Because I’m a selfish sinner, I tend to act . . . well . . . selfishly. Here’s a case in point. I’m walking down a city street somewhere, kind of in my happy place, when suddenly I look ahead and notice a beggar or homeless person coming toward me. What are my initial reactions? Almost without fail, my first thoughts are curved inward toward myself: “This guy is going to bother me” or “Why did I choose to walk this way?” Next my thoughts unleash their fury on the poor person: “Stop being lazy and get a job” or “You probably just want money for drugs.” Out of shame or out of fear of God smiting me, I usually, though not always, give the person something. Then I walk away quickly. Sure, I’d like to do more; sure, I really do feel bad for the person; but to be honest, I walk away wishing the encounter had never taken place. I leave without having loved.
St. Vincent de Paul, the saint celebrated by the Church today, looked at the poor much differently. Not only did he spend much of his life caring for them, but he saw beneath their rough and even frightening appearance a person deserving of love. He saw Christ in the poor and treated them accordingly. St. Vincent gave to the poor not only an offering of charity, but an offering of his heart. St. Vincent sought to truly know the poor, to truly understand the poor, to truly love the poor. Beyond food or shelter, he gave them friendship.
You and I are called upon by God to treat the poor with a similar love and compassion. Yes, they need us to assist in providing for material wants, but so much more importantly – and please don’t miss this – they need our friendship. The poor need our love.
It’s a beautiful thing to observe a person who truly knows and loves the poor. If you’ve volunteered in a soup kitchen or worked with an inner city missionary, you understand this. Such selfless, dedicated persons call the poor by name. They know their stories. They listen patiently to their grievances. They live in their neighborhoods or villages.
Maybe such total dedication to the poor is currently beyond the scope of you or I. But maybe too, we see the poor with too narrow of a vision. The worst poverty is never material poverty, but rather a paucity of love. Remember St. Vincent: He gave soup to the poor, but he served it with love. Hunger, though always horrible, is less so for the man or woman who knows that somebody cares. And a person may have all they need of the world’s richest, but if they lack love, they are among the poorest of the poor.
We need not look far to find the poor. In the Gospel from yesterday’s Mass readings, the rich man found the beggar, Lazarus, at his very own door. So who, living in poverty, is near to you? Who, feeling unloved, is daily close to me? St. Vincent wrote that the poor “have been given to us as our masters and patrons.” We, therefore, must be their servants. And to put that service – that love – into action, I bet we won’t have to look too far.
Be assured of my prayers,