Ask Canadian Catholics what happened on Oct. 17, and they might mention the canonization of St. Brother André of Montreal. Yet, to commemorate the day, the United Nations has named “the international day for the eradication of poverty.” Without much ado, the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops quietly released a “reflection” on poverty.
This one-page document was originally planned, “as in past years,” as a longer pastoral letter. In it, the bishops note that over three million Canadians live in poverty, and assert, “Most of them are children.”
The reflection calls attention to the “inspired points in our history” when Canadians “supported public initiatives that really did succeed in loosening the grip of poverty on whole sections of the population.”
“But the bishops think the current moment is one where we refuse to “reach for equality.”
I asked Edmonton’s Ukrainian Bishop David Motiuk, a member of the Commission, why the bishops released this letter at this time, and to what purpose.
He replied, “Every part of the world was touched in one way or another by the most recent global economic crisis, and while there are signs of recovery, many are still unsure of their financial security.
“As a bishop, my greatest personal fear is that we will emerge successfully from the crisis, but learn few lasting lessons.
Greed will once again rear its ugly head and the underlying principle which drives our economic system will be based upon ‘more means better.’
“The poor will once again be forgotten.”
“Rather,” Motiuk continued, “let our economic system be based upon the principle of stewardship, recognizing that everything we have — our time, talent and treasure — are gifts from God, not to be hoarded solely for one’s personal use, but to help each other in time of need, thus giving glory to God.
“In this light, the CCCB Commission for Justice and Peace calls upon the Government of Canada to work together with all Canadians to develop a national anti-poverty strategy. Whatever we can do to relieve poverty will be one lesson from the economic crisis worth learning.”
Motiuk is right in pointing out the most important political point in this reflection: that the federal government should emulate the efforts of six provincial governments and develop an anti-poverty strategy.
Parliament has already called for this. But how can such a desirable outcome be assured?
The national president of the Catholic Women’s League, Velma Harasen, notes that their theme for 2011-2012 is Centred on Faith and Justice.
poverty key focus
Poverty, she says, will be a key focus of the new theme and will be addressed through letter-writing campaigns by league members; education and awareness of members regarding the pervasiveness of poverty in Canada and globally, and the root causes of poverty; scheduled meetings with the prime minister and federal cabinet ministers to be held in November 2010; and the donations of time and treasure by parish councils across Canada to organizations that serve and support the poor.
Many parishioners recognize that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP), since 1846, has followed the charitable mission of “serving Christ in the poor.” What few of us realize is that the SSVP has, over the past few years, started a national advocacy program where social justice has increasingly been highlighted.
This effort has been lead by Clermont Fortin, the Ottawa-based vice-president who has established the Voice of the Poor committee. With the enthusiasm of past president Michael Burke of Halifax and current president Penny Craig of Windsor, the SSVP supports Dignity for All: The Campaign for a Poverty-free Canada, and advocates a national anti-poverty plan.
Most recently, the SSVP has joined other groups advocating the passage of Bill C-304, which proposes a national housing strategy.
In their recent meeting in Moncton, religious communities, members of the Canadian Religious Conference (CRC), also reviewed the reflection and were most encouraged by it. A large number of religious communities of men and women advocate for the continued commitment of governments to implement poverty strategies.
According to CRC staff person, Sister Joyce Murray, members of the Atlantic provinces’ network also plan to write to their MPs who have not signed the Dignity For All Campaign, to request their support.
Can a pastoral reflection written by bishops, and acted upon by faithful lay people, really make necessary change happen in Church and society? Has your Christian community reflected upon this text and decided to act?
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)