This is a translation of the Latin-language speech delivered at the Nov. 5 ecumenical council meeting by Auxiliary Bishop Edward E. Swanstrom of New York, executive director of Catholic Relief Services-National Catholic Welfare Conference.
As the director of the American bishops’ foreign relief program, which now encompasses 73 countries of the world, I have the privilege of cooperating with many of you in your efforts to assist the poor and afflicted in your areas. In carrying out that responsibility I have naturally had occasion to visit most of the countries of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Far East, and Latin America.
For those of us who live in America, the world still presents a face of some calm and orderliness. Our lives have not been caught up in the incessant upheavals that have afflicted so many human beings whose fate it was to be thrust over frontiers as refugees or to be part of the post-colonial areas battling their way into freedom and struggling for some semblance of stability.
Even though there are some very threatening clouds on our own horizon, life in America is in sharp contrast to all the unrest, the homelessness, the hunger and anguish that I have witnessed all over the world in the past several years.
We all remember with poignant clarity the Gospel stories of need and suffering that were taught to us even in the years of our childhood. The story of Lazarus and the rich man has always retained a special poignancy for me. As I have traveled about the world — to its misery-scourged corners — I have seen Lazarus in my mind’s eye over and over again.
I saw him most obviously in a leprous beggar dragged in a cart on a begging journey around the streets of Calcutta, a city whose streets teem with millions of people, many of them refugees. I saw him, too, in the refugee who had escaped from the mainland of China in 1961 and who had been caught up and deposited in the Fan Ling transit camp.
I went up to this camp and saw thousands of unfortunates who had risked their lives to escape, but were allowed to sit at the gates of the free world for a few days, then were herded into trucks to be returned to China. There was no inn for them in the towns and cities of our western civilization.
In the giant slums which have mushroomed around Latin America’s proudest cities — Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Lima, Bogota — I have seen countless men waiting at the gate of the world for the opportunity to take part in productive life and waiting in vain.
The Lazarus of the Gospel sat at the gate longing for “the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” But the rich man “who used to clothe himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted every day in fine fashion,” turned away from Lazarus and gave him no aid. Poor Lazarus died, and went from the gate where “the dogs licked his sores” to the peace of Abraham’s bosom in heaven. When the rich man died, he went to — well, somewhere else — and he cried for Lazarus to come down and put a drop of water on his tongue in his place of torment.
But as the Gospel tells us, “a great gulf” had been placed between them. The gulf that the rich man had chosen to maintain between him and the poor while on earth was continued for all eternity. It gives us pause to realize that no other sin is imputed to the rich man, merely that he did not perform the works of mercy in his power. He did not feed the hungry.
It is in such Gospel stories as this that we see the real meaning of Pope Paul’s message of last Christmas when he told us that world hunger was the most urgent of the world’s problems. In talking about the needs of the world, “a question that makes one dizzy,” said our Holy Father, “because the needs are so vast, so manifold, so immeasurable,” he states very definitely, “the first is hunger.”
We know that it existed, he went on to say, “but today it has been recognized. It has now been scientifically proven to us that more than half the human race has not enough food. Entire generations of children, even today, are dying or suffering because of indescribable poverty.”
How true are his words!
The great gulf that exists between the hungry and the well fed, between the rich and poor nations, is one that is dangerous, not only in the temporal order, but also quite clearly in the eternal order.
If we are our brother’s keeper, we must bear witness to this fact. It is not as simple any more as leaving our home and finding a Lazarus at our gate. Since Vatican Council II is concerned with updating every aspect of the Church’s mission to make the Gospel of Christ relevant to 20th-century life, we must update our expression of concern for our brother in the world in which we find ourselves. In our day and age, the social mission of the Church must be our great concern, perhaps for some of us a primary concern.
How for example are we to meet the critical problem of a shortage of native priests in many areas until we help lift the social and economic status of our people to a point where there is adequate provision for a decent standard of living and for the primary and secondary education of their children, so essential for candidates for the priesthood? It is not that there is anything new about the situation we find in the world today. Poverty, hunger and disease are afflictions as old as man himself. But in our time and in this age there has been a change. The change is not so much in the realities of life, but in the hopes and expectations of the future. If men’s’ hopes are not obtainable by a peaceful revolution, a violent revolution is inevitable.
The present world situation has created a worldwide boom of vast portent which has come to be known as the “revolution of rising expectations.” The meaning of this revolution is very simple. It means that people all over the world want for themselves the same things that they know others have and which all of us want for our loved ones, for our friends and for our children and that many of us have already.
They intend that their families shall live a decent life and that they have a job that gives them survival and dignity. They intend that their children shall be taught to read and write, they intend that the hungry shall be fed and the sick shall be treated. They intend to take their place in the great movement of modern society, to take their share in the benefits of that society.
These just desires, once unleashed, can never again be stifled. The people in the developing world are on the march and certainly we, as the leaders of the Catholic Church throughout the world, must be beside them on that march.
In his great encyclical Mater et Magistra, which Pope John of blessed memory issued shortly before this ecumenical council convened, he states, “we are all equally responsible for the undernourished peoples,” and again, “now justice and humanity require that these richer countries come to the aid of those in need.”
I am sure we all realize that in the encyclical Mater et Magistra our Holy Father is just making an effort to apply the teaching of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to our own times. Christ says He is the light of the world. He makes plain His concern also for the earthly needs of men, not only by His words, but also in the deeds of His life, as when to alleviate the hunger of a crowd, He more than once miraculously multiplies bread.
Every man created by God has a right to the indispensable means of human subsistence, to sufficient food and clothing for his body, to housing, to employment, to suitable leisure and even to decent recreation. What our Holy Father tries to make clear to us is that if our brothers in any land are lacking any such necessities they are our responsibility as much as anyone else’s.
In our modern civilization, it is worthy of note that many governments have now turned their full attention to the tragic problems of poverty and destitution in the world. Even though their motivation may be largely political and their chief desire is to prevent revolution and war, it is the charity in the hearts of most of their people that is behind this endeavor to spread the world’s wealth and goods among all nations. Surely it is our function as the bishops of the Church established by Christ Himself to exhort, stimulate and encourage our governments in this endeavor to assist them in shaping policies and join with them in distributing food and clothing and the means of earning a livelihood among those less fortunate than ourselves, and most particularly among the destitute and the starving.
Paragraph 24 talks largely about what governments and laity should do. It should be rewritten to emphasize also the tremendous responsibility placed upon bishops and priests in our day and age to participate most actively in programs to assist the people of God to raise themselves out of the abyss of poverty and degradation. Since we are other Christs, like Christ Himself, we must carry out our social as well as our spiritual mission.
We, too, must stand before the judgment seat of God and we will want Him to say to us, “Amen I say to you when you did this to one of the least of my brethren, you did it unto Me.”