As mentioned in our last installment of our series on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, or “EG”), the Holy Father believes that the inclusion of the poor in society is an urgent issue for the Church today. He therefore devotes an entire section of this document (EG 186-216) to this most significant topic.
Pope Francis begins by pointing to our faith in Jesus Christ, who was always close to the poor and outcast, as the basis for our concern for the most forgotten members of society (EG 186). He also quotes several Scripture passages that impel the people of God to hear the cry of the poor in our midst (EG 187). He emphasizes that compassion for the poor is not the concern of only a few, but rather flows from the grace working through the entire body of believers, leading us to think in terms of the good of others and the good of the wider community (EG 188).
What the Pope is calling for is an authentic solidarity that is not only open to the renewal of social structures, but even more to the renewal of our convictions and attitudes (EG 189). He speaks with particular force and urgency regarding the cry of entire peoples: “the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity” (EG 190). And the goal is not merely “dignified sustenance” for all, but their welfare and prosperity, which includes education, access to healthcare and, above all, employment (EG 192).
We hear the cry of the poor when we are moved by the suffering of others. This must elicit mercy from us (EG 193). “Blessed are the merciful, because they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). One concrete, biblical expression of mercy toward the poor is almsgiving (cf. Tobit 12:9; Sirach 3:30).
Pope Francis stresses that the Gospel is simple and clear when it comes to our responsibility to be just and merciful to the poor (EG 194). Doctrinal orthodoxy is of no avail if we don’t take to heart this teaching.
For St. Paul, the key criterion of a Christian’s authenticity is whether he remembers the poor (EG 195; cf. Galatians 2:10). The Pope challenges us to “remember” and not allow ourselves to become distracted by the consumerism that surrounds us (EG 196).
God has demonstrated a special love for the poor throughout salvation history, culminating in the coming of the Savior’s embrace of poverty (EG 197). The Church’s tradition bears witness to the fact that the “option for the poor” holds a place of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity. For that reason, the Pope declares “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor” (EG 198). In saying that, the Holy Father is not calling for mere activism, but for loving attentiveness and identification with the poor. When we don’t welcome the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel loses its compelling resonance (EG 199). The Pope also emphasizes that the preferential option for the poor includes spiritual care, which sometimes is lacking (EG 200), and that no one is exempt from the concern for social justice (EG 201).
Pope Francis then discusses the economy and the just distribution of resources. He calls inequality the root of society’s problems. While welfare programs provide temporary solutions, we must address the sources of inequality (EG 202). Clearly economic policies must be based on the dignity of the human person and the pursuit of the common good. We cannot be indifferent toward these concerns, nor can we exploit them through recourse to empty rhetoric (EG 203).
Gone are the days in which we can trust in the “invisible hand of the market” (EG 204). Rather, we must be intentional when it comes to bringing about necessary reform. Therefore, the Pope prays that Lord will grant us politicans who realize that charity is not only inter-personal, but also the principle that must govern our life in society (EG 205). He stresses the value of governments working together, as economic decisions in one part of the world have repercussions elsewhere (EG 206).
Pope Francis here returns to the Church community, and says that the Church has to do its part in reaching out to the poor in action, and not through “unproductive meetings and empty talk” (EG 207). The Holy Father uses strong language through must of the exhortation, which he acknowledges in EG 208, but he affirms his affection for all and his desire for the good of all apart from any personal or political interest.
In the last part of this section, Pope Francis says that since Jesus the Evangelizer identified with the vulnerable, so too must we in our apostolic outreach (EG 209). He then refers to several classes of people who are particularly vulnerable in our present-day circumstance. He mentions the homeless, addicts, refugees, the elderly, and many others. He mentions the particular challenge posed by migrants, noting that he is “the pastor of a Church without frontiers” (EG 210).
The Holy Father expresses particular love and concern for unborn children (EG 211). He says that “it is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life” (EG 212). In a very pastoral manner, he also affirms that the Church must do more to accompany women in difficult situations, such that abortion does not appear to be the best or only solution in those circumstances.
He concludes by affirming our role as stewards over all of creation (EG 215), and in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi calls us to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, as well as its inhabitants (EG 216).