The poor are the centre of the Church. But who are the poor? At first we might think of people who are not like us: people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets, people in prisons, mental hospitals, and nursing homes. But the poor can be very close. They can be in our own families, churches or workplaces. Even closer, the poor can be ourselves, who feel unloved, rejected, ignored, or abused.
It is precisely when we see and experience poverty - whether far away, close by, or in our own hearts - that we need to become the Church; that is hold hands as brothers and sisters, confess our own brokenness and need, forgive one another, heal one another's wounds, and gather around the table of Jesus for the breaking of the bread. Thus, as the poor we recognise Jesus, who became poor for us…
When we claim our own poverty and connect our poverty with the poverty of our brothers and sisters, we become the Church of the poor, which is the Church of Jesus. Solidarity is essential for the Church of the poor . Both pain and joy must be shared. As one body we will experience deeply one another's agonies as well as one another's ecstasies. As Paul says: "If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain. And if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy" (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Often we might prefer not to be part of the body because it makes us feel the pain of others so intensely. Every time we love others deeply we feel their pain deeply. However, joy is hidden in the pain. When we share the pain we also will share the joy.
Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
This point about preferring to remain aloof from the body lies at the heart of my concern for those who choose to remain outside the church. I know that in most cases they are not doing so in order to escape their obligations to the poor: far from it, in so many cases they are the poor, according to Nouwen's definition here. But holding ourselves back from the daily, often far from inspiring, life of the church represents to some extent a withholding of surrender, a withholding of some part of ourselves from our sisters and brothers, or so it seems to me.
There is a tendency to think about poverty, suffering, and pain as realities that happen primarily or even exclusively at the bottom of our Church. We seldom think of our leaders as poor. Still, there is great poverty, deep loneliness, painful isolation, real depression, and much emotional suffering at the top of our Church.
We need the courage to acknowledge the suffering of the leaders of our Church - its ministers, priests, bishops, and popes - and include them in this fellowship of the weak. When we are not distracted by the power, wealth, and success of those who offer leadership, we will soon discover their powerlessness, poverty, and failures and feel free to reach out to them with the same compassion we want to give to those at the bottom. In God's eyes there is no distance between bottom and top. There shouldn't be in our eyes either.
Many of those outside the church, those who yet know themselves as Christians, are there outside the doors precisely because of the weakness of leaders within the church. I wonder if they, the hurt and the dispossessed, have a vocation special to themselves? I wonder if God is not calling those who know the problems and the dangers most intimately, to pray for those whom they have all too often come to know as their enemies?