebrew, the word for “poor” is anawim, although the word conveys much more than material deprivation. Anawim is just as much about being vulnerable and marginalized, a social outcast, cloaked in shame. When we talk about “the poor,” we should remember we are talking about people: children, married couples and single adults, the elderly, folks who experience mental or physical illness or injury—people who are socially excluded or isolated. In Scripture, to be poor is to be denied dignity, rights, freedom, opportunities, and access. Similarly, in the world today, to be poor is to have little or no power. As Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez has claimed, to be poor is to be rendered socially insignificant, a nonperson, someone fated to premature death.
A significant part of Pope Francis’ Message for the First World Day of the Poor involves going beyond exhorting Christians to show special care, concern, and steadfast commitment to those in greatest need. “Love has no alibi,” Pope Francis asserts, and it ought to lead to a “true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life.” Here Francis connects this inaugural “World Day of the Poor” to one of the central themes of his papacy, the need to build a “culture of encounter,” to bring people together across differences with tenderness and solidarity.
Moreover, Pope Francis uses this message to remind Christians that we all experience poverty of some kind; we are all deprived in one way or another. This is not a call to self-pity, but humility. Aquinas defines humility as the truth: the ability to recognize our goodness as well as our finitude and moral failure. Our poverty—material, spiritual, and marked by other social and political conditions—can be a starting point, rooted in humility to connect with others in vulnerability and openness. As Brené Brown has highlighted, there is great power in vulnerability, a power that can bring about a change in the way we relate to ourselves and one another.
Instead of focusing on what we can give to others (especially in a spirit of pity or unilateral charity that can sometimes do more harm than good), this is a call to friendship, to right-relationship with God and all creation. It is a call to be who God is in the world: a communion of love.
When we embrace our own poverty and refuse to ignore the poverty of others, we can make ourselves more available to the presence and power of God in our midst, who, as Jesus proclaimed, desires that we share life in abundance (John 10:10). This First World Day of the Poor is a day to commit ourselves to be artisans of peace and builders of a “culture of life.”
You can read Pope Francis’ full Message for the First World Day of the Poor here.