Saint Francis and the Homeless

This year will be the third anniversary of my travelling from Regina to Toronto to profess my vows as a Franciscan. Prior to my profession, I was required to read several books on Franciscan theology and spirituality, and write reflections based on the material I had read. Something that stuck with me was the intensity in which Franciscan spirituality is linked to the idea of Christ being present in the most poor of us, that we in some way are able to become closer to what the nature of Christ is by serving those who would, in many cases, repulse us the most. It is a spirituality that shuns comfort as something that gets in the way of encountering Christ. In my study of Franciscan theology, one story stuck with me more than any of the others from the life of St. Francis—the story of St. Francis’ encounter with the leper.

Francis came from a world of relative wealth and comfort. His quest for an encounter with Christ forced him to the realization that he would have to accept that every person, including and especially those who repulsed him, were gateways into Christ’s love. For him, this meant lepers. In Francis’ day, the only treatment for leprosy was isolation from the greater community in order to prevent further infection from spreading. Francis, when he saw a leper approaching on the road, would cross to the other side and go as far as covering his mouth and looking the other way. One day while riding his horse down the road, he saw a leper approaching him and realized that the only way to fully embrace Christ was to embrace that which he feared the most. Francis dismounted his horse, crossed the road to the leper, put a coin in the leper’s hands, and then kissed them. After, he returned to his horse and looked back to discover there was no leper on the road. Francis attributes this to the leper actually being Christ manifested. There’s a part of me that thinks about the situation through the leper’s eyes—having experienced what he just has and thinking “I’m getting off this road as fast as I can, that man is mad!”

I presented that story in an interfaith dialogue a few weeks before I traveled to Toronto to profess my vows for the first time. I’d never been to Toronto before, and I was shocked and excited by everything there. I walked to the convent I was staying in from Union Station, through the great walls of Bay Street, down past old churches and cathedrals, past markets and gardens and people, so many people of different walks of life, different cultures, some in suits that must have been worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, some peeking out from the allies behind the dumpsters at the crowds on the sidewalks. I saw people walking dogs, and walked past micro parks where a woman lay sleeping in her dirty clothes, huddled under a park bench. The homelessness in Toronto didn’t really hit me hard until later in the trip.

While I was in Toronto, I was baptized, confirmed, and received tonsure. The next day I was initiated into the orders of Porter and Lector. That day was a big day because not only did I take the steps closer to my vocation being fulfilled, but it was Toronto’s Pride parade. Standing on the streets of the Village, watching as tens of thousands of people lined the streets, watching as the parade went by, I felt like I was part of a tribe, part of a culture that I had know somewhere inside myself but had never seen it manifest itself this way. There were two lines of people traveling in front of where I was standing, one moving up the sidewalk, another moving down the sidewalk. Think of it as two streams of people, moving in opposite directions but beside each other. I looked down the sidewalk and saw a man, a homeless man, wearing nothing but a pair of worn out blue jeans. His hair was grey and wild, his beard the same, and he was dancing, smiling, reveling in the part that was going on. From the opposite direction, I saw 20 something gentleman, expensive clothes, expensive hair cut, not one detail out of place. As he approached the homeless man, he covered his mouth, and turned his face to look the other way.

At that moment, I understood what Francis had experienced the day he had met the leper on the road. Every human being, especially those who would force us to cover our mouths and turn our heads, is the face of Christ. The harder it is to face the reflection of Christ moving towards us, the more intensely the experience of Christ potentially is. In my own city, a smaller city of just over 300,000 people, the homeless situation was barely visible until a few years ago. Now, people are beginning to sleep on the porches of churches, in the vestibules of banks and other buildings, anywhere they can find warmth and shelter. Added to this, the incidence of meth use is increasing at a rapidly dangerous rate. I believe these issues have come late to Regina, as most things do, and that these things have already been happening in other cities around the globe.

How are we to confront this issue? As religious, this is an even more important question because we carry the responsibility to preach in our actions as well as our words, perhaps even more importantly in the actions. The simplest of actions is courtesy. “Good morning.” More complex actions are feeding, clothing, embracing by allowing people to speak, to be heard. Harm reduction is a concept that is challenging to accept, but I think it is critical as sacramentarians that we entertain the notion that harm reduction models, although not conforming with what we may feel are conventional methods of treatment, are perhaps more effective in the long run because most harm reduction models operate on the principle that every human being is able to make decisions for themselves, and while we may not agree with those choices, our responsibility as Christians is to provide support, to provide love.

No matter the level of involvement we choose to undertake, be it simply saying hello or more complex involvement as advocates, unless we treat every human being with the same reverence and respect we would the Blessed Sacrament we are operating from a place of privilege, and our encounter with Christ will be minimal if at all. Saint Francis understood the need to break past the barriers we create for ourselves, the barriers that in their safety kept us isolated from God’s love. We as Catholics, especially as Independents, must excessively break these barriers in order to include everyone who has been excluded, but more importantly, so that we as Christians might better encounter Christ as He would want us to encounter Him.

Leave a Reply