“The only way to love and serve people is to encounter them in the margins,” according to distinguished American author and speaker, Rev Prof. Anthony Gittins CSSp. He continued, “The only authentic way to serve the poor is to actually cross the boundaries of separation – the margins – and to encounter them in a personal way so that you can say ‘I don't love the poor, I love this person. I don't love the homeless or the people in prison, I love this prisoner or this person who is homeless’.”
Fr Gittins, the Professor Emeritus of Theology and Culture, Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, was in Melbourne on 21 May leading a reflection on ‘Ministry at the Margins’ for more than 50 guests of Catholic Mission
and Catholic Social Services Victoria in East Melbourne. It is part of a 4-week tour in Australia, which has seen him lead gatherings in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth. His last stop is Wagga Wagga.
Fr Gittins invited those gathered to reflect on their spiritual roots and the Gospel call to serve those on the margins. “Margins either exclude or give people an opportunity to encounter each other,” he said.
“Pope Francis talks very clearly about encounter and the simple fact is you cannot love without encounter – the only way to love and serve people is to encounter them. In other words, I can't love or serve ‘the poor’ because ‘the poor’ is an abstract category and until it becomes a concrete human being, I can't do it. Very often in social services, people talk about serving the poor, but they're actually patronizing the poor or they're condescending to the poor or they're making the poor dependent upon them. We can’t use concepts or abstract terms like ‘the homeless’, ‘the poor’, ‘prisoners’ or ‘prostitutes’. You have to say ‘the women or the men or the children in prison, or who are homeless, then you humanize them. And it's only when you humanize them that you can encounter them. And therefore, it's only when you encounter them that you can actually love and serve them.
“If you choose the margins and the marginalized, you need to do it in a way that shows that you are not trying to dominate but that you are trying to serve.”
Fr Gittins reminded us that the centre of the Church’s mission is always at the margins as opposed to the centre. He said, “when the Church occupies only the centre, it is never going to be able to do the gospel; it doesn't encounter people at the margins. It may proclaim that it's the church, but nobody's listening – it's talking to itself. It's only when the Church leaves the centre that it can encounter people at the margins.”
For those working in Catholic ministry, wanting to take the courageous step of encountering people in the margins, Fr Gittins recommended going to the gospel and looking at the way Jesus operates.
“Jesus spends his life at the margins. He chooses the margins and commits himself to the people on the margins. He does not choose the centre. He says, ‘the foxes have the lairs and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head and that's the way he's going to live, as an itinerant, as a person reaching out.
“Even people who are married, with families are called to the margins. There are many indications in the New Testament that the disciples would go back to their own families for periods of time and then they'd come back and join Jesus. But when they are with Jesus it’s always a ministry of outreach to the margins.
“Do we want to be comfortable at the centre and behind the desk and in charge or do we want to be on the edge as the stranger, as the marginal person? We need to reach out of our own comfort zone and to encounter somebody who is different from ourselves, whether it's by profession or by being in prison or with someone who is sick or aged or whatever it is, and say to them what can I do to help you, is there something I can do to help you. This shifts the agenda from me to you. I become your servant.
“I think the danger is that too many people are afraid to reach out and take a risk, which is precisely what Pope Francis is talking about all of the time – risk taking, reaching out, margins, boundaries and encounters. He's saying, without that we live a private, comfortable life, a little Christian life, but it's not missionary discipleship. Pope Francis is saying, ‘everybody is called to reach out, outgoing, outpouring, sharing, meeting people who are different, meeting people in the margins. This is our gospel call.”