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Pope Francis Visits Refugees, Calls us to Love the Poor, Use Empty Convents to House Them

By Deacon Keith Fournier
September 15th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Those who love the poor - like Jesus loved the poor- are an instruction manual for the rest of us. They are a sign of the kingdom, making it present in their wake. We have such a man in this Pope named Francis. He also recognizes that poverty is more than a lack of material goods. It knows many faces and the face of Christ is revealed in them all. Pope Francis visited Jesus on Tuesday because he knows that Jesus is identified with refugees. (Matt. 25) He challenges us all to love Jesus in the poor. And yes, he suggested that empty convents and religious houses be used to provide the housing for the poor.  If that suggestion seems controversial, I have a feeling he is just getting warmed up.

ROME, Italy (Catholic Online) - On Tuesday September 10, 2013, Pope Francis visited Centro Astalli in Rome served by the Jesuit Refugee Service. You can visit their wonderful web site here. As is obvious by now, he is at home in places where the poor are welcomed as Christ.

After greeting those who had gathered for lunch he moved to the chapel for some private prayer. He then thanked those who serve Christ in the poor at the nearby Church of Jesus. It is there where Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the founder of the Jesuit Refugee Service, is buried.

The Pope listened to the stories of two of the refugees, a Sudanese man and a Syrian woman. Then he shared from his heart. The part of the message that grabbed headlines came later in the message, when he questioned whether empty convents and religious houses should be used to house the poor rather than seen as potential money sources for the Church.

In the first part of the message, he offered characteristically simple but profound insights into the nature of authentic Christians charity: "It is not enough to offer a sandwich if this is not accompanied by the possibility of learning to stand on one's own two feet."

"Charity that leaves the poor in the same situation as before is not adequate. True mercy - that which God gives and teaches us - asks for justice, asks that the poor find the way out of their poverty."

"It asks us - the Church, the city of Rome, the institutions - it demands that no-one should be in need of a meal, of a temporary shelter, a legal assistance service, to enable the recognition of his or her right to live and to work, to be recognized fully as a person".
 
"To serve and to accompany both mean to defend, they mean "to place oneself on the side of the weakest. How often are we unable or unwilling to echo the voices of those who have suffered and suffer, to those who have seen their rights trampled, who have experienced so much violence that it has even suffocated their desire for justice? The Lord calls us all to live with more courage and generosity". 
 
It was later in the remarks, after he told the listeners - and all of us - that active, real love for the poor is not limited to specialists but is the vocation of all Christians - that he shared the words which drew the headlines.   

He called the whole Church to welcome the poor "in communities, in houses, in empty convents. Empty convents are not to be sold to be transformed into hotels to make money for the Church. The empty convents are not ours; they are for the flesh of Christ, for the refugees."

He continued, "This certainly isn't simple, and requires criteria, responsibility, and also courage. We do much, but we are perhaps called to do more, welcoming and sharing decisively that which Providence has given us to serve".

I was again moved by this Pope named Francis. He said the poor are the flesh of Christ. Wow! His message pierces the heart. It is always spoken in words and prophetic gesture.  He again sounded and acted like his namesake, the little poor man of Assisi named Francis.

It is a little known part of the story of St. Francis that he was never ordained a Priest. Some sources say it was because he never felt worthy. However, he did allow himself to be ordained a Deacon. He certainly understood the call to be configured to Christ the Servant.

I also thought of Lawrence the Deacon, martyred under the vicious emperor Valerian in the third century.  Valerian issued an edict to the Roman Senate that all the Christian clergy-bishops, priests and deacons-were to be arrested and executed.

There were so many holy people among the martyrs of early Rome. That makes it even more remarkable that the life and death of this one humble Deacon named Lawrence is attributed with "all of Rome becoming Christian" according to one ancient source. 

According to the tradition, Deacon Lawrence, knowing that the fervor of Valerians' hatred was extending to all Christians who owned property, began to give it all away. He distributed the money and treasures of the Church to the city's poor-believing the clear admonition of the Savior that they were blessed and especially loved by Him.

Valerian heard the news and wanted the treasure for himself, to satisfy his unbridled lust for worldly power. So, he offered Deacon Lawrence a way out of sure death. If he would show him where the Church's great gold and silver were located, he would issue an order of clemency, sparing his life so that he could continue his work.

The deacon asked for three days to gather all the gold and silver of the Church together in one central place! Valerian was delighted. For three days Lawrence went throughout the city and invited all the beloved poor, handicapped, and needy who were all being supported by a thriving early Christian community who understood the Gospel imperative of love.

When Valerian arrived, Deacon Lawrence presented him with the true gold and silver of the Church, the poor! The emperor was filled with rage! Beheading was not enough for this Christian Deacon. He ordered Deacon Lawrence to be burned alive, in public, on a griddle. Witnesses recorded the public martyrdom. The deacon cheerfully offered himself to the Lord Jesus and even joked with his executioners!

The tradition records massive conversions to the Christian faith as a result of the holy life and death of Deacon Lawrence who understood the true heart of his Christian vocation. He was poured out, like his Master, Jesus Christ the Servant, in redemptive love, on behalf of others. He also lived out what is called a love of preference for the poor in contemporary Catholic Social Teaching.

Those who love the poor - like Jesus loved the poor- are an instruction manual for the rest of us. They are a sign of the kingdom, making it present in their wake. We have such a man in this Pope named Francis. He also recognizes that poverty is more than a lack of material goods. It knows many faces and the face of Christ is revealed in them all.

Dorothy Day, a heroic witness and prophetic voice of the 20th century, grasped this mystery so well. That is why she is moving forward in the cause for canonization. She lived in the aftermath of the industrial age where human persons were too often treated as products to be used.

Though some get stuck in her circuitous and intriguing journey into the fullness of the truth as found in the Catholic Church, she gave herself away, living with and loving the poor, because she truly understood and embraced her own poverty with brutal honesty. That is the stuff out of which holiness is fashioned.

So too did her brother in that work of authentic solidarity and charity, Peter Maurin. He once wrote with simplicity and searing honesty: "We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to get all we can. We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to give all we can".

Pope Francis visited Jesus on Tuesday because he knows that Jesus is identified with refugees. (Matt. 25) He challenges us all to love Jesus in the poor. And yes, he suggested that empty convents and religious houses be used to provide housing for the poor.  If that suggestion seems controversial, I have a feeling he is just getting warmed up.

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