20 – The poor are the flesh of Christ; and poverty is a theological category

Love for the poor is not a recent novelty born in the Church, although some try to present it as such. It was the Divine Redeemer himself who gave the example and left this remarkable law of charity, bringing his followers to see in those who suffer the divine image of Jesus himself, who inspired them to offer assistance.

However, the divine call to conversion was directed to all, rich or poor, and the kind of poverty that deserved the title of beatitude was that of the spirit: detachment from the things of this world and humility. Consequently, considering some tendential visualizations, we might ask: are there poor who are rich in spirit and rich who are detached from their goods? Is the ‘option for the poor’ exclusive and excluding?

If the idea of the ‘flesh of Christ’ has a relationship with the Mystical Body, is the poverty of the peripheries what makes a person part of this Body? The Magisterium teaches us what the Mystical Body of Christ is, and who its true members are.


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Today, in this place where people struggle with drug addiction, I wish to embrace each and every one of you, who are the flesh of Christ… (Visit to Saint Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital – V.O.T, July 24, 2013)
The poor, the abandoned, the sick and the marginalized are the flesh of Christ. (Homily, Canonization of Maria Guadalupe Garcia Zavala, May 12, 2013)
Dear friends, let us not forget the flesh of Christ which is in the flesh of refugees: their flesh is the flesh of Christ. (Address to participants in the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, May 24, 2013)
The second question: ‘And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the person you are giving them to or do you toss the coin at him or her?’ This is the problem: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ, taking upon ourselves this suffering for the poor. Poverty for us Christians is not a sociological, philosophical or cultural category, no. It is theological. I might say this is the first category, because our God, the Son of God, abased himself, he made himself poor to walk along the road with us. This is our poverty: the poverty of the flesh of Christ, the poverty that brought the Son of God to us through his Incarnation. A poor Church for the poor begins by reaching out to the flesh of Christ. If we reach out to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty, the Lord’s poverty, actually is; and this is far from easy. (Pentecost Vigil with the Ecclesial Movements, May 18, 2013)
We can do all the social work we like, and people can say: ‘how good the Church is, what good social work the Church does!’ But if we say we do this because those people are the flesh of Christ, it gives rise to a scandal. (Homily, Casa Santa Marta, June 1, 2013)
Today, humanity is in danger, the human person. The flesh of Christ is in danger. Look, every person for us, and even more soif marginalized, if sick, is the flesh of Christ. (Messsage to Caritas International Executive Committee, May 16, 2013)
My brother Domenico was saying to me that here you have Adoration. That bread too needs to be heard, because Jesus is present and hidden in the simplicity and meekness of bread. And here is Jesus hidden in these boys and girls, in these children, in these people. On the altar we adore the Flesh of Jesus; in the people we find the wounds of Jesus. Jesus hidden in the Eucharist and Jesus hidden in these wounds. They need to be heard! Maybe not so much in newspapers as news; there they take notice for one, two, three days, then something else comes up, and another thing…. The wounds should be heard by those who call themselves Christian. The Christian adores Jesus, the Christian seeks Jesus, the Christian knows how to recognize the wounds of Jesus. And today, all of us, here, need to say: “These wounds must be heard!” But there is something else that gives us hope. Jesus is present in the Eucharist, here is the Flesh of Jesus;Jesus is present among you, it is the Flesh of Jesus: the wounds of Jesus are present in these people. (To the sick and disabled children assisted at the Seraphic Institute, October 4, 2013)
Then he spoke of another thing, about the Incarnation of the Lord. John the Apostle is clear: ‘He who says that the Word did not become flesh, is not from God! He is from the devil’. He is not ours, he is the enemy! Because first there was heresy — let’s say the word among us — and this is what the Apostle condemns: that the Word did not become flesh. No! The incarnation of the Word is at the foundation: it is Jesus Christ! God and man, Son of God and Son of man, true God and true man. And thus the first Christians understood and they must have really argued a great deal in order to maintain these truths: the Lord is God and man; the Lord Jesus is God made flesh. It is the mystery of Christ’s flesh: one doesn’t understand love for thy neighbour, one doesn’t understand love for thy brother, if one doesn’t understand this mystery of Incarnation. I love my brother because he too is Christ, is Christlike, is the flesh of Christ. I love the poor, the widow, the slave, those in prison…. Let’s consider the ‘protocol’ by which we will be judged: Matthew 25. I love all these people, because these people who suffer are the flesh of Christ, and it will do us good, who are on this path of unity, to touch the flesh of Christ. To go to the fringes, right where there are so many needs, or — let’s say it better — there are so many needy, so many needy… (Address, Meeting with the Evangelical Pastor Giovanni Traettino, July 28, 2014)
To serve the poor means to serve Christ, because the poor are the flesh of Christ. And if we serve the poor together, it means that we Christians find ourselves united in touching Christ’s wounds. (Interview with Stefania Falasca, Avvenire, November 17, 2016)
[…] a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life. Our prayer and our journey of discipleship and conversion find the confirmation of their evangelic authenticity in precisely such charity and sharing. This way of life gives rise to joy and peace of soul, because we touch with our own hands the flesh of Christ. If we truly wish to encounter Christ, we have to touch his body in the suffering bodies of the poor, as a response to the sacramental communion bestowed in the Eucharist. The Body of Christ, broken in the sacred liturgy, can be seen, through charity and sharing, in the faces and persons of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters. […] The poor are not a problem: they are a resource from which to draw as we strive to accept and practise in our lives the essence of the Gospel. (Message for the First World Day of the Poor, November 19, 2017)
Money is an instrument made to serve, and poverty is at the heart of the Gospel. And Jesus speaks of this conflict: two lords, two masters. I either follow one or the other. I either follow he who is my Father or I follow he who makes me a slave. And afterward, the truth: the devil always enters through people’s pockets, always. It’s his way in. We must fight to make a poor Church for the poor according to the Gospel, right? We must fight. And when I consider Matthew 25, which is the protocol about what we will be judged for, I understand better the meaning of ‘a poor Church for the poor:’ the works of mercy, right? In Matthew 25. It is possible, but we should fight, because the temptation for riches is very great. (Interview with TV2000 on the Year of Mercy, November 20, 2016)
Poverty teaches solidarity, sharing and charity, and is also expressed in moderation and joy in the essential, to put us on guard against material idols that obscure the real meaning of life. A poverty learned with the humble, the poor, the sick and all those who are on the existential outskirts of life. A theoretical poverty is no use to us. Poverty is learned by touching the flesh of the poor Christ, in the humble, in the poor, in the sick and in children. (Address to the participants in the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General, May 8, 2013)

Teachings of the Magisterium

Enter the various parts of our study


I: Is care for the poor something new? Are riches evil in themselves?
II: What is the Mystical Body of Christ? Why does the Church evangelize?



I: Is care for the poor something new? Are riches evil in themselves?

John Paul II

Love for the poor is not something new: the whole tradition of the Church bears witness to the exercise of Christian charity

Here I would like to indicate one of them: the option or love of preference for the poor. This is an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. (John Paul II. Encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, no. 42, December 30, 1987)

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Jesus came to call to conversion including the rich – the poverty He declared blessed is made up of detachment

But he also wished to be near to those who, though rich in the goods of this world, were excluded from the community as ‘publicans and sinners’, for he had come to call them to conversion (cf. Lk 19:1-10; Mk 2:13-17). It is this sort of poverty, made up of detachment, trust in God, sobriety and a readiness to share, that Jesus declared blessed. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Instruction Libertatis conscientia, no. 66, March 22, 1986)

Sacred Scripture

He who oppreses the poor blasphemes his Maker

He who oppresses the poor blasphemes his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy
glorifies him.
(Prov 14:31)

Be mindful of the poor

Only, we were to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I was eager to do. (Gal 2:10)

No partiality with God

There is no partiality with God. (Rom 2:11)

God provides for the great and small alike

For the Lord of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and he provides for all alike. (Wis 6:7)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Word speaks of voluntary humility as ‘poverty in spirit’

The precept of detachment from riches is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven. All Christ’s faithful are to ‘direct their affections rightly, lest they be hindered in their pursuit of perfect charity by the use of worldly things and by an adherence to riches which is contrary to the spirit of evangelical poverty’ (LG 4/ 3). […] “The Word speaks of voluntary humility as ‘poverty in spirit’; the Apostle gives an example of God’s poverty when he says: ‘For your sakes he became poor’” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, De beatitudinibus 1; cf. 2Cor 8:9). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2544-2546)


Erroneous and heretical: to declare that Jesus Christ and His apostles did not possess anything either in particular or even in common

Since among some learned men it often happens that doubt is again raised as to whether should be branded as heretical to affirm persistently that our Redeemer and Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles did not possess anything either in particular or even in common, even though there are different and adverse opinions on that question, we, in a desire to put an end to this controversy, declare on the advice of our brethren by this perpetual edict that a persistent assertion of this kind shall henceforth be branded as erroneous and heretical, since it expressly contradicts Sacred Scripture, which in many passages asserts that they did have some possessions; and since with regard to the aforementioned it openly submits that Sacred Scripture itself, by which surely the articles of orthodox faith are approved, contains a ferment of falsehood and consequently, in so far as in it lies, completely voiding the faith of Scripture it renders the Catholic faith, by destroying its approval, doubtful and uncertain. (Denzinger-Hünermann 930. John XXII, Edict Cum inter nonnullos, November 13, 1323)

Saint Augustine of Hippo

The Lord chose both the rich and the poor

But the Lord chose afterwards orators also; but they would have been proud, if He had not first chosen fishermen; He chose rich men; but they would have said that on account of their riches they had been chosen, unless at first He had chosen poor men. (Saint Augustine. Expositions on the Book of Psalms, 66, no. 4)

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Preference given to the poor, without exclusion

In its positive meaning the ‘Church of the poor’ signifies the preference given to the poor, without exclusion, whatever the form of their poverty, because they are preferred by God. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Libertatis nuntius, no. 9, October 6, 2007)


The preferential option for the poor is neither exclusive nor excluding

Hence, ‘the preferential option for the poor is implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty.’ This option arises out of our faith in Jesus Christ, God made man, who has become our brother (cf. Heb 2:11-12). Yet it is neither exclusive nor excluding. (V General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, CELAM, Aparecida Document, no. 392, June 29, 2007)

True human promotion cannot be reduced to particular aspects

We also understand that true human promotion cannot be reduced to particular aspects: ‘It must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and of the whole man’(Gaudium et Spes 76). (V General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, CELAM, Aparecida Document, no. 399, June 29, 2007)

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The temptation to reduce the Gospel to an earthly gospel

The different theologies of liberation are situated between the ‘preferential option for the poor’, forcefully reaffirmed without ambiguity after Medellin at the Conference of ‘Puebla’ (cf. ‘Gaudium et spes’, n.39; Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno) on the one hand, and the temptation to reduce the Gospel to an earthly gospel on the other. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Libertatis nuntius, no. 5, October 6, 2007)

An exclusive option for the poor could be partisan and a source of conflict

The special option for the poor, far from being a sign of particularism or sectarianism, manifests the universality of the Church’s being and mission. This option excludes no one. This is the reason why the Church cannot express this option by means of reductive sociological and ideological categories which would make this preference a partisan choice and a source of conflict. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Libertatis Conscientia, no. 68, March 22, 1986)

Vatican Council II (Ecumenical XXI)

Man’s horizons are not limited only to the temporal order

For man’s horizons are not limited only to the temporal order; while living in the context of human history, he preserves intact his eternal vocation. (Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et spes, no. 76, December 7, 1965)


Virtue: common inheritance of men, within the reach of the rich and poor

The true worth and nobility of man lie in his moral qualities, that is, in virtue; that virtue is, moreover, the common inheritance of men, equally within the reach of high and low, rich and poor; and that virtue, and virtue alone, wherever found, will be followed by the rewards of everlasting happiness. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Rerum novarum, no. 24, May 15, 1891)

The two classes should dwell in harmony. A great mistake: that one class is naturally hostile to another

The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Rerum novarum, no. 19, May 15, 1891)

Saint Ambrose of Milan

Not all the poor are blessed

‘Blessed’, it says, ‘are the poor’. Not all the poor are blessed; for poverty is of itself neutral: there can be evil or good people who are poor. (Saint Ambrose. Treatise on the Gospel of Saint Luke, bk.V, no. 53: PL 15, 1650)

Not all poverty is holy, nor is all richness criminal

In truth, not all poverty is holy, nor is all richness criminal. (Saint Ambrose. Treatise on the Gospel of Saint Luke, bk.VIII, no. 13: PL 15, 1769)

Riches may be a hindrance for the evil; or a great help for virtue in the good

It is necessary to know that there is no sin in goods; but in those who do not know how to use them; because riches may serve as a hindrance for the evil, or as a great help for the virtue of the good. (Saint Ambrose. Treatise on the Gospel of Saint Luke, bk.VIII, no. 85: PL 15, 1791)

Saint Augustine of Hippo

The Lord calls rich the one who yearns for temporal goods

He [the Lord] calls rich the one who yearns for temporal goods and takes pride in them. Contrasting to these rich are the poor of spirit, to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs […] It must be understood that amongst the number of those [the rich] are counted even those who, although not having riches, are all caught up in the desire to have them. (Saint Augustine. Quaestiones in Evangelium secundum Lucam, II, no. 47)

Saint Clement of Alexandria

The abundance of necessary things keeps the soul free and unimpeded

The same holds good also in the case of poverty. For it compels the soul to desist from necessary things, I mean contemplation and from pure sinlessness, forcing him, who has not wholly dedicated himself to God in love, to occupy himself about provisions; as, again, health and abundance of necessaries keep the soul free and unimpeded, and capable of making a good use of what is at hand. (Saint Clement of Alexandria. Book IV, Ch. 5)

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Riches are good if they advance the practice of virtue; poverty is praiseworthy if it frees from vices

Therefore, riches are good, to the extent that they advance the practice of virtue, but if this measure is departed from, so that the practice of virtue is hindered by them, then they are not to be numbered among goods, but among evils. […] So, poverty is praiseworthy according as it frees man from the vices in which some are involved through riches. Moreover, in so far as it removes the solicitude which arises from riches, it is useful to some, namely, those disposed to busy themselves with better things. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa contra Gentiles. bk. III, ch. 133, nos. 1,3)

Poverty and riches are not to be judged evil in themselves; the use of them may be evil

And since neither riches, nor poverty, nor any external thing is in itself man’s good, but they are only so as they are ordered to the good of reason, nothing prevents a vice from arising out of any of them, when they do not come within man’s use in accord with the rule of reason. Yet they are not to be judged evil in themselves; rather, the use of them may be evil. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa contra Gentiles, bk. III, ch. 134, no. 6)

Saint John Chrysostom

I blame not those who have houses, and lands, and wealth: be masters and not slaves of your riches

Now if I demand this of you, it will seem perhaps to most of you grievous and burdensome; because therefore of your infirmity I speak not of such perfection, but desire you not to be nailed to riches; and as I, because of the infirmity of the many, retire somewhat from (demanding) the excess of virtue, I desire that you do so and much more on the side of vice. I blame not those who have houses, and lands, and wealth, and servants, but wish them to possess these things in a safe and becoming way. And what is ‘a becoming way’? As masters, not as slaves; so that they rule them, be not ruled by them; that they use, not abuse them. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homiles on the Gospel of Saint John, Homily 19, no. 3)

II: What is the Mystical Body of Christ? Why does the Church evangelize?

Sacred Scripture

The Word became flesh; from his fullness we have all received

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace. (Jn 1:14.16)

To be clothed with Christ, one must be baptized

For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)

Christ is the head of the Body

He is the head of the body, the church. (Col 1:18)

Saint Thomas Aquinas

The sacraments of the Church bestow us with the virtue of Christ’s Passion

The sacraments of the Church derive their power specially from Christ’s Passion, the virtue of which is in a manner united to us by our receiving the sacraments. It was in sign of this that from the side of Christ hanging on the Cross there flowed water and blood, the former of which belongs to Baptism, the latter to the Eucharist, which are the principal sacraments. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica III, q. 62, a.5)

The members form one mystic person with the Head, Christ

The head and members are as one mystic person; and therefore Christ’s satisfaction belongs to all the faithful as being His members. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica III, q. 48, a.2, ad 1)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

One participates in the grace of Christ by Baptism

Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an ‘adopted son’ he can henceforth call God ‘Father’, in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1997)

Gregory I, the Great

Christ took the Church to Himself, and forms with Her one mystical Person

Our Redeemer has shown Himself to be one with the Holy Church, which He has taken to Himself, for of Him it is said, Who is the Head of us all (Eph 4:15) and of the Church it is written, the Body of Christ, Which is the Church (Col 1: 24). (Gregory I, the Great. Preface, Vol. 1, 14: PL 75.525)

Saint Augustine of Hippo

We are made Christ; if He is the head we are the members

Let us rejoice, then, and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do ye understand, brethren, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if He is the head, we are the members: the whole man is He and we. […] But above he had said, ‘Until we all come together into the unity of faith, and to the knowledge of the Son of God, to the perfect man, to the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:14). The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church. (Saint Augustine. Tractates on Saint John, Tractate 21, no. 8)

Benedict XVI

The Word became man so that man might become a son of God

Incarnation derives from the Latin incarnatio. St Ignatius of Antioch — at the end of the first century — and, especially, St Irenaeus used this term in reflecting on the Prologue to the Gospel according to St John, in particular in the sentence ‘the Word became flesh’ (Jn 1:14). Here the word ‘flesh’, according to the Hebrew usage, indicates man in his whole self, the whole man, but in particular in the dimension of his transience and his temporality, his poverty and his contingency. This was in order to tell us that the salvation brought by God, who became man in Jesus of Nazareth, affects man in his material reality and in whatever situation he may be. God assumed the human condition to heal it from all that separates it from him, to enable us to call him, in his Only-Begotten Son, by the name of ‘Abba, Father’, and truly to be children of God. Saint Irenaeus stated: ‘For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God’ (Adversus Haereses, 3, 19, 1; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 460). (Benedict XVI. General audience, January 9, 2013)

Vatican Council II (Ecumenical XXI)

The life of Christ is imparted to His Body through the sacraments

By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body. In that Body the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ who suffered and was glorified (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas. STh III, q. 62, a.5, ad1) (Vatican Council II, Lumen gentium, no. 7, November 21, 1964)


At His baptism Christ was pleased to prefigure His Church

At this time, then (that is, at His baptism), He was pleased to prefigure His Church, in which those especially who are baptized receive the Holy Ghost (S. Aug. De. Trin. I, 15, c. 26). (Leo XIII. Encyclical Divinum illud munus, May 9, 1897)

Pius XII

Those who are divided in faith or government cannot live in the unity of the Mystical Body, nor receive the life of the Spirit

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. ‘For in one spirit’ says the Apostle, ‘were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free’ (1Cor 12:13). As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith (cf. Eph 4:5). And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican (cf. Mt 18:17). It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit. (Pius XII. Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, no. 21, June 29, 1943)


The Church: common Mother of rich and poor, whose patrimony is guarded as inheritance of the poor

Thus, by degrees, came into existence the patrimony which the Church has guarded with religious care as the inheritance of the poor. Nay, in order to spare them the shame of begging, the Church has provided aid for the needy. The common Mother of rich and poor has aroused everywhere the heroism of charity, and has established congregations of religious and many other useful institutions for help and mercy, so that hardly any kind of suffering could exist which was not afforded relief. […] But no human expedients will ever make up for the devotedness and self sacrifice of Christian charity. Charity, as a virtue, pertains to the Church; for virtue it is not, unless it be drawn from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ; and whosoever turns his back on the Church cannot be near to Christ. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Rerum novarum, no. 30, May 15, 1891)

Pius IX

Charity is especially to bring those in error back to the Mystical Body of the Church

But, God forbid that the sons of the Catholic Church ever in any way be hostile to those who are not joined with us in the same bonds of faith and love; […] and they should especially endeavor to snatch them from the darkness of error in which they unhappily lie, and lead them back to Catholic truth and to the most loving Mother the Church, who never ceases to stretch out her maternal hands lovingly to them, and to call them back to her bosom so that, […] they may attain eternal salvation. (Denzinger 1678, Pius IX, Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863)

Paul VI

The Church will evangelize the world primarily by her fidelity to the Lord Jesus, by the witness of sanctity

It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity. (Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, no. 41, December 8, 1975)

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