VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A person’s prayer is pleasing to God when it is accompanied by a life of service to the poor, Pope Francis said.
“Prayer to God and solidarity with the poor and suffering are inseparable,” he wrote in his message for the World Day of the Poor, which will be marked Nov. 15.
“In order to perform an act of worship acceptable to the Lord, we have to recognize that each person, even the poorest and most contemptible, is made in the image of God,” he said in the message, which was released by the Vatican June 13.
For the theme of the 2020 day dedicated to making Catholics aware of the charity and solidarity demanded by faith in Jesus, Pope Francis chose a line from the Book of Sirach: “Stretch forth your hand to the poor.”
The message included a reflection on how many people stretched out a helping hand, even at the risk of their personal safety, during the coronavirus pandemic. And how the pandemic has or should have made people aware of the fragility of life, the precariousness of their jobs and connections with others and about how little their normal busyness and patterns of consumption really matter.
“A hand held out is a sign; a sign that immediately speaks of closeness, solidarity and love,” the pope wrote. During the pandemic, “when the whole world was prey to a virus that brought pain and death, despair and bewilderment, how many outstretched hands have we seen!”
Pope Francis lauded the “outstretched hands” of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, priests and of volunteers who visited with and gave food to people living on the streets. He praised workers who continued providing essential services, including the police.
“Those hands defied contagion and fear in order to offer support and consolation,” the pope said.
The Book of Sirach, he said, demonstrates that closeness to God and closeness to other human beings go hand in hand.
“Time devoted to prayer can never become an alibi for neglecting our neighbor in need,” Pope Francis wrote. “In fact, the very opposite is true: The Lord’s blessing descends upon us and prayer attains its goal when accompanied by service to the poor.”
And, while it is true that in the Book of Matthew, Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” the line does not end there. The full quotation is “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.”
A central focus of the World Day of the Poor, said Pope Francis, who instituted the day in 2016, is to reaffirm the “basic truth in the life of the church” that “the poor are and always will be with us to help us welcome Christ’s presence into our daily lives.”
The image of God present in every human being does not depend “on the color of the person’s skin and certainly not on how much he has in his bank account,” said Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, which coordinates the World Day of the Poor activities.
Presenting the pope’s message with an online news conference, the archbishop told reporters the pope’s message “is an invitation to shake off our indifference and our frequent sense of displeasure toward the poor in order to recover the solidarity and the love that lived generously give meaning to life.”
The ongoing economic impact of the pandemic and the number of jobs lost, including among tourist-reliant shops and restaurants near the Vatican, mean that more and more people are going to need help feeding their families, Archbishop Fisichella said.
“It will be our task, therefore, not to withhold from the increasingly numerous poor we encounter the daily signs (of help) that accompany our pastoral action,” he said.
In his message, Pope Francis also looked at how honoring Jesus present in the poor requires not just individual acts of charity, but also conversion and a change of lifestyle.
“In order to help the poor, we ourselves need to live the experience of evangelical poverty,” he said. “We cannot feel ‘alright’ when any member of the human family is left behind and in the shadows.”
“The silent cry of so many poor men, women and children should find the people of God at the forefront, always and everywhere, in efforts to give them a voice, to protect and support them in the face of hypocrisy and so many unfulfilled promises, and to invite them to share in the life of the community,” Pope Francis wrote.
The pope also mentioned in this message those who “stretch out a hand” to do harm to others and to the environment. He cited, for example, those whose “hands are outstretched to accumulate money by the sale of weapons that others” or drug dealers who reach out “to deal doses of death in dark alleys.”
“We cannot be happy until these hands that sow death are transformed into instruments of justice and peace for the whole world,” Pope Francis said.
At the same time, the pope encouraged people to focus on the hands outstretched to help.
“Bad news fills the pages of newspapers, websites and television screens to the point that evil seems to reign supreme. But that is not the case,” he said. “To be sure, malice and violence, abuse and corruption abound, but life is interwoven too with acts of respect and generosity that not only compensate for evil but inspire us to take an extra step and fill our hearts with hope.”