Letter Cassette

“We must remain very close, especially close, to the most disadvantaged families.”

This text is taken from a taped recording Father Joseph Wresinski addressed to members of ATD Fourth World’s Volunteer Corps from the Foch hospital on the 8 February 1988, the day before he undertook heart surgery. Released almost immediately after his death on the 14 February, it represents his final message to those who had accompanied him during the formative years of the ATD Fourth World Movement, and who have subsequently wished it made freely available to all those who can today and in the future be inspired by its message.

My friends,

On the eve of my operation, even if I go into it with complete confidence, I cannot help thinking. When you are in the situation that I am in now, in the hands of doctors and nurses, you can again better appreciate what people in poverty experience in their daily lives when they are at the mercy of other people’s opinions, or rather they are forced to take into account the judgements and opinions of other people on things that concern their own lives. When you have to depend on everybody and anybody, you have to make yourself small, not get yourself noticed. This is my first thought.

The second thing I would like to say to you, the volunteers, is that we must remain very, very close to families. Above all, we have to remain faithful to our combat for family life, not as a matter of principle, but because the family is our ally. It is the family who will help us achieve the kind of society we want based on human rights.
We must remain very close, especially close, to the most disadvantaged families. I must remind you of this, because we will always be tempted to rely on the most dynamic, courageous and intelligent families. Of course, we have to rely on them, but we cannot let ourselves be drawn in and entrapped by them. We cannot allow them to come between us and those experiencing extreme poverty. We have to see that they also become agents for justice among their brothers and sisters, among their own people. If we are not to be dispersed over a wide range of unrelated projects, we have to keep asking ourselves, “Do our projects help the most disadvantaged families to emerge from their situation and become agents for human rights?”

We should not be afraid to be daring, even if we think, with good reason, that people in poverty cannot readily undertake what we propose to them. This means we have to move forward in stages. We must know our goal and what means we will use to attain it. If we are to be truly free, free in our society and agents of liberty for others, then we have to impart our culture, the culture in which we live our lives. We have to convey everything we have learned. We must find ways to truly share what we know and invent the means for the families to take this on board. We are not people who only bring ideas and a language. We must bring the fullness of human life and its harmony, sharing not only practical skills but art and poetry as well.

To do this, we have to immerse ourselves in the best of what human beings have achieved, in music, in art. We also have to put people in the midst of nature, to help them love it and see the marvellous harmony of the earth and the skies. If we have a religious faith, we must project the families into the world of the invisible, the infinite, so that they are themselves members not merely of a community or a neighbourhood, but members of the universe and actors of freedom.

This implies that we are really integrated in the world, that we love the world. We cannot introduce the families into today’s or tomorrow’s world if we are not ourselves part of it. It is not that we are blind to human failings, but we must constantly remind ourselves and each other that every human being deserves to be trusted, as long as we do not have proof to the contrary. We must welcome political discussions and the sharing of ideas, and we must love people who defend what they believe in. Whilst not being sidetracked, we have to share in the hopes of all those who fight for a cause. And we have to remind them constantly that people experiencing the most extreme situations of poverty have a place in their struggles and thinking.

We cannot achieve this without an enormous effort on our part: an effort to know those most affected by poverty, their history, background and origins, and the past and present reality of their daily lives. We must want to share in depth, not just superficially, what the families carry within their hearts. We have tools such as psychology, sociology and economics and we must put them to use. We certainly do not hold the key to all knowledge. But if people are to be free, they have to master the tools that have been used over the years to create a more just and equitable world, a world in which peace is not be simply seen as an ideal but as a shared experience of fraternity appreciated and renewed every day.

To understand, we have to hear, listen and write. We are not people who simply read, write, and speak, yet we should write what we learn from the families. We should be people with a voice, in order to involve others in the struggle for justice, a struggle for justice in the midst of extreme poverty. And we must read extensively and train ourselves.

Also, we must devote our time to the most impoverished families. It is normal for workers to take holidays and we should do likewise. We should not be reluctant to take advantage of what others consider necessary in order to rest. Our time, like those in love, is not our own. If we take time for ourselves, it is always to enrich ourselves in ways that will enrich those in extreme poverty.
Therefore, we make them known, we train ourselves, we offer our time, and, if we pray, we offer our prayers. It is important that we live in a climate of spirituality. When I speak of spirituality, I am not referring to being part of a specific religion, although it is important to have a belief, if not in a God, then, at least, in humanity. We have a commitment to create a spiritual climate because we are imbued with a common spirit.

This spirit is an awareness of others, an empathy with them, such that the weaker and smaller they are, the greater and more important they become for us. When we speak of spirituality, this leads us back to the religious and to relationships with God. We can call this the pinnacle of spirituality, the highest form. In any case, we have to live spiritually with people. This means a certain way of seeing people and of being with them.

It is similar to our contemplation of God; we try to be silent and to become one with God. Someone once said, “I keep Him informed, He keeps me informed”. We have to have the spirituality of our brothers and sisters. That is to say, we go toward a certain way of living with others, that they count for us, that we identify with them, because, like us, they lead the same struggle, encounter the same difficulties, doubts, sorrows, the same hopes and joys.

This is the spirituality I am speaking about. We live this spirituality if we can purify our spirit, if we are able to let go of what is secondary, and hold on to what is essential in ourselves, in others, to what is essential in our struggle. Spirituality also means to have confidence, to trust that fraternity is the basis of all successes in a struggle. If those in poverty see us really united, that we truly care about one another, then they will be with us.

It is they who bring us together. For those who believe, it is Christ who comes closer to us when we become closer to the poor. It is Christ who speaks with us when we speak with the poor, He who feels what we feel, He who bears with the poor the burden of suffering and misery. This is what I mean by spirituality for those who have religious faith.

I think that we can all say that it is people in poverty who bring us together – those facing extreme poverty, the ones who suffers most, who are most left out, the most rejected and abandoned. And when we say we are volunteers, it is not simply a way of life that we have accepted or chosen, a way of being at the mercy of people in poverty in order to learn from them, often with much bewilderment. We have certainly renounced personal advancement and success, but being a volunteer means much more.

It means that people in poverty have become our brothers and sisters. Their children are our children. We live in perpetual communion with them. They are present with us and in us. We recognize them; we contemplate them; we consider them to be our teachers. They are our constant preoccupation, pain and anguish. We are haunted by their liberation. This is our spirituality: to be in spirit with people in extreme poverty, to be taken by them, so that everything we do, everything we say, is a chance for them.

I am confident.

Father Joseph.

One comment Leave a comment
  1. 14th February 2018.

    As an ally in the movement, I feel privileged to have been asked to share with you this morning what the final letter of Fr Joseph to the volunteers means to me. I first heard about this letter during a visit to Dublin by Veronique Reboul-Salze and Dominque Béchet, as members of the European regional team, some years back.
    One evening, over a meal in my house, Veronique, Dominique and the volunteers from the ATD team talked in a profound way about their lives as volunteers in the movement and what had inspired them. I myself was experiencing a number of challenges in my work life at that time and was searching for a deeper way to relate to the families in poverty that we were engaged with. Veronique had referred to Fr. Joseph’s final letter to the volunteers, which I took the opportunity to read later that evening on the internet.
    The letter struck me as a very powerful message at a time of personal danger for him and a time of potential change for the movement, both of which he was aware of when writing it, I sensed. I was struck by many things in his letter, but I felt especially drawn to his call to live in, what he describes as, a “climate of spirituality”, which he understood as a common spirit, a spirit of awareness of others, a certain way of seeing people and of being with them.
    At the heart of our struggle with people in poverty, he said, is a desire to be in “perpetual communion” with them, to identify with them and to learn from them. To do this successfully, he writes, volunteers not only renounce personal advancement, but are asked to let go of what is secondary and to hold on to what is essential – essential in themselves, in the families and in the struggle of the movement.
    This sense of common spirit, based on fraternity and unity, is to be alongside people in poverty, to be taken by them, so that everything that you say and do as volunteers presents a new chance, a new hope for them. In his very striking phrase, you are “haunted by their liberation”.
    This letter was a great source of hope and courage for me in facing the challenges in my work at that time, and still is today. While it was addressed to the volunteers of the movement, I believe in spirit it reaches out to others as well. I know it did to me.
    I hope through our reflection together this morning on this 30th anniversary of the passing of Fr Joseph, you too will feel a sense of renewed hope and confidence in who you are and in what you do as volunteers.
    Thank you.

    Mark Hogan

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