The following is an essay by John Carr, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
John Paul II was a tireless champion of the “least of these” (Matthew 25: 31-46). Wherever he went, in so much of what he said and did, he stood with the poor and vulnerable.
In Yankee Stadium he insisted that the poor of our country and of the world were our brothers and sisters in Christ saying, “You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table” (Homily at Yankee Stadium, October 2, 1979, #4).
In the streets of Chicago he affirmed the option for the poor and the principle of participation that is at the heart of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty initiative just reviewed and renewed by the Bishops of the United States.
The most prominent opponent of communism, John Paul was a persistent challenger of unrestrained capitalism. In Centesimus Annus, he criticized the socialist system as a form of state capitalism and called for a society that “demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied” (CA #35).
In the face of economic globalization, he passionately called for the “globalization of solidarity,” insisting that believers look at globalization from the bottom up, how it touches the poor, families, vulnerable workers and immigrants.
He was a decisive force for global debt relief and a persistent advocate of development assistance. His words still haunt us, “How can it be that even today there are still people dying of hunger? Condemned to illiteracy? Lacking the most basic medical care? Without a roof over their heads? . . . Christians must learn to make their act of faith in Christ by discerning His voice in the cry for help that rises from this world of poverty” (Novo Millennio Ineunte #50).
For Pope John Paul II, the poor in our midst and around the world were not issues or abstractions, but tests of our faith. He challenged us, insisting if we are disciples of Jesus, we will serve Him and stand with Him in “the least of these.”
For three decades, a central theme of his papal leadership was that the moral measure of our lives, nation and world is how we treat the poor and weak, the vulnerable and the voiceless.