Cardinal Etchegaray on the Challenge of Poverty

"The Church Cannot Live Without the Poor"

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ROME, FEB. 5, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Given the challenge of poverty in the global society, where should the Christian commitment lie?



Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Vatican Jubilee Committee, replied to this question in an article published in the Italian magazine Il Regno.

The Basque-French cardinal is inspired by John Paul II´s apostolic letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte" when the former proposes ways which he believes will define the humanizing action of Christians over the next decades.

"I would like to begin with the poor, with the necessary poverty of the Church," the cardinal told Il Regno. "´I was hungry and you gave me food; a stranger and you welcomed me.´ Commenting on this page of Christology in Matthew´s Gospel, the Pope says in ´Novo Millennio Ineunte´ that it ´illuminates the mystery of Christ,´ and specifies: ´If we have truly started out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he himself wished to be identified´ [No 49].

"Therefore, it is not enough to emphasize the moral exigency of solidarity with the poor. Relation with the poor calls directly for a relation with Christ."

The cardinal went on to explain that the mystery of the poor Christ reveals to the world something of the very poverty of God who, in his Trinitarian relation, "lives an eternal despoilment and an eternal surrender. It is impossible to scrutinize God in any other light than that of the Trinitarian despoilment, as it is also impossible to understand man in any other way than in the line with this despoilment."

If man really wants to scrutinize his destiny, he continued, "he must do so in the light of the Trinity, which is poor, and in the light of Christ, who is the visible image of it. Therefore, it is the identity of the Church of Christ and its authenticity that is at stake: The Church cannot live without the poor. Much more than that, it cannot be conceived without the poor. ´You have left poverty as an inheritance to all those who want to be your disciples,´ Charles de Foucauld said, addressing Christ.

"However, the Church never succeeds in identifying herself fully with the poor. Every day we experience some exclusion, some distance, which means that the Church cannot identify fully with the Kingdom of Heaven and that her center is outside herself."

The former archbishop of Marseilles said that during the Jubilee Year, the Church in a sense went up to the Nazareth synagogue again, where Jesus said that he came to announce the good news to the poor, as the great sign of the "year of the Lord´s grace" [Luke 4:16-20].

Jesus learned from his Mother, in his home in Nazareth, to love the poor whom, he said, were his real disciples and with whom he opened the Holy Door of his mission of Jubilee grace. And he called them blessed: "Blessed are you poor."

Cardinal Etchegaray also recalled that throughout the centuries the renewal of the Church has always been effected through the alliance with the poor. He believes that the Church must never stop being what it is: "the sacrament of God become poor."

The paradox, the cardinal indicated, "and perhaps the disadvantage of our age, is that the world is waking up to the drama of the poor with the mentality of the rich, while the Church moves close to it with the heart of the poor.

"Hence, the enormous misunderstanding that exists between economic and spiritual poverty, to the point that the blessing of poverty becomes laughable in a society of plenty. How can one put across the need to conciliate the evangelical search for that which has inestimable value, with an economy subject to the law of prices?

"Apostolic poverty is the hardest but surest test of the authenticity of evangelization. When I was the bishop of Marseilles, I called Mother Teresa so that she would create among us a foundation of her Sisters of Charity. Before leaving, she passed me a little piece of paper in which she has scribbled these words: ´I only ask you one thing: take care that they grow in holiness, protecting their poverty."

"For the one who becomes poor, happiness is a gift, not currency to exchange," the cardinal added. "With the end of the Holy Year, we must pray much to implore and receive this grace of poverty, today more necessary and more difficult than ever, to struggle against the soulless riches and hopeless poverty that sift our society."