Just before Lent, Pope Francis gave an interview to a Caritas magazine for the homeless in Milan where he advised Catholics to always give money to those begging in the streets, without worrying about what it might be spent on.
To those who might look askance at alcohol bought by a beggar, the Holy Father observes that a glass of wine might be the only moment of happiness in that day.
As we head toward Pope Francis’s fourth anniversary next week, there will be plenty of columns on the highs and lows of the pontificate to date. Perhaps a personal reflection might be indulged.
Despite the contradictions and confusions that have occasioned much commentary these past years, it is the compassion of the Holy Father that makes the deepest impression upon me. That interview was a good example. For the pope to give an interview to a magazine for the homeless illustrates his solicitude for the poor and marginal. His advice to give the benefit of the doubt to all; to see the point of view of the afflicted one; to value the encounter rather than a particular result – all this is distinctively Francis.
For my part, the papal advice also confirms my own approach, so I suppose I welcomed it on self-justifying grounds. Over fifteen years as a priest I have tried to give the benefit of the doubt to those asking for money when they come to the rectory door or call the parish office. Over the years I have provided money for monthly rent, motel bills, car repairs, bus tickets, groceries, diapers, medicines and for nothing in particular.
After the first year or two, never having been told a true story, I stopped offering parish funds in that way. But I still continue personally, sometimes even finding amusement in the more ingenious tales told. Those who pay me my income don’t ask me how I spend it, and so it seems the same courtesy can be extended to those who beg. That’s the Holy Father’s point, namely that courtesy and dignity belong to all of us.
The poor might need recognition of that as much, or more, than material assistance.
Since the early months of the Francis pontificate, I have thought that the best way to situate the Holy Father is in light of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est – God is Love.
Benedict wrote there a summary of the Church’s identity: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.
For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (#25).
It’s possible to consider that after the great Christian witness (martyria) of our time, St. John Paul II, and the profound teacher of the right worship of God (leitourgia), Benedict XVI, we now have a pope whose heart is manifestly open to the suffering through the practical ministry of charity (diakonia).
One of the most practically significant and powerfully symbolic reforms of Pope Francis was one of his first, when he appointed Archbishop Konrad Krajewski as the papal almoner, the one who exercises personal charity on behalf of the pope. The post had become largely ceremonial, separated from actual contact with the poor.
Krajewski, who before his appointment as archbishop by Francis was known for his practical aid to the poor of Rome, has been a font of creative activity. There are now showers and a dormitory for the homeless at St. Peter’s, with haircuts and shaves available from volunteer barbers.
Krajewski’s office distributes sleeping bags to the homeless who prefer to remain on the streets, and organizes excursions for them – whether to the beach, or to the Vatican museums. When Pope Francis celebrated his 80th birthday in December, Krajewski brought some of the homeless served by his office to have breakfast with the Holy Father.
One of the more rewarding days of the Franciscan pontificate for me was in December 2015, just days after the Jubilee of Mercy began. Through the good offices of the Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, Dennis Savoie, I was able to bring Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz to meet Krajewski.
Schmalz is the world-renowned sculptor famous for his “Matthew 25” series, where Jesus is portrayed as homeless, begging, naked, sick, in prison. Several years ago, Schmalz’s sculpture of Jesus begging was installed at the Santo Spirito hospital a short walk from the Vatican. A benefactor had hoped to get the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture somewhere close to the Vatican.
But while the sculpture was being installed all over the world – including at Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. for the papal visit in 2015 – both civic and ecclesiastical bureaucracy in Rome seemed to make it impossible.
I managed to arrange the meeting with Krajewski, whom I didn’t know, but whom I expected would not be stymied by bureaucratic inertia. He wasn’t. Within minutes he said that he wanted the Homeless Jesus in the Vatican, and wanted it outside the charity office. The homeless who came to be helped would be reminded of Jesus’ solidarity with them.
As important, it would be seen by the hundreds of pilgrims who come every day to the almoner’s office to order papal blessings, the associated donations of which are used to help the poor. A few months later the Homeless Jesus was installed in the small courtyard at the almoner’s office.
I can’t imagine that story unfolding in just that way before Pope Francis. It won’t make the major anniversary stories, but it’s the distinctive difference that Pope Francis has brought.