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Lent 2003

The Faces of the Poor

Second Sunday of Lent

Scripture Readings
Genesis 22:1-2, 10-13, 15-18
Romans 8:31b-34
Mark 9:2-10


One summer day many years ago I left Fordham University in New York and went with friends on a walking tour of historic Harlem. We walked by a Baptist church and saw on its front door a large felt banner with writing on it. I stopped to read it and was surprised to see that it was a quote from my dear friend and fellow archbishop, Helder Câmara. It said: “Be careful of the way you live, it is the only gospel most people will ever read!”

If we were to choose one name from all the Brazilians who have dedicated themselves to the defense of the poor, certainly Helder Câmara would be elected. Immediately following the close of the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Câmara was one of the guiding lights in preparing for the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) meeting in Medellín, Colombia. Now, after 35 years, I think that the moment has come to ask ourselves if we have really embraced the teaching of Medellín and its preferential option for the poor.

If you think we can believe statistics, they tell us that there are more homeless people on the streets of New York City than in the city of São Paulo! I do not want to enter into a competition with New Yorkers, but I would like to emphasize that poverty is universal. Poor countries exist, and in rich countries there are gray zones of poverty and need.

In Medellín, Pope Paul VI said to the campesinos: “Now you are listening to us in silence, but we hear the shout that arises from your suffering.” During this Lenten season, I would like us to ask ourselves if we can still hear clearly this cry that is born of deep economic injustice.

The liturgical readings for this Sunday begin with the dramatic reading of the preparations for the death of Abraham’s only son, Isaac. The reading is chosen in Lent to prepare us for the death of Jesus, his Father’s beloved Son.

The reading in Genesis originally was used to teach God’s people that our God is not a God of death, but of life. St. John even says that God gives us an abundance of life. God loves the poor, but hates misery. Forty million people, just in Brazil, do not have enough to eat. How many people do the Catholic Worker houses and other hospitality houses and soup kitchens feed in the United States? Does it come to millions?

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that when we have more food than we need, it no longer belongs to us, but to the hungry. It is not a case of charity, but of justice. During Lent, we should occasionally open our refrigerators and meditate on how much in them is really ours, and how much, in justice, belongs to the hungry.

Psalm 116 echoes the narrative in Genesis. The poor love God because when they cry out, he turns his ear and hears their voice. Those who know the “anguish of the grave” and are overcome by sorrow know that God is full of compassion and helps those in great need.

St. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Romans, chapter 12, that God practices his unfailing mercy through us! Some of us are called to prophecy, others to works of mercy, and still others to be the visible love of God to the world’s poor.

Jesus’ Transfiguration is a narrative of hope. He, who was rich in his divinity, made himself poor to save us on the cross. But God, from the beginning, promised: “The Just will never die!” Jesus is raised from the dead to the fullness of life. The Transfiguration is the foretaste of the Resurrection.

Medellín was a Transfiguration. It was a message of hope to the poor of the world and to all who believe that God is a Father to us all. The final document states: “We call to all persons of good will that they cooperate in truth, justice, love and liberty, in this transforming labor of our peoples, the dawn of a new era.

“We remind other peoples who have overcome the obstacles we encounter today that peace is based on respect for international justice, justice which has its own foundation and expression in the recognition of the political, economic and cultural autonomy of our peoples.”

Archbishop Helder Câmara presents us with another aspect of our commitment to justice for the poor. He reminds us that Jesus himself prayed to God in thanksgiving that the Father has revealed himself to the little ones of the world and not to the rich, the powerful or the wise in the ways of the world.

When we give ourselves to the poor, the poor give God to us. Archbishop Câmara sees another miracle: If we decide to dedicate ourselves to the poor in poor countries and in rich countries, if the poor become our priority, then we will have to bid farewell to certain lifestyles, to certain comforts and to prestige and “triumphalism.” We will have been converted by the poor!

There are always moments of greater hope for justice in the world. Last year in Brazil we elected a new president, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva. He was born in Brazil’s poorest northeastern region and came as a migrant to São Paulo when he was still a child. He became a steelworker and our most influential labor leader.

When he was elected, our stock market fell; our money lost its buying power in relation to the dollar. The neoliberal economists of the world were in despair. Who will this labor leader choose for financial minister? Who will head the federal bank?

Then President-elect da Silva called a meeting of labor leaders, bankers, industrialists and humanitarian leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). He announced that he was not going to invite them to talk about markets or finances. He wanted them to collaborate with him in a campaign against hunger. By the end of his four-year term he wants every Brazilian to have three meals a day.

Economic policy is very important. But, for once in our postmodern world, we had the joy of hearing a national leader say that our people are more important than the value of the dollar.

I would like to end this reflection with a paragraph from the final document of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference Meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. Our people were so inspired by these words that they put them to music and we sing this song in church.

“We speak of a situation of extreme poverty in our countries. We must remember, however, that this poverty has a very concrete face:

  • the faces of the Indigenous peoples and the Afro-Americans who live in inhuman situations, the poorest of the poor;
  • the faces of the campesinos who, in our continent, have no land of their own and are exploited by landowners;
  • the faces of the factory workers who are badly paid and face difficulties to organize their unions;
  • the faces of the outcasts in our large urban centers. They live in the midst of wealth and have nothing of their own;
  • the faces of the unemployed who have lost their jobs because of repeated economic crises and unjust models of economic development;
  • the faces of our youth who are frustrated and lost for lack of training and orientation;
  • the faces of our children, weakened by poverty even before they are born, suffering from physical and mental deficiencies;
  • the faces of the aged, more and more numerous, abandoned by a society that only values those who produce wealth.”

These faces of the poor in the Americas call out for a Transfiguration of our unjust economic and social structures.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns is the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003