From The Church of Mercy
What does serving mean? It means giving an attentive welcome to a person who arrives. It means bending over those in need and stretching out a hand to them, without calculation, without fear, but with tenderness and understanding, just as Jesus knelt to wash the apostles’ feet. Serving means working beside the neediest of people, establishing with them first and foremost human relationships of closeness and bonds of solidarity. Solidarity, this word that frightens the developed world. People try to avoid saying it. Solidarity to them is almost a bad word. But it is our word! Serving means recognizing and accepting requests for justice and hope, and seeking roads together, real paths that lead to liberation.
The poor are also the privileged teachers of our knowledge of God; their frailty and simplicity unmask our selfishness, our false security, and our claim to be self-sufficient. The poor guide us to experience God’s closeness and tenderness, to receive his love in our life, his mercy as the Father who cares for us, for all of us, with discretion and patient trust.
From this place of welcome, encounter, and service, I would therefore like to launch a question to everyone, to all the people who live here, in this Diocese of Rome: Ask yourself, Do I bend down over someone in difficulty, or am I afraid of getting my hands dirty? Am I closed in on myself and my possessions, or am I aware of those in need of help? Do I serve only myself, or am I able to serve others, like Christ, who came to serve even to the point of giving up his life? Do I look in the eye of those who are asking for justice, or do I turn my gaze aside to avoid looking them in the eye?
A second word: accompanying. In recent years the Astalli Centre has progressed. At the outset it offered services of basic hospitality: a soup kitchen, a place to sleep, legal assistance. It then learned to accompany people in their search for a job and to fit into society. Then it also proposed cultural activities so as to contribute to increasing a culture of acceptance, a culture of encounter and of solidarity, starting with the safeguard of human rights.
Accompanying on its own is not enough. It is not enough to offer someone a sandwich unless it is accompanied by the possibility of learning how to stand on one’s own two feet. Charity that leaves the poor person as he or she is, is not sufficient. True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands justice; it demands that the poor find the way to be poor no longer. It asks – and it asks us, the church, us, the city of Rome, it asks the institutions – to ensure that no one ever again stand in need of a soup kitchen, of makeshift lodgings, of a service of legal assistance in order to have their legitimate right recognized to live and to work, to be fully a person. Adam said, “It is our duty as refugees to do our best to be integrated in Italy.” And this is a right: integration! And Carol said, “Syrians in Europe feel the great responsibility not to be a burden. We want to feel we are an active part of a new society.” This is a right, too! So this responsibility is the ethical basis, it is the power to build together. I wonder: do we accompany people in this process?
The third word: defending. Serving and accompanying also means defending; it means taking the side of the weakest. How often do we raise our voice to defend our own rights, but how often we are indifferent to the rights of others! How many times we don’t know or don’t want to give voice to the voice of those – like you – who have suffered and are suffering, of those who have seen their own rights trampled upon, of those who have experienced so much violence that it has even stifled their desire to have justice done!
It is important for the whole church that welcoming the poor and promoting justice not be entrusted solely to “experts” but become a focus of all pastoral care, of the formation of future priests and religious, and of the ordinary work of all parishes, movements, and ecclesial groups. In particular – this is important and I say it from my heart – I would also like to ask religious institutes to interpret seriously and with responsibility this sign of the times. The Lord calls us to live with greater courage, generosity, and hospitality in communities, in houses, and in empty convents. Dear men and women religious, your empty convents are not useful to the church if they are turned into hotels that earn money. The empty convents do not belong to you; they are for the flesh of Christ, which is what refugees are. The Lord calls us to live with greater courage and generosity, and to accept them in communities, houses, and empty convents. This, of course, is not something simple; it requires a criterion and responsibility, but also courage. We do a great deal, but perhaps we are called to do more, firmly accepting and sharing with those whom Providence has given us to serve.