The family as witness of the saving power of poverty

Aggiornato il: 15 nov 2019

To proclaim that «The hope of the poor shall not perish for ever» (Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Third World Day of the Poor - 17 November 2019), today, is a singularly prophetic gesture if we keep into account that the evangelical beatitude of the poor - as Francis observes - «appears even more paradoxical: the poor are always poorer, and today they are poorer than ever».

A prophetic gesture, therefore, that is completely nourished by the gaze of faith that looks at the dramatic circumstances of our present, placing them in front of God's judgement.

The various paths with which the painful experience of poverty seems to become the protagonist in our societies intertwine, without escape, with the life of families.

Many, too many families flavour its bitter taste in various moments of their existence: lack of adequate means of subsistence, fragility of relations, children separated from their parents, fear of the future and many more.

The increase of “poor” families, in which we impotently witness an invincible aggression to their lives, is right in front of us: many of them dissolve, and to many brothers of ours live “without family”.

As the Message says: « Daily we encounter families forced to leave their homeland to seek a living elsewhere; orphans who have lost their parents or were violently torn from them by brutal means of exploitation; young people seeking professional fulfilment but prevented from employment by shortsighted economic policies; victims of different kinds of violence, ranging from prostitution to the narcotics trade, and profoundly demeaned. How can we overlook, too, the millions of immigrants who fall victim to any number of concealed interests, often exploited for political advantage, and are refused solidarity and equality? And all the homeless and ostracized persons who roam the streets of our cities? » (n° 2).

This sad scenario of our time recalls the words of Zarephath of Sidon’s widow to the prophet Elijah: «I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die» (1 Kings, 17, 12). How realistic it is for many, too many families, to look with despair at the future!

For these reasons, the annual date of the Day of the Poor cannot avoid having family as primary interlocutor: families need to be accompanied to preserve in themselves the hope that shall not perish: they are incited, as well, to be surprised by the good action of God, who « “hears” their cry and “comes to their aid”; he “protects” and “defends” them; he “rescues” and “saves” them» (Message, 4).

Regarding this, we should not forget that the care of family represents one of the most important areas of interest of ecclesial action: marriage and family were identified by the Second Vatican Council as the first of the «problems of special urgency» we must deal with in the modern era (Gaudium et spes 46-52).

Nowadays, we must acknowledge the fertility of that conciliar indication that has nourished the entire pontificate of John Paul II (the pope of family) and has been vigorously revived by the synodal season on family (2013-2015) which culminated with Pope Francis Amoris laetitia.

The concern to discern the more adequate ways for this decisive ecclesial commitment has progressively led to ensure that the pastoral action for family is oriented to allow itself to be influenced by its concrete experience, correcting some excessive emphasis on the proposal of a model of ideal family, protected by a structured doctrinal and ethical system: «We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden» (Amoris laetitia 37).

In the light of these worries it can the understood the importance of a serious warning for the families that are closed again in their own comfort and isolate themselves, but more specifically for families who remain indifferent to the suffering of poor families most in need. The extent to which this warning is decisive is shown by its position within an observation of the participation in the Eucharist: «The celebration of the Eucharist thus becomes a constant summons for everyone “to examine himself or herself”, to open the doors of the family to greater fellowship with the underprivileged, and in this way to receive the sacrament of that Eucharistic love which makes us one body. We must not forget that “the ‘mysticism’ of the sacrament has a social character”. When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily On the other hand, families who are properly disposed and receive the

Eucharist regularly, reinforce their desire for fraternity, their social consciousness and their commitment to those in need» (Amoris laetitia 186).

These words open the way to a stimulating interpretation of the interweaving between family and poverty: the fact of taking care of the poor and suffering becomes a moment for verifying the ecclesial belonging of the families themselves.

For these reasons, it is short-sighted to interpret the singular insistence of the pope on these topics by placing it in a merely sociological horizon. If there is an intrinsic relation between the participation in the Eucharist and the fact of taking care of the poor, the truth itself of the Christian experience and of its constitutive missionary dimension is at stake.

When a family goes towards this direction, it is helped to never reduce the consistency and newness of love, as it can be experienced in the special relations between man and woman and between parents and children: «A married couple who experience the power of love know that this love is called to bind the wounds of the outcast, to foster a culture of encounter and to fight for justice. God has given the family the job of “domesticating” the world and helping each person to see fellow human beings as brothers [...] For their part, open and caring families find a place for the poor and build friendships with those less fortunate than themselves. In their efforts to live according to the Gospel, they are mindful of Jesus’ words: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). In a very real way, their lives express what is asked of us all: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Lk 14:12-14). You will be blessed! Here is the secret to a happy family» (AL 183).

In this perspective, any misleading separation between the internal dynamics of life of the families and everything that can only be abstractly considered “outside” from it are overcome. If Christ's love is not a soap opera (Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, 31 October 2019), the provocation that the families receive from the World Day of the Poor is an excellent occasion to invest in pathways that -uninterruptedly - enhance the social leading role and the peculiar features of one’s own identity: «By their witness as well as their words, families speak to others of Jesus. They pass on the faith, they arouse a desire for God and they reflect the beauty of the Gospel and its way of life. Christian marriages thus enliven society by their witness of fraternity, their social concern, their outspokenness on behalf of the underprivileged, their luminous faith and their active hope. Their fruitfulness expands and in countless ways makes God’s love present in society» (Amoris laetitia 184).

In this way, the witness of families becomes a valuable contribution to explain what seems unreasonable in the eyes of the world: poverty and destitution can have a saving power. Facing them offers to everyone a main path to experience at first hand the active presence of the Saviour of the world in the existence of each man and woman.

The prophetic gaze of who states that «The hope of the poor shall not perish for ever» invokes and raises everyone’s hard work: its prophetic feature does not orient towards imagining a utopian future where every contradiction disappears, but it can become the principle that generates a good action in which many people “without family” can find again a hospitable home and families can enjoy the beauty of giving without a cost what they received without a cost (cfr. Mt 10, 8).

Gilfredo Marengo

Pontificio Istituto Teologico Giovanni Paolo II - Roma ITALIAN | SPANISH