In my twenties, I was a member of a Washington, D.C., parish where homeless men and women were regular guests at the Sunday liturgy.
At first, I found this distracting. As a busy working professional, a time-stretched graduate student, and an active parishioner, the Mass was a quiet and sacred refuge: a time to disconnect, to pause from the rush of life, and to find comfort in a familiar ritual. When this refuge was disturbed by a homeless woman re-arranging her belongings and chattering to herself, my first reaction was annoyance: how could I concentrate on what was happening on the altar with all that noise?
Yet, I knew this woman’s name. I had served Rita* warm meals at the parish’s dinner program. I learned some fragments of her story during those times when her mental illness allowed limited conversation.
As I reflected on my dual desires to rest in the quiet and to be attentive to Rita’s presence, my eyes wandered to a statue in the Church: Jesus, with one hand on his heart amidst thorns, enflamed with love, and the other hand extended outward.
For whom did Jesus’ heart burn with love? Toward whom was his hand extended?
I knew immediately the subject of his love and his reach: Me. Those gathered to worship. Rita and the other homeless members of our community. All whose dignity is so easily forgotten.
The liturgy continued; Rita continued her “noise.” I understood that Christ, whose sacrificial act of love we celebrate on the altar, is also present in those whom he loves, especially those who suffer. With this realization, Rita’s chatter became a reminder of those towards whom Christ’s heart and hand were extended, and for whom the sacrifice on the altar was made.
The experience transformed my thinking; it also transformed my actions.
“In the celebration of the Mass,” the U.S. bishops write, “we are shown what love truly is, and we receive grace that enables us to imitate the love that Christ shows us” (The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, 34). For St. Augustine: “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive” (Easter Sermon, 227).
With new eyes and a heart more open to love for Rita and her companions, I began to ask: What does it mean to become the Eucharist in a community where some members lack basic necessities? What does love mean in the face of systemic barriers like the virtual non-existence of affordable housing options in D.C. and so many other cities?
In response to these challenging questions, I joined other parishioners to discern how to better put two feet of love in action both by responding to short-term, immediate needs (charity) and by seeking long-term solutions so that all can thrive (justice).
One winter night, I joined other parishioners to assist a city-wide effort to find, encounter, and record the names and stories of those sleeping on the streets. This act of encounter helped us to better understand the many factors which lead to homelessness (such as mental illness, lack of work or healthcare, disability, addiction, and rising rents). The data gathered would help the city prioritize its assistance to the most vulnerable homeless individuals.
On other occasions, the parish joined a network of faith leaders to raise our voices in support of calls to expand the number of affordable housing units in the city. Not only was such action important to families’ ability to feed their families amidst quickly rising housing costs, but it was also an expression of love rooted in our Eucharistic mission.
This season of Lent, as I reflect on these important experiences, I am asking Jesus in prayer: how am I called—at this moment in time—to imitate Christ’s love, which is present to me in the Eucharist? Towards whom must my own heart and hands be extended? How can I better become what I receive?
You gave your life for us.
Your Sacred Heart is ablaze with love.
Your hand extends towards me, and towards all,
offering love, mercy, and healing.
Sacred Heart of Jesus,
may your love transform me.
Burn away my hesitation
that I may become your love
and radiate your mercy.
• Pray and reflect on the Eucharist: Body of Christ, Broken for the World
*Note: Out of respect for the privacy of the homeless member of the parish community who inspired this reflection, the name “Rita” is used in place of her actual name.