“If you long for a happy death, learn to love the poor,” says Fr. Benedict Groeschel, himself famous for helping to start a religious community serving the poor.
Groeschel’s comment is a good way to begin thinking about the new Pope, whether you’re Catholic or not. The new Pope took the name Francis because St. Francis of Assisi was a great lover of the poor, and Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis has long shown his desire to love the poor by joining in their lives and serving them.
The Roman Catholic Church already serves the poor in countless ways, of course, but the Church also knows that, from the twelve men Jesus chose as his apostles down to today, the Church’s members often fail in their duties. At the very least, we Catholics can always do more than we are doing to love “the least among us.”
That means eschewing worldliness, the love of comfort and fame. It also means learning from the poor.
One woman who both served the poor and learned from them was Caryll Houselander. An Englishwoman who lived 1901-54, Houselander was an artist, a spiritual writer, and a self-confessed neurotic. She also helped mentally disturbed children during and after the London Blitz. Her friend the psychiatrist Eric Strauss, later president of the British Psychological Society, brought the children to her, explaining simply, “she loved them back to life.”
Pope Francis’ election reminded me of a passage in Houselander’s letters.
She's writing to a Mr. St. George about another friend of hers, “a man who had an appalling tragedy in his life, namely that his wife went out of her mind and vanished with their four-year-old child. He spent a fortune trying to find them, but never did so. The police presumed that the poor woman had taken her life and the child’s too, but the father never knew for certain, and does not know to this day. Well, he took to drink, which one can understand, and he went rapidly downhill until at last he was living in doss-houses and the streets.
“He was in despair. He had lost faith in God and hope in life. He was drinking himself to death…. Then for some reason he disappeared…. Five years passed in which all my efforts to trace him failed; and then to my astonishment he turned up again, a changed man. He no longer drank. He had got and kept a good job. He had taken a room and made it bright and homely although he was alone; and though he was still a semi-invalid he was able to work and was cheerful. No bitterness remained, only tenderness to everyone and belief in God.
“What had happened? He told me that in the doss-houses the poor ‘down-and-outs,’ the ‘old lags’ and the drunkards had shown him divine charity. When he was starving they had shared their last crusts with him. They had taught him to keep out the cold with old newspapers. They had spread their own ragged coats over him. They had shared with him the cigarette ends which they had picked up in the gutter.
“He started to marvel. First of all he asked himself how was it that men so bad, so outcast, so insensitive and so ignorant as most of them really were, could have in them a strain of brotherly love stronger than the evil around them and sometimes in them? That was the question. But another one arose: What on earth could any of them see in him worth one moment’s kindness?
“He pondered this and arrived at the great truth of the presence of Christ in man. Whatever is loving and whatever is lovable, he thought, is Christ in man. This idea changed his whole life, as I have told you. The change, by the by, lasted. He has resumed his life among his fellow beings, but very often he returns to the doss-houses to try and give to others some of the faith and kindness they gave to him.
“All that and much more is what I mean by the unconscious Christ in man; and to me it is the unconscious Christ which is the consolation for the unlovingness of the professionally righteous.”
Houselander concludes that the usual “efforts at reform” in the Church are useless. “There are only two weapons against the worldly spirit which has possessed so many Catholics for so long,” and they are “Contemplation and visible, voluntary Poverty.”
How prophetic, given that Rome now has a Pope Emeritus devoted to the former and a new Pope devoted to the latter. Pope Benedict voluntarily gave away his power to devote himself to a cloistered life of contemplation. And Pope Francis famously said after his election, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.”
FOOTNOTE: For a thoughtful meditation on Pope Francis’ concern for the poor, see this piece by The Anchoress. A brief introduction to Caryll Houselander’s life is here. For more on Fr. Groeschel’s injunction to love the poor, read Anthony Esolen’s essay on the topic. For more on learning from the poor, read William Schambra's recent post on how civic renewal comes from the poor in their own communities. I wrote about Bob Cote, a man similar to Houselander's friend, who was a drunk and now runs a faith-based homeless shelter in Denver.