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Feed the physically and the spiritually poor Print
Guest column
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 -- 1:00 AM

Guest Column

It didn’t take more than an hour after the first stories were posted on the Wisconsin State Journal Website for the first of a few predictable complaints to arise: “Why build such a structure for students . . . what about the poor!?”

Such objections come from people anytime the Church (meaning not only the hierarchy, of which most people think when they disagree with what is being done, but the whole of the Body of Christ, the People of God) looks to dedicate

resources in a way with which they don’t agree.  Most often these objections come when resources are dedicated to honoring and giving Glory to God.

This, of course, has happened in the Church since Jesus walked the earth.  Take a look at Mt. 26:6-13 and Mk. 14:3-9 — the story of the woman who pours expensive balm on Jesus’ feet.  Jesus never says “ignore the materially poor.” He Himself reaches out for the poor and the sick, but He also reaches out to the poor in spirit.

And this is what we are called to do as well!  Care for the material poor does not come at the exclusion of care for the spiritually poor, nor vice versa!

Caring for all of the poor

As a resident of Madison, I’m called to care for all of the poor in my midst.  I give money and help out to serve the thousands helped by our Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and locally the hundreds served by the Catholic Multicultural Center.

But I also help locally by giving to my parish and to our diocese (which necessarily means that I’m again helping the above outreach groups too!).  I also give to organizations that feed the “spiritually poor” through education and ministry.  I’m not sharing this to pat myself on the back, but just to indicate how easy it is to do the “both-and” to which we are called and to encourage those who ask, “how?”

Let me also answer some of the question of “why?”  Not only is doing both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to what we are called by our Baptism and obligated by professing our Catholic faith, but it is what I wanted to do after I fell in love.

A nice Catholic education

I grew up in a nice little Catholic parish in a nice little town. I had a really nice priest and some very nice teachers for my religious education classes.  Growing up in the 80’s, they did a great job of following the texts that were then available.

They told me often that God loves me, and I did a bunch of drawings and collages of and about God.  We had a very entertaining “clown ministry” at our parish and a talented guitar choir for a while. I liked and still love all of those people.

But, by the time I graduated high school, I was mostly done with it all.  We never really talked about anything of substance, and I had very little, if any, knowledge of the Church and Her sacraments.

Eyes of faith opened

It was only because some of my friends were doing the same that I decided to live at the Catholic dorm when I began college at a Big Ten University south of here. Just before I started school, I had my eyes opened and it was at this Catholic dorm that I fell in love with Jesus and His Church.  I learned of the tremendous splendor of spiritual riches in the Church and was simply blown away.

In the midst of some 40,000 undergrads, I very quickly found a tight knit community and a home.  When the other students in my program of study had gotten over the initial thrill of their new-found liberty, when they grew bored with getting drunk, when they were running out of new things to try sexually, there was a noticeable difference between them and the students with whom I lived.

I tried to share my new-found wealth with my classmates, but for the most part they weren’t yet interested.  I cannot express how valuable was the community and home I had found at my Catholic dorm.

I know that it can be hard to imagine the good that can be done by the project and programs St. Paul’s is proposing, especially the further we get from our youth, but as one who has experienced something similar in the not-too-distant past it is “more precious than gold.”

Caring for spiritually poor

Yes, we must always reach out to the materially poor. That cannot stop! It is not only one of the great things we “do” as a people of faith, but should be, in fact, a part of who we are.

But in the very same way, we cannot stop caring for the spiritually poor in our midst — both our next-door neighbors and our students who are away from home.

The approximately 13,000 Catholic kids who attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison each year are, in many ways, starving spiritually.  Despite some really good intentions, many are now out “on their own” (or so they think) and some have been sent out without everything they need spiritually.

Teaching them to fish

The nourishment and shelter which St. Paul’s is proposing to offer is something to which each of us is called to support — not at the exclusion of our other works of mercy, but included in them!

Not only is support of campus ministry a way of feeding the spiritually needy, but if you look at what’s already being done at St. Paul’s and if you consider what they are proposing, you’ll see very quickly how they are not only giving students the proverbial fish, but truly teaching them to fish themselves.

The Catholic students at the UW take part in so many means of service in our communities, not only helping with St. Vincent de Paul, the CMC, and service trips, but also teaching their peers and going out to help with parish religious education programs.

If you’re looking at the project proposed at St. Paul’s as a building project, I encourage you to look again.


William Yallaly is associate director of communications and executive assistant to the bishop in the Diocese of Madison.