The Church Is the Sacrament of the Preferential Option for the Poor

We read, in the entry for October, in Dorothy Day’s On Pilgrimage, that “the stink of the world’s injustice and the world’s indifference is all around us. The smell of the dead rat, the smell of acrid oil from the engines of the Pennsylvania railroad, the smell of boiled bones from Swift’s. The smell of dying human beings” (225). In the reader’s pilgrimage with Dorothy Day, one does not encounter the marginalized as an intellectual category, but as a smell, here, the smell of dying human beings and the stink of the world’s indifference to their dying. But, on pilgrimage with Dorothy Day, one encounters a contrasting smell as one walks along, and that is the fragrance of sanctity, perceptible only to the spiritual senses but none the less real for all that.

In the October entry, we meet Mary Frecon, who lived on Seventh Street in Harrisburg, running the Martin de Porres House of Hospitality though she could have lived with either of her sons, who both owned fruit farms. “She does not need to live on Seventh Street,” Dorothy comments, and then goes on to describe her care of the marginalized people, the discarded people, really, who also live on Seventh Street, almost all of them African-American. Dorothy Day paints a vivid picture of “Mary, nursing a diabetic swollen, heavy with water, holding her up at night so she could breathe, bringing the priest to her.” (224), and she continues to evoke pictures of those whom Mary served:

Susie, burned by a jealous rival, oozing pus from her infected shoulders cut by glass from broken windows when she tried to escape, nursed back to health of body and soul. Katie, dying of cancer, tuberculosis, and syphilis, her body dung now indeed, but once a thing of beauty, strung taut with life and pleasure, and now overwhelmed with torrents of pain. Lucille Pearl, dying in an alley, flies and worms feasting on the open sores of her flesh—these women dying and yet alive today in heaven, literally dragged into the wedding feast, dying happy and sure, and already before their death given a foretaste of the life of come (225).

Dorothy goes on to comment, “How to draw a picture of the strength of love! It seems at times that we need a blind faith to believe in it at all,” but then goes on to evoke another story of death, “the death of the Little Flower, and,” Dorothy comments, “her death [was] just as harrowing in its suffering as that of Mary’s Katie. Her flesh was a mass of sores; her bones protruded through her skin; she was a living skeleton, a victim of love.” Dorothy goes on to comment, “We have not such compassion, nor ever will have” (ibid.). Do we recognize this fragrance? The fragrance of the Little Flower, the fragrance of sanctity, that emanates from Mary, and here especially from Therese, to whom Mary is compared: “Out in the backyard [of the house on Seventh Street] there is a little garden with sunflowers, marigolds, petunias . . . How little it all is, as obscure as the life of the Blessed Mother and as ‘little’ as the life and sufferings of the Little Flower!” (226).

We may no longer recognize the language of “victim of love,” though the connection to compassion should remind us that it is Eucharistic language, the language of Eucharistic love, of those who have so allowed themselves to be configured to and united with the self-offering of Christ who is both Priest and Victim of Love, that they are perfected in the “spiritual sacrifice” which is the highest exercise of the baptismal priesthood. Dorothy goes on to make the link a little more explicit. “Someday,” she says, “something will be done. There will be decent places to live . . . There will be a church with the Mass, with Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament.” Explaining what she means, she continues, “Yes, the nearest Catholic church is ten blocks away, but just the same, Christ is there, most surely there, in the least of His children. He has said it Himself” (226-27).

Later, in the November entry, which continues the reflection on the love that can bear to stand in the midst of the “stink of injustice and indifference” and of the smell of the rat that died in the walls of a tenement with no way of removing it, and the smell of dying human beings. It is a “supernatural” love, realized in the purgations of the sufferings it welcomes (236), a love which achieves an intimacy that we can only call ecclesial:

True love is delicate and kind, full of gentle perception and understanding, full of beauty and grace, full of joy unutterable. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, what God hath prepared for those who love Him. And there should be some flavor of this in all our love for others. We are all one. We are one flesh in the Mystical Body, as man and woman are said to be one flesh in marriage. With such a love one would see all things new; we would begin to see people as they really are, as God sees them (239-40).

Such a love has a flavor, and also a fragrance, for, as the Bride says to the Bridegroom in a passage from the Song of Songs quoted earlier by Dorothy, “thy breasts are better than wine, smelling sweet of the best ointment” (1:3).

Nor does one have to be a mystic, or even a member of the Church, to catch a waft of this fragrance, so seemingly imperceptible in the midst of the stench of death, of “dying human beings.” As Dorothy had already told us, in the ministrations of Mary Frecon, Katie and Lucille Pearl had, in the midst of the stench, a “foretaste” of the “wedding feast” and were able to die “happy and sure” (225). The fragrance of the breasts of the Bridegroom, anointed for the wedding feast, clings to his members, especially to those perfected ones who have been willing to be considered “fools for Christ,” like Mary, living on Seventh Street when she could be living on her son’s fruit farm. In a literary way, Dorothy has shown us how the ordering of the Christian life towards the marginalized, towards a renewed seeing of those who are otherwise invisible or from whom we might naturally avert our gaze, is not simply a matter of duty, following the instructions of a wise moral teacher named Jesus of Nazareth, which anyone who wished to follow these instructions could attain. Instead, it is here portrayed as an expression of love, an expression of the intimate, one-flesh union with the Jesus the Bridegroom, the savor and fragrance of his mystical Body, a union achieved even as it is represented, in the Eucharist.

In a magnificent passage from the May Day entry, Dorothy explains this idea in a way that evokes the theology behind it. The context is a discussion of disagreements among strategists for various modes and apostolates of Catholic social and spiritual movements:

But our unity, if it is not unity of thought in regard to temporal matters, is a unity at the altar rail. We are all members of the Mystical Body of Christ, and so we are closer to each other, by the tie of grace, than any blood brothers could be. All these books about discrimination are thinking in terms of human brotherhood, of our responsibility one for another. We are our brother’s keeper, and all men are our brothers whether they be Catholic or not. But of course the tie that binds Catholics is closer, the tie of grace. We partake of the same food, Christ. We put off the old man and put on Christ. The same blood flows through our veins, Christ’s .We are the same flesh, Christ’s (150-51).

But then, to make sure we do not conceive the illusion that the Church is a kind of self-enclosed club of an intimately connected elite, intended to privilege its own members over the rest of humanity, Dorothy adds, drawing from a good Augustinian well, “But all men are members or potential members, as St. Augustine says, and there is no time with God, so who are we to know the degree of separation between us and the Communist, the unbaptized, the God-hater, who may tomorrow, like St. Paul, love Christ” (151).

The Church is precisely not a sect, not enjoined or allowed to close in on itself in self-congratulation for being the Body of so great a Head (City of God 10.6), but the love which binds it together and makes it what it is, impels us to love outward, to all of humanity, “members or potential members.” It is the very love that binds the Church together as Church, the very intimacy of it, that opens our eyes to a new way of seeing people, including and especially the otherwise invisible but certainly smellable Susie, Katie and Lucille Pearl.

The Augustinian theology which has flowered into the literary production of Dorothy Day’s journalism and social and spiritual writing, rises to articulation even more explicitly in another contemporary Augustinian, Benedict XVI, and we have only to look at his first encyclical to see this. Speaking of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which we can contemplate in St. John’s image of the “pierced heart of Christ” (John 19.37), and from this contemplation “we can understand the starting point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is Love” (1 Jn. 4.8; God is Love §12). Benedict continues,

Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He anticipated his death and resurrection by giving his disciples, in the bread and wine, his very self, his body and blood as the new manna . . . The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in his body and blood (GL §13).

But being drawn into Jesus’s self-gift creates what Benedict calls a “sacramental mysticism,” one which, he says, is “social in character.” It is intrinsically social, “for in sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants. As Saint Paul says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10.17). Therefore, Benedict continues, “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own” (GL §14), nearly directly echoing the passage from Dorothy Day cited above because drawn from the same theology and sensibility. So, Benedict continues, “Here the usual contraposition between worship and ethics simply falls apart. ‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” (ibid.).

Thus the “we” that is the Church, the “we” that the Eucharist creates, is not a “we” that can close in on itself and remain fully itself. United in communion with the unreserved and unrestricted, total self-oblation of Jesus, on the basis of this “intimate encounter” as Benedict calls it, echoing, however distantly, the Song of Songs,

I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and feelings, but from the (“supernatural”) perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend . . . Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave (ibid. §18).

Doesn’t this echo what Dorothy Day had said above? “With such a love one would see all things new; we would begin to see people as they really are, as God sees them,” that is, as Jesus sees them. Benedict mentions the example of Mother Teresa and the Eucharistic encounter of the neighbor in need—in her case, the most invisible and disposable neighbors on the streets of Calcutta. The love that forms the Church is intrinsically and indefeasibly outwardly directed. As Benedict concludes, “it makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is all in all” (ibid., citing 1 Cor 15.28).

It is important to pause here and to note, though, that this ever expanding “we” that ends only eschatologically when “all things are made new,” following Dorothy Day following the Book of Revelation, or God is “all in all,” following Benedict and 1 Corinthians, does not obviate, but rather presupposes, the Mystical Body proper, the sacramental unity in the Body and Blood of Christ that the Eucharist creates. “The Eucharist makes the Church,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1396) puts it, and that is because it is the efficacious re-presentation or making present of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross (see CCC §1366), and from that sacrifice, like the blood and water that flowed from the Crucified Jesus’s side, was born the Church:

The Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist, and fulfilled on the Cross. “The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus” (LG §3). “For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the Cross, that there came forth the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church” (SC 5). As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the Cross (cf. Ambrose In Luc. 2.85-89; citation from CCC §766).

This means that the Church is, as Dorothy Day said, not reducible to a secular fraternal organization, constituted by the will of the members to offer mutual support and fellowship and to do good works. There is nothing wrong with such groups, but the Church is essentially different. To use Dorothy Day’s language, it is knitted together supernaturally, by the grace of Eucharistic communion, into the Mystical Body of Christ, or, in Benedict’s language into a sacramental mysticism which is irreducibly social. In both cases, it is not a communion which we have given ourselves or could have, since it is in and by a love that transcends and purges our loves based on natural preferences, likes and dislikes, judgments of like-mindedness, etc. As itself a social Body, it is the presence in this world of the perspective from which Christ “sees,” not in the first instance by any good work, but, in the first instance, simply by its presence in the world.

It is the objective presence of that light, one could say, by which the marginalized, those who are, because of avarice, greed, power seeking, bias, racism and other forms of injustice, rendered invisible. That light is objectively present in the world simply by the presence of the Church. But perhaps we could say that that light begins to shine in the world the more that members of the Church learn to see the world in the light which makes them members in the first place. They shine with that light, not with a self-generated light that could just as well inform and a secular fraternal organization. The more they are able to give themselves as “victims of love.” Can we try on that phrase, as outdated as it seems to us? Can we recall its Eucharistic resonance? And realize that the foolishness we feel in adopting such a phrase was felt by anyone in the past who adopted it?

As Dorothy Day sees it, that would not be the foretaste of heaven that Katie and Lucy and others received from Mary Frecon (and in the October entry in On Pilgrimage from which we quoted, Dorothy explicitly compares Mary to what is on offer in the persons of prominent secular, in this case Communist, social activists). It would not be the look of love, as Benedict puts it, beyond the provision of natural necessities, which renders visible those who seem useless even from the perspective of the natural urge to do good, those beyond the provision of the necessities of life, as Benedict says, namely, the indigent dying, the unborn, the elderly demented, those whom, it seems, might as well be dead already, those who, if they died, would not be missed. “We are the same flesh, Christ’s.” Lucille Pearl, dying in an alley, flies and worms feasting on the open sores of her flesh (what flesh?): “we are the same flesh, Christ’s.” In a sense it is the love of the Bridegroom, poured out on the Cross, who makes that flesh, who makes human flesh as such, visible, because he bonds himself to us in that very flesh—not in a communion of social status, prestige, of wealth, of prominence or any of the other things with which we overlay flesh to make it invisible as such. Those who are only flesh are not seen. There is nothing to see but flesh.

So Christ unites himself to us, like a Bridegroom, with the intimate love of a Bridegroom, in a union which is not a one-social-status union, a one-wealth-level union, a one-possession-of-power union, but a one flesh union, naked of all the things we use to block the intimacy of flesh with flesh, to deny it, to turn our eyes from it. The Church is the sacrament, the wondrous sacrament, of this one flesh union. The Church is the Bride, the society, visible as any other, but knit together, through the efficacy of the Eucharist, by a bond of love it did not and could not give itself. Formed into this specific, visible and sacramental communion, we can begin to see the world with Eucharistic vision, Spousal vision, without which we could not see anyone as “members” or “prospective members” whether in time or beyond it.

This kind of Spousal Vision, that renders visible the human flesh of the world that is marginalized or as Pope Francis might put it, thrown away as trash in a throw-away culture of consumption, is anticipated in an unforgettable and even breathtaking contemplation on love of the Church, on loving the Church, in Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis, written in 1943, in the middle of World War II as the atrocities of the Third Reich were becoming more and more known. As the encyclical closes, Pius offers the reader an exhortation to love the Church, and an elaboration of the grounds upon which we love the Church. He opens this reflection as follows:

Venerable Brethren, in Our exposition of this mystery which embraces the hidden union of us all with Christ, We have thus far, as Teacher of the Universal Church, illumined the mind with the light of truth, and Our pastoral office now requires that We provide an incentive for the heart to love this Mystical Body with that ardor of charity which is not confined to thoughts and words, but which issues in deeds (MC §91).

Pointing out that the Church is a city made of living stones with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, he goes on to exult in terms that sound a little like boilerplate:

For nothing more glorious, nothing nobler, nothing surely more honorable can be imagined than to belong to the One, Holy Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church, in which we become members of One Body as venerable as it is unique; are guided by one supreme Head; are filled with one divine Spirit; are nourished during our earthly exile by one doctrine and one heavenly Bread, until at last we enter into the one, unending blessedness of heaven (ibid.).

But then the tone shifts, and very deliberately so: “But lest we be deceived by the angel of darkness who transforms himself into an angel of light, let this be the supreme law of our love: to love the Spouse of Christ as Christ willed her to be, and as He purchased her with His blood” (ibid. §92). Then, after mentioning the many gifts we receive from the Church, the sacraments, the sacred rites and the beauty of the chants and ceremonies, and even the sacramentals, for all of which we should love the Church, Pius makes another move forward most relevant to our topic here: “Nor does it suffice to love this Mystical Body for the glory of its divine Head and for its heavenly gifts; we must love it with an effective love as it appears in this our mortal flesh—made up, that is, of weak human elements, even though at times they are little fitted to the place which they occupy in this venerable body” (ibid.). We must love the Church, he says, as it appears in the flesh of all, even the least of its members, for this flesh is one with its Spouse through the love with which he offered his blood.

And he really does mean the flesh joined with Christ’s flesh, as Christ’s flesh, even where we are more likely not to notice or to hold it in contempt. He says “we must accustom ourselves to see Christ Himself in the Church,” not to separate them as though the Church were a natural organization created by our wills designed to talk about and preach and generally uplift and celebrate Christ. Instead, “it is Christ who lives in His Church, and through her, teaches, governs, and sanctifies; it is Christ also who manifests Himself differently in different members of His society.” And this means not only paying due honor to “the more exalted members of this Mystical Body,” but also, he says,

Those members who are the object of our Savior's special love: the weak, We mean, the wounded, and the sick who are in need of material or spiritual assistance; children whose innocence is so easily exposed to danger in these days, and whose young hearts can be molded as wax; and finally the poor, in helping whom we recognize as it were, through His supreme mercy, the very person of Jesus Christ (ibid. §93).

The tone of the encyclical grows more insistent as the focus shifts to those members suffering from the atrocities of the age, and it is worth citing in full:

Conscious of the obligations of Our high office We deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to Our profound grief We see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as though they were a useless burden to Society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgment does not recognize that this not only violates the natural and the divine law written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity? The blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemer because they are deserving of greater pity, “cries to God from the earth” (ibid. §94).

And then in a one-sentence, standalone paragraph, used to emphasize the point, we read that “In order to guard against the gradual weakening of that sincere love which requires us to see our Savior in the Church and in its members, it is most fitting that we should look to Jesus Himself as a perfect model of love for the Church” (ibid. §95), in other words, our love of the Church should be conformed to that of the love of Jesus himself for the Church, for we do not love the Church on “natural” grounds alone as though it were a natural or worldly enterprise.

Pius ups the ante even farther, then, appealing right off the bat to the “breadth” of Christ’s love for the Church: “And first of all let us imitate the breadth of His love. For the Church, the Bride of Christ, is one; and yet so vast is the love of the divine Spouse that it embraces in His Bride the whole human race without exception” (ibid. §96). This does not mean that the distinction between members of the Church and those who are not members is erased, but it means that the love which forms the Church, which makes it Church, is ordered towards love of all flesh as such, as though in his Bride and by his Bride this embrace is tendered without restriction. And so,

Our Savior shed His Blood precisely in order that He might reconcile men to God through the Cross, and might constrain them to unite in one body, however widely they may differ in nationality and race. True love of the Church, therefore, requires not only that we should be mutually solicitous one for another as members and sharing in their suffering but likewise that we should recognize in other men, although they are not yet joined to us in the body of the Church, our brothers in Christ according to the flesh, called, together with us, to the same eternal salvation (ibid.).

In a pointed reference to the hatred lodged against any group on the grounds of “nation or race,” he continues,

It is true, unfortunately, especially today, that there are some who extol enmity, hatred and spite as if they enhanced the dignity and the worth of man. Let us, however, while we look with sorrow on the disastrous consequences of this teaching, follow our peaceful King who taught us to love not only those who are of a different nation or race, but even our enemies. While Our heart overflows with the sweetness of the teaching of the Apostle of the Gentiles, We extol with him the length, and the breadth, and the height, and the depth of the charity of Christ, which neither diversity of race or customs can diminish, nor trackless wastes of the ocean weaken, nor wars, whether just or unjust, destroy (ibid.).

I cannot think of a passage in a papal encyclical to which the word “sublime” might be applied more aptly than to this one. It is because the blood of Christ was poured out for the Church without reservation or restriction, and it is that very love which makes the Church the Church, that love of the Church becomes love of this love—love of its length, and the breadth and the height and the depth (Eph 3:18). Love of the Church, properly understood, does not collapse in on itself to a triumphalism that is self-congratulatory and sectarian, but rather entails seeing beyond its visible borders to those marginalized, really, to those despised, because, in a way, they are just flesh, flesh naked of the markers we value, we prefer, to see that in this very flesh is Christ. The Church is the sacrament of this flesh, of its visibility, and of the “special love” as the encyclical puts it, that Christ has for it—for them—which makes them “dearer” to him.

If we were to translate this “special love” into contemporary terms, we would get the “preferential option for the poor,” which enters the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church at section 182 which notes that “the preferential option for the poor should be reaffirmed in all its force” (emphasis original), which, it explains, is a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity” (citing John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis §42). Pope Francis, citing this passage from John Paul II, reminds us of the theological grounds for this preferential option: “God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself became poor” (2 Cor 8:9; Evangelii Gaudium  §197-198). In other words, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. We could add that it is also an ecclesial category. For the love which inspired the Incarnation, the “self-emptying” of the Word in order to live an authentic human life in solidarity with us, is the same love which makes the Church.

We can, as we conclude this reflection, turn to St. Augustine, who illustrates this ecclesial connection. Psalm 41 begins, “Blessed is everyone who considers (or “understands about”) the poor and needy man” (Exp. on Ps. 41 sec. 1). Augustine comments that it is Christ who is the poor man of the Psalms. “What does understanding about this needy, poor man imply? Understanding that he emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave, bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot (Phil 2:7). He was rich in the bosom of the Father, and poor among us; rich in heaven and poor on earth; rich as God, poor as man” (ibid.). But “understanding about the poor man” requires becoming more attentive to the poor. Augustine comments,

Blessed is everyone who understands about the needy and poor man. Keep in mind all the poor, needy, hungry and thirsty people, travelers far from home, the ill-clad, the sick, the prisoners. Try to understand about a poor person of this sort, because if you do, you will understand about Him who said, I was hungry, I was thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and in prison (Matt 25:35-36).

So we cannot “see” the poverty of Christ if the poor and needy, the alien and the ill and the imprisoned, are invisible to us; contrariwise, if we deeply consider the poverty of Christ, we will begin to lift the poor from their invisibility.

In other words, we do not really understand the Incarnation if we do not see in the poor Christ Himself, who being rich became poor, if we do not see in the poor the “limbs” or “members” of Christ. Commenting on Psalm 37.36, on how a righteous man “all day long shows mercy and lends,” Augustine identifies Christ as the one to whom mercy is shown. He explains that when He says, I was hungry and you fed me, the Lord “shows that he is the warranty of the poor and the sponsor for all his members, for He is the Head and they are the limbs of His Body, so that when the members are given anything, the Head receives it” (Exp. 3 of Ps. 36, sec. 6). Christ’s identification with the suffering of his members is such that he still suffers in their suffering: “Even so Christ is in want here, Christ is a stranger here, Christ is ill here, Christ is confined to prison here . . . He said of Himself, I was hungry and you fed me” (Exp. of Ps. 86, sec. 5). We do not see the poor if we do not see the love which bound even the poorest members of the Church into Christ himself, as his members.

Augustine, commenting on Psalm 31.19, “Let lying lips be struck dumb, lips that speak wickedly against the righteous one, in their pride and scorn,” reflects on one reason why the poor are so invisible to us. Looking for Christ in this Psalm, we find him, the righteous one, who is scorned by the prideful “because he who came so humbly appeared contemptible to the proud.” Augustine goes on to ask rhetorically,

Are you unwilling to see him scorned by the lovers of prestige? . . . Are you reluctant to see him who was crucified scorned by those who think it is a disgraceful thing to die like a criminal on a cross? Does it offend you to see him, who led a poor life in this world although he was the world’s Creator, scorned by the rich? Christ renounced all that human beings hold dear, not because he lacked the power to possess them, but because he chose not to have those things in order to show us that they are to be treated as unimportant; and therefore all who set store by such things despise Him.

But despising Him also includes despising his members who do not have the prestige, or the status, or the money that are considered so desirable by so many. Here we see the roots of what we now call “the preferential option for the poor.” We prefer all of the things that cause us to scorn the poor. Augustine warns us that this amounts to scorning the Lord. It means we are not really even to “see” the Lord, the poor and needy man, who preferred to come emptied of all of the things we prefer.

Augustine’s point is that we do not really see Christ if we do not see the poorest and most marginalized of his members, because if we do not see them, we do not see the love which, though rich, became poor for us. If we do not see Christ in his poor members, we do not really see the Incarnation, we do not really see Christ. Just as Pius XII noted, seeing the Church truly, and loving the Church truly, means, in Augustine’s terms, loving the love that became poor, that united their flesh with his, as his members, and that directs our attention to all of those who are hungry and naked and, in a word, scorned. “What does being poor mean?” Gustavo Guttierez asks. He answers, “I believe that a good definition does not exist, but we can approximate it if we say the poor are the non-persons, the insignificant ones, the ones that don’t count either for the rest of society . . . the ones who constitute a despised and culturally marginalized race” (“Renewing the Option for the Poor,” 71).

If it is not too much of a stretch to put it this way, I would like to say that we could summarize our contemplation here drawn from Dorothy Day, Benedict XVI, Pius XII, Pope Francis, Augustine and others, by saying that the Church is the sacrament of the preferential option for the poor and the marginalized. Love of the Church is love of the poor, and it is, ironically perhaps, the purest and deepest form of love of the poor, because it is love of that love which is the only love that can be the source of human communion, without qualification or reservation. This is why the Church is, in the grand opening words of Lumen Gentium, “in Christ, a sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument, of communion with God and [thus] of the unity of the entire human race” (LG §1). She lives, we further read, “’like a stranger in a foreign land,” on pilgrimage “’amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God’” (LG §8, citing City of God 18.51), because the only love which can unite all human beings without exception is not of this world, is not in the first instance a love based on our preferences, our convenience or utility, our efficiency, strategy or virtue, but on that love which, though “rich” in a way that none could be richer, “became poor for us.” Thank-you.

Edouard Manet, The Dead Christ and Angels, 1864; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 

Author

John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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