Church of the Poor

By Edgardo C. de Vera

Two decades ago, the bishops of the Philippines convened the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCPII) to assess the Philippine Church and thereto craft her mission and vision for the future. It came to light in the plenary sessions that despite a high percentage of the country’s population being predominantly Catholic [84%] a measly fifteen percent of this block comprised what could be considered regular church goers. The rest remained basically “un-churched”, which is to say, their church attendance being rare and far between, or if at all occasional – showing up only during special occasions like baptisms and weddings.

A glaring fact too was that the majority of Filipino Catholics are “sacramentalized but not evangelized”, ignorant of what they profess; the sacramental reception is deemed as merely ritualistic rather than a source of grace and an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Despite the Eucharist and other sacraments, the lack of spiritual growth is apparent in lifestyles that never change, the Gospel is dichotomized from daily occupation and the practice of faith is just an exercise in mere religiosity. So instead of being a monstrance for Christ the average Filipino Catholic is modeled more on a hedonistic world.

The sad fact is this largely Christian nation in Asia is scandalously rift with division and has paradoxically not lived up to its mission to be the salt and light of the earth – to be the springboard for the New Evangelization envisioned by Blessed John Paul the Great. Moreover the nation has degenerated into an antithesis of Gospel values, glaringly evidenced by its divisive and hatred filled politics, ingrained corruption in all sectors of society, uneven social structure, rampant poverty, neglect of the poor, salacious press, down-spiral of morality, and defiant indifference to teachings of Holy Mother Church. To borrow a line from the poem The Despair of Judas: How hell must have laughed.

To arrest the cancer, the synod came up with a vision/mission that is readily classified into a triad: 1) Basic Ecclesial Community; 2) A Renewed Integral Evangelization; 3) Church of the Poor. The remnant faithful that still holds fast with unwavering fidelity will comprise the core, working in respective dioceses for the evangelical thrust of the Philippine Church. For this issue, we shall confine ourselves to the third in the triad – Church of the Poor – which is often badly misunderstood and sourly misconstrued by many due to lack of catechesis or plain disinterest thereto. This is not to pin any blame on the clergy since most parishes are more often than not hampered by the lack of volunteers for the harvest.

What is the Church of the Poor?

Pope John XXIII first used the phrase Church of the Poor in his inaugural address to the assemblage of bishops at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Among his concerns was how the Council might find ways in proclaiming the Gospel to shed light on the social conditions of the times [it was after all the height of the Cold War when the major superpowers, USA and USSR used pawns to advance their agenda at the expense of human rights and impoverishment of peoples]. He stressed… The Council ought to contribute/help in the diffusion of the social and communitarian which is immanent/inherent to authentic Christianity in its entirety: only in the manner can the Church present herself as the poor for all the people (universal) and above all, as the Church of the Poor. – John XXIII

What the beloved John XXIII aired was nothing new but an echo of his predecessors’ encyclicals, Leo XIII and Pius XI in Rerum Novarum and Quadregesimo Anno respectively, not to mention the pronouncements of Pius XII and the Church’s missionary thrust since the earliest days of Christianity. In whatever period of human history, addressing social conditions in Gospel context has always been alongside Apostolic preaching throughout two millennia. Almsgiving, care for widows, orphans, the poor and infirm is keeping in oneness with the marginalized and less privileged with whom the Church identifies with: …the Church is firmly committed to their cause, for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of fidelity to Christ so she can be a Church of the Poor – John Paul II

Jesus Christ began His ministry in the Sermon on the Mount with the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God…” It is the spirit of the anawim, the poor of Yahweh whose life means total dependence on His providence; one who humbly acknowledges his nothingness.

In the Church’s social teaching nobody is rich before God. Man is simply a steward of wealth in this transient world. Any possessions he may have are lent for his temporal sojourn and these must be used for the glory of the Almighty through the service of others. He ought to be warily cognizant of the danger that riches bring, as Christ points out in the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Mat 13:22; Mk 4:19; Lk 8:14).

The Church of the Poor is the community of the anawim (poor). A wealthy person is called to be as much a member of it as the “dirt poor” who places his reliance on God. However, should either one think themselves self sufficient and independent of God – the rich smug in his wealth, the poor desirous of affluence through anti Gospel means – then neither rightfully belongs to the Church of the Poor nor fit for the Kingdom. Both the rich possessed by possessions and the poor obsessed with possessions are not poor in spirit but worldly rich.

For the poor to enter the Kingdom seems easier since divine providence is their sole hope and recourse. The rich meanwhile face the peril of a false self sufficiency and distractions that lure away from the mission for which, all the prosperous of this world have a calling: Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more – Lk 12:48.

Most Church of the Poor Apostolate programs in parishes are often wanting in manpower and resources. These outreach efforts could use more able handed volunteers to help around in their respective communities. Imagine the impact these missions would make and contribute to the nation if only more willing workers lent their time, talent, and resources! In the missionary trust of the Church, all the faithful are called to be a Church of the Poor; to be in service and solidarity with the entire community. We can almost imagine a poster with an image of Christ and the inscription, “The Church of the Poor wants you!”

John Paul II teaches that everyone is a gift to one another: “Our freedom has a relational dimension; we find fulfillment through the gift of self to others”. This is what completes the single, two-fold commandment of love for God and neighbor. The poor will always be with us and we can only be rich by being our brother’s keeper. What richness we reap is a detachment to bondage of wealth, and the joy of childlike trust in God that cannot be purchased. This makes us poor in spirit and in communion with the Church of the Poor.

Adam and Eve had everything they ever needed but both fell to the temptation to be self sufficient apart from God. In our contemporary fast paced world of rapid change, technological advances and razzle-dazzle of events, we can forget whom our entire lives really depend on and fall to the same primeval temptation. Realize then that without God we are nothing. An old Spanish proverb is an apt reminder: El hombre propone y Dios dispone. Man proposes and God disposes.

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