A bishop makes many friends over the years, and two of mine are Martha and Bill Beckman. Bill worked for a time as my director of catechesis and evangelization when I was Archbishop of Denver. Later he served as my staff theologian. Later still he and Martha entered the Neocatechumenal Way, and today Bill serves as director of catechesis and evangelization for the Archdiocese of Omaha.
The Beckmans, like many other lay friends I’ve been blessed with, have always stood out for their apostolic zeal. Their son Nicholas is in formation at our Redemptoris Mater Seminary. But until this week, I didn’t know that Philadelphia was one of the “mission territories” where their faith led them to serve. In the 1980s, they belonged to Mercy Volunteer Corps, an apostolate of the Sisters of Mercy, and Bill worked here among the homeless with Bethesda Project, founded by Father Domenic Rossi, O.Praem.
How does any of this relate to Holy Week? Just so: A few days before Palm Sunday this year, Bill emailed me one of his memories from Philadelphia. As we ready ourselves for the visit of Pope Francis and remember his passion for the poor, Bill’s words are worth sharing as we begin the holiest week of the year:
Good Friday 1987 was chilly and wet in Philadelphia. I waited in the doorway of the community room of Old First Reformed Church as the last of 20 men entered their home for the night. The routine was like any other night: The men prepared their bed mats and got ready for a simple casserole supper. Everything went as usual — with one exception.
Thomas, one of the homeless men, approached me. “Bill, it’s Good Friday. I know some of the men would like to pray.” I was happy to oblige. “Thomas, please let all the men know they are welcome to join us in a half hour in the reading room.” He smiled and began to spread the word.
I called the pastor. She was so excited at the prospect that she raced over from the parsonage. Placing her umbrella near the door she exclaimed, “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this day.” I felt the same way.
Nine men gathered with us in the room. The pastor proclaimed the account of the Crucifixion from the Gospel of John. All sat in prolonged silence. Thomas was the first to speak. Everyone listened intently.
“I’ve been on the streets off and on for four years. My drinking has made a mess of everything. I think I broke my mother’s heart, but she never stopped loving me. When she died last year I was crushed and all alone, but Jesus was there for me. I think of him on the cross for me, suffering for me, and I have hope knowing that he lets me suffer with him.” Heads bowed in reverence.
Lawrence spoke next. The young man looked like a power forward. He told of being in many foster homes as a child and youth. The pain was visible on his face as he said, “I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow or next month, but I do know that Jesus will be with me. He has always been with me.”
Tears filled many eyes. Robert broke the long silence. He was an angel of the streets. Many times I saw him taking food to the most desperate schizophrenics who sat immobilized on the steam grates in Center City. Despite his severe hearing and speech impediments he spoke with conviction. “I know only one thing for certain. Jesus loves me. Today I see how much he loves all of us.”
We prayed the Our Father then hugged one another.
The presence of Jesus was palpable in the shelter that night. The darkness consoled me, and the quiet was a sweet symphony. Easter 1987 dawned brighter than ever.
Jesus Christ is risen! He is truly risen!
There’s nothing I can add to the power of that kind of Christian witness.
In these last few days before the Triduum, may God touch each of our hearts and turn us toward the poor we encounter every day in our own lives – the homeless, the immigrant, the unborn child, the sick, the abused, the forgotten. Holy Week becomes “holy” when we forget ourselves in the love and service of others.
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This account makes me recall Christmas day that same time. We had gone to the 69th Street shelter to feed the homeless, a meal of shepherd’s pie. That afternoon has remained most unforgettable in how closely Our Lord draws to the homeless, and they to their Maker.
About to say grace , the entire room had fallen silent. In a matter of a second, as if in sync, every man swept his hat from his head, as if in one grand resolute gesture. Then a great stillness waited. That awesome mysterious palatable presence of holiness was in the breathless silence before grace was ever spoken. I was in the presence of holy men, enormously loved by God, men who greatly loved and reverence their God, more swiftly, humbly, and solemnly than I’d ever encountered before nor since.