EACH JANUARY we usher in a new year with so much hope and celebration and the sense that maybe things are finally going to improve.

Last year, however, did not allow for a great deal of optimism as the horror of war, bloodshed and suffering continued sporadically in several corners of the globe. The dignity of life was again under attack in this country, specifically with the failure to overturn the veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. And people of every faith were saddened by the passing of one of the true spiritual leaders of the century, Chicago's Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. War and violence seem to be always in our midst, but the Bernardins of this world don't pass our way very often.

Still, at the dawn of a new year that brings us closer to the threshold of another century, our sense of hope and belief in the future has to be more tenacious and stubborn than at any other time in the past.

It is perhaps a cliché to point out that, at the beginning of 1997, the world is rushing by more rapidly than ever before with its dizzying advances in technology, the Internet, medical research and bold new breakthroughs in both space and weaponry. Unfortunately, on the downside, there are spiraling numbers of poor, homeless, hungry, abused and all those who cannot stay afloat in society, in one way or another, around the world.

In the popular perception of things, it's always business as usual for the rich and poor in America. We do our best, we insist, but we can't change the world and besides, the poor, we reason, as the good book says, will always be with us.

As cop-outs go, that may be one of the more insidious, and weakest. If the poor are indeed “with us,” that doesn't mean we can stop trying to help them. If anything, the time has come for more organizations and individuals in this country to be making a greater effort.

We can no longer blithely decide that an extra dollar in the collection basket will take care of it all; or that Catholic Charities or the Red Cross will resolve the problems. Rather, every person and every group has to do much more—to take it up another notch, throw away the old campaigns and pledges—and not slide back into the fallacy that if a response was good enough in 1996 or 1986 or 1936, it should be good enough in the new year. Whatever worked 10 or 20 years ago will not work today.

For that reason, the Knights of Malta voted at their last board meeting to broaden our efforts—wider than ever before in our history—to reach the poor. We are increasing, as much as possible, the number of area chairpersons and committees around the country so that the bishops of every diocese can have easy access to the Knights as a committed extension of the Church in society.

But neither the Knights of Malta nor Catholic Charities nor any other organization can do it alone. Every parish and every parish society must commit themselves aggressively to doing more. Every local organization and community group must set wider agendas with specific goals. And individual Catholics should no longer have the luxury of simply shrugging off the problems with glib rationalizations.

The poor are always with us. The same sentence can be rephrased without losing one bit of truth. We are, all of us, with the poor. And, in the purest sense of the Gospel, and Christ's vision of his Church and his people, we, too, are the poor.

William Flynn is president of the American Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.