Some weeks back I went to hear Dr. Paul Farmer speak in Chicago along with his mentor, liberation theologian and champion of the poor Father Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru. Farmer, if you’ve never heard of him, is a Harvard physician, and a Catholic, who has almost single-handedly revolutionized health care for the poor in developing countries over the past three decades. I expected an audience of 100 or so, mostly of older folks. Instead I beheld a hotel ballroom packed to the rafters with nearly 2,000 people, almost all of them under the age of 25, many of them Catholic high school students.
What message did Farmer and Gutiérrez have for the throngs of eager young people who came out on this chilly evening? I could best sum it up in five words: “We must accompany the poor.” Not coincidentally, it’s the same message being advocated by Pope Francis, another favorite of young people—because they observe that he practices what he preaches.
They love that he invited four homeless men to join him for breakfast on his birthday. They love the story told by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who visited him in Buenos Aires several years ago: Then Cardinal Bergoglio made the airport pickup himself, in a borrowed car. “We passed all the great sights, but did I hear about them? No,” said McCarrick in a talk at Georgetown University recently. “The only thing I heard was, ‘Under this bridge is the worst slum in the city. I try to visit often.’ ” McCarrick stressed, “He doesn’t just reach out to the poor, but to the individuals who are poor.”
You saw the key word there: individuals. What if, this Lent, we found a way for our family to get to know some poor individuals in person, by name? “They have much to teach us,” says the pope to encourage us. Perhaps our local parish could help: The March 2014 U.S. Catholic magazine reports that during the weeks when Lumen Christi Parish in St. Paul, Minnesota hosts a shelter for people experiencing homelessness, parish families—children included—come in to host and have supper with them. What a great idea.
Our family’s monthly visits to a homeless shelter in Chicago, kicked off by one of my kids having to answer, “What is your family doing for Lent?” for a homework assignment, have been eye-opening. As “clothing ministers” on certain Thursday nights, we accompany folks as they choose from donated pants, shirts, socks, coats, hats, gloves, and (when we’re lucky) long johns. It’s been great to see my son and daughter bemoaning the lack of blankets or size 32 pants on a given night. My husband, to my great amusement, always seems to get the guys who shop just like I do, taking their sweet time browsing, patching together a decent outfit from odds and ends.
We all wear name tags—so we can learn one another’s names. Some of the guests at the shelter are nice; some not as much—just like the rest of us. And I learned that nope, not even homeless folks in Marquette Park want those old clothes with holes or giant ink stains. And why should they? I wouldn’t.
It’s wonderful to write checks for the poor; to donate clothes, toys, food. Bravo. But Paul Farmer, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Pope Francis suggest that we summon our courage and take the next step. Our children will thank us.
By Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2014 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for four years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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Photo: ©Flickr/Semilla Luz