Pope Francis in his trip to the United States has given us an example of God’s love for and identification with the poor and the marginalized – visiting places where the poor are fed and where the marginalized are put into prison.
He often speaks of the culture of encounter. We are not only called to be on the side of the poor, we are called to be with them in person – in the manner in which we can do this, meeting them as persons.
It is easy to love the poor as a group and to advocate for them. It is not so easy to be with them. It can be threatening – we don’t know what to expect.
But to accompany the poor means that we let ourselves be challenged by the poor, to learn from them, and to be with them without a sense of superiority.
Otherwise our charity becomes a way of proving ourselves superior to the poor or to those who do not “help” the poor as we do.
How ought we to practice charity? With gratitude, with love, with respect, with openness to the other.
But this is not easy.
As Dostoevsky wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.
St. Vincent Depaul, who died on September 27, 1660, and whose feast is celebrated today, once wrote, in a similar vein:
You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.
Will the poor forgive me as I live here? Will they recognize their dignity and their capacities in my presence? Will they recognize how they are truly children of God and my sisters and brothers? Will they forgive me?