Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. The Second Vatican Council emphasizes a specific dimension of love that, by the example of Christ, moves us above all towards the poorest of the poor: "As Christ...was invited by the Father to 'give the good news to the poor, to heal those with contrite hearts' (Luke 4:18), 'to look for and to save those who were lost'(Luke 19:10), so the Church surrounds with affectionate care those afflicted by human weakness and, even more, recognizing in the poor and suffering the image of its poor and suffering Founder, hastening to relieve them of their need, and intending to serve Christ in them" (Lumen Gentium, 8).
Today we want to deepen the teaching of Holy Scripture on the motivation of preferential love for the poor.
2. First of all it is clear that, from the Old to the New Testament, there is a progression in how the poor and their situation are valued. In the Old Testament we often see emerge the common human conviction that wealth is better than poverty and represents the just compensation reserved for the upright and God-fearing: "Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in His commandments...Wealth and riches are in their houses"(Psalm 112:1-3). Poverty is understood as punishment for those who refuse wise instruction (cf. Proverbs 13:19).
But from another perspective, the poor become objects of particular attention as the victims of perverse injustice. The denunciations of the prophets against the exploitation of the poor are famous. The prophet Amos (CF 2:6-15) puts the oppression of the poor among his main accusations against Israel: "They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals -- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way" (Ibid., vv. 6-7). The linking of poverty with injustice is also emphasized in Isaiah: "Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey"(Isaiah 10:1-2).
This connection also explains why norms in defense of the poor and of the socially weaker abound: "Do not mistreat the widow or the orphan. If you mistreat them, when they seek help from me, I will listen to their cries" (Ezechiel 22:21-22; cf. Proverbs 22:22-23; Sirach 4:1-10). To defend the poor is to give honor to God, Father of the poor. Therefore generosity on their behalf is both justified and recommended (cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-11; 24:10-15; Proverbs 14:21; 17:5).
As the topic of poverty progressively deepens, it becomes a religious value. God speaks of "His" poor (cf. Isaiah 49:13) who become identified with the "remnant of Israel", a humble and poor people, according to an expression of the prophet Zephaniah (CF 3:12). It is also said of the future Messiah that he will take the poor and oppressed to heart, as Isaiah explains in the well-known text regarding the shoot that will sprout from the root of Jesse: "But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth"(Isaiah 11:4).
3. This is why in the New Testament the happy message of liberation is announced to the poor, emphasized by Jesus Himself when He applied to Himself the prophecy of the book of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2).
We must take on the interior attitude of poverty in order to be participants in the "Kingdom of Heaven" (cf. Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20). In the parable of the great banquet, the poor, together with the crippled, blind, and lame, basically the most suffering and marginalized social categories, are invited to the banquet (cf. Luke 14:21). St. James says that God has "chosen the poor of the world be rich in faith and to be heirs the kingdom that He promised to those who love Him" (James 2:5).
4. "Evangelical" poverty always implies a great love for the poorest of this world. In this third year of preparation for the Great Jubilee we must rediscover God as providential Father who bends down to human suffering to raise up those afflicted by it. Our love must also translate into sharing and human promotion, intended as the integral growth of every person.
Throughout history, evangelical radicalism has driven many of Jesus' disciples to seek out poverty, to the point of selling their own goods and giving them as alms. Poverty becomes a virtue here which, besides relieving the lot of the poor, is transformed into a spiritual path thanks to which one may procure for himself true richness, that is, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven (cf. Luke 12:32-34). Material poverty is never an end in itself, but a means to follow Christ, Who, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, "though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich"(2 Corinthians 8:9).
5. Here I cannot fail to note once again that the poor constitute the modern challenge, especially for the well-off of our planet, where millions of people live in inhuman conditions and many are literally dying of hunger. It is not possible to announce God the Father to these brothers and sisters without taking on the responsibility of building a more just society in the name of Christ.
Always, and in a particular way in her social teaching -- from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus -- the Church has endeavored to deal with the topic of the poorest of the poor. The great Jubilee year of 2000 must be experienced as a further occasion for a strong conversion of the heart, so that the Spirit may inspire new witnesses in this direction. Christians, together with all people of good will, must, through adequate economic and political programs, contribute to very necessary structural changes, so that humanity may be raised up from the wound of poverty (cf. CA 57).
Since Vatican II there have been many who think the term "Outside the Church there is no salvation" no longer exists, but they are very, very wrong for the Church has not changed their stance because Christ cannot change His stance on what He said: "Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Since the water and Spirit were given sacramentally to the Church and the first Pope Peter then it stands to reason all are obliged to belong to the Catholic Church in order to be saved. By that statement of "outside the Church" is meant that those who through their own grave fault do not know that the Catholic Church is the true Church, or knowing it, refuse to join it, cannot be saved.
While there has been an increased focus on ecumenism, it is not, as many non-Catholics and even some Catholics, especially liberal or modernist Catholics, think: a compromise of the faiths for unity. The Church cannot and will not compromise her teachings, doctrines and dogmas. The Catholic Church is the only true sacramental Church possessing all seven sacraments. The Church wants, more than anything else, unity of all faiths - but only under the terms set down by Jesus Christ, which are only carried out and perpetuated in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The Catholic Church is founded on the Apostles, to whom Our Lord gave the commission to baptize; by Baptism one is made a member of the Church. If then Baptism is indispensable, the Church must be indispensable. Christ did not die for a part of, but for all mankind. He did not leave His legacy the Church for the benefit of a few, but for all. Our Lord said: "He who hears you hears Me; and he who rejects you rejects Me" (Luke 10:16).
Since God commanded all to be members of His Church, those who deliberately disobey His command will not be saved. Whoever, through his own fault, remains outside of the Catholic Church, will be lost eternally.
One who, knowing the Catholic Church to be the true one, leaves it or does not join it because he wants to make a his own marriage, to advance his business, or for some other worldly motive, will not be saved. He is a willful and malicious unbeliever.
One who leaves the Church or does not enter it because of human respect, or because its doctrines require personal sacrifice, will not be saved. One who belongs to another church and has doubts about the truth or falsity of his own church, but takes no pains to find out the truth will not be saved. "If you believe not that I am He, you shall die in your sin."
It is not enough to belong to the Church. We must also live up to our beliefs, otherwise our membership will only work to our greater condemnation. Only those Catholics who live according to the teachings of the Church will be saved.
The Church is a guarantee of salvation to those only who obey it. Unfortunately, there are bad Catholics. We must therefore study our religion and then practice it. God has given us the grace to be members of the true Church; we must not waste that grace.
Catholics who have committed grave sins such as murder, arson, adultery, etc., are still members of the Church. As long as a Catholic does not deny a doctrine of the Catholic faith, or is not excommunicated, he is a member of the Church. Though Catholics guilty of mortal sin are dead members, because they are deprived of sanctifying grace, the life of the soul. Nevertheless they remain members, and have the privilege of receiving the sacraments to wash away their sins. Christ Himself predicted that in the Church there would be bad people with the good, cockle among the wheat. Mother Church is a good mother that patiently awaits the return of her sinful children, and does not exclude them from her gifts.
An excommunicated person is one who has been cut off from membership in the Church for some serious sin against faith. He is excluded from the sacraments, from Catholic burial, and from being prayed for in the public prayers of the Church. In order to become once more a member of good standing in the Church, an excommunicate has to obtain the absolution of the Bishop.
Catholics who join Masonry, or marry before a non-Catholic minister, are automatically excommunicated, if they knew the serious nature of their actions.
They who remain outside the Catholic Church through no grave fault of their own, and do not know it is the true Church, can be saved by making use of the graces which God gives them. For God condemns no man except for grave sin. Therefore He will not condemn those who, through no fault of their own, are unaware of His command to belong to the True Church, provided they serve Him faithfully according to their conscience, have a sincere desire to do His will in all things, and therefore implicitly wish to become members of His Church. They are members of the Church, in desire.
For instance, a baptized Protestant, of Protestant parents, lives all his life a Protestant without ever having a doubt that he is in the wrong. Before death he makes an act of perfect contrition for the sins he has committed. Such a man will be saved, for he dies in the state of grace.
It is possible for one that has never even heard of Jesus Christ to be saved, for God "wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (Timothy 2:4) and "Christ died for all" (2 Corinthians 5:15). In order that such a one may be saved, it is required that he observe the natural law; with the help of God, everyone having the use of reason can do that.
Whoever then obeys the natural law will be enlightened by God, at some time in his life, with the grace with which he can make an act of Divine faith. If he makes good use of this grace and firmly believes whatever God has revealed, he will receive the further graces with which he can make the acts of hope, repentance, and charity that must precede before God will bestow on his soul sanctifying grace with which he can merit eternal life.
The fact that it is possible for those outside the Church to be saved should not make us lose sight of the great disadvantages they are under, as compared with Catholics who live in the full light of Divine revelation. Such persons have not the infallible Church to guide them in what they are to believe and do in order to serve God. They have to live without the Sacraments, Holy Mass, and Holy Communion, and the other countless sources of grace which the Church supplies for the sanctification of its children, those professed Catholics who are members of the Mystical Body of Christ - the visible Church.
These disadvantages should make us Catholics realize more fully the many reasons we have for humbly thanking God for the priceless blessings we have received without any claim or merit of our own. They should also spur us on to give Him a more worthy service, and help spread our Faith.