Every Wednesday evening for more than two years, anywhere from 150 to 300 men, women, and even children, line up for a free meal we serve in downtown Washington, DC. The program, called St. Maria’s Meals, isn’t going to end poverty or get any of our clients out of their very challenging situations on its own. But it has started to build a community and send a message that each diner has dignity and value. And on September 24th, about 300 of our clients will have an up close encounter with Pope Francis as the last stop on his visit to Washington, DC.
I keep pinching myself; it still seems like a dream that the Pope is coming to visit our clients and staff. But will that visit do anything to change the reality of hardship for these folks?
There’s a beautiful passage near the end of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, that I would like to use as a frame for why I say yes:
“One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals…That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.”
I love this passage because it neatly sums up for me of the central truth: you must see the joy and dignity in every aspect of life. Part of embracing that truth requires us to reevaluate how we approach our lives.
I fully expect Pope Francis to challenge us. I have seen many headlines framing this as adversarial – “The Pope vs. America,” as one headline in Politico read recently. Yet, these articles misunderstand the Pope’s intentions – we hardly consider the guidance of a loving father to be “parent versus kid”, right? I don’t presume to put words in the mouth of the Holy Father, but he often reminds me of the popular mantra, “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”
As the leader of one of the Washington-region’s largest nonprofits working in human services, I am fortunate enough to count some of the region’s most successful business leaders as friends and dear supporters of Catholic Charities. These are people who care deeply about the well-being of their neighbors and turn to Catholic Charities to help out.
And I am blessed to count many of our homeless neighbors as friends I’ve met at our weekly St. Maria’s Meals Dinner Van. Many of these folks struggle with some combination of unemployment, addiction, isolation, estranged family relations, behavioral health, and plain bad luck.
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Pope Francis, in echoing centuries of Church teaching, reminds us that we cannot make distinctions between our homeless neighbors and business leaders. He will tell us it is the little things, along with the larger structural factors, that make an impact for both good and bad. How we treat our family impacts how we treat strangers. How we treat our co-workers reflects how we treat those who can offer us nothing in return. How we treat litter reflects how we see the value of the earth, the sources of our food, and the cleanliness of our water.
Which brings me back to the fun we have every Wednesday at St. Maria’s Meals and to some of the friendships between our volunteers and clients. I’ve seen people who were previously disengaged from society start to take small steps towards coming back in. These are people who would not have otherwise come across each other, and I can say with certainty we have all enriched each other’s lives. It starts over a meal.
Many Pope-watchers in Washington expect and hope for concrete policy or strong direction from Pope Francis on any range of issues or topics. Perhaps they will hear something to that effect, but that’s not for me to speculate on. What I do know is that when Pope Francis says goodbye to the Speaker of the House of the US Congress and makes the one-mile drive to meet with 300 homeless residents over lunch, his actions will provide a model for all of us.