I remember long ago an anecdotal story about the conference of bishops of Brazil who ended their meetings about policies and procedures with the question, “Well gentlemen, how have we helped the poor today?” Whether this account is true or not, it left an indelible mark on my soul, and had me query, ever since, how I could measure the quality of my daily labors.
Imagine if we were all to ask this question daily about all our labors? “Well secretarial colleagues of mine, how have we helped the poor today?” “Well fellow business associates, teachers, Starbucks, Walmart employees, parents, Catholic publishers…?” Is this just utopian banter or is there opportunity here?
In Pope Francis’ Message for the Fourth World Day of the Poor, (celebrated Sunday, Nov. 15)* he quotes the final words from Sirach: “In all you do, remember the end of your life” (Sir 7:36). Indeed, it is from this same chapter that we have this year’s theme: “Stretch out your hand to the poor” (Sir 7:32). Pope Francis suggests we can look at the “end of our life” as a goal to which each of us strives. He adds that it is a life-long “project and a process.” The “end” of all our actions, Pope Francis reminds us, “can only be love,” adding “nothing should distract us from it.”
In this light, I would say yes; judging our daily labors by asking how we helped the poor that day is not utopian banter. It is a means of constantly measuring whether we are on target to our “end.”
What might this mean for all of us on a daily basis? While I maintain that we must address the systemic roots of poverty and not simply rely on charity work, voting for the party of the poor and/or changing unjust policies are not necessarily “daily” deeds for most of us. How about peppering our days – when we are not voting for the most-poor-friendly-city-councilor – with a smile and chat to the person asking for money on the street? Pope Francis himself says: “Even a smile that we can share with the poor is a source of love and a way of spreading love.”
I witnessed this a few weeks ago in a coffee shop. I was in line to order coffee (socially distanced and masked, of course). Ahead of me was a homeless man who ordered a coffee and a hot sandwich. When these came to him and it was time to pay, he said simply: “I cannot pay, I am poor.” I was amazed and humbled by his frankness and his obvious request for help. Before any of us could move a muscle, a young woman, already at the register paying for her coffee, said: “Please add his order to mine.” She stretched out her hand to the poor with aplomb.
*Message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the Fourth World Day of the Poor, 15 November, 2020. http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/poveri/documents/papa-francesco_20200613_messaggio-iv-giornatamondiale-poveri-2020.html