“Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.” (Pope Francis, Address to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 6/14/13)
If I may be so bold as to place an addendum on Pope Francis’ words in the above quote from his address to the Archbishop of Canterbury last year, I would add that we must also give voice to the cry of the poor Church.
It is often difficult for us to imagine exactly what Pope Francis is referencing when he speaks with such passionate conviction about the needs of the poor. What may be even more difficult for us to imagine is that in the places where the poor live, the Church herself is more often than not poor.
In so many places the faithful, many of them new converts brought in to the Church through the missionary zeal of the young shepherds who serve them, worship in school class rooms, mud and stick lean-tos, and buildings that are unsafe from age, natural disaster or the inability to maintain them. There are no catechism books, let alone buildings. A plastic rosary is a gift to be treasured, a simple holy card with an image of Christ or the Blessed Mother a work of art to take pride of place in a home.
Priests struggle to meet the needs of their people and often sacrifice their own needs too, giving up things such as new shoes to keep their vehicle fueled for the month. It is difficult for us to imagine a Church where a choice has to be made between buying proper altar cloths and keeping the church’s electricity on. Where people wait hopefully for twenty-five years for the help to construct a proper chapel for their town and have still collected less than $3000. Where a priest struggles to make a former pig sty covered with a plastic tarp a place of dignity in which he can celebrate Mass for a community of people he is able to visit but once a year.
This, my friends, is the life of the poor church. And Pope Francis is asking us, their brothers and sisters, to care about their needs. To stand in solidarity with them, and perhaps even to sacrifice some of our own comforts to meet those needs.
In less than 48 hours, my husband and I will get on a plane to head to Tanzania, Africa, where we will be assessing the needs of a number of communities and collaborating with their pastors on how we can equip these faithful shepherds to meet the basic needs of their flocks. Those needs include stable chapel structures to replace the mud chapels that “melt” when it rains, rosaries so they can teach the 350 children they recently baptized to pray, and repairs to water wells so their communities can have access to clear, clean water.
We are blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to spend our days hand-in-hand with the poor as parishioners and members of their Churches. And we are even more humbled that we are able to bring their needs to their brothers and sisters in the North American Church as watch as many are called to generosity to meet those needs.
I have seen chapels rise in communities that fought 25 years to build, watched members of a village carry thousands of pounds of concrete materials over a rickety swing bridge on their backs to get them into their chapel’s site which is accessible only by foot over steep and rugged terrain. I have seen whole communities brought to tears over the gift of a new chalice or statue of their patron saint, watched parents handle with such care the gift of a rosary offered to their child. And seen the pastors of these little flocks moved so deeply to finally see the needs of their people met by the Body of Christ.
This is a joy I wish I could share with every Catholic feeling unmotivated, bored, restless or just a little tired in their faith walk. This is the joy of the Gospel Pope Francis wants us all to know. It is the joy he calls to in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. If you have not yet read this gift from Pope Francis to the Church, and want to know more about what it means “to give voice to the cry of the poor”, this is the place to start.
If you feel that God is stirring your heart to become the voice for the poor Church, you can check out how you can adopt a project of St. Bryce Missions and advocate for the needs of a poor community.
Lastly, some time during this Lent consider offering a Holy Hour for the shepherds who care so faithfully for the needs of the poor. Pray that the Lord will continue to meet their physical and spiritual needs so they are able to shepherd their flocks well. Walk with them by joining your prayers to theirs.
Will you be praying with us this Lent for the poor Church? Leave your offerings in the comments as a spiritual bouquet and we will offer them to the priests we’ll be visiting in Tanzania this week.
Copyright 2014, Colleen Mitchell