The Catholic News Service highlighted a brief visit by Pope Benedict XVI to a homeless shelter near the Vatican established 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II. it's staffed by the Missionaries of Charity and is the result of Mother Theresa's suggestion to the late Pope.
The visit was only 45 minutes long, and the Pope brought blankets and food for the homeless people there. It was not a media event, but to me it was a beautiful event. We are all children of God, whether homeless, or uneducated, or addicted to drugs or alcohol or sex; whether we are seemingly powerful by the world's standards, or not worth
"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange
thinking about by the world's standards. As the pope himself would say, the homeless he visited have just as much human dignity and just as much value in the eyes of God as he has.
According to the article,
The visit highlighted one of Pope Benedict's favorite themes: personal charity as the ultimate expression of faith in Jesus Christ.
In Austria last fall, he told Catholic volunteers that love of neighbor is not something that can be delegated to the state or to institutions -- it always demands a personal commitment.
In his 2006 encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), the pope brought it down to the basics: "Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison."
As pope, however, personal contact with the needy is not always easy. Every public papal event involves planning, security and protocol, and usually takes place under the glare of the mass media.
On his trips to Africa, Pope John Paul sometimes would make unscheduled stops to visit poor families in their huts. These off-screen events were fleeting, however; the papal motorcade was always waiting outside.
The event got me thinking again about why I entered religious life and sought ordination. When I was in graduate school studying geophysics, I became aware of the vast disparity in the lifestyles of the tremendously wealthy in Palo Alto, CA, and the desperately poor of East Palo Alto. I saw homeless people for perhaps the first time in my life (or at least it was the first time I noticed them), and wondered, "How can this happen in a supposedly Christian nation that is also the wealthiest nation on earth?"
It got me thinking about my life, and what I was doing, and what God might want me to do. Strangely enough (at least it seemed strange to me at the time), I ended up entering the Dominican novitiate to discover if God was calling me there. I thought perhaps I could make the most difference in the world by preaching the Gospel.
During my seminary days I volunteered at a homeless shelter, where I stayed overnight and listened to homeless people share their worries and tell their stories. I helped out at a local Catholic Worker house by helping find employment possibilities for the people living there. I taught religion and P.E. at a local inner city Catholic grade school.
The Pope's words in Deus Caritas Est, "Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison," echo, of course, Jesus' admonition and praise of those who stand before him in judgment in Matthew 25. They are words that I need to take more seriously. It's not enough to simply rely on the government or non-profits to care for the needy.
I need to be personally involved.
But that's difficult, for a number of reasons - or, to be more honest - excuses.
Take, for example, the beggar on the street.
First of all, when I'm out on the street I'm always going someplace. I have something to do. I'm busy (sometimes literally for God's sake!) I never go out just for a walk, although I'm trying to change that. I find walking nowhere in particular is a good way for me to talk things over with God.
Secondly, I've heard people discourage giving to panhandlers. "They're just going to buy booze or drugs." Well, perhaps I could ask the person if they're hungry and would like something to eat. When I was in seminary, I walked to school often - about a 50 minute walk - and had to run a gauntlet of homeless folks along one section of my hike. I started to carry some food with me that I could offer to someone if they were asking for money to buy food. That sometimes worked, but usually only after they had come to recognize me. But of course, doing this involves stopping and actually talking to a beggar; possibly getting involved, and that's frightening.
Thirdly, I can tell myself, "I don't know what to say, or what to do." But that just reveals an underlying attitude that denies the poor person's common humanity with me. What do I like? I enjoy it when people talk with me, listen to me, look me in the eye and smile, offer me help - any kind of help - when I am in need. Why wouldn't a homeless person desire the same?
Fourthly, I can tell myself that a short encounter's not going to make a difference. It's not dealing with the root of the problem, which might be systemic or due to the choices the individual keeps making. What can I do about that? Or, I might worry that if I get involved more will be asked of me by the person standing in front of me than I want to give. I already have a full-time vocation as a priest and a Dominican. I have more than enough work to do with the Institute (including blogging!)
But then I am confronted with the thought of standing before Jesus and giving these reasons/excuses, and I realize that the same reasons are reflections of my relationship with Him.
1) I am too busy to pray.
2) I am afraid that if I "get involved" with Him, he'll demand things of me that I do not want to do. I forget that in His love, he'll only ask me to do that which will be for my greatest good; that which will draw me closer to Him and closer to the creatures He loves.
3) I can implicitly deny Jesus' humanity if I think my temptations to sin (to which I so easily give in) are stronger than any he faced (now who do you think Satan would try more vigorously?) In so doing, I deny the power of His grace, and give up on self-discipline (which is hardly only of my "self", but rather evidence of cooperating with grace!)
4) I underestimate what Jesus might do through me. I underestimate the power and efficacy of heartfelt, consistent intercessory prayer.
If the Holy Father's not too busy to stop by a homeless shelter, shouldn't you and I be able to make time for the poor? Or are we like the busy people Jesus encountered, who, when invited to follow him, had to bury their dead parents, or tend to their business ventures, or...