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by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

Last week this column listed the elements of Pope Francis’ seven-year plan, “Laudato Si: Goals for Total Sustainability”:

  • The cry of the earth
  • The cry of the poor
  • Ecological economics
  • Simple lifestyles
  • Ecological education
  • Ecological spirituality

For the next many weeks, I propose to reflect on each of these huge issues, which, the Pope points out, have come to the collective attention of the human family in this pandemic. In addition, I’ll try to follow the Holy Father’s starting point for addressing and acting on each of these challenges: the realities of the poor, marginalized, oppressed billions of our sisters and brothers across the globe. It is the best – (only?) – place from which to analyze them.

Beginning these first few weeks with the “Cry of the Poor” comes from a personal conviction. The negative effects of the rest of these issues, I believe, fall on the neglected, forgotten, discarded multitude of women, children and men who share life on Planet Earth today, but as Gustavo Gutierrez has said, are “non-human beings.” That harsh phrase is entirely accurate. The abject poor of the earth do not live lives that can be called “human” – full lives as intended by God for his/her daughters and sons. They are the first to feel in their souls and bodies the effects of environmental destruction, total economic imbalance, the effects of the lifestyles lived by the privileged, indifference and a domesticated individualistic spirituality even among privileged people of good will. They are simply statistics, easily discarded and forgotten.

But they are individuals just as we are. The have names, family histories, feelings and yearnings as intense as everyone else’s. They suffer pain. They know how marginalized they are by a world of selfish priorities. They are Lazaruses of the Gospel, the poor beggar and the only figure in all of Jesus’s parables who is mentioned by name – because he was a somebody.

Following Pope Francis’s lead then, let me specify by name the example of a real person, a Lazarus, whose life was a “Cry of the Poor.”

Olga Valencia, was an indigenous Peruvian woman whom I came to know very well during my years in that country. She moved with her family from the Andean highlands to the city of Lima in search of a better life, especially for her several children. What she found, of course, was a worse situation than the one she had left. There was no way people like Olga could possibly cope with the hectic and demanding urban life in that modern city. Every door of opportunity was shut against the Valencias because of “institutional violence” – the systemic barriers that exclude such supposedly “inferior people.” Like many of her peers, Olga remained in that harsh world hoping at least that her children might get schooling and possibly break out of the “vicious cycle of poverty” that was their history.

Olga’s life was a study in suffering. One day her oldest son, 9-year-old Jose, was struck down by a hit-and-run driver and left like roadkill on the side of a busy highway; later her second son, Vicente, was hospitalized, and when Olga went to visit him, the nurse simply told her “ha muerto” – he’s dead; her husband sank into alcoholism and in despair left the family because of his total inability to support them; each of her several other children and finally Olga herself died of tuberculosis from malnutrition, polluted drinking water, living in a crowded hut where there was no running water, no waste disposal.

Olga and her family are the ones whom Pope Francis refers to when he pleads with the human family not to ignore the multitudes of such discarded persons in this world. Here is what he has said recently speaking about the post-pandemic era: “Now while we are looking forward to a slow and arduous recovery from the pandemic, there is the danger that we will forget those who are left behind. The risk is that we may then be struck by an even worse virus – that of selfish indifference.”

Hence the Holy Father’s plea that we hear the Cry of the Poor.

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Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

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Photo credit: Rich Isaacman

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