Last week I had a couple of experiences that have stayed with me. My daughter was a guest at an industry lunch, a fund-raising affair, when large companies buy a table and participate in a charity auction. The guest speaker was a man who spoke honestly and movingly about his experience of being homeless as a teenager. My daughter is the mother of two young boys and as she shared that story with me, she asked over and over again, “How can parents let that happen?”
Then, that weekend, I walked past a young girl, maybe in her mid-teens, sitting cross-legged on a bridge that crossed the Yarra River and leaning against a large backpack, reading one of those magazines that specialise in pictures of media personalities. The words Homeless No Money, written on a piece of card were lying on the ground before her. I walked past and wondered, where is your family. I didn’t put money in the bowl clearly meant for donations or offer to buy her a hamburger. I didn’t even chat. Just walked past.
In the train on the way home I tried to shrug off a familiar sense of guilt. Pope Francis talks constantly about the Church’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and a homeless teenage girl is definitely one of the vulnerable. Every morning the Catholic website http://www.cathnews.com.au pops up on my screen and every morning there is yet another picture of our extravert pope as he urges us to respond to the needs of the poor.
There’s a lot to like about Pope Francis; his smiley face, his energy, his grasp of events world-wide, his knack of relating to all kinds of people, his practicality. Even so, I sigh because it seems like he’s always talking about the poor and I’m in between – neither rich nor financially needy. It’s like being the overlooked middle child in a family.
Being a Catholic used to be so simple, even cosy. As long as you were married in the church, baptised the babies, sent them to Catholic schools, went to Mass on Sunday and supported the parish and Church sponsored charities, you were seen as a devout Catholic. Then along came Vatican 2, opening windows that had been closed for centuries, letting in the world. We were reminded that we are Christians first and foremost, followers of Jesus who healed those who needed it, fed the hungry and supported the marginalised. Fifty years on, Pope Francis picks up the same message, telling the world that the mark of a true Christian is mercy, compassion for those who lack the skill or opportunities to cope with life as well as we do.
Many people who identified themselves as Catholic in the recent census rarely attend Sunday Mass, never read the Bible. But they give to appeals when disasters happen, participate in fun runs and buy raffle tickets for worthy causes. They sponsor children in countries whose gross national product is less than the amount spent on beer every year in Australia. Some become foster parents or work in op shops, deliver Meals on Wheels and volunteer at nursing homes. They do it because, sometimes unknowingly, they live by Gospel values. It’s their “cup of water” given in Jesus’ name and they are his disciples.
Awareness of the vulnerable, whether it’s on a Melbourne street or pictured in the evening news makes me uncomfortable. I am powerless to fix it. Neither can Pope Francis. But I could have chatted with that young woman, referred to her magazine, maybe asked her name. Someone told me that homeless people can go for long stretches without anybody calling them by name.
It’s important that we continue to give time, energy, support, skill and money to those who are poor and vulnerable and encourage our children and grandchildren to do the same. I’m reminded of the widow Jesus observed surreptitiously putting her money in the Temple collection basket. It wasn’t a lot, but it was all she had to give. And she gave it.