THE CRY OF THE POOR
When we gathered in General Chapter in 2012, we had no idea that within a year we would have a new Pope. So there was no way we could know, when we decided to name 2015 a “Year of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace,” that Pope Francis would subsequently name 2015 the “Year for Consecrated Life.” At first, this seemed to take us in a different direction. However, further reflection suggests that these two themes are not opposed, especially if we believe, that both a General Chapter and a Consistory are the work of the Holy Spirit! There are three “objectives” mentioned in the proclamation introducing the Year for Consecrated Life; the first is that of giving thanks for the recent past (50 years since Vatican II) of consecrated life in the Church. “The Spirit can turn even weaknesses and infidelities into experiences of God’s mercy and love.”
So we begin with the Spirit. We La Salette Missionaries have just concluded a year under the title, “The Spirit Renews the Face of the Earth,” (Ps. 104:30). This affirmation calls us to recognize the work of the Spirit as renewing, reforming, renovating, recreating, etc., the present world, just as the Spirit was first at work as a “mighty wind” sweeping over the waters of creation (Gen. 1:2). This coming year we invite our Congregation, the La Salette laity, and all those we serve, to hear the cry of the poor. We do so, knowing that God hears the cry of the poor: “The LORD is close to the broken-hearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves (Ps. 34:19).” “For the LORD hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds he spurns not (Ps. 69:34).” And there is this telling verse from Proverbs (21, 13): “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will himself also call and not be heard.” Not only is such crying out very likely the work of the Spirit (see Romans 8,26-27); but so also is the existence (and renewal!) of consecrated life (see Perfectae Caritatis, esp. #1 & 2).
The stage is set, then, for recognizing the connection between “justice, peace and reconciliation” and “consecrated life,” precisely because the Spirit is at work in both areas. The third objective for the Year for Consecrated Life is “to live the present with passion.” The document uses Pope Francis’s concept of “waking up the world” with our prophetic witness as religious, especially in terms of our presence with the poor on the “existential peripheries” of life. As the Pope has consistently called the entire Church to be with the poor, to see life from the perspective of the poor, and to allow itself to be evangelized by the poor, so these points are even more pertinent for those “who have left everything” to follow Christ. In its letter in preparation for next year, the Congregation for Religious (CICLSAL) quotes Pope Francis: “We are called now, as the Church, to go outside in order to arrive at the margins, geographic, urban and existential – the margins of the mystery of sin, pain, injustice and misery – , to the hidden places of the soul where each person experiences the joys and sufferings of life (pp. 50-1).” The point is that we may not need to go a long distance to reach these peripheries! Naming the peripheries calls for some personal and communal reflection.
We La Salettes do not have a long history of working in the area of Justice and Peace, as do some of our confreres in other Institutes. However, once we see that Justice and Peace values are central to the Gospel, a shift takes place, enabling us to see these values at work in the way Jesus proclaimed the Reign of God. We see that the “Social Teaching” of the Church is not a digression, but flows from her commitment to Jesus and the Gospel. This perspective will guide us to see those same values at work in our Constitutions and the mission entrusted to us La Salettes. As part of our patrimony we La Salettes have the phrase, “combatting the evils of the day” as a way of understanding our mission. Father Eugene Barrette has done a good job of bringing this part of our history to life for us. It might help to ask ourselves, what are the “evils of the day” in our time? What is it that gives rise to the “cry of the poor”? Or, as Pope Francis might ask, “Where are the peripheries where people are suffering?” How do we do “combat” in such places?
At La Salette, the Beautiful Lady never used the words “justice” or “peace.” Then neither did she use the words “reconciliation” or “Spirit.” That does not mean that her message was about something else. In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote, “We incarnate the duty of hearing the cry of the poor when we are deeply moved by the suffering of others (193).” Mary is present at La Salette as one deeply moved by her people’s sufferings. Our Lady is brought to tears at the thought of her people holding their dying children in their arms. She weeps, knowing that, when they go to give their children bread, they will only find dust. Perhaps she weeps most copiously because these situations could be reversed if people would only allow God into their lives. Our brothers (I think of Fathers Roger Castel, Marcel Schlewer and Maurice Tochon among others) have done a good job of depicting the social situation in France at the time of the Apparition. The “famine” that occurred around this time was not widespread. The deaths and suffering that resulted could have been avoided if addressed by the State, which chose to do nothing while people in other areas hoarded their supplies. It would still be decades before the Church’s social doctrine would begin to be articulated in any systematic way; however, the situation at La Salette and environs was certainly not in keeping with the Gospel or with a vision of Church in the Apostolic Age.
In James 5:4 we read, “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” One depiction of the cart-drivers at La Salette shows a cart full of grain. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to identify our La Salette cart-drivers with the harvesters about which James writes. The Lord indeed heard their swearing, as Our Lady attests. But perhaps the cart-drivers were victims as well as sinners. When we ask why they were swearing, perhaps it was because of subsistence wages; perhaps it was the fact that their carts were carrying produce they and their families would never be allowed to consume. The point is that long before Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum, the Church was aware of social injustice and knew that the Gospel gave us a key to hearing the cries of the poor.
We are called to hear the cry of the poor as a result of our Christian faith (Evangelii Gaudium, 191), and even more so as a result of our call to consecrated life. Our La Salette heritage gives us a particular slant on this call, since we have Our Lady modeling “divine concern” for God’s people (her people). In hearing the cry of the poor, our Constitutions might give us some insight for formulating a response. “Drawing our inspiration from the message of Our Lady of La Salette, we dedicate ourselves to … the struggle against those evils which now compromise the salvific plan of God and the dignity of the human person (Rule of Life, Part I, #23). In our Norms, #39cp notes that “hatred, violence and injustice” are three realities that “every La Salette Missionary must work to eliminate.” A re-reading of these parts of our Rule with hearts attentive to social justice and the cry of the poor will help us formulate appropriate responses in our given locales. We may begin by crying out to God in our own poverty, knowing that, when we do, God hears our cries as well.
The second objective given for the Year for Consecrated Life is “to embrace the future with hope.” Without hope, there is no future to embrace. Our solidarity with the poor and those on the peripheries will enable us to witness God’s presence there. Wherever God is, hope abounds. We La Salettes have this vision of hope to offer: a vision of an abundance of wheat and potatoes, a vision of hearts converted, a vision of a world living in justice and peace.
Fr. Silvano Marisa MS