The Poor and the Pandemic

The Poor and The Pandemic

Pope Francis has made social concerns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic the topic of a series of his Wednesday General Audience over the last several weeks. The Preferential Option for the Poor was the topic for his August 19, 2020, address. As we prepare to construct a new normal in the pandemic’s wake, Francis hopes his talks will inspire action in several areas of our culture.

The phrase preferential option for the poor was coined by Fr. Pedro Arrupe back in 1968 when he was the Superior General of the Jesuits. It was subsequently used by Latin American bishops and theologians to describe the Christian obligation to work for social justice. It comes in response to Jesus’ instruction to always be mindful of the need to assist the poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs the disciples that whatever we do for the least of our brothers, we do for Him.

While the phrase was coined in the mid-Twentieth century, its roots are in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum which set the foundation for Catholic social teaching. Pope John Paul II used the term in Centesimus Annus the encyclical he wrote in 1991 to commemorate the centennial of Rerum Novarum. Pope John Paul expanded the definition of the poor to include the spiritually poor. Pope Benedict taught the preferential option for the poor must be embraced as a valid Catholic obligation.

In his talk, Pope Francis states that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the plight of the poor. Here in our country, a disproportionate number of cases have infected the Black and Latino communities whose members work in essential jobs in health care, retail, and the hospitality industry. These essential jobs are often low paying ones. Also, hard-hit are Third World countries with insufficient health care systems. So many of the poor in these countries live only on their day to day income and find it impossible to “lock-down” to stem the rate of infections. They can’t work from home.

Francis pointed out in his talk that God chose to send Jesus into the world to humble circumstances and not exalted ones. Jesus lived in a family of poor craftsmen. He took on the role of a servant for all. Early in his public ministry, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he declared the poor blessed. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that whatever we do for the least of our brothers, we do for Him.

Francis proclaimed that having a preferential option for the poor doesn’t mean we only assist them. Writing a check and then walking away doesn’t cut it. Francis says we need to let ourselves be “infected” by the poor’s experience of salvation. That is an important point. It isn’t enough to give poor people money. We need to expose ourselves to their life situations and their plight. Francis encourages a change to the unhealthy social structures that keep people in poverty and from having dreams for their future.

Francis said that a return to normalcy could not be a continuation of an economy that perpetuates social injustice and the degradation of our environment. He cautioned against government assistance going to support companies and industries that perpetuate social injustice and damage the environment. Francis said government payments should nurture a new economy that offers integral development to improve the conditions of poor permanently. The pope also pleads for an equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine when one developed. It must be available for all people and not just the rich.

Francis finally offered four points to follow as plans for a new post-pandemic economy are made. It must start with the love of God as a foundation, and it must draw those stuck on the peripheries of society into the center, promoting the last to first and supporting the least of our brothers and sisters. Francis’ prayer for a new post-pandemic economy is, “May the Lord help us, and give us the strength to come out of it better, responding to the needs of today’s world.”