It was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and the crowd was a little calmer on the approach to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue early in the morning than it would be for the parade, as commuters trekked through snow banks left by winter’s last hurrah.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in one of his brief weekday homilies at 7 a.m. Mass, simply pointed to the gospel reading of the day: It was the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the title, the Catholic archbishop of New York said, says it all. Jesus knew the poor man’s name. Not so the rich man’s.
He preached the morning after a frigid evening commuting scene across town to the west. Outside St. Francis Assisi Church, right down the block from Penn Station, there was a man named Robert with a single tear falling from his eye. The tear glistened, as did his skin, in the wind. He asked for money to buy something to eat. I gave him a measly dollar as we exchanged a few words. He seemed hungry for something so much more than food. Imagine standing on a busy city street, asking for help, and being ignored as hundreds of people walk by every minute. That’s got to wear you down. People tell me he might use the money for drugs or alcohol. Thinking of that parable, I know I’ve been to dinner parties and I had better not miss — or ignore —the poor man in front of me. And who among us has been a perfect steward of every precious dollar? I sure haven’t.
As I made my way around the corner, I was going to grab a sandwich and decided to get two and to go back and offer Robert one or two and a drink. I was a pain in the neck at the store, trying to make clear which was which so Robert would have choices. “The one with the peppers is the roast beef.” The man in the deli sighed, bewildered by why I couldn’t figure it out when I settled down with the sandwiches. I didn’t want to explain the whole little intention. Maybe I should have. Maybe it would have helped advance a revolution of tenderness, which Pope Francis often talks about and seems to be driving. It would have been better, of course, if I had first bothered to ask Robert what more he wanted in the first place. Alas, he was gone when I returned to the spot where I met him — I hoped someone did what I probably should have done and offered to join him inside somewhere warm for a meal — but maybe we can change our ways because of him?
Saint John XXII described purity of heart as “the breath of the love of God,” which draws us to service to our neighbor, without concern for the cost or inconvenience. “We do not love others because of what they can do for us, or because we are attracted to them, or because we can benefit from their acquaintance,” Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., writes in Made for Love, Loved by God. “We love them gratuitously, that is, we love them because of who they are.”
“To be human is to be someone wanted by God,” he writes. “The pure of heart see this.”
The readings for Mass that day included the verse from Isaiah assuring us that ‘though your sins be like scarlet, they will become white as snow.’
Maybe it’s because it’s the Christian penitential season of Lent, but when the snow slammed much of the northeast U.S. just days before the official start of spring, stopping many in our tracks for a day or more, there seemed to be a message for us. In the quiet, no cars on the roads, reflection beckoned. The readings for Mass that day even included the verse from Isaiah assuring us that “though your sins be like scarlet, they will become white as snow.”
A day later, Robert, even in his need, seemed a teacher, pointing back to that message, a face pleading for reflection. In the light of day, reflected in the snow, passing him by suggested myriad disordered priorities and most especially the failure to notice the man in front of us. Though poor, his was a message that could make us rich in what matters most.
How would it all be different if we took a step away from the noise and spent more time with those who might otherwise be forgotten and cast aside? What if we didn’t get sucked into frustrating political news stories and celebrity and saw our own power more? What if we made a choice for hearts as pure as the freshly fallen snow?