Seeing Jesus in the Poor
And Attacking the Root Cause of Poverty

(Keynote Address for Western Regional Meeting of St. Vincent de Paul, Port Angeles,WA. May 16, 1997)

Gospel: John 20:19-23

Like your Seattle area chaplain, Fr. Jim Mallahan, I am priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle. I have been a priest of the Archdiocese for 25 years. In fact I believe that partly accounts for the honor of being chosen to give this keynote address. I am presently pastor of Holy Family in Seattle and during recent months have seen the increased demands on our parish's St. Vincent de Paul Society. I hope to say something which will encourage and help you in your work. Also since I spent seven years as a missionary priest in Peru, I want to place our concern for the poor in the context of the universal Church.

I would like to start with this Sunday's Gospel. It describes the gift of the Spirit from the Risen Jesus. The very goal of our existence is to participate in the inner life of God, the Trinity. That is made possible only by receiving the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is first and foremost the forgiveness of sins. "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins of any, they are forgiven.."

The Aymara Indians with whom I worked in Peru, taught me much about reconciliation and forgiveness. They would begin almost every significant gathering with a short reconciliation rite. This was especially true in a time a crisis, for example if lightening struck in village. We were on a high (12,500 feet) plain and lightening was greatly feared. I remember once when it struck a home which it completely destroyed, killing a child and some farm animals. The parents were distraught, not just because of their home and child, but because a good part of their livelihood was taken from them. And they wanted a Mass of Reconciliation; they considered that something was out of harmony in their village. The Mass began with an extended penitential rite where the catechist had us all kneel on the ground while he lead us in an examination of conscience. After asking God for forgiveness, we stood up and went to each person there, placing hands on the shoulders and saying, "My brother, forgive me. My sister, I have done you wrong, please pardon me."

When it comes to forgiveness, reconciliation, the poor are our teachers. Our problem is we have so much. I can easily say, "I have my car, my bank account, my home, my job. If my brother offends me, I don't need him. If my sister hurts me, the heck with her." The poor cannot take that attitude. They need their family, their community just to survive. Without them they will die. And the truth is, brothers and sisters, so will we. If we lose our family, our parish, we may have everything else, but we do not have life.

The poor must be our teachers. St. Vincent de Paul knew that. He called them his "masters," and considered it the greatest privilege to serve them. Another saint, St. Camillus who dedicated himself to the care of the abandoned sick, used to kneel down beside the sickbed and ask that person to place hands on his head and give him God's forgiveness. He knew that Christ is present in a special way in the sick and the poor.

Our approach is to give expecting nothing in return—because we know we will receive everything, that is Jesus Himself. How many Vincentians have left the apostolate because they lost sight of that. They were with us at one time, but they went away sad. This happened because at some point they faced an unexpected humiliation. They felt used, unwanted. The people they sought to serve were ungrateful. Even their brother Vincentian did not appreciate them. But that is the whole point of the apostolate. What we hope for are not gratitude and kindness (though they are beautiful and we should always be ready to extend them to others). What we hope for is Jesus himself.

This year we are celebrating the centenary, 100 years since the death of St. Therese of Lisieux. It is a good time to read, or re-read, her Autobiography. Next to the Bible it is the spiritual best-seller of all time. That little book has helped so many people live the Christian life. One incident she describes is how a particular sister was most difficult for her. Therese wanted to turn away when she saw her. But she decided instead to give her the best possible smile. That continued for several months, when finally the sister asked her, "Therese, you always have such a nice smile for me. What is it you find so attractive in me?" In her diary she writes, "Ah, it was you, Jesus."

That is the great challenge: To see Jesus in the poor—and in our brother Vincentian. When Jesus said, "Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven…" He of course was referring foremost to the sacrament of reconciliation, but through the apostles He was speaking to all of us. We need to ask for His Spirit so that we can forgive that other person.

As I said, when it come to forgiveness and reconciliation, the poor are our teachers. I had the privilege in working for seven years among one of the poorest groups of people in the Western Hemisphere. I saw people in some very extreme situations. I remember when I was returning home for the first time in 1989. A woman approached me who was carrying her baby on her back. She said to me, "Father, my husband has just abandoned me. I have three other children, the older two girls I cannot send to school because I have no money to buy them pens, notebooks and shoes. We do not have decent food. We are cold at night because we do not have enough blankets. I am in a terrible situation." Then she took her baby from her back and said, "Father, I know you are going to the United States, please take my baby."

I held that baby in my arms, a beautiful baby boy. I told her, "Yolanda, there are so many families in my country who would do anything to have this baby. And they would give him everything he could ever want. But it is so much better than you keep him, and we will try to find the way to help you." Thanks to donations of many people, we were able to help Yolanda and her children.

Once when my financial resources were very low, I received a remarkable letter. It was from a woman whom I never met. Like Yolanda, she had been abandoned by her husband and was raising four children, except they were all boys. The two oldest were teenagers. She was praying about how to best guide them, when the Lord inspired her to make a great act of faith, to take her entire savings, $5000!, and send it to Peru. Some people would say she acted foolishly, she should have thought of her own sons first. But she gave those boys a better gift than a used car or a semester or two at the university. She gave them the gift of faith and concern for those who have so much less than we do.

In recent years we have heard a lot about Stewardship or Sacrificial Giving. It is simply the recognition that everything we have is from God and we will have to give an account to Him for how we have used it. The Catechism talks about this. If you haven't yet read the Catechism, by the way, I encourage you to get a copy and read it this summer. When you reach the seventh commandment, you will see that it gives an explanation of "You shall not steal." That means of course than we respect the private property of others; we have not right to take what does not belong to us. But the Catechism also talks about the social destiny of all creation. It goes on to quote one of the Fathers, "After you have satisfied your own legitimate needs" (and those needs are a lot less than our consumer society tries to convince us) "everything else belongs to the poor."

God wants us to share not only our material gifts with the poor, but the spiritual ones as well. In fact, the roots of poverty are spiritual. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, knew this well. He did attend to people's physical needs. When he was a frail man in his 70's he could be seen trudging through the snow of London carrying baskets of food to the poor. But he never forgot the spiritual roots of poverty. He ministered to the poor spiritually. That often meant calling them to repentance: To stop drinking, gambling, running around with other women and instead of going out with friends, to stay home with the wife and children. When I was in Peru, I always felt the most important assistance was not material, but spiritual. They often needed to hear the same call to repentance which John Wesley issued in England. (And you and I who today issue that call must never lose sight of our own sins.)

In the United States that call to repentance is a vital part of our ministry to the poor. Drinking, gambling, infidelity, pornography rob the poor of resources they should devote to their children. But we have something new here, something John Wesley did not face in England. Since the 1960's we have seen a whole new class of poverty. In an article which appeared last July in U.S. News and World Report, Lionel Tiger describes it: broken homes, male irresponsibility, abortion, single mothers, deep alienation between men and women. According to Tiger, an evolutionary anthropologist, these problems have one main cause: the widespread use of the birth control pill. This might surprise you because we are used to hearing that birth control is the solution to our problems. But Lionel Tiger has made a deeper diagnosis: It is not the remedy, it is the very cause.

I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old, the pill was just coming out. There was a great "hype" announcing its arrival in the late 50's. It was presented as the solution to all our problems—overpopulation, large families, poverty, unwanted children, child abuse, abortion and above all, marital stress. With the pill married couple would enter a new era of nuptial bliss.

Well, the pill has solved overpopulation, at least in this country. Large families are very rare. But we must ask ourselves, is that so good? One small point: When FDR founded our Social Security system, there were sixteen workers to every retired person. Now there are three. In 2011 (a year I am interested in because I will then be sixty-five) there will be two. Perhaps we need to re-consider whether small families and population control are so beneficial.

But much more important—and much more negative—is the effect the pill has had on our families and especially on our young men. For the first time in history we have situation where their sexuality is radically separated from responsibility. Even if procreation does result from sexual activity, it is not his problem. The girl knows what she can do if she blunders into an accidental pregnancy. (According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute over 50% of the women who sought abortions had been using artificial birth control in the month before getting pregnant. Birth control doesn’t prevent abortion; it creates an atmosphere where human life has value only when convenient to the those in control. But when a woman succumbs to an abortion, she herself is deeply wounded. It is like an animal whose foot is caught in a trap and in desperation gnaws it off. She walks crippled for the rest of her life.)

I once did a conference on Natural Family Planning with a young doctor. The group was mainly college age boys and girls. He explained that a woman is fertile only 12-24 hours a cycle, but she is usually the one who has the burden of birth control. He asked, "Is that fair?" All the girls said, "No!" "Is it fair that her organism should be negatively affected by birth control devices?" Once again a resounding "No!" "Is it fair she should have to bear all the physical consequences of the pill?" Again, "No!" Then he looked at them and said, "Well, stop taking them!"

Now, I am not saying that when you go to a home with a food voucher or to pay rent or utility bills, that you look in the medicine cabinet and if you find birth control pills, toss them in the garbage. But we do need to invite people as gently as possible into the fullness of the faith. Even if we do not completely understand that teaching ourselves, we need to have confidence that the Holy Spirit is guiding our Church. I know that some of you might be struggling with that moral decision, but as Catholics we should ask for humility, a sense that Jesus through our Catholic Church offer the solutions to the deepest needs of the human heart—and even those seemingly intractable problems of our society, of the poor who constantly come to us for help. They are looking to us for more than a hand-out; they hope for a certain spiritual guidance.

I saw a glimpse of this while I was in Peru. I had the wonderful help of two Canadian lay missionaries, Denis and Liane Bruneau. Denis was an architect and Liane a nurse, but what they shared of their own marriage was their greatest contribution. When couples approached them, they told about using the Billings Method of Natural Family Planning. In this delicate area a couple to couple approach is what works the best. But their most spectacular convert was not married, but a single woman, an obstetrician/midwife named Luz Marrón.

Luz worked as a volunteer in the parish and before Denis and Liane came, if she saw a woman with three or four children, she would say, "Señora, it is time to shut down the factory." I grimaced, but I did not have much of an alternative. Denis and Liane showed her there was a better way. Not the old rhythm method (although it was not so bad as it is sometimes portrayed) but a more exact method of self-observation.

Luz joined Denis and Liane to offer a weekend course to married couples. They learned how to do a chart and then were asked to bring it in each month for a follow up. The couples immediately began to see benefits. The husbands were happy their wives did not have to take anything like the pill or IUD which might harm their bodies. And unlike artificial methods, it involved constant communication. Like one of the husbands said, "It used to be we did not have anything to talk about in the evening. Now we do." The built-in discipline and self-control increase confidence between the spouses. The pill and other devices obviously open up a wide field for infidelity. Can we ignore the fact that in our society divorce has increased at about the same pace as use of birth control? It is noteworthy that divorce among couples who use NFP is rare, less than 5%.

The greatest benefit of natural methods is what we call "fertility appreciation." Couples are able to determine the precise time of fertility and therefore consciously choose to postpone a pregnancy or to have a child. Dr. Thomas Hilgers at Creighton University in Omaha has been able to use fertility appreciation to enable couples who considered themselves infertile to obtain a pregnancy.

We saw a tremendous benefit in teaching fertility appreciation not only to married couples, but young single adults as well. At our course there were mainly girls, but also a few boys also who wanted to become NFP promoters. They had a disadvantage. Unlike the girls, they had no cycle to chart. At least it would be pretty boring: twenty four hour a day fertility, a baby picture in every space on the chart. What Luz suggested was that they ask their mothers to do a chart for them. To our surprise their moms agreed. When the course was completed after six months, I asked one of the boys, Isaias, what he had learned. He said to me, "Father, I learned respect for women."

Respect for women. That is what our society lacks and so desperately needs. Fertility appreciation can inculcate that respect in young men—and it can teach young women value their fertility as God's greatest earthly gift to them. That respect can transform our society and our Church. It certainly transformed Isaias. He subsequently entered the Holy Cross Seminary in Lima and is now studying to be a priest.

Because we saw such a value in teaching Natural Family Planning, before I left Peru, we established a center to continue that work. It is named for my mom: The Mary Bloom Center. Luz Marrón has made the decision to dedicate her life to that work, teaching NFP to married couples and other health professionals. They just finished a course that forty participated in, twelve of whom received certification from the Center.

The Center also gives classes to high school students on chastity-based sex education. They are constantly showing young people videos like "The Silent Scream" and "Abortion—A Woman's Choice." The students enter into the discussion with great interest. Some people say it is "irresponsible" to teach sexuality without handing out condoms and other birth control. But we feel just the opposite. Young people are hungry for deeper values, for a challenge. Catholic inspired programs like Teen Star and many Evangelical ones have shown it is possible. This is especially true if we teach young people the deep meaning of the fourth commandment: "Honor your father and mother." If youth can really learn to honor their parents, they would not have great difficulty with the other commandments.

As Vincentians I ask your support for this work both in Peru and right here. It is the way we can really attack the root cause of poverty and lift our young people out their growing despair. Some people wonder why our youth feel so hopeless when they have so much. Yes, they have everything—except the one thing they really want: a clear purpose for their lives.

In asking for that support, I would like to conclude by telling you what happened to the boy Yolanda wanted to give to me. When I was coming back home for the last time in 1994, Yolanda and her children came to say good-bye. I picked up little Efrain who was then entering primary school. When I went to put him down, he squeezed my shoulder real tight and said, "Padre, no te vayas." "Father, don't go." I explained to him that I had to return because of my own parents and to work with my own people. But I said, "I will not forget you." That is why I am here today. Because of Efrain and children like him. We must not forget them.

Information about the Mary Bloom Center

More about the benefits of Natural Family Planning and the negative effects of artificial birth control.

Catholic Answers

CatholicHome Study Resources

Peter Kreeft

Homily on Boston Scandal

About Bart Brewer

Bogus Knights of Columbus Oath

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church