Preferential option for the poor

Years ago when I was working in the parish preparing high school youth for the Sacrament of Confirmation, I was confronted by a parent who objected to the requirement that her daughter feed the homeless at a nearby shelter. This was the capstone service project in their final year of preparation and included a presentation by the social workers from the shelter prior to each class taking turns to prepare the meal and serve it to the residents. This was a popular and meaningful tradition in our parish, and while some occasionally needed reassurance about their children’s safety, it always generated enthusiastic participation by the parents. This mother’s objection to the project was more directed at the Catholic Church, not just the parish program. 

“My daughter will buy a bag of bagels and give them to the homeless on the street,” she told me, “That will mean more to her than doing this big parish service project.” Looking back with the clarity that 20 years of hindsight can give, the issue in question was her understanding of the goal of charity. The mother felt that a collective approach to service would strip the charitable act of its personal encounter that comes from within the heart of the individual. 

While her point has some validity, it does not leave room for the possibility that even a programmed exposure to the needs of others can lead to a conversion of the heart. Take for example the life of Rose Marie Segale, whose story was related on February 23 in the daily devotional “Give Us This Day.” Soon after she entered the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati as a young teen-ager, her community sent her to Trinidad, Colo., not the island in the Caribbean. Taking the name Sister Blandina, she worked among Native Americans that exposed her to their needs and led to the founding of orphanages, hospitals and services for the poor. 

She later went back to Ohio where she worked with Italian immigrants, providing day care, English language classes, and Religious Education. The cause for the canonization of Sister Blandina is underway, and her legacy lives on in the Santa Maria Institute to this day. Sister Blandina didn’t create this foundation and wonder who would show up, but her encounter with the poor generated a response that grew out of their need, and the institutions she founded provide for future generations to come into communion with those it serves. 

In fairness to that mother who objected to the systematic programming of service, there may be a deeply-embedded desire that her child be transformed by her act of charity. She is right to call into question charity that becomes too programmed and impersonal, and while there are some needs so large that they require enormous organizations to address them, we should never remove ourselves from the stories of the individuals who receive our help. 

This was how the CRS program, Operation Rice Bowl came into being. In 1975 Msgr. Robert J. Coll of Allentown, Pa. wanted to teach well-fed Americans about the needs of hungry people around the world. He felt that people should experience the kind of hunger that “500 million of our fellow human beings feel like seven days a week.” He asked people to eat a meatless meal and put the money saved into the cardboard bowls that have been part of our Lenten sacrifice for more than 40 years. The story of how Operation Rice Bowl grew from a local gesture to raise awareness of hunger in the world into an international program that involves millions of Catholics each year can be found on the website where the stories of the people receiving our contributions are captured in videos. 

From the Church’s founding when the Apostles organized a collection of food for the poor in the community, to the monumental work of St. Teresa of Calcutta, our history is rife with people who encounter their neighbors and find ways to alleviate their suffering. The Preferential Option for the Poor is the foundation on which our Judeo-Christian tradition was built. Whether the charity comes from one hand to another, or from an institution to a group, it all must begin with an encounter. Whatever means we choose to solve inequities in the world, we were given two tools on which to base our response: solidarity and subsidiarity. As Pope Benedict wrote in Caritas et Veritate, “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalistic social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”

We are approaching the season of Lent when people look for ways to sacrifice and serve as part of their Spiritual journey. When we give of ourselves for others, we should use as our guide the tenets of Catholic social teaching which embraces the principle that every individual deserves dignity, and that every act of giving is best served when it is done at the most local level.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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