Cardinal John Dew
Benefit Impact Week. What was it? Why did we do it?
The week of 9‒13 May saw Benefit Impact Week being hosted at St Joseph’s Upper Hutt. The week’s event was jointly supported and run by Wellington Catholic Social Services, Hutt Valley BEST (Benefit Education Service Trust), and Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand. The purpose was to ensure that families living in poverty are receiving all the assistance available to them. I said in a press release at the time, ‘We know many families in our parishes and communities face real material hardship and often find it very difficult to ask for help. We see this as a very practical way to assist and also to better get to know people in need.’
The week began with training for about 40 people who were willing to serve as advocates for those who would come to talk about their current situations. Those people were volunteers from parishes and various organisations. Some did this kind of work for the first time and later spoke about how enlightening and helpful it was for them to learn of the hardships that many people face. Some parishioners had no idea so many people live as a day-to-day struggle to try to make ends meet financially.
On Tuesday 10 May, before the first beneficiaries were due to arrive at St Joseph’s, Mass was celebrated for those who were there to support and work with the beneficiaries. At the Mass I preached about how we had been reading during the Easter Season from the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the life and action of the early Christian community over 2000 years ago. This was an opportunity to remind all those present that from the very beginning of Christianity this very small community was concerned that the needs of the most neglected and vulnerable were attended to. ‘They owned everything in common; … they shared among themselves according to what each one needed; … they shared their food gladly and generously (Acts 2:42) … none of their members was ever in want’ (Acts 4:34).
I suggested it might be good to imagine that we could say today, ‘None of their members was ever in want’. That’s the Christian ideal, and maybe each one of us can take just one step towards that, we can make a difference. That’s what this week through the Benefit Impact service was all about, ‘so that no one is in want’.
In the Psalm that day we prayed, ‘In your goodness, O God, you provide for the needy … you bear our burdens’. I was making the point that God provides for the needy when we do what we can to provide for the needy ourselves and bear the burdens of one another.
The day of this Mass was also the Feast Day of Saint Damien de Veuster, sometimes known as ‘Damien the leper’ because he spent his life at the service of lepers on Molokai, the poorest and most abandoned of his time. I found the Opening Prayer for his Mass very inspiring and so quoted that in the homily too:
Father of mercy
who gave us in Saint Damien
a shining witness of love for the poorest and most abandoned,
grant that, by his intercession,
as faithful witnesses to the heart of your Son Jesus,
we too may be servants of the most needy and rejected.
This prayer provided me with strong words to help us all to remember we are to be of service to the poor and most abandoned, to be servants of the most needy and rejected.
The Benefit Impact Week saw many people coming to St Joseph’s Church. They were people who are in a constant struggle just to survive, and they have to learn to cope with the tensions that come from economic hardship. They often they feel they do not belong, because they are unemployed, because they are from a minority group, because of family breakup, because they just can’t cope with the pressures of life. We wanted to let them know that they are not excluded from our parish communities or from our Archdiocesan community. We wanted to assure them and show them that we stand by them and to ensure that they have what is needed for them and their families not just to survive but ‘to have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10).
This was a very worthwhile week. Those who came were made to feel welcome, were given expert advice, were able to check their benefit details with a trained benefit advocate, and in some cases were accompanied with an advocate to the Work and Income Office who put on additional staff for the week in anticipation of the Benefit Impact event. We say this as a contribution to the Jubilee of Mercy called by Pope Francis this year. ‘By reaching out to struggling households in our communities, we are being true to our mission to become a “poor church for the poor”.’