Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

Order 'Evolution for the Catholic Student' - Click on the image above

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Remembering the Spiritual Needs of the Poor

Remembering the Spiritual Needs of the Poor

          Not long ago I was at Mass on a Tuesday evening at a church that is not my regular parish.  As the Mass was beginning, a man walked into the back of the church who was obviously homeless.  He parked a shopping cart in the vestibule and sat near the back in the pews.  As I noticed him I remembered that I had a few dollars in the car and I quietly hoped I’d be able to find him after I ran out and got it when the Mass was over.

          Without even thinking about it I just assumed he was there to ask for money.  It’s not uncommon to see the homeless outside of churches since they know that religious people are more likely to be generous with their spare cash and many parishes are equipped to help them. 

          When Mass was over, however, and I was intending to get the money from my car, I saw the man kneeling in the pew silently praying.  Occasionally he would stop and say hello to people as they left.  It was clear they knew him.  No one gave him any money and he didn’t ask.  I waited a few minutes after Mass until it became clear he was going to be inside praying a while.

          I thought about him as I left.  He had clearly come to the church for Mass, and since he knew so many of the daily Mass goers it was obvious he was a regular.  They all knew better than to give him money.  That’s not what he came for, and it would have been rude to interrupt his prayer with such assumptions.

          I was a little disappointed in myself for rashly judging the man’s intentions in coming to the church but it also made me realize an important reality that sometimes we can miss, namely that the very poor have spiritual needs that ought not be ignored.

          Years ago I worked at a homeless shelter and I got to know many of the residents quite well.  Many were suffering with mental illness or addiction, but regardless of how hard they worked just to survive, by and large they maintained an openness to God.

          It can become very easy, when dealing with the problem of poverty, to focus solely on people’s material needs.  But the fact is we all have the same destiny, and the spiritual works of mercy are still primary as compared to the corporal works of mercy.

          No one understood this better than Mother Teresa.  She was asked once how she was able to go on day after day, year after year, working with the poorest of the poor, the rejected by their society.  The saintly woman answered with genuine surprise and said, “Is that what they are?  We spend every morning with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and when we work among the poor, we see Him.”

          Everything was a prayer for her.  She touched so many souls because she saw each of the people to whom she ministered as created in the Image and Likeness of God, she tended their material needs as she would His, and she never forgot that they are eternal creatures with spiritual needs as well.

          May we in the Church do the same.  Often when we minister to the poor, we think that because we serve them, we show them the Face of Christ.  And that’s true.  But somehow we must introduce them to that Christ.  We can’t come off as some charitable club helping the less fortunate, but rather as sons and daughters of God reaching out to our brothers and sisters.  It doesn’t take proselytizing, just a Christian witness.  By and large we in the Church do a great job, but every now and then we need a reminder, like I was given by my brother who came to Mass not for gold or silver, but for the Bread of Angels and some quality time with his Lord.