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Do not turn your face away

Do not turn your face away

On the 13th June (Memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, Patron of the Poor) Pope Francis published his Message for the 7th Annual World Day of the Poor, on Sunday 19th November, 2023.  The theme for this year’s Message is:  “Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor” (Tob 4:7)  This Message is a reflection on the Book of Tobit, a little-known text of the Old Testament, yet one that is full of wisdom.

Do not turn your face away

While the actual date of the World Day of the Poor may seem a long way off, we know ‘those living in poverty’ are never a long way off, they are very close to us indeed.  As with each Message issued by Pope Francis with a specific theme, the re-reading and contemplation of its content enriches our lives and can inform the way we can live to bring about change. See World Day of the Poor 2023

Those made poor were very close to the heart of Nano Nagle, and the impetus for all she was inspired to do to change the status quo and to enable people to become the advocates for their own progress, and the progression of others to a better life.  The action by Tobit of sharing his table with the poor is reminiscent of Nano’s action on the first Christmas in their new community, when they invited those living in poverty to share their table.

Pope Francis writes:

Our daily efforts to welcome the poor are still not enough. A great river of poverty is traversing our cities and swelling to the point of overflowing; it seems to overwhelm us, so great are the needs of our brothers and sisters who plead for our help, support and solidarity. For this reason, on the Sunday before the Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe, we gather around his Table to receive from him once more the gift and strength to live lives of poverty and to serve the poor.   

We may well ask where Tobit found the courage and the inner strength that enabled him to serve God in the midst of a pagan people, and to love his neighbour so greatly, that he risked his own life. Tobit’s is a remarkable story: a faithful husband and a caring father, he was twice deported far from his native land, where he suffered unjustly, persecuted by the king, and mistreated by his neighbours.

Despite being such a good man, he was put to the test.  As sacred Scripture often teaches us, God does not spare trials to those who are righteous. Why? It is not to disgrace us, but to strengthen our faith in him.

Our ‘Calling’ to become personally involved

Tobit, in his time of trial, discovers his own poverty, which enables him to recognise others who are poor. He is faithful to God’s law and keeps the commandments, but for him this is not enough. He can show practical concern for the poor because he has personally known what it is to be poor. His advice to Tobias thus becomes his true testament: “Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor” (4:7).

In a word, whenever we encounter a poor person, we cannot look away, for that would prevent us from encountering the face of the Lord Jesus. Let us carefully consider his words: “from anyone who is poor”. Everyone is our neighbour. Regardless of the colour of their skin, their social standing, the place from which they came, if I myself am poor, I can recognise my brothers or sisters in need of my help. We are called to acknowledge every poor person and every form of poverty, abandoning the indifference and the banal excuses we make to protect our illusory well-being.

We are living in times that are not particularly sensitive to the needs of the poor. The pressure to adopt an affluent lifestyle increases, while the voices of those dwelling in poverty tend to go unheard. Virtual reality is overtaking real life, and increasingly the two worlds blend into one. The poor become a film clip that can affect us for a moment, yet when we encounter them in flesh and blood on our streets, we are annoyed and look the other way. It is easy to delegate charity to others, yet the calling of every Christian is to become personally involved.

When speaking of the poor, it is easy to fall into rhetorical excess. It is also an insidious temptation to remain at the level of statistics and numbers. The poor are persons; they have faces, stories, hearts and souls, and it is important to enter into a personal relation with each of them. The Book of Tobit teaches us to be realistic and practical in whatever we do with and for the poor. This is a matter of justice; it requires us to seek out and find one another, in order to foster the harmony needed for the community to feel itself as such.

Caring for the poor

Caring for the poor is more than simply a matter of a hasty hand-out; it calls for reestablishing the just interpersonal relationships that poverty harms. In this way, “not turning our face away from anyone who is poor” leads us to enjoy the benefits of mercy and charity that give meaning and value to our entire Christian life.

May our concern for the poor always be marked by Gospel realism. Our sharing should meet the concrete needs of the other, rather than being just a means of ridding ourselves of superfluous goods. Here too, Spirit-led discernment is demanded, in order to recognize the genuine needs of our brothers and sisters and not our own personal hopes and aspirations.

What the poor need is certainly our humanity, our hearts open to love. Let us never forget that “we are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” (Evangelii Gaudium, 198).

Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. In a page of her autobiography, Story of a Soul, she tells us:

I have come to realise that perfect charity means putting up with other people’s faults, not being at all taken aback by their faults, being edified by the smallest acts of virtue that we see practised. But above all, I have come to realise that charity must not remain locked in the depths of one’s heart: ‘No one’, Jesus says, ‘lights a candle to put it under a bushel basket, but puts it on a candle-stand, so that it can give light to everyone in the house’. For me, that candle represents the charity that must give light and bring joy not only to those dearest to me, but to everyone in the house, with the exception of none” (Ms C, 12r).

In this house of ours, which is the world, everyone has a right to experience the light of charity; no one must be deprived of that light.

May the steadfast love of Saint Therese stir our hearts on this World Day of the Poor, and help us not to “turn our face away from anyone who is poor”, but to keep it always focused on the human and divine face of Jesus Christ our Lord.

See also https://presentationsistersne.ie/woman-of-compassionate-heart/

And https://presentationsistersne.ie/a-love-without-measure/


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