Celebrating the third World Day of the Poor in 2019 at St Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis reminded everyone present to “remember the poor,” as they are “the treasure of the Church”. In his Homily, Pope Francis highlighted that “love for the poor is central to following Jesus, but so often it is in contradiction with what the world considers important”.
I have been a missionary in Cambodia for the last six years and only recently returned to Australia. In Cambodia, I was part of a team setting up Xavier Jesuit School in Sisophon, about 45 kilometres from the Thai border town of Poipet.
Cambodia is considered one of the poorest countries in East Asia due to the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot, which resulted in the deaths of around 2 million Cambodians. The majority of those killed were upper-class and well-educated Cambodians. As a result, the level of education in Cambodia suffered in comparison to its neighbouring countries.
Sisophon was chosen as the ideal location to build the first Jesuit school there, not because of its temples or beauty, but because it is the poorest of the 25 provinces in Cambodia.
Many of the students who attend Xavier Jesuit School are poor and most of them are on scholarships. What inspired me most about working with the poor in Cambodia was their hospitality and openness towards other people, despite their financial situation. They do have their own difficulties and struggles and are vulnerable in their poverty. Despite their vulnerability, they are very welcoming to foreigners and even strangers. There is always a smile on their faces, and they are happy all the time, even when they have no money to pay for their children’s’ school fees or struggle to provide their family with three meals a day.
I recall visiting one of the hostel students from the Xavier Parish of Sisophon with Fr Greg Priyadi SJ, an Indonesian Jesuit who has been a missionary in Cambodia for 19 years. The family had only one chicken, and yet, they served us this one chicken. On another occasion, I visited a family which served us rice and eggs. While the family would usually share one egg between the two of them, I was given one egg for the meal. When I insisted on cutting it in half, they refused to allow me to do so.
Through these experiences I discovered that the poor are willing to share what they have with others, and they do not hold back in their hospitality. They accept others into their family so easily and they consider us part of their extended family. It is the way with the poor. What they receive they share openly with others. There is no pretension when we interact with the poor. What you see is what you get. There is a genuineness in their relationship with others.
I think this is the attitude we can learn from the poor. It is an openness toward our God who sees right through us. We cannot hide from God and it is this open, honest, and simple attitude that God seeks from us all.
Hence, interacting with the poor points the way toward God. When we interact with them, when we are in relationship with them, they can teach us how to be genuine and simple at the same time. They lead us toward God. We are called to conversion each day and the poor can lead us to our own conversion. When we enter places of vulnerability and poverty, we encounter Christ, and it is there that conversation will take place.
Pope Francis puts it beautifully: “How beautiful it would be if the poor could occupy in our hearts the place they have in the heart of God!”
Fr Quyen Vu SJ