My dear brothers
and sisters in Christ:
In considering the many issues confronting contemporary society, we cannot help but note the growing poverty in our community; as poverty continues to escalate it should capture our attention and emphasize the need to assist our brothers and sisters in the family of God who seek our assistance. I am deeply grateful for the outstanding work of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rochester and for so many of our parishes and institutions that reach out to those who have so little. Our Catholic schools and religious-education programs inspire our young people to become servants of the Gospel who share the gifts that they have.
In seeking to heighten awareness of this critical issue, I am reminded of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio. For many of us, both during his pontificate and after his death, Paul VI has been and continues to be a profound inspiration. He was our Holy Father when I was a theology student in Rome and ordained to the priesthood in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 17, 1971. I saw in him a gentleness and humility that touched hearts; I saw one unafraid to accept the invitation: "Take up your cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). I saw an apostle who took very seriously the mandate of Jesus to Peter: "Feed my sheep." (John 21:17).
Thus, it was no surprise but rather consistent with his person that Paul VI would write an encyclical on the Progress of Peoples, which demonstrated genuine pastoral concern about the growing chasm between the rich and the poor, those who have plenty and those who have nothing. As a true Shepherd for the whole world, Pope Paul VI noted: "Unless the existing machinery is modified, the disparity between rich and poor nations will increase rather than diminish; the rich nations are progressing with rapid strides while the poor nations move forward at a slow pace" (Paragraph 8). As we proceed through this impressive document, we come upon paragraph 23 of Populorum Progressio, where there is quoted those powerful words of still another apostle, St. Ambrose, who confronts the affluent among his flock when he says: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich" (De Nabute, c. 12, n. 53: PL 14. 747; cf.J. R. Palanque, Saint Ambroise et l’empire romain, Paris: de Boccard (1933), 336 ff.). Both St. Ambrose and Blessed Paul VI are deeply attentive to the words of yet another apostle, St. John: "I ask you, how can God’s love survive in a man who has enough of this world’s goods yet closes his heart to his brother when he sees him in need" (1 John 3:17, quoted in paragraph 23 of Populorum Progressio).
These words dating back over the centuries need to be pondered today just as they were reflected upon in the ages of St. John and St. Ambrose and were etched in the heart of Blessed Paul VI. And one need not look too far to appreciate the relevance of these words. In this very state of New York and in our Diocese we see disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Our own communities are challenged with very critical statistics which adversely affect so many lives. Lacking in jobs to retain the young, growing economic restraints placed upon the elderly and rising costs making basic necessities unaffordable to the average family, our communities will continue to experience a rising gap between the rich and the poor.
These local situations already present us with a great insight into the global dimensions of this problem. Here in the northeast region in the United States, one catches more than a glimpse of the poverty that not only surrounds us, but that is reaching crisis proportions. Pope Paul VI called upon us to realize that we are one family in God called to support one another and to grieve when we have sisters and brothers in need. In this notable encyclical we read: "There can be no progress towards the complete development of man without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity" (Paragraph 43). So often poverty is seen only as a societal problem to be solved, while, unfortunately, we forget that, at its core, it is an opportunity to help a brother or a sister, another child of God. A person’s success, resourcefulness and earthly accomplishments can become virtuous when they are used to elevate and esteem the crowning glory of creation, the human person.
But this spirit of solidarity depends upon a profound reverence for and appreciation of the dignity of every person from the very moment of conception until natural death. The year following the encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI wrote still another encyclical, Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968), in which he quoted St. John XXIII: "Human life is sacred — all people must recognize that fact. From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God" (Paragraph 13, quoting Mater et Magistra, 1961).
In celebrating God’s gift of life, we must seek ways to nurture and to help all people to embrace the words of Jesus: "I have come that you may have life and have this life to the full" (John 10:10). I pray that the many talented, successful and faith-filled members of our communities will embrace the ministry of Jesus by participating in the works of Catholic Charities, the Catholic Ministries Appeal and parish-based programs serving the poor. Indeed, persons of means have given so very generously over the years, and their contributions are deeply appreciated. But the needs continue; there are many opportunities to help. Please join our sisters and brothers who courageously continue the work of the Gospel and see in every person one created in the image and likeness of God.
During the past month on Aug. 11 we celebrated the feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon martyred in the year 258 AD. The story is told that the Emperor Valerian demanded that St. Lawrence hand over to him the treasures of the Church. St. Lawrence gathered together the poor of the city and when the emperor asked to see the Church’s treasures, St. Lawrence turned to the poor and said to the Emperor: "These are the treasures of the Church."
Paul VI reminds us in paragraph 13 of Populorum Progressio that: "The Church, which has long experience in human affairs and has no desire to be involved in the political activities of any nation, ‘seeks but one goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit’" (cf. Church in the World of Today, no. 3: AAS 58 , 1026). Over these many centuries, the Church has cared for the poor; for us this is not a new mission, but one that has been so beautifully served by so many, religious and laity, following in the footsteps of Christ and motivated by an ardent faith and sustained by the most holy Eucharist. We are part of that mission; nourished by the body and blood of Christ, we, too, go forth to be his presence in the world.
Renewing my gratitude for all that you do in so many ways of service, I remain
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester