The following was a reflection I preached before my community during a recent weekly Eucharistic Adoration liturgy.
We’ll begin with a true story. “Father John” was a well-known priest in New York City. Once a week in the middle of the night he would go to St Clare’s Hospital to clean the bedpans of patients dying of AIDS and to give pastoral counsel to those who despaired of life while suffering not only the agony of physical deterioration but also rejection by society, friends, and even family. Father John was so famous that he had to work in the middle of the night. In fact, every one of the hospital staff who knew him were under the strictest orders to refer to him only as “Father John” and were forbidden from using his last name.
Who was this “Father John”? None other than His Eminence John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, retired Rear Admiral of the United States Navy. A Prince of the Church, an occupant of one of the world’s premier episcopal Sees; he was such an important man that he had the American President, General Secretary of the United Nations, and even the Holy Father only one phone call away, and yet he did not think himself above cleaning infected waste and loving those who may—may—have rejected God’s plan for human sexuality. This man whom Pope John Paul II once addressed as “the Archbishop of the capital of the world” was a profound lover of the poor. Because of him, the Archdiocese of New York was said to be “haemorrhaging” two million dollars per year in works of charity. Those who had the privilege of meeting him could anticipate the same words of greeting every time: “What can I do for you?”
I think that the example of this late Archbishop of New York is an important one, because at the time of his appointment, the Church in America was in its most difficult moment. Cardinal O’Connor was one of the few but resounding voices who could articulate the teachings of Holy Church and who many bishops saw as their senior in the episcopate. He was a doctrinally sound Pastor who, at the same time, was keen on the Church’s social tradition. In fact his episcopal motto came from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum progressio—“There can be no peace without justice.”
I think we can all agree, more or less, that the Church in North America has been polarized, on one hand, between Catholics who wish to be loyal to the Magisterium but place less emphasis on social justice and charity, and on the other hand Catholics who are passionate about human dignity, the rights of workers, peace, but place less emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. For example, I’m sure we have heard otherwise doctrinally sound believers speak contemptuously of the Canadian Catholic Organisation for Development and Peace, and we’ve no doubt met Catholics who love Bl. John XXXIII’s Pacem in terris but dismiss Paul VI’s Humanae vitae. What has emerged is a tragic dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is a false dichotomy and it has no place in the Catholic Faith. Our Father Rector has mentioned, on not a few occasions, of the unacceptability of pitting the ‘integralists’ and the ‘progressives’ against each other. I even accuse myself who am Catholic and Republican. Or perhaps I should say ‘Catholic but Republican.’
Let us no mistake: it is the same Christ of the Councils and Fathers who is the Christ of the Margins. It is Jesus Christ, God and Man, who is also Jesus Christ, hungry and poor.
We are at the threshold of a new liturgical year; on this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Roman Liturgy turns her attention to the Last Judgment. In the gospel we’ve just heard, the Lord Jesus makes it abundantly clear that He is Really Present in the margins—in the hungry and thirsty, in the immigrant and foreigner, in the homeless and imprisoned. “Amen, I say to you,” Christ will say to the blessed, “whatever you did for one of the least [sisters and] brothers of mine, you did for me.” He could not be clearer. “[F]or one of the least...” Who are the least for us? I shudder to think of what the Lord will say to me for all of those homeless people I pretended not to see, all of those mentally retarded people I ignored, all of those alcoholics I condemned, because it means I pretended not to see, I ignored, I condemned Christ of the Margins, Christ in distressing disguise.
We can be sure that there is indeed a ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the poor for at least three reasons. In the first place, they too were created by Him, because every human person is the crowning work of Creation. It is fallen human nature to organize the human race into an hierarchy of ‘more valuable’ people over and against the ‘less valuable’—our culture prizes the successful entrepreneur but makes fun of those who have meagre bank accounts, let alone those who have nothing. But it is an authoritative teaching of the Magisterium that all people are of equal dignity— When God looks upon the world, there isn’t anyone who isn’t V.I.P.; there is not a whit of difference in dignity between a Hollywood celebrity or the Queen of Canada or even the pope and a person who lives on the streets and subsists on alcohol or sells her body to feed her children. This leads us to a second reason why we know that there is a ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the poor—evangelizare pauperibus misit me, “He sent me to preach good news to the poor.” The Incarnation had in view not only God’s solidarity with the human race, but especially his solidarity with the poor. Finally, Christ died on the Cross for those on the margins no less than he died for those who are esteemed, financially secure, and impious.
Consider the words of another “Father John,” this time the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom. We could not find a better time to listen to his words than here in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament whom we adore at this moment:
Do you wish to honour the Body of Christ? Then do not disdain Him when you see Him in rags. After having honoured Him in Church with silken vestments, do not leave Him to die of cold outside for lack of clothing. For it is the same Jesus Who says, “This is My Body” and Who says “I was hungry but you would not feed Me. Whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.”
The Eucharist, then, is the meeting-point between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between right belief and upright life, the life which has as its foundation the precept of charity [cf. Jn 13:37], this charity which, as St Augustine tells us, is ‘why’ God is a Trinity. Doctrine and life—inseparable. Fidelity to the Magisterium, social action—absolutely mutually inclusive.
For us who are discerning a call to Holy Orders, our relationship to the Christ of the Margins is even more demanding—because priests are not simply called to a life of philanthropy but, in imitation of the Mystery of the Incarnation, to a life of solidarity with the poor. In the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Life of Ministry of Priests, we read that: “...priests are invited to embrace voluntary poverty. By it they become more clearly conformed to Christ and more ready to devote themselves to their sacred ministry.” Blessed John Paul II later wrote in his Pastores dabo vobis:
Poverty for the priest, by virtue of his sacramental configuration to Christ, the head and shepherd, takes on specific ‘pastoral’ connotations which the synod fathers took up from the Council's teachings and further developed. Among other things, they wrote: “Priests, following the example of Christ, who, rich though he was, became poor for love of us (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9)—should consider the poor and the weakest as people entrusted in a special way to them, and they should be capable of witnessing to poverty with a simple and austere lifestyle, having learned the generous renunciation of superfluous things” [n. 30].
Let us adore Christ, wherever we find Him, whether here in this monstrance of gold, or out there in a monstrance of rags. Let us love Christ, let us serve Christ.
O Jesus, You who are in disguise here, may we see You who are disguised in Your poor.