As we enter the holy season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22, I am especially mindful of Christ’s mandate that we assist the poor. As you know, almsgiving, along with fasting and prayer, is required of us as part of our Lenten discipline — and never in recent times has the need to reach out as Christians to help our sisters and brothers in need been as pressing.
The economic downturn of recent years has aggravated this situation dramatically in our nation and in every one of our communities in the Diocese of Rochester. Poverty and the number of people on the precipice of poverty is on the rise. Unemployment and underemployment is affecting people of all economic situations, especially those whose material resources already were meager. Work is scarce. Catholic Charities agencies and parish-based programs report a dramatic increase in requests for help.
Addressing this situation, soon-to-be Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York Archdiocese, in his role as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently urged his brother bishops to help raise awareness of this pressing issue.
"It has been reported that 46 million people (15%) now live in poverty in the United States. This report follows dismal unemployment figures in recent months," Archbishop Dolan wrote. "For us as bishops, these numbers are not statistics, but people suffering and wounded in their human dignity. They are parents who cannot feed their children, families that have lost their homes and jobless workers who have lost not only income, but also a sense of their place in society. For us, each of these persons is a child of God with innate human dignity and rights that deserve respect. These numbers bring home to us the human costs and moral consequences of a broken economy that cannot fully utilize the talents, energy and work of all our people. We know the terrible toll the current economic turmoil is taking on families and communities. In our own Catholic dioceses we are struggling to match scarce resources with growing needs and have had to make very difficult financial, personnel and organizational choices."
This issue is a cause of great concern to me and to other pastoral leaders in our diocese.
For example, issues surrounding poverty, unemployment and the wide and growing disparity in economic equality in our nation has been a longstanding concern of our diocesan Public Policy Committee. This year, one of the committee’s core education issues is "The Common Good: We Are One in the Body of Christ."
"As economic inequality increases, the quality of life of everyone, including the wealthy, is negatively impacted," the committee states. "The plight of the poor is worse in societies of extreme economic inequality. The Gospel and Catholic social teaching remind us that we are responsible for creating a more just world. Do our decisions reflect our nature and our oneness in Christ? We invite all Catholics to reflect on this ‘big picture’ issue and to explore how we can act in ways that strengthen the common good."
In recent meetings of the Presbyteral Council, the body of priests that advises me and which represents the concerns of all the regions in the Diocese of Rochester, we have had much discussion on ways we might educate people on hunger, poverty and the economic problems in our midst. Suggested action steps are being developed for the consideration of parish leaders.
Much good work already is being done. Our network of Catholic Charities agencies is one of the largest providers of food and clothing for the needy and other emergency assistance in the Greater Rochester, Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions.
A multitude of parish-based programs, many crossing parish boundaries and involving multiple parishes and interfaith cooperation, provide direct help to those in need through hot lunch and dinner programs, food and clothing cupboards, direct financial assistance, help with heating bills and unexpected repairs, transportation, emergency shelter, assistance with government programs, and so on. If you would like to read some specific examples, visit our diocesan website, www.dor.org, and click "Social Ministry."
Your financial and volunteer assistance is crucial to these life-giving ministries; call your particular parish office for more information and to offer your help, or contact our main Catholic Charities office, 585-328-3228, ext. 1323.
While we ought to look for as many ways possible to help the poor throughout the year, as Jesus emphatically taught us to do, Lent provides us with a special opportunity and a focus. I encourage you to help wherever and whenever you can.
"In these tough economic times, we turn to the God who loves us," Archbishop Dolan reminds us. "We pray for those who need work. We lift up the poor and suffering. We ask God’s guidance for our nation. This is not a time to give into discouragement. It is a time for faith, hope and love. Faith offers us moral principles to guide us in the days ahead. Christian hope gives us strength. Christ’s love calls us to care for those left behind in this broken economy."
Peace to all.