Clothe the naked

St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, wrote (at No. 87), “In our service of charity, we must be inspired and distinguished by a specific attitude: we must care for the other as a person for whom God has made us responsible. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to become neighbors to everyone (cf. Lk 10:29-37), and to show special favor to those who are poorest, most alone and most in need. In helping the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned — as well as the child in the womb and the old person who is suffering or near death — we have the opportunity to serve Jesus. He Himself said: ‘As you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’ (Mt 25:40). Hence we cannot but feel called to account and be judged by the ever-relevant words of St. John Chrysostom: ‘Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ? Do not neglect It when you find It naked. Do not do It homage here in the church with silk fabrics only to neglect It outside where It suffers cold and nakedness.’”

Clothing the naked is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy. We do so all the better when the person we are helping feels their dignity restored by the care with which we treat them — not sharing with them old rags, but good clothing (whether new or gently used); not making them feel humiliated because they need to ask for our help; not lording it over them, but realizing that the Lord is in them.

One of the Church’s earliest saints, Martin of Tours, is famous for carrying out this Work of Mercy. Pope Benedict XVI mentioned him in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (No. 40): “Let us consider the saints, who exercised charity in an exemplary way. Our thoughts turn especially to Martin of Tours († 397), the soldier who became a monk and a bishop: he is almost like an icon, illustrating the irreplaceable value of the individual testimony to charity. At the gates of Amiens, Martin gave half of his cloak to a poor man: Jesus Himself, that night, appeared to him in a dream wearing that cloak, confirming the permanent validity of the Gospel saying: ‘I was naked and you clothed Me — as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’” (Mt 25:36, 40).

Nov. 12, 2014 Pope Francis recalled the saint’s feast the previous day: “Yesterday we celebrated the memory of St. Martin, Bishop of Tours. May his great love be an example to you, dear young people, to live life as a donation; may his abandonment to Christ Savior sustain you, dear sick people, in those dark moments of suffering.” St. Martin’s willingness to help that man in need of clothing, up to ruining his own uniform to do so, challenges us to truly sacrifice to help the needy.

To carry out this Work of Mercy well also requires some thought and research, before we go to the store and before we donate our used clothing. Before we run out to the store (or go online), we first need to ask ourselves if we really need more clothing — maybe we could use our money for something better, according to God’s Will. This might be a time in which we could use our money for some charitable endeavor, instead of spending it on ourselves. We might even realize that we need to do some more saving, so that we are not a burden upon other people in the future (so that we do not have to go into debt or ask for financial help from family and friends or the Church and the state).

If we do think we need to shop, we also need to think about the impact our purchases have upon our world (in an indirect way, our shopping can either help clothe the naked or help keep people in poverty). We need to think about the stores themselves — how is my shopping helping to keep the economy going in my city or town — and about the production of the actual garments.

Regarding the clothing itself, we need to be mindful of helping people in our country (even in our diocese) keep their jobs. If we are buying clothing from overseas, we need to look into the ways in which the employees are being treated by their bosses — that they are not working in sweatshop conditions, long outlawed here. 

May begins with the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, which was instituted as a Catholic response to the May Day protests throughout the world. On that day in 2014, Pope Francis discussed the dignity of workers. He complained about bosses who choose “not to pay what is just” and who exploit their workers “not worrying the least bit about their dignity.” This “goes against God,” and he referred to tragedies in factories in the Third World, of which we “read frequently in L’Osservatore Romano.” He quoted a headline in that Vatican newspaper from April 28, 2014. “It is a title,” he said, “that struck me, the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh: ‘How to die for 38 euros a month.’” More than 700 workers had died at a factory there that week. The pope condemned such conditions and said, “Slave labor exploits the most beautiful gift which God gave man: the ability to create, to work, to discover our dignity.”

When we donate clothing, we also need to do research to make certain that the agency to which we are giving the clothing is not contributing to Third World poverty by driving local factories out of business (since the people there could receive for nothing free clothing from the developed world). 

All of this research does take some time. St. Martin did not have to do that when he encountered that poor man, but he would want us to do it, so that we could also help clothe Christ, found naked in this country and in other countries around the world.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts