This is my homily for the Seminary Mass on Monday.
They always hung around at the top of the escalator coming up from the Metro station. And I always felt guilty when I walked by them.
But I’m ahead of myself. I was ten years ordained (twenty-five years ago) and in graduate school at Catholic university. And as those who are writing a thesis or a dissertation will tell you, it is an all consuming work. You tend to lock yourself in a room or the stacks of the library for seemingly days at a time. It is profoundly unhealthy.
So, on the advice of my spiritual director, I took off Saturday mornings. I would get on the Red Line and go down to Union Station for breakfast, buy a Washington Post and think neither about Liturgy nor Theology nor Neophyte Vesture while I ate an obscenely large breakfast. It was great fun.
Except for the escalator. For, when you emerged from the Metro all the pan-handlers of Washington D.C. would gather ‘round and you had no choice but to pass through their midst. They were aggressive, too. Grabbing and poking so much I was afraid for the contents of my pockets.
But I was also afraid for my soul, ‘cause I’d heard todays Gospel too many times, and I didn’t want to be that priest rushing off to his big breakfast while the half-dead beggar was screaming my name.
So, at first, I would take out five one-dollar bills and fold them tightly (so they looked like tens) and I would distribute them like a prince passings amongst his serfs. But then I worried that five bucks wasn’t much, (it was a drop in the bucket) plus they might well well spend it on drugs or drink, as on food.
So I went to MacDonalds and got five five-dollar gift certificates, and I started to hand those out as I ran the gauntlet of the forgotten. But then I heard from Mitch Snyder (who ran the local shelter) that some of the guys would sell the five-dollar Macdonald certificates for two dollars cash, which they’d use on drugs.
So I went to an old and wise priest I knew, and told him I was so frustrated I was thinking of staying home on Saturdays and working on my dissertation. At which he asked simply, “You’re going to breakfast?” “Yes,” I said. “Well why don’t you invite one of them to breakfast?”
Amazing. I did. And I met some of the most interesting people I have ever known. Tom was a physicist who now lived underneath the bridge by the tracks. In his late twenties he had started seeing things and now he would get physically ill when he slept inside a building too long. Then there was Gerry, who had been in Seminary and later fell into a bottle, which led him all kinds of bad places. And there were so many more whose names I have forgotten, but not their faces and not the beauty of their souls. Their suffering souls. Stripped and beaten and left for half-dead by the exigencies of life.
They wait for us. Sometimes in the old lady at Saint Patrick’s Manor whom no one else will listen to. And you sit and hold her hand. Sometimes in the seminarian down the hall who’s so lonely he cries himself to sleep. And you invite him to the common room for a drink. Sometimes in the guy at the stoplight with the cardboard sign, or the kid who slept on Tremont street last night because his father beats him up or the druggie, the smelly people and the ones no one else will love.
But behind each of their faces is Christ. Waiting for us as really as he does in that tabernacle. And whatever we do for the least of them…