Fr. Kevin Mullen, OFM, serves as provincial minister of Holy Name Province, USA. He wrote this reflection for the Franciscan Mission Service.
This Advent, as we think about hospitality and about awaiting the arrival of Christ, I am reminded of an incident that happened many years ago. It touched me then and it continues to touch me.
As a novice learning “the ins and outs” of Franciscan life, I was working at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston in 1975 when a poor man appeared at the door. People experiencing homelessness, though not as noticeable as they are now, used to frequent the Arch Street neighborhood. They lived in the shadows, and they came regularly to the Shrine. I recall being instructed never to give them money, but that we could always give food.
One day around lunchtime, a man came by and seemed to be hungry, so I began making him a sandwich. As I was doing so, it dawned on me that the situation in which I found myself was similar to a story we had just learned about St. Francis—one that took place while he and his brothers were fasting during Advent.
Francis taught the friars to avoid idleness and practice self-discipline, which included frequent fasting. One night, when Francis and his brothers were in the middle of a fast, one of the friars could no longer bear the discomfort and cried out “I am dying of hunger!” As the story goes, when Francis saw how badly the friar was faring, Francis “put some bread before him and advised him gently to eat it and began to eat himself first, to avoid embarrassing him. The friar overcame his embarrassment and began to eat.” Some say he invited all of the brothers to share the food as well, saying, “Dearest brothers, necessity and charity for my brother have moved me to act as I have done and we have eaten with him lest he be ashamed to eat alone.”
That day in Boston four decades ago, I remember learning that the person always takes precedence over the rules. When I saw the man in need, I thought about what I’d learned that morning and I realized that maybe I should eat with this man. I did, and I was glad I made that decision. I remember it because it helped me learn that it is the encounter that is important, not only the sharing of food.
This year, Pope Francis introduced to the Church an initiative close to his heart: a World Day of the Poor—marked on Nov. 19—“to encourage believers to react against a culture of discard and waste, to embrace the culture of encounter” and to act with “openness and sharing with the poor through concrete signs of solidarity and fraternity.”
In his Message, Pope Francis held up Francis of Assisi as the paradigmatic Christian who moved beyond mere acts of generosity toward the poor, thereby opening himself to a true encounter with the poor and a deep sharing with them that became a way of life.
Praying for and welcoming the other is important now more than ever.
Reflection question: Can you think of a time when you cared for or reached out to a person despite “the rules”? If not, start embracing the culture of encounter and reach out to someone in need today!