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Serving the afflicted and the homeless

I saw him in the entryway to the church a couple minutes before Mass, looking through the assorted papers that surrounded the pile of bulletins. He looked like the stereotypical homeless person who would soon be asking parishioners for money, but instead of asking for money he wandered up the aisle during the penitential rite and sat in the third pew.

He made me nervous for a moment as I thought of all the disruptions that might now happen during Mass – maybe he would talk out loud during my homily, or sing during a quiet, reflective moment – 35 years of priesthood has given me a lot of possible scenarios. But, other than remaining seated through most of the Mass, he fit in just fine.

I regularly pray that our parish would be given the opportunity to enflesh the teaching of Jesus. The church should be, as Pope Francis likes to say, a field hospital for the hurting. So, the parish church needs to be a place that attracts the afflicted; a place where those who are hurting find a welcome and a smile.

The church cannot turn a cold shoulder to the stranger or to the one who does not dress like the rest of us. The church is the one place where rich and poor, powerful and weak, sick and healthy sit side-by-side. No reserved seats in our churches. No higher prices for the pews up front. The afflicted and the homeless belong here as much as the successful business person does.

There are great programs in our community that shelter the homeless. We should be proud of them and the work they do. Believers, however, cannot leave it to others to care for the afflicted and the homeless.

If we are to enflesh the teachings of Jesus in our lives, then we need to make time to offer ourselves to those programs; doing so we meet the homeless and the afflicted face-to-face and offer them the love of God through our actions. And, when they show up in our parish church, they receive the same expression on our faces that we offer to old friends.

The disheveled man who sat through the Mass left after the Mass ended, and wandered back into the church an hour later. I expected him to ask for something, but he simply wanted me to know he felt comforted during the prayer and preaching that day. He had come back to say "thank you." Life was hard for him; living on the streets was not easy, but for at least that hour he felt God’s peace.


Father Damian Zuerlein is pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Omaha.

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