That the poor and homeless were given the seat of honour right at the front of St Peter’s was quite in keeping with the gospel imperative expressed by these words of Our Lord:
Then he said to the host who invited him, ‘When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbours, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ (Luke 14:12-14)
What made the gesture even more poignant is the realisation that would have struck most of the readers of the story, namely that these people, simply because they are poor and homeless, would often not find a place of honour, or even any place at all, in their parish churches. Many parish churches, even though they may not want to do so, put off those who feel marginalised.
Even if we are committed to welcoming all comers, many never will come: church-going, even in the Catholic world, is tinged with perceived respectability. So the Pope’s gesture contains a powerful message to us all – how can we make sure that the poor and homeless find a welcome with us? After the Mass, what happened then? People went home, naturally, but where did the homeless go? How can we find the homeless not just shelter and housing, but something far more important, integration into society?
Homelessness has causes, and poverty – the inability to pay for accommodation – is but one cause. There are other deeper causes, amongst which are the lack of proper provision for the mentally ill, and family breakdown. One group highlighted in 2013 were former servicemen who have left the army and failed to find a place, in all senses, in civilian life.
The lack of proper residential care for the mentally ill is a scandal. Also troubling is our refusal to face up to the fact that many people become homeless through family breakdown. The collapse of family life always comes at a price.
The Year of Mercy is coming to an end, but we can be certain that homelessness will not go away. We need to confront this issue at its roots. This means that we need more places for those with mental health issues, and we need stronger family life. In both of these government certainly has a role to play; but the Church can certainly help. May a renewed interest in this matter be one of the legacies of the Year of Mercy.
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