Bernardo M. Villegas
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Loving the Poor This Christmas (Part 1)

          Whether young or old, all of us will remember the year 2020 for the rest of our mortal lives.  Truth to tell, not all of these memories will have to do with the tragic consequences of the pandemic.  There will be pleasant recollections of the many more hours and days we spent in close company with our loved ones, especially parents and children.  There will also be the great saving of time because we did not have to plough through the terrible traffic of the urban centers, enabling us to work at home with greater efficiency.  As we approach Christmas, I hope that the year 2020 will also be remembered by many of us for the greater help that we extended to the poor and the marginalized, especially the economic victims of the pandemic and of the many typhoons and floods that rendered thousands of people homeless and jobless.  Recent local estimates put the additional individuals who have joined the ranks of the poorest of the poor to already exceed 5 million and still counting.  As we approach the Feast of the Nativity celebrating the birth of the Child Jesus, the God-Man who chose to be born poor, let us have concrete plans, both short and long term, to show our preferential love for the poor as true followers of Christ.  As we adore Christ in the manger, let us assure him that we will be doing something tangible for His most beloved creatures, those who are hungry, naked and homeless.

         The “one thing” necessary for a Christian is to center his whole life on Christ.  It is not possible to love Christ with one’s mind, heart, soul and strength without having a preferential love for the poor.  As Pope Francis wrote in the Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,”: “God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that He Himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor.  Salvation came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire.  The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb; he was raised in the home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread.  When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating His words:  ’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’  He assured those burdened by sorrow and  crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart.  ‘Blessed are you who are poor, yours is the kingdom of God’ (Lk 6:20):  he made himself one of them:  “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat’, and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven (Mt 25: 5ff).”

         It must be pointed out, however, that God’s love for human beings is universal.  He wants all souls to be saved.  The preferential option for the poor that is part of the Christian spirit cannot be excluding, that is, it cannot—under the name of Marxist class warfare—lead to a hatred for the rich, for the powerful.   In fact, Christ himself also showed that his preferential option for the poor of his times did not preclude his loving and being close to some persons belonging  to the well-to-do in the Jewish community:  the siblings of Bethany, Lazarus, Mary and Martha for whom Our Lord had a very special affection; Zaccheus, the rich man who invited him to a feast; Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who took him down from the Cross, anointed his body and buried him in a tomb where He lay for three days.  In fact, the true sign of imitating Christ is to do everything possible to convert the rich and powerful  of today so that they can  also exercise a preferential option for the poor by  working for the common good and living according to the social doctrine of the Church about the universal destination of goods and the social function of private property, as Pope Francis has been insistently reminding the faithful  before and during his pontificate. 

         Neither can a truly Christ-centered person be exclusive in his preferential option for the poor.  As we can read in the book Jesus-Centered (Guide to the Happiest Life) by Filipino educator and theologian, Dr. Raul Nidoy, Pope Francis enumerates three types of poverty we are called to alleviate.  There is the material destitution of those who live in  conditions opposed to human dignity.  These lack basic rights and needs, such as food, water, hygiene, work.  Then there are the new forms of poverty:  the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly, migrants; victims of various kinds of human trafficking, women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence; unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.  Secondly, there is the moral destitution of those who become slaves to vice and sin:  alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution, pornography, etc. Finally, there is spiritual destitution.  As Pope Francis said, “There is only one real kind of poverty, not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.”  The popes and St. Teresa of Calcutta had been saying that “the greatest poverty is not to know Christ.”

   It still pains me to remember how a small group of nuns in Manila got infected with the doctrinal error of the wrong kind of Liberation Theology in the early 1970s.  Whereas before they were avid catechists teaching children in the slum areas the doctrine of Christ, they decided upon being convinced by a group of leftists to stop teaching Catechism because “the poor cannot eat doctrine!”  This unfortunate doctrinal aberration is diametrically opposed to what Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel”:”… the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care.  The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith.  Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.”  St. Teresa of Calcutta, who practiced preferential option for the poor to the highest degree, always taught:  “You can’t see Jesus in the poor unless you can see him in the Eucharist.”

         Practicing the works of mercy should be second nature to a Jesus-centered soul.  He gives priority to the spiritual works of mercy:  (1) Counsel the doubtful; (2) Instruct the ignorant; 3) Admonish the sinners; (4) Comfort the afflicted; (5) Forgive offences; (6) Bear wrongs patiently; (7) Pray for the living and the dead.  Then come the corporal works of mercy:  (1) Feed the hungry; (2) Give drink to the thirsty; (3) Clothe the naked; (4) Shelter the homeless; (5) Visit the sick; (6) Visit the imprisoned; (7) Bury the dead.  While practising the works of mercy, we must be careful not to treat the beneficiaries as mere objects of pity, rather than as persons made unto the image of God.  Charitable works must always be accompanied by empathy, that is putting ourselves in the shoes of the needy, listening to them closely, understanding their needs.  As St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, taught, “Charity, more than in giving, consists in understanding.”  In his early years as a priest, St. Josemaria spent countless hours ministering to the needs of the poorest of the poor in the slum areas of Madrid.  He would ask some university students to accompany him and he would encourage them to engage the poor whom they were visiting in lively and friendly conversations, inquiring about their lives and interests, while bringing them some simple material gifts.  This practice has been kept up to this day in student and youth centers under the apostolic direction of Opus Dei in more than 80 countries all over the world.  (To be continued).