What a powerful week to be Catholic.
On Monday, Pope Francis wrapped up his apostolic visit to the Philippines. We participated in the nation’s remembrance of the powerful preacher and civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We also marched for life, and prayed for that day when the rejection of innocent life will be no more.
If there is a thread uniting this week’s powerful events, no doubt it can only be the power of people to rise from poverty.
Pope Francis in the Philippines. A pastor by nature, Francis goes out of his way to be close with people, caressing them, touching them, and speaking plainly with them. His visit to the Philippines was no different.
But what was different on this trip was the transparent impact the people of the Philippines had on Pope Francis. The awesomeness of a vibrant, young and engaged church risen up from the pain of poverty and disaster visibly moved Francis. On multiple occasions he simply set aside his prepared text, overwhelmed by the sturdy faith and perseverance of a people knocked down by colonization, poverty, typhoons and hurricanes. Celebrating Mass with the people of Tacloban, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, he asked forgiveness for having nothing to say in the midst of their pain: “I can only be silent; I accompany you silently, with my heart…”
For Pope Francis, poverty is where faith is tried and refreshed by the Cross. The poverty of words in the face of death and disaster, the poverty of a people beset with tragedy, are not without meaning. As the pope told young people before his last Mass in Manila, “Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears.” Indeed, faith in Jesus Christ completely transforms these experiences. As Francis said, “Jesus goes before us always; when we experience any kind of cross, he was already there before us.”
Poverty is also the key to evangelization. Speaking to the Filipino clergy, the pope said: “Only by becoming poor ourselves, by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters. We will see things in a new light and thus respond with honesty and integrity to the challenge of proclaiming the radicalism of the Gospel in a society which has grown comfortable with social exclusion, polarization and scandalous inequality.”
Finally, poverty is the key to our own evangelization. Rounding out his speech young people in Manila, he asked a challenging question: “Do you let yourself be evangelized by the poor?”
#ReclaimMLK. Many remember, and rightly so, Dr. King for his activism in the struggle for civil rights for the descendants of that archetypical American tragedy, slavery. Often forgotten today is the challenging trajectory of Dr. King’s activism towards the end of his life and his preaching against systemic injustice and poverty.
You may not have seen it on the news, but on Monday, community organizations across the country, including many groups supported by CCHD, took to the streets to reclaim Dr. King’s prophetic legacy. In the twilight of his life, with the US Government losing its stomach for the War on Poverty, King saw the horrors of Vietnam and racism as inextricably bound up with the plague of poverty. Though marginalized even by many in the movement for civil rights for taking his Christian convictions of peace and non-violence to their conclusions by opposing structures that perpetuate poverty, Dr. King dedicated the last months before his assassination to developing a Poor People’s Campaign.
That often forgotten legacy is the one CCHD groups marched on Monday to reclaim. We should all pray for their success.
March for Life. Finally, on Wednesday Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley gave a powerful homily during the Vigil for Life. Recalling Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he related the struggle for rights then to the struggle for the rights for the unborn and the struggle against poverty today. Connecting abortion to what Pope Francis has called a “throw away culture”, Cardinal O’Malley said “today we also have to say ‘thou shall not kill’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have a throw away culture that is now spreading.”
The antidote to the individualism and alienation that lead to abortion, he emphasized, will be solidarity and community.
Ralph McCloud is the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the official anti-poverty program of the USCCB.