Terence Patrick Drainey
Bishop of Middlesbrough
First Sunday of Lent 2015
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
“Lord, tell me what you want me to do; show me the way I’m supposed to go; give me a bit of a clue as to the next move.” Surely we have all prayed like this on- some occasions in our Iife? The psalmist in today’s readings obviously, felt a little lost and confused and so made his direct request: “Lord, make me know your ways…” And the answer? “God teaches his ways to the poor.” This theme of God’s closeness to the poor and their preferential place in God’s eyes occurs frequently in the Scriptures. God protects the poor and holds them dear; he listens out for their cry and he will judge others in as much as they have listened and responded or not to the cry of the poor (Dt 24.15; Job 34.28; Proverbs 21.13: Ps 24.6). In OId and New Testament times, poverty was a fact of life. Even Jesus told his disciples that the poor would always be with them (Matth 26.11). The divide between rich and poor was fixed; there was nothing to be done about it except that the rich should look after the poor and defend them. The enemies of the poor were God’s enemies too, the arrogant, the cruel, the self-absorbed, with no respect or concern for anyone but themselves.
From the moment that Pope Francis began his ministry he has never ceased to challenge us. His words demand to be listened to and they can genuinely pierce to the heart. Although he certainly knows how to offer the word of comfort and encouragement, he also knows how to wake us from a sleep of complacency and self-congratulation. Even as he took on this office of being Peter for the Church of today, he began to speak about the poor and their centrality to the mission of the Church. He articulated this most clearly in his Letter to all people of goodwill, The Joy of the Gospel (EG), back in November 2013. He said: “God shows the poor ‘his first mercy’… This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.” (EG #198) Then he went on to expand what this actually means. He said:
- (The Poor”) have much to teach us
- They know the suffering Christ
- We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them
- To put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way
- We are called to find Christ in them
- To lend our voice to their causes
- To be their friends
- To listen to them
- To speak for them
- To embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.
It is in this context that Pope Francis speaks of “the poor” and “poverty”. The true poor have no one else to turn to except God. God is the only one they can confidently look to and know that he will help them in their distress. They know how to share what little they have. All of us have experienced the generosity of others who we know have shared with us from what little they have, like the Widow in the parable of the Widow’s Mite. The poor also know that God is the giver of all good gifts and when they say the “Our Father” they are not praying in metaphors, but they are genuinely asking for everything they need. In this sense they are truly the rich ones whom Mary sings about in her Magnificat, they are the lowly who are raised up and the hungry who are filled with good things by the hands of the Almighty.
I would say that most of us in this country are reasonably good at giving a helping hand to those less well off than ourselves. Whenever there is a collection, we are not slow to put our hands in our pockets. We take great interest in projects sponsored by our parishes, organisations and individuals. We show the greatest respect and generosity when a visiting missionary sister, priest or volunteer worker come along to speak to us and make an appeal. But is that the same as learning from the poor, allowing them to evangelise us, putting them at the centre of our pilgrim way? In doing all these good things are we embracing the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them? These are some of the questions I have been asking myself recently and will continue wrestling with during this coming Lent. I hope you are with me on this? Quoting from the Pope’s Letter again, he says: “In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor….” (EG #191)
And I can ask you this with the absolute support of Pope Francis, for he continues: “No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas … none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice: Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbour, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of poor and of poverty, are required of everyone …. I ask you to seek, as a community, creative ways of accepting this renewed call” (EG #201)
So with the Holy Father I pray that all of us might ponder these challenges and ideals anew during this holy time of Lent. And I ask the intercession of Our Blessed Lady for us all: “Star of the new evangelisation, help us to bear radiant witness to communion, service, ardent and generous faith, justice and love of the poor, that the joy of the Gospel may reach to the ends of the earth, illuminating even the fringes of our world. Amen” (EG #288)
Yours in blessed hope.
+ Terence Patrick
Bishop of Middlesbrough
08.02.2015 – The Feast of St Josephine Bakhita