The Passion of the Poor (March 2005)

March 2005


The Passion of the Poor ©

The very possibility of recalling the Lord’s Passion by participating in Good Friday services is a grace, a gratuitous gift from God.

It gives us a moment in which to meditate upon the reality of Christ’s great sacrifice, which was made painfully vivid to us in last year’s movie The Passion of the Christ. But perhaps more importantly, this sacred moment allows us to reflect, in the midst of our otherwise busy lives, upon some unfinished business.

While the physical body of Christ died once and for all (cf. Heb.7: 27) on Calvary 2,000 years ago, rose from the dead in wondrous joy, then ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, we on earth must be aware that the mystical body of Christ, meaning his people and his Church, still suffers.

The awesome words that Jesus spoke while he walked with us still ring in our hearts. Speaking about the final judgement, he said that the Son of Man will divide the people of all the nations into two groups according to how they treated the poor: I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did for me! (Matt.25: 40)

Jesus also said that the poor are always with us. In a way, he was saying it is never too late to begin to act as a true disciple — to continue his mission to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set free the oppressed. (cf. Luke4: 18-19)

God gives us many opportunities to put our faith into action. The poor in Africa call out for us to show what we are made of as baptised Christians. I believe that more than ever today. Christ’s passion is relived there each day among our sisters and brothers who suffer so profoundly.

According to a recent United Nations report, more than 80 million Africans will likely die of AIDS by the year 2025 if the international community doesn’t do more soon to stem the epidemic. Another 90 million people in Africa – more than 1 in 10 – could contract HIV infections by then. Today, more than 25 million Africans are HIV infected – a virus that has already caused life expectancy in nine countries on the continent to drop below age 40.

As horrific as those numbers are, they are just numbers …cold statistics. What they don’t show are the eyes of those that they count.

I was blessed recently with an epiphany: I felt the presence of God in a most unexpected form. Even though I thought my heart had already been broken by spending two months last year in Africa, seeing the devastation up close, the true depth of this disaster remained outside of me until I heard a colleague speak about what’s its like to live in the pervasive presence of the disease.

After we had done a lot of talking about AIDS in Africa, just as we were beginning to rise from our chairs, she spoke quietly about her own experience of AIDS in her native Kenya. Though she did not admonish us for speaking about things we know little, I was humbled by her courageous remark. Softly, she told us, “Until you have lived there, you cannot know the pain of seeing those that you love dying all around you.” And I was moved by her description of the daily reality facing people in countries hardest hit by AIDS.

We have so much to receive from our sisters and brothers in less developed countries. The wounded one is always the gift giver, writes a Franciscan that I deeply admire. In a book entitled Job and the Mystery of Suffering (Crossroad, 1996), Richard Rohr writes, “Whenever we see true pain, most of us are drawn out of our own preoccupations and want to take away the pain. I think we are rushing not just toward the hurt child, we are rushing toward God. We want to take the suffering in our arms.

“That’s why Francis of Assisi could kiss the leper. That’s why so many saints wanted to get near suffering – because as they said again and again, they met Christ there. It “saved” them from their smaller and untrue self. Many who are working among the suffering or poor say the same. They thought they were going as the benefactors, but they invariably found themselves being helped and liberated themselves …Suffering for and with the other seems to be the only way we know that our lives are not about us.”
We know how the story of Jesus’ life on earth ended. We know that he was raised in joy because he lived his vocation with everything he had to offer. He gave it all away and got more in return.

We live in the midst of darkness and suffering. Yet, because of our faith, we are people of hope. Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus gives us reason to hope. And hope gives us reason to love. That’s the mystery of it all. In the midst of darkness, we find hope and love because of Jesus; because of the poor.

Staggering statistics, such as those cited earlier, were considered recently at a congress by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, and Mondo e Missione. Girolamo Fazzini, co-director of the Italian missionary magazine, writes, “Precisely because of this dramatic character and the multiplicity of factors in play, AIDS is a sort of prism through which many facets of the present African reality may be read: inadequate health systems, lack of access to medicines, deficient education, traditional atavisms.

He adds: “Although AIDS today is a challenge for many African societies, it is also a privileged occasion of solidarity and testimony for the Christian Churches. In countries like South Africa, for example, the challenge of AIDS is an opportunity of ecumenism of life, translated in concrete solidarity.”

Fazzini believes that Christians have a “fundamental task: to ensure, beginning from the Gospel, a genuinely human rapprochement with the sick and the sickness, and to witness to charity in concrete situations, in different ways: education, prevention, assistance.”

Hope is part of the Good News that we are called to proclaim, not so much with words, but with concrete gestures that restore life to the poor whose life-blood is being sucked by disease and destitution.

Hope is what Francis of Assisi prayed the Lord would allow him to sow onto the parched land of despair: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…where there is despair, (let me sow) hope…”

In a moving book based on this well-known prayer, Leonardo Boff (Orbis Books, 2001) adds his own petition, “May I be in solidarity with the struggle of those who seek justice. May I know how to create an atmosphere of unlimited confidence in your mysterious design of love.”

Indeed, recalling with feeling Christ’s Passion at this or any other time of the year is a grace. It connects us to the pervasive presence of suffering in our wounded world.

In a book that I regard as a positive disturbance, The Church are the Poor (Twenty-Third Publications, 2002), Fr. Joseph Wresinski, founder of The Fourth World Movement, responds to noted French journalist Gilles Anouil’s question about grace in the following manner: “Grace is God getting hold of you and making you love others to the point of wanting them to be greater than you, better, more intelligent than you. Grace is the love that sees others as equal and wants them to be happier than oneself; that wants others at any price to love fully, with all their heart.

“It is God who goads us into wanting others to be able to free the world of poverty, and therefore from injustice, war, and hatred. God leads us where we do not want to go. Grace is knowing that we are not just a distant reflection of God, but that the Lord is permanently present and living in us.”

He adds, “For us, grace means we should identify ourselves fully with the poorest because we have the same origin and belong to the same priestly race. It also means wanting to share the full measure of what we have received and to enable them to receive it in their turn.”

The plight of the poor in Africa infected or affected by the HIV virus is something that is very close to my heart. I am very aware, however, that some readers will be frustrated by the fact that I don’t focus so much on the solutions. As the Lord has called me to concern myself with this issue, I have understood that becoming aware of the human face of this monstrous tragedy is not only the first phase; it is also perhaps the most critical. The goal is not so much to elicit sympathy and to move quickly into action in order to bring a swift end to the anguish that it presents. I am convinced that there is something much bigger and more profound at work. This crisis has more to do with compassion and true solidarity, about entering into the mystery of suffering as something always afflicting humanity, and about carrying at once the anguish of Christ’s Passion and the Joy of his Resurrection.

Of course, practical solutions are vital: some are proposed on my website ( In coming months, others will be communicated on the AIDS in Africa page.

The pain that we see in others can draw us out of our own fears – but only if we allow it to do so. Once we accept where it is guiding us, we can move toward a mystical experience in which we have the potential of embracing the living Christ. When you look upon a crucifix, think of the leper that Saint Francis kissed …and then think of those living with AIDS in Africa. May they bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.