ROME — Several thousand homeless people will travel to Rome in November, representing a perfect close to the Year of Mercy for a pope who made it clear from the beginning that the poor and those at the “peripheries of life” have a special place in his heart.
According to a statement released on Monday, 6,000 people living in the streets all across Europe will visit the Eternal City a week before the closing of the Holy Year, with the financial help of Fratello, a French organization born after a similar pilgrimage experience organized for 150 homeless persons in 2014.
“This time of pilgrimage and opportunity to meet Pope Francis will give people from the most vulnerable sections of society, who are often treated as outcasts, a chance to discover that their place is in the heart of God and in the heart of the Church,” the statement says.
The group will travel to Rome Nov. 11-13, where they’ll attend a special catechesis session with Pope Francis, and also a Mass celebrated for them in St. Peter’s Square.
According to their website, Fratello is an association backed by the French affiliate of the international Catholic charity Caritas, and it works with other groups that help people living in situations of exclusion.
Each group will help the underprivileged they care for on a daily basis to cover the cost of the pilgrimage, but the organization, through donations made by individuals, will also assist those who can’t pay the full cost of the trip.
The Holy Year of Mercy began on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and will come to an end on Nov. 20, the feast of Christ the King.
Francis has spoken about the poor on countless occasions. For instance, in 2014 he addressed the members of two French charities that work with the homeless. The pope told them that in serving the poor, they are serving Christ, and that “through them, you meet Jesus.”
“The world today is in urgent need of this witness of Divine mercy,” he added at the time. “In today’s time, the human person is often dismissed as useless…God, on the other hand, always recognizes the dignity and nobility of the child He loves. The poor are favored by the Lord, and are at the center of the Gospel.”
In the last three years, Francis has had showers stalls, a barbershop and a health clinic installed under Bernini’s colonnades in St. Peter’s Square for the poor, and through the office of papal charities he’s even invited them to a private tour of the Vatican museums, had them distribute pocket-size Gospels during one of his weekly Angelus prayers, and made them VIPs at a concert organized in the Paul VI Hall, a short walk away from Santa Marta, the hotel within Vatican grounds where he lives.
These gestures are his way of underlining another dimension of his approach to charity: not giving them “only” food, but also restoring their human dignity.
Last year, when the group of about 150 homeless was gathered in the Sistine Chapel, Francis greeted them saying “Welcome, this is a house for all. Your house.” He then spent 20 minutes greeting them one by one.
Beyond Vatican walls, he’s also asked for empty convents and monasteries throughout Europe to welcome asylum seekers, saying that “empty convents are not for the Church to transform into hotels and make money from them,” he said.
“Empty convents are not ours, they are for the flesh of Christ: refugees,” the pope said.