My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
When I was in the seminary, I began to discern a vocation within my vocation. I had wanted to be a priest for as long as I could remember (my mother said I was about 4 years old when I started talking about being a priest!), but perhaps because I had been thinking about priesthood for so long, I began considering different ways to exercise ministry as a priest: diocesan priesthood vs. religious life, for example, or being a parish priest vs. teaching or some other sort of specialized ministry. It was in this context that I decided I want to do something concrete to help the poor, rather than simply talk about it. So, in conversation with my spiritual director, I discerned that I wanted to be a parish priest who would provide legal services for the poor.
Four months after my priesthood ordination and after spending the summer in Mexico studying Spanish, I began studying law at DePaul University College of Law while serving in a parish in the heavily industrialized steel mill area known as South Chicago. Since I was not officially asked to do this by my Archdiocese, I took out a student loan, which I repaid with my own money. Shortly after I graduated with my civil law degree in 1981, I passed the Illinois Bar Exam and co-founded the South Chicago Legal Clinic, which was later renamed the Chicago Legal Clinic as we expanded into other neighborhoods. I specialized in immigration law to help the many immigrants in the area, who were mostly Hispanic.
I also began an internship with Catholic Charities under the guidance of then Father Edwin Conway, the devoted and capable Administrator of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1983 until 1996. In 1995, he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, also serving as Vicar General of the Archdiocese from 2003 until his death from cancer in 2004. Having obtained a master’s of social work degree from Loyola University Chicago in 1970, Bishop Conway was an influential mentor for my work in serving the poor. One specific piece of advice from Bishop Conway that I distinctly remember is that he said there was never any reason to give cash to panhandlers or homeless people begging for money on street corners. All the basic necessities of life — including food, shelter, and clothing — were readily available from Catholic Charities and other social service agencies. Giving them cash would only provide them with funds to enable their addictive behaviors.
Bishop Conway’s advice comes to mind frequently as I see homeless people begging for money outside our Cathedral, usually right before or after Mass. It is understandable that homeless people apparently consider church-going people more receptive to their requests to “help the homeless” since we Christians wish to do as Jesus taught when He said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Caring for the least among us, however, does not necessarily mean handing out cash. To provide true assistance that will help the person in need usually requires more than a handout. We could, for example, offer to take the person to a restaurant to get something to eat. But that would require more than money; actually getting some food for a hungry person would require real time and effort. It is far easier to just drop some cash into their cup, which is perhaps doing more to make the donor feel good than to provide real assistance.
Once, I was walking in downtown Springfield wearing my clerical suit and Roman collar when a person approached me asking for money to buy food. We were just a couple of blocks from St. John’s Breadline, so I started giving instructions on how to get there for a free meal when the person cut me off saying, “Oh, I know all about the Breadline. I don’t want that.” I said I was sorry, but if he did not want that, I could not help him. I have served meals at St. John’s Breadline and have eaten the food there myself. It is quite healthy and good. Anyone of any faith can walk in and have a meal for free — no eligibility requirements and no questions asked.
So, if you want to help feed the hungry, you could donate to Catholic Charities, which operates the St. John’s Breadline at 430 North Fifth Street in Springfield and the Catholic Charities Regional and Mobile Food Pantries located throughout our diocese. For locations and hours of operation, as well as for volunteer opportunities, or to donate online, go to https://cc.dio.org/. Donations may also be sent by check payable to Catholic Charities – Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, 1625 West Washington Street, Springfield, IL 62702.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that “a man crippled from birth was carried and placed at the gate of the temple called ‘The Beautiful Gate’ every day to beg for alms from the people who entered the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. Peter said, ‘I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.’ Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God” (Acts 3:2-8).
Rather than give cash to beggars, our goal — like St. Peter and St. John — also should be to help them to rise and walk in the name of Jesus Christ, so that they too may enter the church to give praise to God.
May God give us this grace. Amen.