Yesterday evening, after travelling most of the day from a family reunion on Long Island, I attended a lecture in Roger Williams University in Bristol Rhode Island. The speaker was Father James Ruggieri, pastor of Saint Patrick’s in Providence, Rhode Island.
The title of Father Ruggieri’s lecture was “The Dynamite of the Church’s Social Teaching in Urban Providence”. I was attracted by the provocative title, but Father Ruggieri explained that he was using the word “dynamite” in the sense of the original Greek word, “dunamis”, which means power. The Church’s Social Teaching has great power, but it has no impact so long as it is not taught and not put into practice.
The Church’s Social Teaching is presented in dramatic form in Saint Matthew’s Gospel 25, 31-46. This is the Parable of the Last Judgment, where those who helped the needy in this life are invited to enter heaven, while those who neglected the needy in this life are turned away. Those who are excluded are surprised because they are turned away not for something they did, but for something they failed to do.
In our world today that same neglect continues on a huge scale. In 2009 there was a book published with the title, “The Hole in Our Gospel”. It was written by Richard Stearns, who gave up a powerful corporate position and took a 75% pay cut to become President of World Vision, a Christian Relief Organization dedicated to helping poor children and their communities throughout the world.
Stearns was shocked to learn that about 26,000 children die every day from poverty-related causes that the world could easily remedy if it had the will to do so. He tried to shock his readers and his listeners by comparing it to 100 jetliners filled with children crashing every day 365 days a year. You imagine that people would not tolerate such a loss of life due to human negligence, yet we tolerate that many children dying every day due to poverty-related causes that could easily be prevented.
Stearns insists that things will not change until we change our values. He compares our tolerance of extreme poverty to our tolerance of racial discrimination. In the past, racial discrimination was openly accepted. Today it is unacceptable, and we do not tolerate it in our schools or in our places of work.
But we continue to allow extreme poverty in the world even though it could easily be overcome with the political and moral will to do so. It will only begin to end when we change our value system, and enough ordinary people agree that it is intolerable that so many children should die from hunger, lack of clean water, or disease, when it is in our power to prevent it.
One of the novel features in last night’s lecture was how the children at Saint Patrick’s learn their Faith. They are not just taught that they must reach out to help the poor, but they are required to do so by spending a certain number of hours each week helping in the food pantry, or the meal kitchen or in some other service the parish provides to help the poor.
I think it would be wonderful if the Church at large had such a requirement for all its members who are capable of doing it. The Church authorities put a lot of emphasis on when and how to pray and worship. I think it is also important for them to designate places and opportunities where people could perform those acts of service demanded in the Gospel (Matthew 25, 31-46).
This would enable us to fulfill one of the main requirements for entry into heaven. It would also help us to express our Faith in a practical way, and save us from the barb of the Johnny Cash lyric, “You’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good”.