Though we live in a very complex world than that of St Francis, the need to take care of the poor and vulnerable is the same. He can inspire us to practice the charity towards the poor people and vulnerable demanded of Christians by the gospels. To this effect, Pope Francis’ continuous call for solidarity with marginalized and poor in our society is something welcome.
In this month of October, we celebrate Saint Francis, who is the inspiration and (after Jesus Christ) guiding light of our present pope. Francis is arguably the most loved and recognised of Christian saints. St Francis has appeals to us because of his great love of simplicity in his lifestyle and of people who are poor. He is frequently depicted preaching to the birds, and ministering to animals.
In Luke 12, Jesus tells us to trust in God’s providence, and not to worry about food and clothing. Simple dependency on God is an attractive dimension of Jesus’ and Francis’ spirituality. Obeying Proverbs 6:6-8, St. Francis considered the ants. But he apparently had problems with their hard work to store food for the coming lean months, rather than relying on God’s providence. The followers of St. Francis in religious life were to be “mendicants” or “beggars” depending on God’s providence through the generosity of donors and benefactors to keep them alive and to support their projects.
We might wonder whether this literal reading of the Scriptures is not too simplistic for our complex age. With climate change, terribly unreliable food sources, and so many people living in cities far away from any land on which they could grow their food, there is widespread food insecurity.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, stealing their grain, setting fire to their fields, blocking their ports and threatening shipping in the Black Sea, has shown to the world how highly dependent we are on very fragile supply chains. In particular, where this is combined with drought conditions in Africa and other continents, grain is not only prohibitively expensive. It is also almost impossible to obtain. As a consequence, livestock and people are starving in great numbers in several regions of the world.
Even those who make sensible provisions for the future, like the ants, are not guaranteed long-term security. Civil unrest, catastrophic weather events, war, pandemics, financial crises, etc., have shown us all how vulnerable we are. Small events can cause great suffering, and a sequence of tragedies makes it very difficult for societies to come back to their normal functioning.
In his encyclicals about care for our common home, Laudato Si’, and about fraternal love, “Fratelli Tutti”, Pope Francis has pointed out that the whole world’s economic system needs to change. We need to take much greater care of the poor and the vulnerable, and of the Earth, our shared home. It is immoral that some people are mega-rich while others are dying of starvation. Sometimes, in some countries, they are within sight of each other. Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus at his doorstep is not far removed from our own era.
When the global system is not changing fast enough, there will always be the need for charity. International organisations like the FAO, WHO, UNHCR, UNESCO the Red Cross and Crescent, and charities like OXFAM, Caritas Internationalis, Muslim Aid, and Christian Aid respond with professionalism and on a large scale.
We don’t need to be declared saints like Francis, but there is also a space for all of us, in whatever walk of life we are in, to be on the lookout for the welfare of our brothers and sisters. Food insecurity is not limited to the rural outback or to refugee camps and catastrophe zones. The poor are with us always, Jesus says. We need to open our eyes to the need of others, and to respond charitably.
(Peter Knox, SJ)