By Barb Arland-Fye
A young mother breast-feeding her baby inside the Vatican City bus station reached out her hand toward me for a donation, speaking softly, in Italian.
Beggars seemed to be everywhere in Vatican City, slipping in and out of my consciousness during The Catholic Messenger pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. I gave money to some beggars, but not all of them, and felt flustered trying to decide who should get one of my coins. The tiny, wizened lady bent over the cane that she tapped incessantly on the cobblestones? Or the man whose face was disfigured?
The centerpiece of our pilgrimage was the Canonization Mass of St. Teresa of Kolkata on Sept. 4 in St. Peter’s Square. This joy-filled liturgy honored a woman known as the “Saint of the Gutters” because she dedicated her life to serving people on the margins, the outcasts, the beggars. I didn’t know it at the time, but Pope Francis reserved space for 1,500 homeless people to attend the Canonization Mass. Then he had a pizza party for them afterwards.
Later, I had the privilege of reading a translation of the homily Pope Francis gave in Italian during the Mass. “Each time we bend down to the needs of our brothers and sisters, we give Jesus something to eat and drink; we clothe, we help and we visit the Son of God. In a word, we touch the flesh of Christ,” Pope Francis said. But the Holy Father also noted that the Christian life is not “merely extending a hand in times of need.” Our mission is to establish roots in the vocation of charity, putting our entire lives at the service of Christ. Deciding who should get my coins is only the beginning of what I’m called to do as a disciple of Christ.
Pope Francis said it takes a “certain daring and courage to recognize the divine Master in the poorest of the poor and those who are cast aside and to give oneself in their service.” We aren’t to expect recompense or thanks, although each beggar thanked me for a coin. “Grazie, signora,” they said.
Some people thought Mother Teresa should have done more to advocate for systemic change to eradicate poverty. But the example she set in ministering to the poor and the attention she brought to their plight provided the impetus for others, people like me, to advocate for change. Maybe that means I don’t file away those email requests from poverty-fighting groups asking me to contact my legislators about legislation impacting the poor and hungry.
When I returned home last week from the pilgrimage, and began reflecting on what the experience meant to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about the beggars. I remembered trying to ignore some as I entered a shop to purchase trinkets that my family members certainly didn’t need.
After talking with some people whose advice I value, I’ve decided to set aside a certain amount of money to give to beggars who cross my path. Each one will also receive a smile and a prayer. I’ll make face contact to remind me that the beggar is made in God’s image, just as I am. Pope Francis ended his homily by recalling that “Mother Teresa loved to say ‘Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile.’” The Holy Father asked that we carry a smile and give it to those we meet along our journey … to give joy and hope to “our many brothers and sisters who stand in need of understanding and tenderness.” Like the mom in the bus station, giving sustenance to her baby.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)