One day Teresa of Calcutta wanted to extend her charitable work to China. She began to make the necessary rounds, but you can’t imagine how many “walls of Cinha” she had to cross in the form of paperwork and bureaucracy. She was even prepared to give up catechesis and doctrine: she was to be left to practise only charity.

The Chinese did not refuse permission openly. It would not be good form or good politics. But they were full of tricks: “You dedicate yourself to looking after the miserable, the beggars, the homeless. But in China there is none of that, Mother Teresa. Everyone has a little house, a doctor, assistance, a bowl of rice. No one dies of cold or hunger, there is no lack of crèches or schools. Well done, but here it’s not necessary”.

In other countries it was exactly the opposite: “Come quickly, Mother Teresa. We need you. There are multitudes without a crust, without a roof over their heads, without a word, without affection”.

However, it is not always easy to distinguish the conduct of the ineffable Chinese from that of other excellent people.  One day I entered a church in Lisbon between two rows of ragged, broken legs, and fado laments. It was Sunday, the multiplication of the loaves was being read. It was a splendid occasion to highlight, for instance, that the social dimension was one of the signs of the messianic mission of Jesus. It was written that the Messiah would give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, heal the lepers. The precept of love, the human brotherhood that springs from divine filiation, materialises in social commitment, in a sheet of service. Every Christian, like the boy in the Gospel, must bring his handful of wheat to satisfy the hunger in the world. And hunger not only for bread, but also for words, for culture, for self-esteem, for the meaning of life.

The celebrant spoke of hunger. But to declare loud and clear, so that it could be heard outside the doors: “Those Lazarus who hinder us are false beggars, they do not need alms. They only want drugs and drink; let them work and sweat like good people”.

I confess to having fallen, several times, into the trap of fraudulent beggars. They tricked me, and what a trick! But better that than to let myself be taken in by the bullshit of people with a big mouth who, in the name of the struggle for justice, forget daily love. People who numb the conscience with brilliant theories: that the most urgent battle is not to help individuals, but to change structures; that almsgiving denigrates the receiver as much as the giver; that it is better to teach to fish than to give a fish; that it is better to share yeast than bread.

On a few sands of truth, an error as big as an elephant walks here; they want to transform humanity by letting the real human being die. Jesus, the master of true humanism, did not look so high up that he crushed the ants on the path. He came to change the destiny of the universe, but he caressed children, he wept for a friend, he thought about the little food of his listeners.

In developed countries we are moving towards a dualistic society: two thirds of the population tend towards an ever higher standard of living – faster and more convenient transport, better schools and hospitals, a more comfortable existence – while roughly a third of the inhabitants will live increasingly worse. These are the “new poor”: the excluded, the homeless, illegal immigrants, the long-term unemployed, drug addicts, those suffering from AIDS, impoverished peasants

“There will always be poor people among you” – Jesus said. This sentence has caused many good people to tear their clothes and throw stones: “Here is the Church preaching resignation and hiding behind the pages of the Gospel and charity! It should rather encourage us to defend the social state, to free us from this burden, from this obligation to think of others. The State should think about the poor; it is the State that has to resolve the problems, to assist the most vulnerable. We pay taxes and that is enough.

Jesus was simply stating a fact that experience shows us: no matter how much the State’s social function is promoted, there will always be those who are born in a cradle of straw, who are not capable of making a success of their lives or who have no luck. There will always be people who are “left over” and who are thrown to the forgotten margins of progress.

We must fight for a fairer society, of course, a society that offers equal opportunities to everyone. However, a human society without charity will be like a human being without a heart. The State can guarantee all the elderly and sick the money and material goods necessary to survive; but if no one meets their other needs and wants, they will die of loneliness and pity. “Man does not live by bread alone…” He also lives on words, on companionship, on affection, on tenderness. The State can provide all invalids with the wheelchairs to which they have a right; but if no one helps them to sit in them, these useless pieces of junk will be of no use to them. As the Romans said: Summum ius, summa iniura (“Suma justice, suma injustice”). Justice in isolation results in trampling, in a true insult to the human being.

I remember a beggar who asked for three things: “a coin, a greeting and a smile”. And he himself went about spreading good wishes as if throwing flowers or a burst of tenderness.

The first thing that is asked of us is to have a heart. A heart like that of the man to whom the caliph Aarum-el-Raschid asked: “Which of your sons is your favourite?” The man replied, I have a preference for the smallest … until he is grown up; for the one who is away … until he comes home; for the one in jail … until he is free; for the one who suffers … until the pain or sorrow is over”.

Each one of us can give to others, especially to those most in need, part of our time, our knowledge, our affection, our presence.

A lady with nothing in her pocket gave a kiss to a child who was asking for alms. A moment later, the child appeared again, interceding for her little brother: – Do you kiss this one too?

No definition of love is worth as much as a kiss.


Abílio Pina Ribeiro, cmf

(PHOTO: Jacqueline Munguía)


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