What if we took the Gospel seriously?
It is the life-long struggle of every Christian to translate Jesus' message from words into action. Most of us fail.
Jesus made it clear that following him was like picking up a cross.
He said that we must change. And as most of us readily admit, change is hard.
In 13th century Europe a man named Francis of Assisi changed, and in an outstanding way translated the Gospel into action. He embraced voluntary poverty, and became known as Il Poverello. His story continues to challenge and inspire to this very day.
In 20th century America a French immigrant named Peter Maurin underwent a conversion experience and translated the Gospel into action. He embraced voluntary poverty, and became with Dorothy Day the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. His story continues to challenge and inspire to this very day.
Maurin spend the last years of his life working with and for the poor. He asked clergy and laity to set up rooms for hospitality, a "Christ room" which would be available to the homeless, hungry, and broken members of society.
He reminded Catholics of the instruction given by the Church's Council of Carthage in 436, that bishops should have hospices near their churches to care for the needy. He spoke often of St. Basil, the fourth century bishop, who built a complex in Caesarea to meet the needs of the sick who could not afford medical treatment.
In the October 1939 issue of The Catholic Worker Maurin wrote a brief essay on the subject:
"People who are in need and not afraid to beg give to people not in need the occasion to do good for goodness' sake. Modern society calls the beggar bum and panhandler and gives him the bum's rush. But the Greeks used to say that people in need are ambassadors of the gods...
"Mohammedan teachers tell us that God commands hospitality. And hospitality is still practiced in Mohammedan countries. But the duty of hospitality is neither taught nor practiced in Christian countries."
Maurin recalled that in the early days of the Church bystanders noticed how Christians treated one another and said, "See how they love one another."
He lamented, however, that in modern times, "the poor are no longer fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice but at the expense of the taxpayers. And because the poor are no longer fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice, the pagans say about the Christians, 'See how they pass the buck.'"
Maurin irritated many when he noted that parishes have houses for priests, buildings for educational purposes, gyms for recreational purposes, but they do not have parish houses for hospitality.
"The poor," Maurin maintained, "are the first children of the Church so the poor should come first. People with homes should have a room of hospitality so as to give shelter to the needy members of the parish. The remaining needy members of the parish should be given shelter in a Parish Home."
Moved by Maurin's message and lifestyle Dorothy Day would later write, "Every house should have a Christ Room. It's no use turning people away to an agency...It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy...we must act personally, at a personal sacrifice....to combat the growing tendency to let the State take the job which Our Lord Himself gave us to do."
A hundred and one excuses come to our minds, reasonably arguing why we can't do that. And perhaps we're not all called to be a Francis of Assisi, a Peter Maurin, a Dorothy Day.
But at the very least their example and the instruction of Jesus' Gospel are meant to make us sensitive to the poor around us.
I have often rationalized my not responding to the needy or giving a dollar to the poor: "They wouldn't be in this situation if they just got a job" or "He'll just use the money to buy a beer." I conveniently forget that many are mentally ill, unable to work, or that I'll spend more than a dollar to buy a beer for myself.
And yet, there's the Gospel teaching: "Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on the borrower" (Mt 5:42) and "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink..." (cf. Mt 25:42).
What if we took the Gospel seriously? What if each diocese set up a house of hospitality? What if the bishop instructed each parish to establish a home for the homeless? What if each Catholic household opened a "Christ room" for one indigent neighbor?
What do you think would happen? What if we took the Gospel seriously?
(Donations may be sent to the St Francis - St Joseph Catholic Worker House, PO Box 14274, Cincinnati OH 45250-0274.)