Pope urges the poor be restored their voice and dignity
By Robin Gomes
“May this meeting open all of our hearts to put ourselves at each other’s disposal, so make our weakness a strength to help continue on the journey of life, to transform our poverty into wealth to be shared, and thus to make the world better.”
Pope Francis made the call Friday morning at a meeting with some 500 poor people from around Europe in Assisi, the home town of St. Francis in central Italy. It was a private visit of listening and prayer in view of Sunday’s World Day of the Poor.
On his arrival, he was given a cloak and a staff, symbols of a pilgrim to the places of St Francis, to listen to his word. Inside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Holy Mary of the Angels), where St. Francis understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor, Pope Francis listened to the testimony of 6 poor people from Italy, France, Poland and Spain.
Need for one another
Addressing them, Pope Francis said, “Every one of us needs the other, and that even weakness, if experienced together, can become a strength that will make the world better.”
He expressed pain that the presence of the poor is often seen as an annoyance and sometimes are blamed for poverty in the world, which is an insult. Instead, we should make a serious examination of conscience on our actions, on the injustice of certain laws and economic measures, on the hypocrisy of those who want to enrich themselves excessively.
Restoring the rights of the poor
The Holy Father said it is time that the poor are given back their voice, that eyes be opened to see the state of inequality in which many families live, that sleeves to be rolled up so dignity can be restored by creating jobs.
"It is time to be scandalized once again before the reality of children who are starving, reduced to slavery, tossed about in the water in the aftermath of a shipwreck, innocent victims of every sort of violence. It is time that violence against women ends, that they be respected and not treated like bargaining chips. It is time that the circle of indifference be broken so as to discover once again the beauty of encounter and dialogue." Unless we men and women learn to meet each other, he warned, humanity will head for a very sad end.
The hope and perseverance of the poor
Pope Francis said he was impressed by the tremendous sense of hope of the poor which gives way to holding out against every odd. “Marginalization, suffering sickness and loneliness, the lack of so many necessary means,” he said, “has not stopped you from seeing with eyes filled with gratitude the little things that have enabled you to hold out."
The strength to keep going against the current despite every odd, he said, requires the courage to take a new path, knowing it will bear fruit. We do not face difficulties alone but together, and only together can we overcome them, without giving in to the temptation to give up and fall into loneliness or sadness.
Pope Francis drew attention to the simplicity of heart and life of St. Francis, which, he said, is more powerful than preaching.
He recalled an episode where St. Francis and Brother Masseo on a journey to go to France had to beg for food. Despite the poverty and lack of necessity all around, St. Francis considered the pieces of stale, hard bread they collected a great treasure, saying it was a gift of Providence. “Knowing how to be content with the little we have and to share it with others,” the Pope said, is the lesson St. Francis teaches us.
Repairing the Lord’s house
Drawing attention to the Portiuncula, the tiny chapel inside the basilica that St. Francis restored after Jesus had asked him to “repair his house”, the Pope said, “the Lord was asking him to give his life to renew not the church made of stone, but the one made of persons, of men and women who are the living stones of the Church”.
The Pope said the poor were gathered in the church to ask the Lord to hear their cry of help.
The first marginalization they suffer from is a spiritual one. Many people find time to help the poor and bring them food and hot beverages, but what brings more joy, he said, is that these volunteers stop a bit and speak with the people, and sometimes pray with them.
“The Portiuncula reminds us of the Lord’s company, that He never leaves us alone, he always accompanies us in every moment of our lives.”
Hospitality and fraternity
Another lesson of the Portiuncula is that it was where St. Francis welcomed Saint Clare, the first brothers, and many poor people as brothers and sisters, sharing everything with them.
Hospitality, the Pope said is the most evangelical expression we are called to make our own. It means opening the door of our house and heart to allow the person who knocks to come in, that he or she might feel welcome and not ashamed.
A true sense of fraternity leads to a sincere experience of hospitality and community, the Pope said, adding its absence leads to egoism and breeds fear, contempt and rejection of the other, or worse still indifference, which looks the other way.
In this regard, he recalled a saying of Mother Teresa: “what is the best welcome? A smile”.
“A smile as an expression of sympathy and tenderness,” the Pope said, "does me and the other person good." Later, he pointed out, the smile involves you because you cannot distance yourself from the one you smiled at.
Inspiration of the poor
While thanking everyone for the occasion, Pope Francis thanked God for the World Day of the Poor, whose idea, he said, came from a boy called Etienne in a sacristy and which he took as an inspiration from the Holy Spirit and instituted the annual observance.
Among those present was also French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who accompanied the poor from France. He stepped down as Archbishop of Lyon stepped down after a court in 2019 convicted him for covering up a priest’s child sex abuse in his diocese. He was later acquitted on appeal. The Pope thanked Cardinal Barbarin his witness. “He is among the poor. He too endured poverty, abandonment and mistrust with dignity, and he defended himself with silence and prayer,” the Pope said.