Today (Sept. 27) is the feast day of St. Vincent DePaul, considered by many to be the “star” saint of Christian charity and concern for the poor. Many people, including those who don’t know that much about this great saint from the 17th century, know of the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which is active in so many parishes and dioceses around the world bringing direct help to people in need.
Recent statistics sadly remind that today the poor do need a champion. Michael Powell, writing earlier this week in The New York Times’ “Gotham” blog, notes that while economic conditions have started to improve for some, there are still a shocking number of other people for whom poverty persists, if not worsens, and a recovery is nowhere in sight.
The statistics are overwhelming. For instance, Powell notes that both the Bronx and Brooklyn have unemployment rates above 13%, and, he adds, “Fully 21% (of New Yorkers) live below the poverty line; median income declined in nearly every group; 1.8 million New Yorkers now rely on food stamps.”
You can find great contrasts within a few miles of each other. In some communities families are finding decent jobs and earning sufficient income to provide for themselves and their families. Thanks be to God. However, close by, many other families do not have enough to eat, face the threat of eviction because of the disparity between their income and the rent payment.
One poignant statistic – in one zip code on the East Side of Manhattan, the average household income is about $101,000. In the South Bronx, another zip code’s average income is about $19,800.
This is not something confined to New York City, of course. The basic human needs of good jobs, food, and housing continue to challenge tens of millions throughout this country.
At the same time, we are fortunate that as a society we do try to provide for those struggling.
Government programs provide enormous support to poor Americans. In addition, generous Americans contribute billions to charities each year. And so there is much to be grateful for.
However, two things must be said.
1) It is not enough. Even with the generosity of the American people, and the work of groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and so many others, much more needs to be done, and not just by private charity. The government must continue to play its part as well.
2) There are very dark clouds. Too much rhetoric in the country portrays poor people in a very negative way. At the same time, this persistent sluggish economy and slow pace of recovery does two things that hurt the poor: it does not provide sufficient jobs for poor people to earn a decent living to support themselves, and it provides less resources for government to do its part for Americans in need.
This is creating a situation that is devastating to struggling families throughout the country.
As the Church celebrates the feast of St. Vincent DePaul, we affirm that the poor must receive our special attention to ensure that they have the basic necessities of life. While St. Vincent de Paul may be the “star” saint, the commitment of the Church to the poor comes directly from Jesus and was first formally recognized by the appointment of deacons to care for the Greek-speaking widows. Throughout the history of the Church, there has always been a preferential option for the poor. Archbishop Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, said it simply and straightforwardly: “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell.”
This commitment and dedication continues and grows today throughout Catholic hospitals, charities and educational institutions. All of these, in their own ways, make service to the poor the hallmark of their work in building the common good. Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn serve literally hundreds of thousands of people each year – the neglected child, the homeless family, the hungry senior, the new immigrant to our shores – through our soup kitchens, homeless shelters, family and youth services, and so much more.
There is too much finger-pointing and not enough joining hands. Solidarity is critical to ensure the dignity of all.