Listening to the Cry of The Poor

Posted May 22, 2023

This is a reflection by Fr. Josh Kureethadam from the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

As Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si’, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (LS, 139) The cry of the Earth is intimately linked with the cry of the poor. The groaning of creation resonates in the wailing of the most vulnerable in our midst. 

How can we listen attentively to the cry of the poor and respond to it effectively? We can do so by recovering our social and spiritual sensibilities. It is a journey all the more important today in a world numbed by apathy and indifference.

Laudato Si’, as Pope Francis has emphasized several times is a “social” encyclical and not just an “environmental” text. Environmentalism for decades remained largely aloof to social concerns while many social activists were suspicious of ecological movements. It was a false dichotomy. There is indeed an “intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” (LS, 16), as Pope Francis points out in Laudato Si’. The “earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” (LS, 2) Laudato Si’ is, in fact, a social encyclical than one on climate change. “Climate” is mentioned just 14 times in the text, while “the poor,” 59 times¹.

Sadly, in our prevalent culture of indifference, “there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded”. (LS, 49) The poor continue to be conveniently forgotten or ignored at the High Table of world affairs. There exists an amnesia of the poor on the part of the rich and powerful minority elite who are at the helm of world economy and politics. 

Indeed, when all is said and done, they [the poor] frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. (LS, 49)

How do we respond to the profound injustices that cause the groaning of the poor and of groaning of creation? We do it as people of faith especially by marshalling our spiritual resources. The Scriptures and Catholic Social Teachings can assist us in this regard. 

At the heart of our Christian faith is the conviction that the Lord visits us in the poor, that the flesh of the poor is indeed the body of Christ. Emblematic in this regard is the narrative of the Last Judgement (Mt 25: 31-46), a gospel passage that has inspired countless Christians down the centuries, including Mother Theresa of Kolkata. Jesus truly identifies with the poor in unambiguous terms here: 

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, 

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, 

I was a stranger and you invited me in, 

I needed clothes and you clothed me, 

I was sick and you looked after me, 

I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

(Mt 25: 35-36)

The care of the poor has always been at the heart of our Christian faith. In the letter to the Galatians St. Paul speaks of his visit to Jerusalem in order to consult the “pillars” of the early Church: Peter, James and John. Paul concludes the account by saying: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Gal 2:10)

The preferential option of the poor is also central to Catholic Social Teachings from Rerum Novarum to our days. Pope Leo XIII wrote in 1891: “The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon …” (Rerum Novarum, 37). “The Church’s love for the poor … is a part of her constant tradition” … “those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church” recalls the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2444, 2448). In a world marked by deepening inequalities, where the poor and vulnerable are contemptuously flung to the peripheries, we need to reclaim the “magisterium” of the poor. We also need to ensure that the excluded and oppressed become themselves protagonists of transformation as Pope Francis tells in Querida Amazonia: “Dialogue must not only favor the preferential option on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the excluded, but also respect them as having a leading role to play.” (27) 

As we seek to respond in truth and action to the cry of the poor through the Laudato S’ Action Platform, let us make our own the prayer that Pope Francis offers in the first of the concluding prayers to the encyclical:

O God of the poor,

help us to rescue the abandoned 

and forgotten of this earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives, 

that we may protect the world and not prey on it,

that we may sow beauty, 

not pollution and destruction. 

(LS, 246)

* 1 See Mike Hulme, “Finding the Message of the Pope’s Encyclical,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 57/6 (2015), 17.