MCC assembly workshops show Church's concern for poor people

The Catholic Church's concern for the poor is as old as the Church and has not waned, Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice told a gathering at the Missouri State Capitol Sept. 28.

Bishop Rice presented a workshop on "Pope Francis and the Poor Among Us" at the Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly.

The topic was chosen because some have cited Pope Francis and his voice for the poor as a welcome new focus. Bishop Rice said the pope is reminding people of their responsibility for the poor and the need for simplicity as a man who understands the power of personal witness -- the example of his own life.

Pope John Paul II, a philosopher and actor, also addressed the dignity of the human person, and Pope Benedict XVI, a theologian, addressed the topic from a spiritual perspective, Bishop Rice said. Each pope had the right approach for his time, he noted.

He gave several examples of people in the Church throughout history who have dedicated their lives to helping poor people.

Pope Francis "was divinely inspired" to choose the name of St. Francis of Assisi, son of a wealthy cloth merchant who became a "little poor man." The pope's actions show "love in action" coming from his love of Jesus Christ, Bishop Rice said.

The bishop volunteers with students from St. Mary's High School at Sts. Peter and Paul Community Services, providing meals to homeless and low-income people. The goal of such programs and the Catholics serving in them is to respond to Christ disguised as the poor, he said, a sometimes difficult task. But he noted how he admires those he has met who humble him with their trust in God and sense of being blessed by God for the help they receive.

In a workshop on "Faces of the Poor," Karen Wallensak, executive director of Catholic Charities Community Services, also cited the dignity of people in poverty. She noted their resilience, courage and survival skills.

Wallensak explained the extent of poverty in Missouri, noting that 22 percent are children, 9 percent elderly and 18 percent are disabled. High rates of poverty exist in rural areas, while 34 percent are members of two-parent families. People drift in and out of poverty, she added, often short-term events caused by crises.

Many false assumptions exist, Wallensak said, including that those who receive government aid live comfortably.

Wallensak used examples of people Catholic Charities has worked with, citing a hard-working couple seeking a better life for their children. She also pointed out two households paying about 60 percent of their income on low-priced housing and a woman whose life went into a downward spiral after she delayed some bills to pay for medicine for her child.

"We do not pretend we can fix people or fix poverty," Wallensak said. "But what we can do is walk with people through this journey" and seek to empower them through education and other means.

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