Touching the flesh of the poor

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It’s no secret to those who’ve seen the streets of Anchorage or any other mid-sized Alaska town. The cardboard signs, tents in wooded lots, lines outside shelters and soup kitchens — we have a homeless problem. And beyond that, we have many more living on the brink of homelessness. Reason vary. Some have lost jobs, others are chronically drunk or suffering from mental illness, some come from broken families with no one to lean on in a crisis.

As reported in this issue, faith-based groups, most notably the Catholic Church, have long provided a safety net for the suffering among us. Soup kitchens, food pantries, emergency shelters, job training, life training, medical care — you name it and the church steps in to provide.

And as anyone at Catholic Social Services will tell you, local parishes are indispensable to helping provide these services. Individual parishioners, youth groups, Catholic schools and others volunteer to make Catholic Social Services effective.

But the reality is that most of us have rarely if ever volunteered at a shelter or food bank. We are busy with work, family, and innumerable duties and projects. Finding time to sit down and take a breath can be a minor feat. So instead we may give to the church and financially support those outreaches that directly help the poor.

The aim here is not to criticize these vital charitable donations, which represent a genuine impulse to help others. It’s just that a recent talk by Pope Francis, echoing the teachings of Jesus, is haunting.

Speaking earlier this summer during a homily in his small papal chapel, the pope reminded the faithful that being a Christian is not a matter of formal observances and correct ethical views devoid of concrete, physical acts of kindness.

“Our perfection, our holiness is linked with our people where we are chosen and become part,” the pope said. “It means sharing our bread with the hungry, taking care of the sick, the elderly, those who can’t give us anything in return.”

The most difficult form of charity, the pope noted, is that which the Good Samaritan exhibited in bending down to touch and care for a desperate man on the street — undaunted by his wounded flesh.

At Sunday Mass our parishes have among them the marginalized — those who are sick, mentally ill, socially backward. Also sitting in the pews are the very elderly or those with physical handicaps. These men and women have made a point to show up for Sunday Mass. You might say it is the most natural place in the world for them to come — to the people of God.

Once in our midst, however, it is up to use to see them, talk to them, touch them and welcome them into the life of the church — the Body of Christ.

Here’s the challenge: When Mass is over, let us not first look for our hiking buddies, book club members, classmates or colleagues. Rather, let us take a moment to scan the back pews and the forgotten corners. We may not find the most interesting conversation partners with the best social graces, but these men and women are every bit members of the Body of Christ — no less than the pope himself — and it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge this reality with concrete acts of love.

In his recent homily the pope posed a stark question: “When I give alms, do I drop the coin without touching the hand (of the poor person, beggar)? And if by chance I do touch it, do I immediately withdraw it?”

Catholic charity is not a matter of mere correct belief — it’s touching the flesh of the poor and thereby loving the Body of Christ.

The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper and news website of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.


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