A small gathering last week at St. John Paul II Church drew people from a handful of parishes to discuss justice-oriented ministry in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
They invoked an image distributed by the U.S. bishops that depicts the two feet of the church’s social outreach. The “foot” of social justice focuses on removing the root causes of poverty and other issues in the long-term. And the “foot” of charitable works addresses immediate needs.
As Father Patrick Delahanty reported, the participants felt the local church “stands firmly” on the foot of charity. But its work to promote systemic change needs improvement.
The good news is, local agencies such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities of Louisville, do much of this work. Professionals work directly with clients in need — including immigrants and refugees, the working poor, people who have survived trafficking, those addicted to drugs and people suffering with mental illness.
Their needs are many and varied. They may need clothing and help purchasing food, medicine and utility bills. These can be solved by the charitable foot.
They also often need help finding affordable housing, obtaining new job skills and finding employment opportunities that provide for a family. These things take more time and dedication. They’re part of the foot that reaches out to touch the root causes of poverty. But they’re not enough.
We would do well as a church — both as individual members and as an institution — to put more effort into direct action on these issues and engage lawmakers and civic leaders.
As Father Lou Meiman, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, pointed out during the Nov. 29 justice program, the church needs to reach back a 100 years or so to a time when people in the pews worked for justice. They worked for fair labor practices for the easy-to-cheat new immigrants; for safe working conditions for all; and for wages that provide workers the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.
The bishops of Washington state urged such action on Nov. 17 when they released a pastoral letter on poverty called, “Who is My Neighbor?: The Face of Poverty in Washington State.”
The bishops write that they want to “propose a moral basis for determining whether public policies serve justice.”
“Some things are best addressed by individuals, families, churches and charities; but when problems such as homelessness, hunger, drug addiction and mental illness are common to every community, it is a just and reasonable expectation that society will act cooperatively to address these problems,” the bishops write.
The bishops point to several church documents, including “Gaudium et Spes,” the Vatican’s “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” St. John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” and the U.S. bishops’ quadrennial document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”
They note, “We have a moral obligation to inform our consciences in light of Scripture and Catholic teaching, and then to take direct action that demonstrates concern for our sisters and brothers. What we must do for ‘the least’ among us is the unmistakable call of the Gospel to disciples of the Lord Jesus.”
There’s no doubt that care and concern for the least among us is paramount in our Christian faith. During a special Year of Mercy jubilee Mass for the homeless on Nov. 13, Pope Francis reminded Christ’s followers that two things should be treasured in this life — the Lord and our neighbor.
“These are the greatest goods; these are to be loved,” he said.
The Holy Father went on to explain, “It is the symptom of a spiritual sclerosis when we are only interested in objects to be produced rather than in persons to be loved. This is the origin of the tragic contradiction of our age: As progress and new possibilities increase, which is a good thing, less and less people are able to benefit from them.
“This is a great injustice that should concern us,” he said. “We cannot go about our business quietly at home while Lazarus lies at the door. There is no peace in the homes of the prosperous as long as justice is lacking in the home of everyone.”