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Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel

  • 29 September 2021
  In the Catholic calendar the Feast of St Francis of Assisi falls on next Tuesday. Although he gave up on wealth, power and influence Francis probably had a bigger effect on his world than any of his contemporaries. He continues to attract people to challenge the values of our society and to spark renewal in Christian institutions at the risk of going stale.

The key to Francis’ legacy lay in his decision to leave his position in a wealthy family and to share the uncertain life of the rural poor. He found great joy in it and attracted others to follow Jesus’ way. Pope Innocent III, an astute man, saw in Francis’ accompaniment of the poor a force to renew a Church that had become defensive of its institutional privilege and security. Francis offered life through radical simplicity, honouring people who were despised, and loving without possessing.

That paradoxical turning to people who are poor has lain at the heart of many movements of church renewal since. Most teaching religious congregations were founded by people who went out to poor children to offer them hope and a fuller life. They helped build and renew the church and society of their generation. As church became better endowed, young people again went out to accompany the poor and were a source of new life. As did Dorothy Day in New York, Mother — now Saint — Teresa among the dying on the Calcutta streets became an icon of the last century.

Mother Teresa was also at the centre of two similarly iconic ventures in Melbourne. In what many at the time thought a shaming gesture she sent her Missionary Sisters from India to work with homeless people in Fitzroy. Echoing the church vision of the time she insisted on her sisters living with them and among marginalised people rather than working for them in large institutions. She then persuaded a wealthy donor to buy land for the Sisters in the rural outskirts of Melbourne as a retreat and community for homeless men.

As Corpus Christi grew, Mother Teresa — her missionary work completed — handed over responsibility for it to the local Jesuits and Mercy Sisters. On the opening of Corpus Christi her Sisters no longer provided accommodation for homeless men in Fitzroy, with the result that they were less directly involved in feeding the poor. Some young volunteers from that program then decided to continue it from an