Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
Consider the following Old Testament reading from this upcoming Sunday:
“You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
I will surely hear their cry.
My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword;
then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”
As a general rule, any time “thus saith the Lord,” contains the phrase “I will kill you with the sword,” I listen. The question is this: What is it that could stir God himself to such violent words?
Holy Scripture is quite clear:
“He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker; but he who is kind to the needy honors him” (Proverbs, 14:31).
“He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard” (Proverbs, 21:13).
“He who gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse” (Proverbs, 28:27).
It is a long-standing tradition within the Church that the poor are close to the heart of God. The Church teaches us that “oppression of the poor” and “defrauding laborers of their wages” are both sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. Given the fierce words that season Our Heavenly Father’s language regarding their treatment, I am not surprised. However, there is a certain sector of the poor and downtrodden on which I’d like to focus.
St. James tells us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James1, 1:27).
Orphans. They are the focus of my inquiry, and appropriately so because they are the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
Catholic religious sisters opened the first orphanage in North America in 1729. It served as a hospital and a refuge for young girls orphaned by Native American raids. By the late 19th century, orphanages in the United States had grown to more than 600 institutions, and many of those were Catholic. Today there are only a handful of orphanages inside the United States, and only a few are Catholic (those run by Catholics rarely teach the faith to the children).
My concern is this: In the midst of battles over abortion, marriage, the economy, you name it, have we forgotten these abandoned members of our society? “Orphan” is a pejorative now, and modern orphanages call themselves by any other name. Is this a sector of our society we’ve simply pushed from the view of the American public?
We do have the foster-care system, and it is riddled with problems. Still, I’m less concerned with the foster care-orphanage debate than with what Catholics are doing to serve orphans. Adoption services and loving Catholic foster parents are saintly ventures we need to continue. However, I don’t think this is an either/or scenario?
A recent study of more than 2,500 American orphanage alumni found the orphans “outpaced their counterparts in the general population often by wide margins” in almost all areas of life. Moreover, “white orphanage alumni had a 39% higher rate of college graduation than white Americans of the same age.” And probably most shockingly, less than 3% of orphanage alumni had “hostile memories of their orphanage experience.” My point? Given real opportunity and investment these children rise out of darkness to become productive members of society.
The bottom line is that as Catholics we need to remember the littlest and most vulnerable of our nation. Maybe we should revive the American Catholic orphanage system or maybe we should start a parish-based initiative of some sort. Regardless, these children are dear to the heart of our God. We must act.
I leave you with a request and a quote. First, I ask that if you have any information or stories about the good work being done by Catholic orphan care, please share them. Lastly, in an apropos summary of the aforementioned Scriptures I offer you a quote for reflection:
“If we don’t love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we’re going to go to hell.” — Archbishop Chaput
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