A few texts on serving the least among us come to mind as Jews celebrate Passover and Christians celebrate Holy Week. The first is from the Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth, who purposely connected his greatest “hour” with the ancient Hebrew feast of Passover:
The poor you have always with you.
Whom, exactly, does he mean by “the poor”? Certainly he means the naked, the hungry, and others whose most urgent needs involve a lack of material goods.
But perhaps he also refers to those whose needs entail a lack of non-material goods—the lonely, spurned in love; the regretful, weighed down by remorse at a past deed, even or especially if the person cannot bring himself to admit his regret. Do we think of these souls when we look for someone to help?
Mother Teresa of Calcutta did. She plunged into serving the poorest of the poor, materially speaking, but she also knew that devotion to the poor requires more. Because deprivation comes in many forms, Mother Teresa looked for the needy even in comfortable places. As she said in a famous talk in Washington, D.C.:
I can never forget the experience I had in visiting a home where they kept all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them into an institution and forgotten them…. These old people had everything—good food, comfortable place, television, everything, but everyone was looking toward the door. And I did not see a single one with a smile on the face. I turned to Sister and I asked: “Why do these people who have every comfort here, why are they all looking toward the door? Why are they not smiling?” …
Sister said: “This is the way it is nearly every day. They are expecting, they are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten.” And see, this neglect to love brings spiritual poverty. Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried. Are we there? Are we there to be with them, or do we merely put them in the care of others?
Later in the same talk, Mother Teresa made clear she doesn’t view material “metrics” as the only gauge of service to the needy:
It is not how much we do, but how much love we put into what we do.
A profound illustration of that principle appears in the final text for today, which is a story of one of Mother Teresa’s friends, Pope John Paul II.
This story reveals what serving the poor at its best entails. Such service requires us to give of ourselves, not just of our dollars or our strategic reasoning. It involves the deepest personal connections, where a human encounter reaches a mysterious depth in which both persons give and receive.
Scott Hahn tells about an American priest who was in Rome for a conference and group meeting with John Paul II. Shortly before the audience, the priest noticed a man begging on the steps of a church. He looked familiar. It turns out that the two men had gone to seminary in Rome years before and had been ordained priests together.
Deeply shaken by the encounter, the priest blurted out the story to the pope when he met him later that day. John Paul promised to pray for the beggar. Then he invited the two men to join him for his evening meal.
Near the end of supper, John Paul asked for a few minutes alone with the beggar. After it was all over, the beggar revealed what happened.
“As soon as you left, the pope clasped my hands and said, ‘Father, would you hear my confession?’”
“‘I’m a beggar,’ I said.”
“‘So am I. We are all beggars.’”
So the beggar-priest heard the pope’s confession. And then, dropping to his knees, he tearfully asked John Paul to hear his.