“We are called to deprive ourselves of essential things, not only the superfluous”

I love this passage from Pope Francis’s Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square yesterday:

Today Jesus also tells us that the measurement is not the quantity but the fullness. There is a difference. It is not a question of the wallet, but of the heart. There are heart diseases that lower the heart to the portfolio. To love God “with all your heart” means to trust Him, to trust in His providence, and to serve him in the poorest brothers and sisters without expecting anything in return. Faced with the needs of others, we are called to deprive ourselves of essential things, not only the superfluous; we are called to give the necessary time, not only what remains extra; we are called to give immediately and unconditionally some of our talent, not after using it for our own purposes or our own group.

Allow me to tell you a story that happened in my previous diocese. It is about a mother with her three children.  The father was at work and the family was at table eating veal cutlets alla Milanese.  Just then someone knocked at the door and one of the children – the young one who was five or six years old – the oldest was seven years old – came and said, “Mom, there’s a beggar at the door who is asking for some food.”  And the mother, a good Christian, said, “What should we do?”

“Give him some food,” they said.

“Ok.” She took the fork and knife and cut each person’s cutlet in half.

“Oh no, Mom! Not like this! Take something from the refrigerator!”

“No, we will make three sandwiches like this!”

And thus the children learned that the meaning of true charity means that you give not from what is left over but from what we need. I am certain that that afternoon they were a bit hungry, but this is the way to do it.


“This Land Is Home to Me,” 40 years on

this landTomorrow, February 1, marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of This Land Is Home to Me, a historic pastoral letter by the bishops of the Appalachian region of the United States. OSV Newsweekly has just published a new article I’ve written about the origins of that letter, its impact on the U.S. Catholic Church and the region, and its enduring legacy. It’s in this week’s print edition and here on the OSV website.

You can find the full text of This Land Is Home to Me here (the link opens a .pdf). At the same link, you’ll also find At Home in the Web of Life, the letter the Appalachian bishops released in 1995, to mark This Land‘s twentieth anniversary. Both documents are well worth a look.

On This Land‘s anniversary, I’d also point you to “A Judgment upon Us All,” an article of mine published by Commonweal almost two years ago, which offers a more personal and on-the-ground perspective on the issues addressed by This Land. Finally, you’ll find a selection of other reflections and comments on Appalachian poverty that I’ve offered on this blog by clicking here.


Walking the walk

The Italian newspaper La Stampa‘s site, Vatican Insider, is reporting this morning that work will begin in a few days to renovate the public restrooms below the collonades of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Shower facilities will be installed for the use of local homeless people.

The source of this information is Bishop Konrad Krajewski, the Papal Almoner (his full-time job is helping the poor on behalf of the Pope!). La Stampa is also reporting that ten Catholic parishes in Rome in the neighborhoods most frequented by the homeless have already, at Krajewski’s invitation, installed similar showers. The full article is here. Here’s a snippet:

So he decides to visit ten parishes in areas of Rome where many homeless people live. He enters parish halls. If they do not already exist, he asks that showers be built, paid by the Pope’s charity. They are not expensive projects, they are not designed to become big community centers. They are rather a diffused service for the people in the neighborhoods of a city where public restrooms are closed and the homeless cannot go into cafés to use the toilet. Monsignor Krajewski explains that «it is not simple, because it is easier to make sandwiches than run a shower service. We need volunteers, towels, underwear». Father Conrad tells the parish priests that «the Holy Father is paying!». And Providence never fails to assist. Andrea Bocelli, through his foundation, makes a substantial donation. A senator from the North requests the intervention of a firm which builds the showers in the parishes that lack them for free.

Program getting minority kids to college

I listened to a fascinating report on Morning Edition this morning about Detroit’s Christo Rey Catholic high school system. It seems to have found a creative and effective recipe for getting at-risk minority kids motivated, educated, and into college.

The schools work in cooperation with local professional places of business — hospitals and law firms, not McDonalds and gas stations — to place the kids in internship-type positions one day a week. This gives them first hand experience of professional work environments and also some important contacts for things like letters of recommendation and college/career advice. Sounds like they’re having some good success with it, and the number of kids trying to get into the schools is now far outstripping the programs’ capacities.

I ended up sitting in my car before coming in to my office so I could hear the report all the way through. It’s here and worth the 5 minutes it’ll take to listen. The Detroit Christo Rey system website is here.

“Do you want to honor Christ’s body?”: St. John Chrysostom on liturgy and care for the poor

I’m busy wrapping up my work translating Goffredo Boselli’s The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, set for publication by Liturgical Press in the fall. It’s an exciting and beautiful book in many ways, one of them being Boselli’s rich appreciation of the theology of the early Church. The book draws from many of the greatest thinkers and pastoral leaders of that era in fruitful ways.

Here’s a great passage from St. John Chrysostom that Boselli quotes at some length in chapter nine, which is on “Liturgy and Love for the Poor”:

Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Do not neglect him when he is naked; do not, while you honor him here with silken garments, neglect Him perishing outside of cold and nakedness. For He that said “This is my body,” and by His word confirmed the fact, also said, “You saw me hungry and you did not feed me” and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” This [the body of Christ on the altar] has no need of coverings, but of a pure soul; but that requires much attention. Let us learn therefore to be strict in life, and to honor Christ as He Himself desires….

For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, being hungry, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Do you make for Him a cup of gold, while you refuse to give him a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Do you furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while you refuse Him even the most basic coverings? And what good comes of it?

And these things I say, not forbidding munificence in these matters, but admonishing you to do those other works, together with these, or rather even before these. Because for not having adorned the church no one was ever blamed, but for not having helped the poor, hell is threatened, and unquenchable fire, and the punishment of evil spirits. Do not therefore while adorning His house overlook your brother in distress, for he is more properly a temple than the other.

That’s from a homily that Chrysostom preached on the Gospel of Matthew (not my translation, but one that’s more than a bit outdated; I cleaned up some of the most archaic style). Chrysostom was archbishop of Constantinople at the beginning of the fifth century.

“It’s a prison”

The threats to the water supply that began yesterday morning in southern West Virginia are only the latest in a long series of similar problems that have occured in that state as a result of coal production. As we have all enjoyed the benefits of easily available fossil fuel energy creation, the residents of this very poor state have paid the consequences.

But I can only imagine that many folks living in the central Appalachian coalfields are shaking their heads this weekend. The discovery of about 5,000 gallons of chemicals used in coal production accidentally seeping into the Elk River near Charleston, the state’s capital, happened at about 10:30 am yesterday, and it was national news by mid-afternoon. The state government, schools, and businesses all shut down, and the Department of Homeland Security is sending in bottled water on 16 tractor-trailer trucks today to distribution centers in and around Charleston. “It’s a prison from which we would like to be released,” the mayor of Charleston told CNN yesterday afternoon. And from what I have read, it’s apparently not even clear that the water is very unsafe yet; most of the response seems to be precautionary in nature. As it should be.

Well, it’s nice that everyone has lept into action. But giant multi-billion-dollar coal companies have intentionally pumped billions of gallons of more toxic stuff into the ground of some of the poorest counties of southern West Virginia for decades, leaving entire communities with dangerous and disgusting water supplies and their residents suffering long-term effects that include chronic nausea, chronic diarhhea, gum disease, dimentia, birth defects, sterility, cancer, and more.

The difference this weekend is that it happened to Charleston, where middle- and upper-class people live, where the state legislators and business leaders work and where their kids go to school.

After reading the coverage from West Virginia for about 20 minutes early this morning, I was literally feeling grateful to be able to step into a clean and safe shower. There are West Virginia families and communities that have been unable to do that for years. Anyone see a problem here?

NPR in Martin County

Map of Kentucky highlighting Martin CountyToday is the 50th anniverary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of “unconditional war on poverty in America.” To mark the occasion, NPR has begun a series of reports on poverty in the United States today. I listened to the first of these in the car on the way to work this morning and was very glad I caught it.

I was glad to learn what the report had to offer, of course, but probably appreciated it more Map of the United States highlighting Kentuckybecause I am so familiar with the place that reporter Pam Fessler chose to consider: Martin County, Kentucky (marked in red on the state map). I worked a stone’s throw from Martin County for two years (and I mean that literally: you could throw a stone across the creek into Martin County from the spot I parked my  car every day when I got to work in Kermit, West Virginia). Many of our clients at Christian Help of Mingo County were Martin County residents. (Some of them are featured in photos in the little video I made during my time there that you’ll find at the Christian Help homepage; it’s the bottom of the two videos there.)

I know well the places Fessler mentions in her report: the town of Inez, Kentucky, and the mountains, hollers, and coalfields that surround it. I don’t know personally the people she talks to, but their surnames are familiar ones in the area.

The other thing I know well, and which made me smile, is that accent in those people’s voices. After living in the region for a couple of years and getting to know the people well, hearing that accent is like pulling a warm blanket around myself. Sounds corny, I suppose, but, well, they’re good people, who welcomed and befriended my family and me without ever for a single moment treating us as the outsiders that we were.

I can tell you that Fessler does not exaggerate the poverty of the region a bit. Her report does suggest the difficulties it causes, the crucial help that government support offers, and determination of many in the region to get by as best they can by their own efforts.

What Fessler did not mention, and probably did not have time to go into, is the broad and powerful historical, economic, and business forces that brought the region to where it was on the day Lyndon Johnson visited and where it is still today. Perhaps NPR will have a chance to explore that in the reports that will follow.

Read or listen to Pam Fessler’s NPR report, “Kentucky County That Gave War On Poverty A Face Still Struggles,” here.