December, 2015


The Pope’s Urging

            Pope Francis, both in word and action, has cajoled and challenged all the Faithful to connect with, listen to and care for the poor. Helping the poor can be a daunting and intimidating task. Where to begin? In practical terms, the late Bishop Ken Untener, back in 1991, offered a similar challenge to the Catholics of the Saginaw Diocese in Michigan. He decreed that all meetings held under diocesan auspices, from the beginning of Lent to July 1, should begin with this agenda item: “How shall what we are doing here affect or involve the poor?” He published what he discovered in the August, 1991 issue of Origins, later reprinted in The Practical Prophet (Paulist Press, 2007, pp. 134-141).


It Takes Initiative and Creativity

Bishop Ken began by focusing on the “poor poor.” These people are often right in our midst but are left out, unseen, hidden and rarely, if ever, on anyone’s agenda. No parish bulletin, flyer, pulpit announcement or newsletter will find them. We must look with different eyes to discover their presence because the poor feel we do not want them in our lives. They disguise themselves and absent themselves. To connect with the “poor poor” takes some ingenuity and a willingness to start searching in invisible places.


Tackling Causes

“Food baskets at Thanksgiving, toys at Christmas,” Bishop Ken wrote, “are good as far as they go, but they don’t go very far.” People are very generous on special occasions – clothes, food, money – and this should not be taken lightly, but trying to do something about the poor’s state in life is much harder. Getting at the causes of poverty means providing basic skills to help people manage their lives. making loans available through a credit union, assisting people in signing up for health insurance, offering a parish job market so people can earn a living wage, sponsoring an immigrant family or working with local groups and agencies to put a roof over people’s heads. As Bishop Ken stated, “Direct assistance is good. Tackling the causes is better.”


The New Normal

After 97 days of having all diocesan and parish meetings include talking about the poor in their midst, he challenged all Catholics to find ways of translating their words into action. The new normal meant, in his words, “focusing on the poor as much as Jesus did.” The poor themselves practice this in the way they reach out to help one another. They take in a neighbor’s child when a family is struggling. They contribute money to someone who needs it, saying, “They need it more than I do.” They share food or provide rides although they don’t have much gas or food for themselves. That’s a normal way of acting for them. Can it be the same for those of us who have more than enough to share with others? What habits and ways of acting can a parish adopt to create this “new normal” regarding the poor?


Possible Actions

  1. Acknowledge the invisible poor by looking deeper, more creatively and carefully for their presence.
  2. Address one cause of poverty at a time, forming small groups to create plans and discover solutions.
  3. Form new habits that keep the needs of the poor foremost, such as frequent petitions at Mass, offering homilies and presentations on the topic and planning service days for the entire parish,.
  4. Involve the poor in the ministries, programs and projects of the parish, encouraging them to share their wisdom and insights.

                             – Maria Gabriela, Debora Elkins, Tom Sweetser, SJ