By Fr. Brian Smail, OFM
The spirit behind the Breadline and the St. Francis residences reflects a core concern of the Franciscans: the dignity of the human person. This tenet of Franciscan spirituality had its origins in the memorable encounter with St. Francis and the leper.
Francis was riding his horse one day and encountered a poor leper on the side of the road. Lepers in the time of Francis were literally ostracized from their communities. They were feared and loathed. In fact, if a passerby happened to be approaching, lepers were required to ring a bell they carried to warn the individual lest they get too close. Imagine the sense of loneliness and isolation they felt, cut off from their communities and forced to live by the roadsides!
But, when he saw the leper that day, Francis was moved with compassion, dismounted his horse, and embraced him. This act was Francis’ witness to the human dignity of the poor leper. He saw not a horrible, deforming disease, but a human person loved by God.
To this day, this witness to human dignity grounds Franciscan life and ministry. The St. Francis Breadline has fed hundreds of New York City homeless for 80 years. Begun during the Great Depression, the Breadline provides a substantial sandwich, juice, and hot coffee to its guests. For many, it may be their only meal of the day. But it is also a time when the guests receive a smile and a few kinds words from the friars and the wonderful, dedicated volunteers who minister with them 365 days a year. It may be their only human contact for the day.
Last Sunday morning, the men who attended our Come and See weekend rose early and had a “hands on” experience of working the breadline by helping to distribute the food and chat with the guests. One of them remarked at the sheer number of people present who were in need; another was struck by the gratitude of so many of the guests for the work of the friars and volunteers.
The day before, Fr. Tom Walters, OFM, led a tour of St. Francis residence for men, one of three facilities founded by the friars in the 1970’s to serve a most desperate population: homeless people who suffer from schizophrenia. It is here that the residents transition from a life on the streets to a largely self-sufficient life with dignity. Kevin, Brian, Junior, and Eufemio had the chance to chat with several of the residents and view their artwork on display in one of the conference rooms. They witnessed a clean, secure, and attractive facility that the people who live there can call “home,” and where they feel a sense of community and belonging.
For over 800 years, since Francis of Assisi’s encounter with the leper by the roadside, the Franciscan friars have made a difference in the world by their outreach to the homeless, the poor, the sick, and the alienated. By remembering that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God, the friars have always been committed to the dignity of all people.
Have you ever considered a call to our way of life? Everyone has a vocation….what’s yours? Visit us a BeAFranciscan.org for more information.