Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer - Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission’s subcommittee on Poverty meets at St. Teresa rectory, Buffalo, to discuss Lent resources for parishes that combine prayer, Catholic Social Teaching and poverty.
With the debate over income disparity growing louder in a presidential election year, the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission is reaching out to parishes to offer resources and lessons about poverty during the Lenten season.
“We want everybody to live as true children of God with justice and human dignity,” said Sister Sharon Goodremote, FSSJ, chair of the poverty subcommittee. “Poverty is a moral wound in the soul of America.”
A subcommittee of five members is spreading their message about poverty through various methods, including sample bulletin announcements that contain quotes from papal encyclicals and bishops, as well as practical action Catholics can take to ease the strain of poor people and understand the issue. The group is also publishing booklets about the Stations of the Cross that tell the story of Jesus’ suffering and relating His pain to poor people.
“We thought one of the things we could do was provide information to the parishes about, what does the Church say we should do about poverty and what does Scripture say,” Sister Sharon said. “Instead of reinventing the wheel, we would go through the idea of Stations of the Cross and some of the more devotional things that parishes are always looking for anyway. We want to get that information out to parishes, that there are different ways of doing the Stations of the Cross.”
Msgr. Jerome Sullivan, who also serves on the poverty subcommittee, said many parishes devote one week during Lent to the Stations of the Cross, especially for younger Catholics.
“Since parishes are doing that, (our thought) was to give them something they can use,” he said. “It ties into the Catholic teaching about social justice.”
Recent census information indicates that poverty is a problem that is only growing bigger. The official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, the highest percentage since 1993. The number of people suffering in poverty in 2010, 46.2 million, is the largest ever since the census bureau has been keeping track.
The news for the city of Buffalo, the third-poorest city in the United States, is even bleaker. Since 2005, the rate of poverty in the city is about double the national average.
“This affects every single principle of Catholic social teaching and every single dogma of the Catholic Church because it’s based on the dignity of the human person,” said Sister Sharon. “We know that respect for life is from womb to tomb, and therefore you want mothers who are having children not to be having them in poverty. Make sure they have the food they’re supposed to have to let the child grow up healthy. You want them to have an education; you want them to have a safe environment. It’s very much an important issue for the Church.”
The subcommittee is also publicizing the national Catholic Charities website (catholiccharitiesusa.org) and Catholic Campaign for Human Development (usccb.org/cchd/poverty) that offer many resources about the strain of poverty. The committee uses these resources themselves to help educate Catholics about the issue, whether they are a pastor, principal, religious education instructor or lay person.
“We think this is really laying a foundation for this committee to be more active throughout the diocese,” said Megan Connelly, another member of the poverty subcommittee. “There’s a poverty challenge that the Homeless Alliance of Western New York does, that asks people to make a commitment to live in solidarity and at a certain income level for a week. It’s tough. We’re hoping this committee might be a gateway for us, to maybe run something like this in the fall.”
The committee also offers other suggestions for people to understand the context of poverty, such as limiting yourself to a budget tied to the poverty guideline, starting a giveaway box during Lent that you can contribute to and then donate, or growing a vegetable garden and donating the produce.
“If you were doing a budget on the income of somebody who lives in poverty, what would you give up to fit in your budget?” Sister Sharon asked. “It really makes it real. There’re very few of us who have a $125,000 annual income. Most of us, if we’re lucky, have a $30,000 income.”
“There’s so much work to be done,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “You really have to have some kind of context. It’s one thing to condemn someone who’s on public assistance, but it’s another thing to talk to that person and find out she’s up every morning at 5 to take two or three buses to get to a job that doesn’t have health insurance. It’s either a matter of paying the mortgage or the health insurance. It’s just a vicious cycle that people get into. To meet somebody who’s genuinely good and hard working puts a different face on them.”
The debate between rich and poor has become heated during this presidential election year, but the committee asks those who are skeptical of so-called “welfare queens” to move beyond political ideology.
“It’s not like a political issue or it’s just a problem where people (can dismiss) because they are not making the right decisions,” Sister Sharon said. “It’s something where the system is very oppressive to everybody, and more and more people are starting to experience that. The Church is saying that’s not right.”
Connelly, who serves on her parish council at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Harris Hill, feels talking about social justice may help evangelization efforts to attract people under 30.
“Social justice is such an important component of our faith life,” she said. “If you want to attract young people, then making social justice more accessible to young adults would be an excellent tool for evangelization.”
“If we start looking at poverty as our brothers and sisters, as someone who is not given a handout, but really to be helped through charity and also through justice,” Sister Sharon said. “It is justice that will change the systems that keep people in poverty. We really want to get to the deep of what God is asking us to do to live in this world where poverty in the United States is only increasing, not decreasing.”
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