I am very grateful for the invitation to pray and speak with you today. I have heard many good things about Goshen College and I am especially grateful for the ecumenical spirit of this community. As you may know, there has been a fruitful ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Mennonites, between the Mennonite World Conference and the Vatican. It began in 1998. It seek to promote better understanding of our respective teachings and also seeks to overcome some long-standing prejudices. There is also a good ecumenical relationship between our communities here in this local area through Bridgeworks. On the international level, the dialogue report entitled “Called Together to be Peacemakers” has shown that Catholics and Mennonites hold many convictions in common. We both understand that “reconciliation, nonviolence, and active peacemaking belong to the heart of the Gospel.” This mutual understanding has led to ever closer ties of friendship between the Catholic and Mennonite communities.
I reflected prayerfully on what to speak to you about this morning. I understand that your Campus Ministries theme for this year is “Sowing Compassion, Side by Side.” In light of this theme, I’d like to talk to you today about our shared conviction regarding love and compassion for the poor. This is a theme that has been prominent in the teaching and ministry of Pope Francis. Since his election, Pope Francis has set the love of the poor and the suffering at the heart of the Church’s mission, not that it was not there before, however the Pope has given this mission renewed focus. He is teaching us that to be Christians, to bear witness to the love of Christ who laid down His life for us, we must show our love for the poor and downtrodden in real, practical, and evident ways.
You may have read that when he was asked why he chose the name Francis, the new Pope explained that during the papal election in the conclave, a Brazilian cardinal who is a friend of his and who was sitting next to him said to him, after the votes were counted and he had received the required two thirds majority, “Never forget the poor.” This impacted the newly elected Pope so much that he thought of Saint Francis of Assisi. He chose the name Francis whom he called “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loved.” In the interview, the Pope then added: “How I wish for a Church that is poor, and for the poor.”
In his first meeting with the Vatican diplomatic corps nine days after his election, Pope Francis explained that one of the reasons he chose the name Francis was because of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for the poor. He said to the diplomats: “How many poor people there still are in the world! And what suffering they have to endure!” Then he added: “But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously.” So Pope Francis’ outreach to the poor includes not only the materially poor, but also the spiritually poor, those who lack hope, those who are neglected, those who suffer from loneliness, etc. The Pope has spoken often about youth who cannot find a job, about the elderly who are alone and ignored, about immigrants, about those who have addictions, etc. And he has reached out to them in Rome and other places he has visited these past several months: Brazil, Sardinia, Lampedusa, Assisi. Everywhere he goes, he plans visits to those who are poor and he extends to them compassion and love. He is setting an example for the Church, to live its teaching on the preferential option for the poor. His own simple and humble lifestyle is also an example, especially for bishops and priests, but really for all of us.
On October 4th, the feast of Saint Francis, the Pope visited Assisi. While there (one of my favorite places when I was a student in Rome), Pope Francis visited the room that marks the spot where Saint Francis as a young man stripped naked before the bishop, renounced his wealthy family and set out to serve the poor. It is called the “Room of Renunciation.” There with the Pope was a group of homeless and unemployed people. There Pope Francis spoke about children dying of hunger, families without food, and people forced to flee slavery and hunger. He spoke about Saint Francis’ choice to be like Jesus, to imitate him, to follow him to the end. He spoke about how Jesus stripped himself and made himself like us. “Jesus is God, but he was born naked, he was placed in a manger, and he died naked and crucified. Francis stripped himself of everything, of his worldly life, of himself, to follow his Lord, Jesus, to be like him.” Pope Francis said that “the renunciation of Saint Francis tells us simply what the Gospel teaches: following Jesus means putting him in first place, stripping ourselves of the many things that we possess that suffocate our hearts, renouncing ourselves, taking up the cross and carrying it with Jesus. Stripping ourselves of prideful ego and detaching ourselves from the desire to possess, from money, which is an idol that possesses.” Pope Francis reminds us that the Christian is not one who just speaks about the poor. “He is one who encounters them, who looks them in the eye, who touches them.” The Pope very strongly said that the Church “must strip away every kind of worldly spirit.” He said that the Church, all of us, “must strip herself of the worldliness that leads to vanity, to pride, that is idolatry.” He basically is asking us to put Christ first, like Saint Francis did. Putting Christ first leads us to recognize him in the poor and the suffering.
The Pope is teaching us by word and example to follow the path of Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve, who bore the suffering of the cross out of love for us, for our salvation. He is reaffirming with all its force the Church’s preferential option for the poor.
One of the key principles of Catholic social teaching is the principle of the universal destination of goods. This requires that the poor, the marginalized and those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern. It involves the exercise of Christian charity. This should affect the life of every Christian inasmuch as we seek to imitate the life of Christ. It involves our manner of living. It involves rejecting the immoderate love of riches or their selfish use. We are called to imitate Christ’s compassion, inspired by Jesus’ own poverty, his teachings, and his attention to the poor. Our love for the poor concerns not only material poverty, but also the numerous forms of cultural and religious poverty. In the Catholic tradition, we speak about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his/her spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead” (CCC 2447).
Human misery “elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church…” (CCC 2448). I wish to encourage you to this imitation of the compassion of Christ. The theme for your campus ministries this year here at Goshen College is a great challenge: “Sowing Compassion.” This is the Gospel. Think of the meaning of that word “compassion” – from the Latin “cum-passio”: to suffer with. This is what Jesus did. This is what Saint Francis did. This is what Pope Francis is calling Christians to live today. True compassion! Not just externally helping our neighbor in need, but truly helping “from our hearts.” Truly being in solidarity with the suffering, with those in need. In a speech this summer, Pope Francis posed two questions: “Tell me, when you give alms do you look into the eyes of the man or woman to whom you give alms? … And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the one to whom you give alms, or do you toss the coin?” Great questions! We are to bring Christ’ love to those whom we seek to serve and help. I remember Pope Benedict also stressing that there is something of which every suffering person has even greater need, namely, “loving personal concern.” (e.g. soup kitchen at St. Francis in Harrisburg). This is compassion.
May the Lord help all of us to grow in true Christian charity and compassion! May God bless this community of Goshen College as you to sow compassion! Thank you for this opportunity to be with you today as my brothers and sisters in Christ.