June 4, 2013 by eneubauer
Five years ago I (& my entire family) came home to the Catholic Church after ten years of service as a protestant pastor and missionary. One significant influence in my process of conversion was Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. I studied her life, followed her work among the poorest of the poor and spent time serving alongside the Missionaries of Charity in Honduras. There was a statement she made that motivated me as well as forced me to ask some serious questions about my attitudes, actions and responses to those living on the margins of society. Mother Teresa used to say that she, “encountered Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.” That statement made Matthew 25: 31-46 come alive to me, deepening my understanding of what Jesus said and meant.
(vs. 34-40), “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and your clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Recently, I stated that the great wisdom of Mother Teresa was that she NOTICED people! Then I asked this question, “Who will WE notice today?”
Let’s be honest – noticing people living on the margins of society is difficult. It is when we notice or gain knowledge of a problem, issue or cause that we are naturally called to respond or take responsibility in some way. This is why so many would prefer to stay in the dark or remain ignorant of certain issues. For when we are ignorant we are unable to take full responsibility. In addition, there are those who desire to serve Christ but want to serve in such a way that meets their own need and not the needs of others. I call this, “self-centered service.” Christ said to those who served selfishly, “depart from Me…” Again to restate, noticing people is hard work! It is not convenient, it requires the individual to be spiritually sensitive and flexible.
Mother was famous for saying that if she would not have picked up the first one she would not have picked up over 40K individuals from the streets of Calcutta. The secret of Mother’s success – she noticed and picked up the one. It was in picking up that one discarded individual from the streets of Calcutta that Mother Teresa inspired many to do the same. Now her work is a global effort battling against the culture of death and trying hard to establish a culture of life where the significance of human dignity is appreciated no matter where you live nor what your religion is. Again, it is in the “distressing disguise of the poor” that she encountered Christ. These encounters kept her going even during her own dark night of the soul experience. May God guide all of us to such encounters.
Pope Francis is another who has taken the scripture seriously and Mother Teresa’s admonition to heart. From the beginning of his pontificate Pope Francis has sought to live the faith by purposefully NOTICING those who are not normally in the limelight. Whether it is stopping the procession to pray for a disabled man, taking time to greet the wheelchair bound at events, or saying mass for the grounds keepers and garbage collectors of Vatican City within the simple environs of the Casa Santa Marta – this Pope has made it is mission and aim to notice those who are overlooked by society. Pope Francis even stirred the ire of some within the traditionalist community by washing the feet of youth prisoners, some of whom where women and Muslim, during Good Friday service – saying that it did not conform to liturgical norms. I would argue that Pope Francis chose wisely. Remember, even Christ was admonished by the religious leaders of his time – siting his “abuse” of Sabbath laws / customs. Jesus responded to those accusations by stating that, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath…(Mark 2:27)” Christ sets the example. Pope Francis, under the inspiration of Christ, chose wisely when he decided to serve the “least of these MY brothers” and in doing so sets the example for Catholics and Christians of good will. We are in the business of NOTICING people and responding to their very real needs.
Finally, the question(s) that arises out of this discussion is whether or not WE have NOTICED the many who live on the margins of society? Some reside here because they “feel” as if they have no other choice. The pressures of this present age have a real, limiting effect on what they perceive to be possible – hence many feel stuck! This is where the individual and / or community comes in to help by providing tangible assistance. In addition, there are those who are forced into the margins of society by no fault of their own. It is our unique responsibility to KNOW about these groups and to actively fight for their “release.” I believe this is part of the great, undone work of the Church. We must act now, first to NOTICE those residing in both communities and second to be conduits of relief in a society bent on undermining the unique dignity of the human person.
As a Christian, it is that PERSON residing on the margins of society that Christ identifies with. He reminds us, “As you did it to the least of these my brothers you have done it to ME.”
May we respond to God as Mother Teresa and Pope Francis have done.