A friend of mine grew up in an orthodox Jewish community of almost entirely Syrian descent. These days it’s pretty well off. There are many who are “poor,” but because of the tight-knit nature of their communal bonds, the poor have their needs met. In other words, while not everyone is rich, everyone benefits from the aggregate wealth of the community.
There is, however, another side to this story. As my friend indicated to me, this means that, within his hometown, there’s not much understanding of poverty. People know what it is; they can conceptualize it, but ultimately financial difficulty at home is met so swiftly and justly that most of his friends and family simply don’t have to come face-to-face with the long-term effects of impoverishment. The suffering of the poor is not merely a lack of money. More insidious are the shame they experience, the sense of difference from the people they see on TV or online. In a way, this is a new problem. In the past, often those with no relatives, church membership, citizenship in a supportive small town , and strong communal bonds would have been saved from such absolute isolation.
Today’s poverty is a particularly lonely one. As one article has put it:
Poor social bonds damage people’s employment prospects, their living standards and their wellbeing. The demands of the modern labour market, especially for those on low incomes who are more likely to work night shifts and weekends, are often in conflict with the opening hours of public services. Sometimes formal childcare is just too expensive. Without support from family and friends, people are more likely to struggle in – or, worse, drop out of – the labour market.
This is something Catholics ought to take seriously. Our communities are often less close-knit than my friend’s Jewish one, which is small, ethnically homogeneous, and (due to dietary restrictions and a common Sabbath) deeply intra-dependent. As a young convert, I have walked into many Catholic churches where it seems as if no one knows anyone else. It’s easy for us to ignore both the material and religious needs of those in the pews.
How will we know who needs help in our communities, not simply financially (though that may matter), but also spiritually?
If Tip O’Neill is to be believed and all politics is indeed local, then we (and I stand accused as well) ought to do everything in our power to revitalize our own parishes and communities. In an age of outrage du jour, it’s often easier to donate to some big cause. These are important. But there is no statewide, nationwide, or global Catholic politics without parishes and dioceses, without consciousness of the poverty and pain felt within our own communities. We ought to attend to those easiest to miss—those around us. This is subsidiarity. For it is so written:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. (1 John 4:11)