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POVERTY AWARENESS MONTH/ Holy poverty can help the poverty of hell

Bishop GERALD KICANAS, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, underlines the need to become aware of the pervasive poverty in our world, and the duty to respond to it

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January is Poverty Awareness Month. To help raise awareness among Catholics of poverty and its underlying issues, USCCB has updated its website, www.PovertyUSA.org, and launched a Spanish counterpart, www.PobrezaUSA.org. USCCB blog is also running a series of posts reflecting on poverty in the United States and the world today.

Poverty is a virtue but also a sad state of suffering and want. Christ calls us to be poor and said of Himself: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Christ invites us, in imitation of Him, to renounce worldly possessions and let go of things we feel we need to embrace a life of simplicity. Yet while poverty is a virtue to be embraced, it also can mean living in less than human circumstances, bereft of basic life necessities.

Since becoming chair of the board of Catholic Relief Services and as bishop of Tucson along the Arizona/Mexico border, I have come face to face with dire poverty. Lack of food and safe water, lack of shelter and health care, no opportunity to provide a livelihood for oneself or one's family is the daily struggle and preoccupation of people as close to us as Mexico and as far away from us as Myanmar. Such poverty exists even in our own country. Tucson, where I live, is the sixth poorest metropolitan area in the United States.

Recently I was in Mexicali in the State of Baja California in Mexico where a major earthquake two years ago destroyed countless homes. Families were in makeshift shelters, scrambling daily to find enough food to survive. Our diocese and the Diocese of San Diego are building five homes for displaced families, a mere drop in the ocean of need of families there. During our visit, mothers begged us to help them rebuild their families’ lives. The need is intense and the resources limited.

On a visit to Haiti, a beautiful but desperately poor country, I saw people rummaging for food in garbage piles, searching for a drink of water in polluted streams, seeking a way to make a living. It tears at the heart to see human beings forced to live without dignity in such desperate situations.

People in Myanmar try to eke out a living in rural areas with only the basics needed to survive. Poverty cannot take joy out of a person, but it makes for a tough life. I left the visit there impressed by the goodness and hospitality of a people who have only the barest of necessities.

Poverty persists around the world even in this Third Millennium, a modern era when we have made technological advances and enjoy many blessings. Sadly inequality of resources and opportunities characterizes our advanced society.