With the weather getting warmer, we are witnessing a phenomenon that seems to recur after Sunday Masses. I am talking about individuals and families asking for a handout on our church campus. A few years ago, a concerned parishioner e-mailed me expressing his distress over a family that was begging outside the church. In part this is what he wrote:
I'm sure you receive multiple questions and suggestions, and I know it’s incredibly complicated, but I wonder if in one of your columns you could address the appropriate Christian, Catholic response to begging. On our way out of Noon mass today there was a mother and child begging in the church parking lot. It was an incredibly evocative scene, but one which brings such a tangle of emotions.
In response I wrote a column and I would like to return to it. I have been wondering how to address the issue. Please bear with me because it is complicated.
First of all, it is crystal clear that we have to take care of our brothers and sisters, especially the poor and the needy. St John would go so far as to say that if we do not love our brothers and sisters whom we can see, we cannot claim to love the God we cannot see. Paul, addressing the Church at Corinth, speaks of Jesus in these words: “He Who was rich made Himself poor in order to make us rich.” The implication is that we must also give of ourselves to better the lives of those around us. The Gospel of Luke is filled with parables and sayings of Jesus and they tell Christians that indifference to the poor at our doorstep is totally unacceptable. In chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus goes even further. He declares that our final judgment will depend on how we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. To take care of the poor is a fundamental Christian obligation.
Second, the Church has consistently reiterated the teachings of Jesus. Saints and mystics, founders of religious orders and spiritual stalwarts have insisted that in serving the poor we serve Christ Himself. Having come from India, I can forcefully assert that more than 80% of the work of the Church in the Third World is directed towards the poor. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, keeps insisting on this message.
Now, in the light of all this how do we respond to someone begging at our door? I have faced the same dilemma as you. You are vulnerable especially when you are coming out of Church after Sunday Mass. I have personally met these individuals and families. I have talked to them. I have encouraged them to meet with our Social Services Ministries Director, Adrienne Timm, but they refuse. They want to receive cash, right here and now. We have tried to help them but they don’t seem to be in any mood to accept long-term assistance. We are willing to improve their lot but they do not seem to be open.
Here at St Paul’s we do serve the poor. You are aware of our Social Service Ministries, our food pantry, and our adoption of needy families over the holidays. Our outreach is well organized and we ensure that people do not take advantage of the system. It is our policy not to give anyone money. Our Social Services have helped hundreds of people over the years. We help anyone irrespective of color, race or religion. Annually our Social Service Ministries disburses over $40,000 in assistance to the poor in the form of rent, utilities assistance, food, medicines, and travel. This amount does not include what it spends for the Sunday Suppers and the food pantry, or what we give as part of our Lenten Almsgiving. We also assist our sharing parish, St Benedict, with an annual contribution of over $45,000. We help people not only in Park Ridge but also from the neighborhoods around. In addition we have our Servants of St Francis who have made service to the poor their sole mission.
I earnestly request you not to give cash to anyone begging on church property. Please tell them respectfully that they should contact our Social Service Ministries. We will find out what they really need and try to solve their problem. I know how seeing a family begging at our church while we have so much can be very difficult. But, please do not let your emotions get the better of you. We are not shutting out the poor. We want to help them. If you would like to feel that you are helping the poor, feel free to donate to our Social Service Ministries. We will make sure the money is used only for the poor and the needy. Perhaps you can volunteer your time at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.
Let me leave you with the words of the holy woman who made us all think more about the poor. She made the gospel credible once again because she did something beautiful for God by loving the destitute and the abandoned. Here are some words of Mother Theresa that we must ponder over:
At the end of our lives, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made or how many great things we have done. We will be judged by “I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in.” Hungry not only for food – but hungry for love. Naked not only for clothing – but naked for human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of a room of bricks – but homeless because of rejection. This is Christ in distressing disguise.
May we never be blind or indifferent to the poor!
Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.
After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...