Yes, the state of massive poverty in our country is a social scandal. The recent Pastoral Exhortation of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) signed for all the bishops by the body’s present president, Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas, D.D., of Lingayen-Dagupan, points out the severity of the problem. It reminds readers of the corruption in government that contributes to the failure to solve the poverty problem.
“While we gratefully recognize advances in Philippine society in such areas as basic education, fundamental aspects of the economy, the struggle for elusive peace in Mindanao, the war against corruption, and in all the shameful slime uncovered in connection with the now unconstitutional Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), we cannot help but admit with Pope Francis that twenty-eight percent of our people still ‘are barely living from day to day.’ The poorest of our people are in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao with 47% of the people living below the poverty threshold of PHP 5,458 pesos/month, in Region XII and Region IX with 38% and 37% respectively of the populations still living in absolute poverty. The income gap between our rich and poor has not closed: the richest ten percent of our population is earning ten times more than the poorest ten percent, with the income of the richest families soaring way beyond the income of the poorest. These are figures that have not yet captured the devastation wrought by the standoff in Zamboanga, the earthquake in Bohol, and Typhoon Yolanda in the Visayas,” the exhortation says.
Then Archbishop Villegas makes the exhortation personal for every Catholic—and citizen of the Philippines:
“This is a social scandal for which we cannot just blame government. We need to understand our role in it, our personal responsibility for it in our individual lives and shared cultures, and return to Jesus.”
Those who call themselves Catholic Christians are exhorted to act and do something to help the poor and realize that “the encounter with Jesus is the root of our love for the poor.”
“It is the fundamental encounter with Jesus that must guide our response to the poor. The poor are not just curious ciphers on a statistical report. The poor are not just the unlettered, the unwashed, the uninitiated, the uneducated, the unhealthy, the naked, the exploited, the trafficked, and the infirm gazing into our eyes for human recognition. They are those about whom Jesus said, ‘Whatever you have done or not done to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, that you have done or not done to me” (cf. Mt. 25:40). Jesus makes himself one with the poor. From his Cross, Jesus gazes into our eyes and touches our hearts with love. It is his love which calls forth our response in love. It is his love which allows us to admit our personal faults in our shared social woundedness. It is his love which quietly says: ‘Go forth, and heal!’ ”
How do we love the poor?
Archbishop Villeges invites us to examine “from the poverty or wealth of our lives and personal situations, how do we love our neighbor? How especially do we love our poor, God’s poor?”
He offers us an answer from a joint pastoral letter issued after the 1971 Synod of Bishops, “Our relationship to our neighbor is bound up with our relationship to God; our relationship to the love of God, saving us through Christ, is shown to be effective in the love and service of people. Christian love of neighbor and justice cannot be separated” (34). An honest assessment of our ways of dealing with the poor whom God brings in our lives—our neighbors, our colleagues, our students, our employees, our parishioners, our political constituencies—is called for, especially when these ways impact not just on individual lives but on the common good. To the poor, we owe love as God loved us first. That entails not just sentimentality. That entails justice.”
From this we can then see that we must learn to love as “all-inclusively” God loves us human beings. That we must learn to be so compassionate as to abhor and fight injustice. That we must recognize that the existence of so much dire poverty is injustice.