I looked down at the mattress in front of me. No sheets, no pillow, no pajamas. That's what happens when your luggage gets lost and you're staying in the middle of nowhere in the Dominican Republic. You go to sleep on a bare mattress wearing the clothes you travelled in.
It was Spring Break several years ago and I had travelled to the Dominican Republic with my Catholic Campus Ministry group to help build a small church for the local community. Unfortunately some of us had lost our luggage and had nothing but the clothes on our backs, our toothbrushes and our enthusiasm.
To me, this was really a blessing in disguise. The community we were working with didn't have a lot. The woman who cooked me lunch wore the same shirt each day, and when it was time for Mass, she washed it clean of the cooking stains and wore it to Church that night. It got me thinking: how many times do I think that I need something’Ìâ‰âÂÌâ‰Ûùa new shirt, a new phone ‘Ìâ‰âÂÌâ‰Ûù when I could probably do just fine without it?
What the church says about the poor
We don't think about this a lot, because our society sends us messages that we should buy, buy, buy. And not only do we need the latest greatest thing, but we deserve it. After all, it's our money; can't we do what we want with it?
Christianity teaches us differently. The YouCat says, 'The poor deserve not just a few alms; they have a claim to justice. For Christians there is a special obligation to share their goods' (448). In other words, while our money may be ours, we also have a duty to the poor to consider when deciding how to spend it. Can I justify spending $10 for a movie when that money could go to feed the hungry.
The book of Acts gives tells us how the early Christians lived: 'And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need' (Acts 2:44-45). The early Christians knew that being part of God's family meant you had a responsibility towards your brothers and sisters in need.
Pope Francis and the poor
The Catholic Church has always had an open heart for the poor, but, through our new pope, the Holy Spirit is placing a greater emphasis on this part of Christian life.
Pope Francis choose his name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, who gave up his worldly possessions to live a life of poverty. At the Vatican, the Pope is already making waves. He asked Argentineans not to spend money flying to Rome to see him installed as pope, and to give that money to the poor instead. He decided not to live in the Papal apartments, but in a small two-room suite, and ordered bonuses paid to Vatican workers when a new pope is elected to be paid to charity.
'Hold on,' you're asking me, 'Are you telling me I shouldn't own anything fun?' Of course not. Music and movies help us relax, clothes help us express beauty, and smartphones keep us connected and informed (and yes, entertained). These are all good things.
My challenge is this: to look at the things that we're spending money on and ask ourselves, 'Do I really need this thing?' Do I need a new pair of shoes, or are the ones I have okay? Do I have to buy these songs or can I just listen to the radio? How does my need for this compare to the needs of people in poverty? We don't have to stop buying things, but we should, like the early Christians, remember think of the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world too.
For example, whenever I buy new clothes I try to pick out some old ones to give away, instead of having a closet full of things I don't need. If I hear a new song on the radio that I want to download, I wait about a month, because sometimes I change my mind and realize I don't like it so much after all.
And basically, if I'm shopping and I see some awesome thing in the store that I absolutely have to have, I stop and listen to that little voice that says the same words one of the cardinals whispered in Pope Francis's ear after he was elected: 'Remember the poor.'