By Sister Silvana Dallanegra rscj, Development Worker for West London
In 2017 Pope Francis instituted the World Day of the Poor. To be kept annually on the 33rd Sunday of the liturgical year (which this year falls on the 15th November), this World Day is an opportunity for us all to bear witness to Jesus’ love for the poor and vulnerable among us, through focused prayer and almsgiving or some sort of service.
There is an aching poignancy to the theme for this year’s Day, as chosen by Pope Francis: “Stretch forth your hand to the poor” (Sir 7:32). Written in June, at the height of severe lockdowns in many countries, the Pope’s message seemed to run counter to every piece of government messaging around ensuring our own and our families’ safety and health. Stretching forth our hands to anyone outside our immediate household was now a risky, potentially infectious act; our safety and health lay in restricting ourselves, and our gestures, to just a small circle of people. Hands – regularly, rigorously, soaped and sanitised – have been our first line of defence in the fight against Covid19, especially as we learned to curb a lifetime’s tendencies of instinctive, unconscious gestures and stretching forth.
Which is probably why Pope Francis chose these words,
“… as a sacred rule to be followed in life… [to] help us fix our gaze on what is essential…”, giving us “… an opportunity to encounter the Lord Jesus, who has revealed himself as present in the least of his brothers and sisters (cf. Mt 24:40)…”
How, then, can we stretch forth our hands to the poor in a time of lockdown and social distancing…?
The possibilities are there, though the means might have to remain virtual. We can stretch forth our hand to donate to our chosen charity, or to buy a book token for a prisoner’s child. If we know how to sew we can make face masks for the homeless, or we can find other ways to volunteer our time and talents. Perhaps we know someone whose poverty is that of loneliness: can we stretch forth our hand to make a phone call, post a card or, bearing a small gift, knock on their door? Perhaps, too, we can continue to stretch forth our hand every time we shop during Advent, by using the Caritas Westminster Advent Giving Calendar. Or maybe, we’d prefer to join others in understanding and addressing the causes of poverty and insecurity, and working towards the common good? And we can, of course, always raise up our hands in prayer, conscious of so many needs in this diocese as well as in our world.
And in the process, we will surely widen the space of our hearts, welcoming in all those we have to physically keep at bay. Anyone who has already been part of the immense outpouring of generous service we’ve experienced during this pandemic, will know that this is the most essential stretching we can ever do.
And as Pope Francis reminds us in his message for this World Day
“In everything you do, remember your end” (Sir 7:36)
The “end” of all our actions can only be love. This is the ultimate goal of our journey, and nothing should distract us from it. This love is one of sharing, dedication and service, born of the realisation that we were first loved and awakened to love. We see this in the way children greet their mother’s smile and feel loved simply by virtue of being alive. Even a smile that we can share with the poor is a source of love and a way of spreading love. An outstretched hand, then, can always be enriched by the smile of those who quietly and unassumingly offer to help, inspired only by the joy of living as one of Christ’s disciples.