From the Archbishop: Homelessness and Human Dignity, Grant eternal rest unto them O Lord
By Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone
It was an eventful summer. Among the many ups and downs, one of the downs for me was losing a very dear friend and priest mentor of mine since my years in the seminary. Msgr. Joseph Carroll, affectionately known by all simply as “Father Joe,” was famous in San Diego and beyond for his wonderful work with the homeless and the poor.
I visited Father Joe in July shortly before his death, and our conversation brought back so many memories of our long friendship. He began with a one-block piece of property in downtown San Diego, and ended up building what is now a veritable empire for the homeless. I still remember him articulating his vision as he started out with the first building: a center of many levels to accommodate different types of programs. It had to be safe, and beautiful, he said, because the homeless have dignity, and they need to feel that dignity affirmed before there can be any hope of them escaping from the cycle of homelessness and poverty to self-sufficiency. And I still recall very clearly, one night in conversation with a few priests after an informal dinner, one of them challenging Father Joe on his ambitious vision: “You are never going to do that, Joe,” scoffed his brother priest.
But he did not know Father Joe like I did. That only inspired him to work all the harder. And he did it. With the help of thousands of San Diego Catholics and others of goodwill whom he prodded and inspired, Father Joe built what (over his protest) is now called “Father Joe’s Villages,” providing child care, housing, job training, meals, and a medical clinic. As of 2020, it is the largest service provider for homeless individuals in the city of San Diego. His passing was mourned by all in San Diego. Even those there who otherwise have no regard for the Catholic Church say, “But Father Joe is different.”
He based his vision on his philosophy that human beings have souls, as well as stomachs. We need truth, goodness, and beauty to be healed and flourish; all three are necessary to repair a broken society and build a flourishing civilization. This is because the human person is an integral whole: goodness feeds the body, truth feeds the mind, and beauty feeds the soul. Perhaps it is beauty that is most lacking in the world today. We must dedicate ourselves to the service of beauty, reclaiming its power to heal and unite.
This is the Catholic vision. And we see it in action in the lives of all of the saints and heroes of our faith throughout our history. I think in this regard of St. Mother Teresa, who walked the streets of Calcutta to care for the dying. She could not save their lives. She often could not stop their suffering. But she could love them, and she did. The Catholic vision of human dignity suffused her life and her work.
And I think of what is happening here in our own Archdiocese. I’m so proud of my fellow Catholics in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin counties who donate their time, talent, treasure, and hard work to be the hands and heart of Jesus Christ to those who otherwise would have no hope.
I think of our Catholic Charities workers, who, alone, did not abandon the homeless early on in the pandemic, but worked themselves to exhaustion to provide them food, and transportation. I think of the staff, volunteers and benefactors who make possible their invaluable work of running shelters for women, for those with addictions, for the sick, and so much more.
I think of St. Anthony’s Foundation in the heart of the Tenderloin, which preaches by example. Every volunteer learns of the Franciscan foundations of their mission: to serve clients with love, because, as one worker said, “we may not approve of all their life choices, but we recognize the worth of every human being.”
I think of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, whose goal is “to help anyone suffering from the cycles of homelessness have the chance to get back on their feet, not just so they can get by, but so they can truly thrive.” Every day they shelter, feed, and support hundreds of homeless men and women, providing clean beds, warm meals, medical and mental health care, education, job training, legal aid, shower and laundry facilities, and free weekly haircuts.
Then there are the countless parish ministries. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example, in addition to its centers, also operates in our parishes throughout the Archdiocese, preventing homelessness by providing rental assistance and addressing other material needs of families at risk, doing so through the culture of encounter to which Pope Francis consistently urges us: parishioners meeting parishioners, in their homes, assessing needs and sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
Every Wednesday Most Holy Redeemer Parish in the Castro offers a free supper to approximately 100 needy invited guests, assisted by numerous volunteers from outside the parish. They feed not just the body but the soul, seating them at tables in small groups and serving the meal, in order to create a sense of community. (Even during COVID they have continued to distribute food to needy people outside, until they can return to serving them again at table indoors.)
For nearly 50 years, St. Anthony’s Parish in Menlo Park has operated a dining room for the needy out of their parish hall six days a week; parishioners also operate a clothing distribution center, which provides the basic apparel needs of women, children, and men two days per week. Our parishes also work in collaboration with other faith communities in offering their facilities on a rotating basis to provide temporary shelter to the homeless, such as San Francisco’s Interfaith Winter Shelter and (for the 10 years it was in operation) the Rotating Emergency Shelter Team (REST) in Marin County.
I could go on and on.
While the problem of homelessness as a policy matter may not be easy to solve, the heart of the solution we know from the vision our faith inspires in us: to see the dignity of every individual. This love then inspires us to act. But faith comes first; after that, more immediate practical solutions. When those practical solutions are inspired by this vision, new and creative ideas can be realized and put into action, as in the many examples I just described.
I do not have all the answers, but I do know that we Catholics have a precious gift that must be part of the solution: recognizing the equal human dignity of all souls.
Our solidarity with the homeless and poor also calls us to pray for them, and pray for their eternal repose. Pope Francis underscored the importance of this gift of solidarity last January, when he asked us all to pray for the homeless who died on the streets.
“Last Jan. 20, a few meters from St. Peter’s Square, a 46 year old Nigerian homeless man named Edwin was found dead because of the cold,” the pope said. “His story was added to that of many other homeless people who recently died in Rome in the same dramatic circumstances. Let us pray for Edwin.”
He continued: “Let us think about Edwin. Let us think of what this man, 46 years old, felt in the cold, ignored by all, abandoned, even by us. Let us pray for him.”
Yes, let us remember to care about Edwin and all of those who suffer as he suffered. Let us remember that their dignity, like our own, is not ultimately rooted in abilities, intelligence, usefulness, wealth, power, or physical attractiveness. Our equal dignity does not rest ultimately in our man-made laws or even our wonderful Constitution, which merely recognizes what is intrinsic – that is, “self-evident,” beyond the power of government to give or take away. The foundation of our equal human dignity is literally unshakeable. It lies not in what we can do but in who we are: beloved children of the living God.
Physical suffering can be terrible, but there is no physical suffering worse than the feeling that one is alone, abandoned, unremembered, unloved, and unlovable.
In praying for those who died homeless, we are reminded – as our faith tells us – that these are our brothers and sisters, and that their human dignity matters. Each of us is made in the image of a God who loves us. Our prayers for the homeless dead remind us that every human life is sacred. Everybody counts. Every suffering human being on the streets should be for us the face of Jesus Christ.
And so, this Nov. 6 at 10 a.m., we will heed Pope Francis’ call and gather together in St. Mary’s Cathedral to honor, remember, and pray for the souls of all those who died homeless on the streets of San Francisco. November, of course, is traditionally the month especially dedicated to praying for the souls of the deceased in purgatory, asking the Lord to ease their suffering and get them into Heaven with Him, in His infinite mercy. A Requiem Mass is an opportunity to do just that.
We will be uplifted and inspired by the sacred music of the Benedict XVI Institute’s brilliant composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca, in the newly commissioned “Requiem for the Homeless.” Richard Sparks, a world-class conductor (recently inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music), will lead the extraordinary Benedict Sixteen Choir. Our own Christoph Tietze will play the cathedral’s magnificent organ, accompanied by violas, cellos, double bass, and harp.
A new painting by Bernadette Carstensen of the Patron Saints of the Homeless will be set up as a shrine, creating a sacred space for prayer. We will pray a new Litany to the Patron Saints of the Homeless, written by noted poet James Matthew Wilson.
I will celebrate this Mass, and I hope you can come.
It will be beautiful, and it will be holy. Seating will be limited due to COVID restrictions. (To register for free tickets visit BenedictInstitute.org.) All the usual protocols will be observed.
We will pray for those who died on the streets, because they are ours. I pray you will join us, in person or in spirit. And then, like so many Catholics do every day in this great city and beyond, I pray that, inspired by God’s love, you will join as well in loving acts of service to our brothers and sisters still on the streets.