Thursday, April 17, 1997 at 9.30 a.m.

I want to thank all those who have told their story here this morning. They were very courageous people and very honest. I found those stories very powerful and very moving.

They have opened my eyes to many things. My own blindness for example to the many faces of poverty that often stare us in the face. They have made me at least very conscious of my own poverty, in the sense of not being able to respond in any adequate way to all the problems that have been mentioned. They have opened my eyes to the fact that I have been relatively privileged. And sometimes I have been perhaps insensitive and certainly ill-informed in my attitudes towards those in different circumstances.
What I have heard this morning has given me new insights into how people get trapped in poverty and how it can take over peoples’ lives, removing their rights and their choices. This morning has alerted me to the hurt which people feel when they are judged harshly by people who have no idea of the pressures of life.

What I have heard convinces me yet again that poverty has many faces. It is more than just a lack of physical resources. It has to do with exclusion, powerlessness, a feeling of not counting. Poverty is wasteful, it leads to social fragmentation. I have found it a discomfiting experience just as a meeting with Jesus would, I imagine, be a rather discomfiting experience.

What we have just heard challenges us all. It challenges especially those of us who are Christians. In the life and teachings of Jesus the plight of people in poverty and at the margins of society held a special place.

Over the centuries Christians have tried to develop their understanding of what Christ’s commandment – to love one another – requires of them in the particular circumstances of the society in which they find themselves. They have elaborated social teachings and developed key principles to guide their response to social issues. In the Catholic Church, for example social teaching has given particular emphasis to the concepts of “the common good” and “social solidarity”. Ultimately all these principles refer back to the founding message to love our neighbour.

It is clear that this is not a commandment to feel some general sense of goodwill towards other people; rather it is a CALL TO TAKE ACTION. In the first epistle of John, he speaks of the inconsistency between claiming to love one another while failing to do what is required to help those in need. He adds:

“Our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active”
1 John, 3 16-18 (The Jerusalem Bible)

Pope John Paul II has frequently spoken of the importance of social solidarity. This is not to be understood as a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others.

“On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (On Social Concern, n.38).

It is clear that our responsibility to love one another and to work for the creation of a more just society cannot be delegated to others. Nor can it be fulfilled solely by making a contribution to voluntary organisations – important and valuable though this most certainly is. We must tackle the root causes which keep people poor and this is an issue that goes beyond all divisions of religion or race or politics. In modern society these root causes lie deep in social and economic systems which we may find hard to understand, let alone influence. Yet we must strive to do so; otherwise they will continue to create conditions which offend human dignity and deny people’s rights.

We have to acknowledge that no matter what has been done, it is never enough. All of us have our contribution to make to our community and when people are allowed to play their part in planning their social and political destiny, it guarantees the sort of public life that promotes human values and rights, including the rights of people on low income.

We, Church people, address the issue of poverty. We sometimes speak as if the membership of our own churches did not include any people who are poor. This, of course, is not the case. Churches as institutions must examine how poor people experience life within the Church. Do they feel marginalised even within their own Church? Do churches ensure that the experience of those of their members who are poor inform sufficiently the issues they concern themselves with and the decisions about the priorities for the use of the resources of the churches? Do churches draw on the experiences of their members who are poor to speak out in an informed way about public policies?

In Baptism we are all made equal in Christ; we must constantly strive to ensure that this essential equality among all members is reflected in the life and concerns of the church.

Last week the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland published their Report on Unemployment and the Future of Work. It draws attention once more to the link between the employment situation and poverty. The Report highlighted that both unemployment and low pay are fundamental and very significant causes of poverty. One of the most important features of the Report is that it Challenges the now commonplace fatalism about unemployment and poor conditions of work. This sense that “nothing can be done”, has resulted in these issues being largely sidelined in public and political debate.

New technology and the globalisation of economic activity have changed the world of work in a very profound way. The Report highlights that a fundamental reason why these changes have been accompanied by such high levels of unemployment and an increase in poverty and social division has been the weakening in social cohesion – or in our sense of mutual social responsibility. The Report asks all of us, including the Churches to examine again what we can contribute towards renewing and rebuilding this sense of community.

The effect of poverty and unemployment on family life should be a central concern. Many people display tremendous qualities in the face of huge difficulties. However, people can lose heart and hope as they lose control over their own and the family’s lives. In addition to low income, bad housing, over-crowded housing can put family relationships under tremendous strain.

We must speak up for the family as the basic cell of society. We must defend the rights of the family, especially the right of every human being to found a family and to have adequate means to support it.
Alongside the great Christian virtues of faith and love, stands hope. In the face of the severe difficulties which so many people experience in their lives and of the sheer complexity of the economic and social problems of modern society, it is important to remind ourselves what Christian hope implies.

At the end of the Pastoral Letter on Unemployment, Work is the Key, the Irish Catholic Bishops said that Christian faith and hope impel us to continue in our efforts to build a more just society. They added:
“Despite the resistance we experience, in ourselves as well as in others, we do not give in. Despite the apparent smallness of the results, we do not give up. Our one shame would be to not play our part”.