In his address to ecclesial movements and communities on the Vigil of Pentecost, Pope Francis said, "This time of crisis, beware, is not merely an economic crisis. It is not a crisis of culture. It is a human crisis: it is the human person that is in crisis! Man himself is in danger of being destroyed! But man is the image of God! This is why it is a profound crisis!" (May 18, 2013) These are strong words from our Holy Father. The human person is in crisis. What are some of the symptoms of this crisis and what can we do about it?
One symptom of the crisis is the very fact that the world speaks about an economic crisis rather than a crisis of the human person. The stock market makes it in the news more readily than the human person. Pope Francis told a story from rabbinic midrash about the building of the Tower of Babel. It is said that when they were building the Tower of Babel, each brick, which took a large amount of time and resources to make, became extremely important, a national treasure. When a brick fell and broke, it was a national tragedy and the workman was punished. Yet, if a workman fell, that was not an issue. Today, it is the same – when the stock market falls, it is a national tragedy, but when a homeless person dies in the cold, it does not make the news. We have lost sight of the fact that the greatest treasure on this earth is each individual human person.
Pope Francis, in his address at the Pentecost Vigil and in a subsequent address at the Missionaries of Charity house in Rome, pointed particularly to the poor to show us the value of the human person. He teaches us how to make a difference, by changing our attitude and changing our behavior.
At the Missionaries of Charity house in Rome, called Gift of Mary, he spoke about three words: home, gift and Mary. When speaking about the word "gift" he said simply, "...this Home offers hospitality, material and spiritual support to you, dear guests from different parts of the world; but you, too, are a gift to this Home and to the Church. You tell us that loving God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to serve, and to concretely serve. And you, dear brothers and sisters, are the face of Jesus. Thank you. You 'give' the possibility to those who work in this place to serve Jesus in those who are in difficulty and those who need help" (May 21, 2013). Pope Francis makes very clear that the poor are a gift and the opportunity to serve the poor is a gift. This is reminiscent of Blessed John Paul II's insight from Dives in Misericordia, that the opportunity to show mercy is itself a mercy for the one being merciful, "Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be theirs." When we begin to see the poor (this really includes every human being) and the opportunity to serve the poor as a gift, we begin to address the crisis of the human person.
Another powerful point Pope Francis makes in his Pentecost Vigil address is the importance of the body. Our service and love to the poor (and any human being) cannot be merely abstract or conceptual, but must be, rather, a personal encounter. Since we are embodied persons, a personal encounter involves a bodily encounter. Pope Francis makes it very clear that the poor are the flesh of Christ and he challenges us to see, to touch, to love the flesh of Christ. To those gathered for the Pentecost Vigil he said, "when I used to go to hear confessions in my previous diocese, people would come to me and I would always ask them: 'Do you give alms?' -'Yes, Father!' 'Very good.' And I would ask them two further questions: 'Tell me, when you give alms, do you look the person in the eye?' 'Oh I don't know, I haven't really thought about it'. The second question: 'And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the person you are giving them to or do you toss the coin at him or her?' This is the problem: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ, taking upon ourselves this suffering for the poor."
In summary, Pope Francis challenges us to address the crisis of the human person by changing our priorities away from things and towards people. He challenges us to have personal encounters with people, especially the poor. Above all, though, he summons us to have courage, to go out of ourselves, and to face the crisis, "At this time of crisis we cannot be concerned solely with ourselves, withdrawing into loneliness, discouragement and a sense of powerlessness in the face of problems. Please do not withdraw into yourselves! This is a danger: we shut ourselves up in the parish, with our friends, within the movement, with the like-minded... but do you know what happens? When the Church becomes closed, she becomes an ailing Church, she falls ill! That is a danger." May we follow our Shepherd and go out of ourselves to touch the hand and look into the eye of our brothers and sisters, especially the poor. May we learn to see each person as a gift, especially those people we can humbly serve. Only if we learn to do this, can we effectively address the most pressing crisis that we face in the modern day – the crisis of the human person.
Fr. Boniface Hicks is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent's Archabbey and is a programming manager and host for We Are One Body (WAOB) Catholic radio in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Father Boniface has attended the Theology of the Body I: Head & Heart Immersion course as a participant and a chaplain. Father Boniface served as the chaplain for the first National Theology of the Body Congress hosted by the Theology of the Body Institute in 2010.