Pope Francis shakes me up. Not in a worldly, materialistic way like when I lost my twenty dollar subway and bus pass last week, or when I totally forgot to pay my cell phone bill last month and got a late fee. But in a primal, profound way that I cannot shake – in a way that haunts me.
I’m talking about the things that he says, such as:
“I prefer a church that is bruised and hurt and dirty from being out in the streets.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 49).
“Bring the joy of Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem most farthest away, to the most indifferent.” (World Youth Day, July 28, 2013, World Youth Day Mass)
“I came here tonight to be filled with your contagious enthusiasm.” (World Youth Day, July 26, 2013, Angelus Domini, Archbishopric of St. Joaquin, Rio de Janeiro)
And he doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk. He has done all these things that he exhorts us to do:
When he was Bishop in Buenos Aires he would take the public bus every Sunday to the very poorest neighborhood to say Mass, and that was a very, very humble looking little church.
For his seventy-seventh birthday he spent it with the children in the Vatican Clinic and then had lunch with three homeless men and their dog.
He is known to sneak out of the Vatican some nights dressed only as a priest to feed the homeless.
He went to a juvenile detention center and said Mass in their chapel and then washed and kissed the feet of twelve youths, one of them Muslim.
He is so disarming with that warm grandfatherly smile and the soft voice. It’s as if you know that behind his back he is hiding a chocolate chip cookie for you. But the things he says so sweetly are hard doctrine, hard as a rock, the rock of Peter:
“Go out into their darkness, meet them where they are.” (World Youth Day, July 27, 2013, Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil)
“Come down, come down and serve them, become small among the small, and poor among the poor.” (Pope’s General Audience at Saint Peter’s Square, December 18, 2013) echoing “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)
“Don’t become pessimists. Don’t be sour pusses. Don’t let the world steal your joy.” (World Youth Day, July 24, St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital, Rio de Janeiro and Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 85)
“Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space for the good seed to grow.” (America, September 19, 2013).
“Let beauty touch your heart so the goodness and truth of the risen Christ can radiate in it.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 167)
“Don’t postpone your evangelization mission.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 201)
“Don’t say that it has always been done this way.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 33)
“Don’t think that you have too much on your agenda to help the poor.” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 201)
“Get out of your comfort zones.” (Prayer Service, Saint Peter’s Basilica, December 31, 2013)
“Go outside the churches and make a ruckus. Make a noise.” (July 24, St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital, Rio de Janeiro).
[Make a ruckus?—sometimes we’re afraid to say “Merry Christmas.”]
“Read the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 and you have your action plan.” (World Youth Day July 25, 2013, Welcoming Ceremony to the Young People on the Copacabana waterfront).
One statement that Pope Francis said, “Do we stop to help? We need more good Samaritans,” (Twitter, December 9, 2013) really hit home to me the day after Christmas. In the wee hours of the night, I drove up to the Church of Our Saviour where I could stop and say a prayer of thanks for my vocation as a writer last year. I put on some Gregorian chant on my cell phone, dipped my fingers in a bottle of Holy Water that I carry, made the sign of the Cross, and was ready to kneel and say an Our Father and a Hail Mary at the church steps when I saw a blanketed figure sleeping against the rectory door. It was a young African-American woman wearing glasses. I thought I could give her some money if I wasn’t too obtrusive.
“Excuse me, Miss,” I said. Her eyes opened and I asked, “Could you use a few bucks?” She slightly nodded and held out her hand. I handed her a five. I didn’t just want to say, “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you” and walk off. I thought of Pope Francis’ exhortation to “engage people” so I said, “It sure is cold out here.”
“Yes, it is,” she said with a very educated sounding voice.”
“I wish they’d open the church door so you could go in.”
“That would be nice,” she said.
“They used to,” I responded.
“When?” she asked, sounding as if I meant a few days or weeks ago.
“Oh years ago, in the old days,” I said, “I wish they’d do it again.”
“Yes, I do too.”
I said, “Well good night, and God bless you” and headed back to my cab. I looked back and she was waving. I thought well I didn’t say a prayer the way I thought, but maybe that was a different kind of prayer. I got behind the wheel, and she was still waving as I started to cry. I quickly drove off, because I didn’t want her to see me crying. I thought she could make it through the night with more peace if she didn’t have to be reminded of how destitute her situation was – just sleep with some pleasant thoughts. That woman still haunts me.
Well that’s it for me tonight, right? I’ve done my good deed, now I can kick back with a collard green and soy bean salad and see what’s on my Facebook news stream, right? But here he comes on my cell phone radio, “Buena sera.” Then the news announcer says something like, “Pope Francis spent his seventy-seventh birthday with the children in the Vatican Hospital and then had lunch with three homeless men and their dog. He says we should go out into the night and bring the joy of the Gospel to the darkest corners of the world.” Food for thought. I can imagine him saying to me, “Share your food with the poor.”
And I can imagine my flimsiest of excuses, “But poor people don’t like salads.”
To which he says, “You know what I mean, mister ha-ha funny man guy?”
“Yes, of course, of course, Papa. I’m sorry. You’re always right.”
And does the good Lord reward me for my good deed by putting a hundred dollar bill on my back seat where I could find it, or giving me a long fare down to Princeton, New Jersey? Not exactly. Of course, I don’t do things for the hope of earthly rewards. I do them because our Lord tells us to do them. Our rewards are eternal.
So the Lord with his infinite mercy and infinite sense of humor sends me another poor homeless soul a few hours later. I was coming out of the all night Key Food on Fourth Street in the East Village with my spoils of victory bought with the money I had clawed out of the cold night—nine cans of collard greens and spinach, and two half gallons of unsweetened soy milk, when I see a poor fellow with a beard like Santa Claus sprawled on the sidewalk next to his walker.
I was in a hurry to get back to my cab for another quick fare and then call it a night, but I thought of Pope Francis’ words again, “We can’t just walk away. We need more Good Samaritans.” I often don’t stop for unfortunates, but tonight I was about to “break out of our comfort zones.” I walked over to the man and bent down and asked him, “Sir, are you all right?”
“No I am not! I can’t get up,” he said.
“Do you want me to help you get up?”
“No, I want to stay right here,” he said defiantly.
“Well, could you use a few bucks for some hot soup?” He held out a tough dirty hand and I reached down and placed two dollars in it and he said, “God bless you.”
Then he asked “Hot soup? Could you get me hot soup?” and handed me back the two dollars.
“Sure,” I said confidently, but I had never bought food for the homeless before. I had heard stories of other people doing it, but my charity had always been restricted to giving them money and saying, “God bless you” or engaging them in a conversation for a minute or two. Well there’s that Francis Effect again.
The Key Food had nothing hot whatsoever so I went to the corner deli named, as Fate would have it, the Buena East Market and ordered a hot bagel sandwich. “What do you want on it?” asked the clerk. I had to think fast. I never order sandwiches. I’m a vegetarian so I had no idea what to order. What do people, normal people, like? Roast beef? Well maybe, but the all-time favorite has to be ham.
“Ham,” I said.
“Do you want cheese on that?” asked the counter man. Oh my goodness I thought, of course, ham-and-cheese.
“Yes, cheese” I said. It is probably a venial sin in New York to order ham without cheese, maybe a mortal sin.
I returned and gave the poor soul on the sidewalk the sandwich and a large hot coffee and he was very grateful. I asked again if he wanted to get up to his walker and go in the Key Food or the bank ATM where it was warm and he said again, “No I want to stay right here.”
I gave him another two dollars and said, “Here’s something for your breakfast. God bless you and good night.”
“God bless you,” he said enthusiastically and as I walked away he called out again, “God bless you.” That man still haunts me.
I sat in my cab for a moment and thought Pope Francis really rattles my cage. He rattles every Christian’s cage. We are like sleeping lions and he bangs on the bars of our cages and says, “Wake up and be lions, wake up and roar. Wake up and be free.” Saint Augustine said, “The truth is like a lion: you don’t need to defend it. Let it loose and it will defend itself.”
When we free ourselves from the cages of our own restrictions, what a mighty force we will become.
© 2014 Jamey Brown. All rights reserved.
Photography: See our Photographers page.