A New Poverty

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.  As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.”  1 Peter 1:8-9

Over Thanksgiving, I had the chance to revisit the rural area where my father was born and raised.  I marveled with my family over the realities he and his family faced only one generation before my own.

Born in 1926, in rural East Tennessee, there were no luxuries.  The family did not have electricity or indoor plumbing until my father was in his teens.  They heated the small 5 room house my grandfather built for his wife and six children with a coal stove in the winter.  My grandmother washed clothes by hand in the creek in front of the house.  They grew enough food over the course of a year so that there was enough to eat.  But there were never any meals in restaurants, and Christmas was often marked by the gift of an orange or a piece of candy.

My father’s family was not unusual.  In fact, it mirrored that of about every other family in that part of rural East Tennessee at the time.  They lacked most of the material things I deem necessities today, but they were in fact quite rich in what truly matters.  My father had two very good parents and the family had religion.

As bishop, I get to witness the many amazing ministries to the poor that our Catholic Church carries out throughout the 27 counties of northern and western Missouri.  I see this in the great work that Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph does in the name of every Catholic of the diocese.  I see it in the ministries of parishes and other agencies and organizations.  There are so many I cannot name them all.

What is a growing concern remains the rise of a new kind of poverty—not having any religion.  Mother Theresa used to remark on this when she would visit affluent countries.  She acknowledged that the spiritual poverty that afflicts the wealthy nations is much worse than that which she witnessed in the slums of Calcutta.

I must admit that I grew up often taking the gift of religion in my family for granted.  Perhaps that was not a totally bad thing, for I just assumed as a child that a relationship with God was as natural as breathing air—and indeed, it is.  But something serious is happening.  More Americans, especially the young, are taking a path in life devoid of religion, a far more serious poverty.  In effect, they are removing themselves from the primary purpose and relationship for which they were created; living a life without meaning.

Religion does not solve all of life’s problems, but it helps one deal with and even overcome the problems that come in every person’s life.  It was the key advantage in my father’s family, and one could argue, the primary factor in leading to a more prosperous life. To not have religion which gives meaning to everything, the beauty and the suffering, is an especially harsh handicap which often leads to or exacerbates material poverty.

As members of the Church, we are privileged to be able to allow Christ’s love to be at work in us when we help and serve the poor.  Let us not forget the growing new poverty and strive to address it through our ministries too.

+James V. Johnston, Jr.
Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Catholic Key, December 6, 2019 issue

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