In the first reading of today’s Mass, taken from the Book of Isaiah, we are given a direct command from the Lord, through the words of the Prophet:
Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.

Note that these words are not given to us as a suggestion from the Lord. It is a direct command. And, as such, we need to take these words seriously. With that in mind, perhaps we should undergo an examination of conscience concerning our relationship with the poor.

To begin our self-reflection, let’s start with the example of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. When he was elected on March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the name, Francis, as the 265th successor of St. Peter. At the time of the papal conclave, I was a doctoral student in Rome and I was asked the next day by a reporter why I thought the new Pope chose the name Francis. Ever the pundit, I opined that it was most likely in honor to his brother Jesuit and the great saint of evangelization, Francis Xavier. And I was proven totally wrong! Later that day, the Pontiff mentioned that he chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. 

Yes, it is the example of the “poor one” of Assisi, who is the guiding light of this Pope. In 2017, at Pope Francis’ urging, the Vatican established the World Day of the Poor, usually held on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (in November), which gives us as a Church the opportunity to reflect on the poor in the world and in our midst. On the occasion of the Third World Day of the Poor (Nov. 17, 2019), the Pope stated: 

“We can never elude the urgent appeal that Scripture makes on behalf of the poor. Wherever we look, the word of God points to the poor, those who lack the necessities of life because they depend on others. They are the oppressed, the lowly and the downcast. Yet, faced with countless throngs of the poor, Jesus was not afraid to identify with each of them: ‘Whatever you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did to me’ (Mt?25:40). ...

Yet Jesus who inaugurated his kingdom by placing the poor at the center, wanted to tell us precisely this: he?inaugurated?the kingdom, but he has entrusted to us, his disciples, the task of carrying it forward with responsibility for giving hope to the poor. Especially at times like our own, there is a need to revive hope and to restore confidence. This responsibility is not something that the Christian community may underestimate. The credibility of our proclamation and the witness of Christians depends on it.” 

Notice that the Holy Father said that the very credibility of the Christian message depends on how we treat the poor. This is where our faith in the Body of Christ meets the practical needs of the suffering Body of Christ.  

With this in mind, who then are these poor whom we are commanded to care for in the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah? To be very blunt, the poor means so much more than simply the downtrodden and destitute — it means each and every person whom we encounter. Aren’t each of us poor and lacking in some way or another? Aren’t each of us poor in spirit, needing the love and mercy of the One Who is Mercy Incarnate, Jesus Christ, our Lord? 

The Gospel which we proclaim today reminds us of why we as Christians should serve the poor, both those without means and those who are poor in spirit: 

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

The 20th century spiritual writer Thomas Merton, after many years of living the Trappist lifestyle, was permitted to leave his abbey to go shopping for his community one day. This is from his work, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” 

We are all the poor one in need. And yet, we’re all walking around shining like the sun. Despite sorrow, despite sin, you and I are created in God’s image and through baptism are conformed to his likeness. On your worst day, when everything seems to be going wrong, don’t lose sight of that. The Lord hears our cry, the cry of the poor!