Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel

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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 old van that visited the boarding houses, bridges and parks in Fitzroy. The van began as a student initiative. It was basic: the food was predictable and cold, and the van was ramshackle — because the back doors could not be locked the contents were likely to fall on the street. The volunteers were fearless, going into boarding houses, through parks, under bridges and everywhere homeless people were to be found. Health and safety protocols were minimal.

Although its volunteers came from many religions and none, with no questions asked, most of the leading spirits had been students at Catholic schools and often involved in church youth groups. It was also influenced by Mother Teresa’s values. It naturally found support in the Vinnies, the Catholic organisation most involved with homeless people. Within a short period the Ozanam House Kitchens became available for preparing food and the Vinnies ethos inevitably influenced the character of the van, in particular by strengthening its primary mission to engage respectfully and warmly with people in need. It was less about delivering services than accompanying people.

 

'In a time of numerical church decline, it is tempting for churches to keep institutions founded for the poor at arm’s length, considering them to be Christian only in their historical origin, or regarding their fidelity to the poor as negotiable.' 

 

Like the Van, Corpus Christi echoed the spirit of St Francis. The Religious, volunteers and staff lived and worked with the men who shared responsibility according to their capacity for cooking, cleaning and caring for the house. Although Corpus Christi itself was dry, the men could leave the community for a time to drink and then return. They faced no pressure to give up drinking, nor disapproval for breaking out. The staff and volunteers spent a night a week in Fitzroy to see how people from the community were living on the streets. Although there was no expectation that the men would change their behaviour at Corpus Christi, the experience of being respected for who they were and not for how they acted and having an opportunity to contribute to the lives of others could lead to inner growth in self-respect. 

Like St Francis of Assisi, too, the Vannies and Corpus Christi had a radical edge. The Vannies began with highly motivated young people, who had already moved beyond school boundaries when students, ran with an idea, implemented it on the smell of an oily rag, learned from their mistakes and soon found partners in cooperative adults and organisations. The history of the soup van is a history of risk taking in accompanying vulnerable people in unpredictable circumstances.

At Corpus Christi with its explicit Christian ethos the radical edge was more highly articulated. For many years it rejected government funding, afraid that to accept it would compromise its mission of accompaniment and replace it with an ethos based on meeting KPIs. Instead it relied on the voluntary contributions of staff and volunteers, on donations and on a portion of the benefits received by the men. The religious understanding of the mission was also radical. In its emphasis on sharing life with the men, it also highlighted the dynamic by which workers and volunteers would discover their own brokenness and come to accept it through the gift of men who were broken. In Christian terms the spirituality focused strongly on identifying with Jesus in his crucifixion. It is captured in the symbolism of the battered crucifix in the chapel. Beneath the cross, as in all of Mother Teresa’s communities, are Jesus words, I thirst’, with their secondary but unmistakeable reference to alcoholism.

To live by the Corpus Christi spirit was demanding. It involved living constantly with volatile men, taking care of the necessary administrative tasks, distributing medications, and focusing on finding God in inner turmoil rather than in the moments of peace and optimism. As does any spiritual vision, it has strengths and vulnerabilities. Accepting one’s own brokenness and the misery and sense of failure of a life that falls short of one’s own and others’ expectations can result in great inner freedom. It can, however, also provide an excuse for persisting in conduct that is lacking in due respect for others. A community that gives priority to personal zeal and self-sacrifice over institutional balance and protocols to ensure virtuous behaviour could be particularly vulnerable in this respect. In the Catholic Church the later revelations of manipulative relationships of charismatic leaders with dependent people have brought home this risk.

Corpus Christi, however, was forced to adopt a more conventional structure by the situations and demands that it faced. The changing profile of homeless people, the urgent need for renovation and expansion of the buildings, the decline in numbers of Religious women and men from whom the staff and volunteers could be drawn, the obligation to pay staff a decent wage, and the increasingly demanding protocols and conditions for aged care imposed by government, meant that the future of Corpus Christi could be assured only by accepting government funding with the conditions that it imposed and by developing governance that was sustainable and fully accountable.

The Soup Vans — ithere are now 9 in Victoria — ifaced the same changing profile, gentrification of the inner city, multiplication of regulations about preparation of food, the age and protection of volunteers and professional standards, Both the Vannies and Corpus Christi had to work in a sustainable way that focused on forming a community of staff and the people whom they accompanied. Their relationships needed to be characterised by an ideal of mutual respect at all levels, and by companionship and faithfulness to the radicality of the faith vision which inspired their foundation.

This challenge is one that is faced more generally in Catholic and other Churches today. It is to keep alive in all their institutions the spirit identified with St Francis, and particularly in those working with the poor. It is the source of life and renewal in churches with an ageing membership. This demands responsible administration and a staff faithful to the vision. It also demands that the priority of the poor that animated these institutions and the emphasis on accompaniment rather than on efficient service delivery be treated as a priority by the Churches themselves.

In a time of numerical church decline, it is tempting for churches to keep institutions founded for the poor at arm’s length, considering them to be Christian only in their historical origin, or regarding their fidelity to the poor as negotiable. In this respect Corpus Christi and the Soup Van have been blessed by strong support and good stewardship. For most people they pass under the radar. But for Churches the health and radical fidelity of such groups are important. They measure their present vitality and form the seedbed for their future life.

 

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Statue of St Francis of Assisi. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, nuclear power, nuclear submarines, long-half life

 

 

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Young people involved in radical ministry to vulnerable (and volatile) individuals reveal what the "poor in spirit" means. Their youth, idealism and energy contribute to not judging and just getting on with the job, learning as they go. This is the opposite condition to a moribund church clinging to outdated perspectives and unable to focus on anything but survival. Perhaps those who are able to reach out authentically to the most marginalised are those who can recognise their own wounds and the wounds of the Church. In healing others, we can become the poor in spirit.


Pam | 30 September 2021  

‘In what many at the time thought a shaming gesture she sent her Missionary Sisters from India to work with homeless people in Fitzroy’.
So she did. I was there. But I didn’t know anyone in Fitzroy who thought it was a shaming gesture, and it’s absolutely not true that they were the first order to reach out to the poorest of the poor to share their widow’s mite. The Daughters of Charity were there, serving in the same spirit, providing food and friendship with the men on the street in a way that was nothing to do with institutional box-ticking. I don’t want to suggest any competition for glory here. Both the Missionaries and the Daughters would rightly hold that the important thing is that the poor were served. I just wish that you hadn’t written this little history of ‘shameful’ service of the poor in Fitzroy by centralising one religious community and quietly wiping out the others. I understand that your method better supports your theme of renewal of tired institutions by young, fresh charisms. But in fact, a more accurate summary of the history would show it as an example of a very fruitful co-operation in the service of those who all agreed are central to the mission of the Church. A certain Melbourne Archbishop once said that the heart of the Church lay in the chapel of the Seminary. I think it lay in the kitchen of the DC’s House of Welcome, and the bedrooms of the houses of the MCs. I’m sure many would agree, including the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Sisters of Mercy and your own Jesuits, none of whom waited for the arrival of the Missionaries to come to the service of the poor in Fitzroy.


Joan Seymour | 01 October 2021  

Many years ago I thought St Francis of Assisi the most Christlike of the saints. These days I realise every saint mirrors an aspect of Christ. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. Both St Paul and Charles Dickens showed us the truth of the phrase 'cold as charity'. Jesus castigated the rich and successful - those at the top of the pile - for needless extravagance and not sharing their wealth with the less fortunate. In his brief ministry Jesus did not concentrate as much on social good work as trying to bring people back to His Father. Good works stem from that. If you asked Mother Theresa about herself, she would tell you she was merely carrying out what Jesus taught.


Edward Fido | 01 October 2021  

In reading of Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day's radical activism in this article, I let Dorothy Day's book "The Long Loneliness" fall open and on the page are these words: "What were we here for, what were we doing, what was the meaning of our lives? One thing I was sure of, and that was that these fellow workers and I were performing an act of worship." We are the temple and the sacraments are lived out in service.


Pam | 02 October 2021  
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‘One thing I was sure of, and that was that these fellow workers and I were performing an act of worship." We are the temple and the sacraments are lived out in service’. Thank you, Pam, for your words and Dorothy Day’s. They have the sound of truth in them.


Joan Seymour | 03 October 2021  

‘We are the temple’ If anyone calls you an open space, make sure you tell them that, etymologically, you’re an open, consecrated space.


roy chen yee | 04 October 2021  

Thanks, Joan and roy.


Pam | 05 October 2021  

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