One of the most touching stories about St. Francis of Assisi is his encounter with a leper outside the city gates. It began when he received the following message in prayer:
If you want to know my will, you must hate and despise all that which hitherto your body has loved and desired to possess. Then . . . the things that made you formally shudder will bring you great sweetness and content.
This young troubadour, who had dreamed about being a brave knight surrounded by elegant lords and ladies, realized that he could not tolerate people who were disfigured, diseased, or unattractive in any way. So the next time he came upon a leper, he got off his horse, walked over to the man, and hugged and kissed him. This one act had a major impact on Francis. It was a moment of conversion, a moment when he met Jesus in the person of an outcast.
I think that these kinds of conversions are what Pope Francis means when he says that he wants us to become “a poor Church for the poor.” Like St. Francis, we have opportunities to encounter people on the margins, perhaps in our parish or by serving in a homeless shelter or simply as we are running errands. If we keep our hearts open, we will hear the Holy Spirit urging us and prompting us to hear their cry. I hope and pray that when these encounters come our way, we will welcome them and embrace the people whom God puts in our path. Imagine the conversions that can happen if we all would do this!
Embracing the Unsettled. I had one of these “moments of conversion” a number of years ago. There was a man named Herbie who lived near our house in Washington, DC. He was often quite drunk, and we used to hold his money for him in our house. One day when Herbie appeared at our door, he was feeling very sentimental. When I greeted him, he grabbed me in a huge bear hug and wouldn’t let go. I remember saying to myself, “Stop being defensive, Guy. Let Herbie hug you, and hug him back.” I hated doing it, but I did it anyway. I knew I had to break down my own defensiveness, just as St. Francis did. And as it did for Francis, this openness to a sloppy drunk changed my heart.
Pope Francis had a similar conversion when he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina. He kept trying to rule everyone, to control their actions, and to enforce the rules absolutely. He later acknowledged that by acting this way, he had unwittingly built up walls of division between himself and his brothers. But when he was sent to Córdoba, he not only came face-to-face with the poor, but he also encountered his own poverty—the spiritual poverty that kept him from loving as Jesus loves.
Once he saw this, Francis became a different man. From being spiritually impoverished, he became poor in spirit. And that kind of poverty was liberating. It gave him the freedom to speak plainly and frankly. It released him from the worry and anxiety that so often accompany us when we are unsettled. He was able to embrace anyone, rich or poor, and to become a witness to the freedom that Christ wants for us all—the freedom to love the outcast, the poor, the people on the margins. This experience, I believe, laid the foundation for his call for a Church that is poor in spirit, a poor Church for the poor.
To the Margins. As pope, Francis continues to bear witness to the kind of Church he wants us to become. His first apostolic journey was not to a head of state or a magnificent shrine somewhere in the heart of Catholic Europe. No, he visited African refugees who had been shipwrecked off the Italian island of Lampedusa. He went to people who weren’t even on the margins. They had been foundering at sea, without solid land to set their feet on, and he went to pray with them.
Francis has kept this up ever since his election. We have seen him reaching out in various ways to people suffering in Syria, in Rio de Janeiro, in Nigeria, and in the Philippines. We see him seeking out the fragile areas of the body of Christ and telling us that these are our brothers and sisters, worthy of our attention and love.
His attitude is also evident in the people he has named cardinals. Many of them come from places like Haiti, the Philippines, Tonga, and Myanmar, not from traditional power centers like the United States and Western Europe. Francis is purposefully giving voice to places that have not had much representation in the Vatican—to the poor and marginalized within the Church.
Equal Recipients. Now, Pope Francis isn’t calling us to pay closer attention to people on the peripheries because they need us to take care of them. He doesn’t want to foster an us-and-them vision. He’s doing it because he wants to break down dividing walls. Neither is he telling rich people to become poor. Rather, he is concerned that we put aside the thought that our wealth or poverty determines who we are or how much we deserve to be loved and cared for.
This is a point I make often in my homilies. I like to say that if each of us were to pay attention to our own story, we would realize that we are poor as well. We are not the source of our own lives, and we can’t completely control the course of our lives. All life is a gift from God, and we are all equal recipients of the very same gift. Rich or poor, housed or homeless, educated or illiterate, we are all the same.
This truth is played out every time we celebrate Mass, for the Eucharist is a great leveler. No matter who we are or what we have accomplished, we all receive the same size host; we all drink from the same cup. There is no cup for the rich and cup for the poor. The stronger don’t receive fancier or larger hosts than the weaker. Pope or pauper, we all partake of the one bread and the one cup regardless of our background or social status.
A Poor Church. In my parish here in St. Augustine, we are trying to live out these realities in a practical way. Pope Francis has encouraged all of us to “get out of the sacristy” in order to encounter people and share Christ with them. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Don’t wait for them to become like you. Go out and find them in their own unique stories.
So when we started a food pantry for the poor, we added something new to it. We purposely refer to the people we serve as our guests, not “the needy” or “the hungry.” Just changing the words makes a real difference. It makes it clear to us that our goal is to give them a positive experience. It reminds us to treat them as we would treat a special visitor in our home or as treasured members of our family and not just hungry mouths to feed.
At the food pantry, we also provide what we call “core food” and “value added food.” The core food is the staples that everyone needs: beans and rice and peanut butter and bread. We give that out to everyone who comes. But we also have extras: desserts and fresh fruits, treats, and even fresh produce from our parish community garden. We invite our guests to choose on their own which of these they would like to have. By giving them a choice, we acknowledge their dignity. They don’t feel like beggars. They can browse and choose on their own, and this option brings great smiles to their faces. They are being treated as family members, and it shows!
The Gift of Encounter. Pope Francis drives a beat-up old car. He lives in a modest apartment. He celebrates Mass in everyday vestments. He goes out of his way to greet the poor, the sick, and the suffering. His humble, simple life has made people all over the world take notice. And this has been a great blessing for the Church.
But taking notice is not the same as taking action. I can imagine that if Pope Francis were to come into my church one Sunday and preach at Mass, he would have words of encouragement, but also words of challenge. He would ask us to try to live a little more simply. He would ask us to spend a little less money on ourselves and to give the leftover money to the people around us who are struggling.
He would also tell us to go out and meet these people, to touch them, and to listen to their stories. That’s how we can break through our spiritual poverty and, like St. Francis, find the grace to love everyone equally, just as Jesus loves us.
So let’s follow Pope Francis’ words and his witness. Let’s try to live out his vision and become a poor Church for the poor. If we do, we’ll become so much richer in each other’s eyes.