By Hedwig Lewis SJ
“People who are in need and are 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. Although you may be called bums and panhandlers you are in fact the ambassadors of God. As God’s ambassadors you should be given food, clothing and shelter by those who are able to give it.”
These words are taken from an essay written by Peter Maurin (1887-1949), in a paper that he motivated Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert supporting herself as a freelance journalist, to found. It was called Catholic Worker, to which Maurin contributed essays where he repeatedly advocated renewal of the ancient Christian practice of hospitality. Maurin, was co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and is chiefly responsible for the movement’s visionary qualities.
Maurin met Dorothy Day in December 1932. He proposed that Day start a newspaper to publicize Catholic social teaching and promote steps to bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Day responded positively, though unsure how she would ever find the money for such a venture. “In the history of the saints,” Maurin assured her, “capital is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”
Maurin explained that a church council of the 5th century obliged bishops to establish houses of hospitality in connection with every parish. These houses were open to the poor, the sick, the orphaned, the aged, and the needy of every kind. The idea was that one must always be ready to recognize Christ in the unfamiliar face and so every parish and every home was to have its “Christ Room,” one set aside to receive the ambassadors of God who appear in the form of the needy and the wanderer.
“Every home, Maurin said, should have its “Christ Room” and every parish a house of hospitality ready to receive the “ambassadors of God”. Within a year of its founding, the Catholic Worker movement was widely known for its houses of hospitality.
Today we draw inspiration from our dear and dynamic Pope Francis who has repeatedly urged the world to have “a preferential option” for the homeless, the poor, the persecutor.
In February2014, Francis got showers set up for homeless people under the colonnade of St Peter’s Square. The Vatican’s charity office began offering haircuts and shaves by professional volunteers, as part of the shower service. In March, the pope invited some 150 mostly homeless people to a private viewing of the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. In June, he commissioned a shelter to be built for the homeless just a few steps away from the Vatican boundaries. On visit to the US, Pope Francis shared lunch with the homeless, and reminded them that “the Son of God came into this world as a homeless person.”
In September, we heard Pope Francis’ clarion call (in view of this Jubilee Year of Mercy): “Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing death by war and by hunger… The Gospel calls us to be neighbours to the smallest and most abandoned… May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe take in one refugee family.” Each of the two parishes in the Vatican welcomed a refugee family.
On December 22, 2014, while reciting the midday Angelus prayer from the window of the apostolic palace, Pope Francis noticed a banner in St Peter’s Square that read “The poor cannot wait.” It was displayed by members of the “Pitchfork Movement”, including farmers, truckers and families protesting taxes and government austerity programs.
Pope Francis urged individuals and government leaders to recognize the pain, struggles and rights of families who do not have a home. After the prayer, the pontiff read the sign out loud, and remarked, “It makes me think how Jesus was born in a stall, not a house.”
The pope is echoing the sentiments of Christians throughout the globe who will gaze at the divine Infant in the crib at Christmas, and recall his comforting voice: “Come, you blessed of my Father. I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and you took care of me”? Then turning around, they will see with their inner eyes those standing out in the cold and invite them into their heart.
God “humbled himself to become human” and we are called, in “poverty of spirit” to divinize our humanity and assume the sacred responsibility as “God’s ambassadors.”
(Fr Hedwig Lewis SJ is the author of “Christmas by Candlelight” (email@example.com). His website: http://joygift.tripod.com.)