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The Voice of the Poor at the United Nations

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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Yesterday, in reflecting upon Pope Francis’s speech to the U.S. Congress and his blessing from the balcony, I suggested that the Pope invited our congressional leaders and the people they represent into a form of intercessory prayer. Following St. Paul, this prayer is predicated upon making room in oneself—in one’s own heart—for the needs and the good of others. As the Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, St. Paul’s prayer was “full of people” because when he offered himself in prayer to God, he offered God all those whose cares he made his own (§281-282).

On the floor of the United Nations this morning, Pope Francis once again embodied the beauty and the power of intercessory prayer. His voice was his own and yet not his own because Francis carried the needs of the poor to the meeting of the nations.

In recognizing the mission of the United Nations to promote the common good and protect the human dignity of all, Francis spoke first to the sickness of the environment. To those who believe that the Pope should speak more about issues that directly threaten the dignity of human beings, it is important to heed the perspective from which Francis looks upon environmental issues: he sees them from the perspective of the poor. Francis argues that “any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity,” and that the misuse of natural resources and the inequitable commerce of goods and profit (for the wealthy) and waste (for the poor) perpetuates a system of exclusion whereby the few live comfortably at the expense of the many:

The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste”. The dramatic reality this whole situation of exclusion and inequality, with its evident effects, has led me, in union with the entire Christian people and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently-needed and effective solutions.

To see the “evident effects” of the “culture of waste”, one cannot look from the perspective of the economically prosperous and financially secure. Rather, in order to see the effects, one must allow oneself to see from the side of those who bear the cost. For the poor who are the most vulnerable to the degradations of the environment, the unjust distribution of goods and wealth, and systemic practices of exclusion, there is no debate about whether or not the ecological threat is real. The urge to commodify the natural goods that justly belong to all is translated, through social and economic manifestations, into the commodification of human beings: “human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.”

This speech—not unlike Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si—is oriented to the promotion of the common good. Promoting the common good—at least rhetorically—is not uncommon. What makes the Pope’s speech distinctive is that he speaks to the powerful on behalf of the poor: he is bringing their perspective to the fore and demanding dignity and justice on their behalf. As the Vicar of Christ charged with the office of unity for the entire Church, this is the mission proper to his vocation. At the same time, however, it is yet another illustrative example of his practice of intercessory prayer. His authority—his voice—is filled with the needs and voices of those the Church protects as its special treasure: the poor. In this speech in particular, he cedes the space of his authority to the needs of the neediest. Only from this perspective can any one of us truly understand the common good in which we are called to participate:

The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic.

This is the roll call of those whom the Pope, on behalf of the Church and her Lord, carries in his heart. His speech that advocates for them rises from his heart shaped in prayer for them. In this, Francis is intentionally following the example of St. Paul, who took the good of others as his own good and offered their needs to the Lord in his prayer.

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.