“I’ve said many times over many years that if we ignore the poor, we will go to hell: literally,” Archbishop Charles Chaput said, most recently, here.
I love that. I am well aware that, just as perfect contrition is better than imperfect contrition, it is better to serve the poor out of love for God and neighbor than out of fear of reprisal.
But I also know that, to get over spiritual and moral inertia, sometimes we need a little push.
So if you are like me, and avoiding hell is a motivator for you, remember that is how we will be judged, and take the steps you need to get right with God.
First step: The Eucharist.
For Jesus, it is impossible to love him and not serve the poor. It is there in the Last Judgement in Matthew 25:31-46; it is there in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Anyone who thinks they are doing so is fooling themselves.
But the converse is also true: People like Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi didn’t devote themselves to the poor — they devoted themselves to Jesus, and that led them to serve the poor.
To follow in their footsteps — which is the only way to get to heaven — means loving Jesus more. Catholics know where to find him: In the tabernacle, in the monstrance and at the front of the communion line at Mass.
“The Holy Hour before the Eucharist should lead us to a ‘holy hour’ with the poor,” said Mother Teresa. “Our Eucharist is incomplete if it does not make us love and serve the poor. In receiving the communion of the poor, we discover our own poverty.”
Second step: Serve your family.
No, this is not a cop-out. Strengthening families is indeed the best way to fight poverty.
That was the conclusion Catholic scholars kept coming to at the Fall conference on poverty at the Notre Dame Ethics and Culture Center conference.
“It is time for Americans to stop treating economic issues and family issues as separate,” said Notre Dame professor Patrick Dineen.
After all, single mothers are the biggest class of impoverished and children from fatherless families have the fewest opportunities, statistically.
Nobel economist James Heckman presented a paper showing the results of a 40-year-study that found “Parenting warmth and mentoring” transforms entire lifetimes. “The true measure of disadvantage is inequality in parenting,” he said.
The more broken the family, the more poverty; the stronger the family, the more opportunity.
The best way for us to strengthen the family in general is to strengthen our own families in particular. To do so will enhance many other families: Our children’s families and the families of neighbors, friends and relatives who learn from us that strong family life is possible.
Third step: Buy less so you can give more.
A lot of us would love to give more money to the poor, but we just can’t. Our credit card and mortgage bills won’t allow us to.
Alas, I’m not sure Jesus will give us a pass on that.
In his “The Gospel of Joy,” Pope Francis noticed that a by-product of the consumerist culture of the West is that our spending priorities kill our sensitivity to the poor.
“The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase,” he said. “In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
In his new book You Did It To Me, Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, describes an initiative he and friends founded in college. Realizing that they had limited resources and couldn’t give to the poor, they decided to give up soft drinks instead, and use the money they spent every day on soda for the poor.
Pope Francis had the same idea, raffling off fancy stuff he has been given.
Jesus famously invited certain followers to, “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor.”
He tells us: “Go, stop buying what you don’t need, and give it to the poor.” Starting with the poor in our own communities.
Fourth step: Organize your friends to help.
Of course, helping those in need in our community is only part of the equation. The Church constantly points out that we also need to address the structural causes of poverty.
The problem: Consumerism and the almighty market on one side and the almighty state on the other are crushing people.
“The individual today is often suffocated between two extremes represented by the state and the marketplace,” wrote St. John Paul II in Centessimus Annus.
He proposed stronger families and stronger “intermediary communities” — community groups — to serve as buffers between individuals and the interlocking state and marketplace.
Pope Benedict said these were the logical places for service. “The state that would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing that the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern” he wrote in Deus Caritas Est.
Pope Francis also recommends we create communities of service capable of opposing the excesses of the state and marketplace — and called the parish a “community of communities,” hoping that many such groups would bloom within it.
This could mean Boy Scouts or Knights of Columbus or a group of our own. But we must do something.
To serve the poor, we must first root ourselves in Jesus Christ, and then draw our families and our communities into the effort. If we do, the results will be enormous.
If we don’t … well, if we don’t, we’ll go to hell when we die.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College.