Earlier this year, Pope Francis announced that Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, would be the First World Day of the Poor. In his announcement, Pope Francis challenges us to serve people in need with a spirit of true encounter. Today, I want to reflect on his challenge and how we might respond.
According to the most recent data from povertyusa.org, 13.5 percent of people in the United States live in poverty. In Wisconsin, the poverty rate is 11.8 percent, while in our diocese, most of the 16 counties are slightly more or less than the state rate. One exception, however, is Menominee County, where the poverty rate is over 35 percent, higher than any county in the state. These statistics illustrate that poverty is not something that just affects people in distant communities, but also people right here in our own diocese.
I am grateful for the many organizations and people willing to assist those in poverty in the diocese. We are blessed with the good work of Catholic Charities and the United Way, Leaven, Paul’s Pantry and St. Vincent de Paul Societies, along with the many homeless shelters and food pantries. People in the Diocese of Green Bay maintain a strong tradition of outreach to help their neighbors in need.
Yet, when I talk with leaders of these wonderful initiatives, they all share an ongoing demand to serve more people with limited resources. So, knowing there is more to be done, I ask all of us to consider how we can contribute.
We must start by examining our own lives and asking, “What am I doing to serve the poor?” As my brother bishop, Bishop Robert Morneau, likes to remind us, “We can evaluate our priorities by looking at our checkbooks and our calendars.”
Would our commitment of money and time show that serving the poor is a priority? If not, how might we make serving the poor a greater focus in our lives?
Pope Francis also challenges us to adjust our attitudes towards the poor. Too often, he says, we view the poor as the recipients of our “acts of generosity.” While these good deeds “appease our conscience, they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor.” So it is important to reflect on how we approach serving the poor. Is our service just another task to check off the list, or do we engage with our brothers and sisters in poverty with a true spirit of encounter?
One particular way that Jesus challenges us to encounter those in need is by sharing a meal. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says that when we hold a banquet, we should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” Perhaps, as we enter the holiday season, we might examine our guest list. Is there someone God is calling us to invite who wouldn’t be able to repay our good deed?
I ask all of us to consider our own abundance. While material possessions are not bad in themselves, it is rather, the way they affect us that can become sinful. In particular, we might find that our tendencies to acquire “things” may lead us to neglect other people. Does our abundance make it difficult to recognize the needs of others? Are we willing to sacrifice some of our possessions in order to make room to truly encounter those in need? These are difficult questions for us to consider.
As we look ahead to this Sunday and throughout the approaching Advent Season, I’d like to invite all of us to take time to reflect deeply on our own choices and consider where God might be calling us to make changes. May this first World Day of the Poor be an opportunity to begin a lifelong commitment of serving those in need! May God bless you and inspire you!
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.