A brave announcement

The Church and the European Year for Combating Poverty

Born in Artois in France, in 1748, Saint Benedict Joseph Labre was the first-born of 15 siblings. After having lived in the Trappa de Sept-Fons, in 1769, when he was 22-years-old, he undertook a pilgrimage of penance across Europe. The pilgrimage brought him to Rome, where he arrived in December 1770, to Saint James of Compostela (1773) and again to Rome in 1774. He went to Lorette on several occasions and in 1778 he settled down in Rome. According to legend, he lived for six years among the ruins of the Coloseum prior to his death, at the age of 35, on April 16 1783. The example of Saint Francis attracted him in particular. He decided to live in conditions of extreme poverty in order to devote himself completely to a life of prayer and adoration. He thus was proclaimed the Patron Saint of the beggars and the homeless. With his canonization the Church raised to the altar a person who was out of the ordinary and a lifestyle marked by utmost poverty when it is the result of a free choice. Indeed, this last term is what counts. The institutional appreciation of poverty as the result of free choice should in fact step up the spirit of revolt of Christian faithful for a suffered state of poverty, for poverty due to injustice and indifference. For this reason, it is hoped that any initiative aimed to attracting public attention on situations of unease and material poverty will be duly acknowledged by Christian faithful. The European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion celebrated in 2010 falls within these initiatives. Church representative bodies in Brussels didn’t hesitate to form an alliance to contribute to this European policy initiative. A common document is being drawn up while next July a dialogue seminary with the European Commission will take place. This seminary is included in the EU dialogue with the Churches, provided for in the new Lisbon Treaty , and will constitute an opportunity to submit Christian-based initiatives for combating poverty, in order to promote the exchange of good practices throughout Europe. This seminary will enable to assess the recent decision of the Council of Europe on the five key-targets of the Europe 2020 Strategy in conjunction with the European Commission. Two of these objectives have a direct tie with the fight against poverty, which probably constitute the most relevant fact of the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. It represents a major step forward in the long march towards a social Europe. The fourth key-target is targeted at “improving education levels, in particular by aiming to reduce school drop-out rates to less than 10%, while the fifth regards the commitment of EU27 to “promoting social inclusion, in particular through the reduction of poverty, by aiming to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and exclusion”. It’s no less important to note that these two objectives were also the most controversial ones in the debates between our Heads of State or Government. The education target raised questions regarding subsidiarity. For this reason, a footnote in the conclusions of the European Council of June 17 underlines the Member States’ jurisdiction to this regard. The poverty-target triggered a dispute regarding the poverty-indicators. Another footnote indicates the Member States’ option to choose between three different indicators (at-risk-of poverty; material deprivation; jobless household). “Member States are free to set their national targets on the basis of the most appropriate indicators, taking into account their national circumstances and priorities”, states the document. Whatever it may! Even though these hesitations are liable to criticism although – as always – it can be said that the crucial point will be the implementation of these objectives and not their formulation, the message sent to European citizens is clear: the macroeconomic strategy of the European Union is no longer confined to the competitiveness and scientific research objectives, however necessary they may be. Nor is it confined to objectives in the area of combating climate change. Indeed, it has also a social dimension, which clearly defines a specifically quantified objective as relates to poverty reduction. According to estimates, the poor population in the EU amounts to approximately 80 million people. The decision to decrease this figure by 25% in 10 years is courageous, especially given the difficult ongoing economic situation, considering that 5.5 million young Europeans were still unemployed in the last months of 2009. It’s also an encouragement to all those who are committed in combating poverty on a voluntary basis. European Catholics will thus remember to ask for the intercession of Saint Benedict Jospeh Labre, the Patron Saint of the poor.

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