One of the most interesting stories of martyrdom in the early Church is that of St. Lawrence. Lawrence was a deacon in Rome in the year 258. Pope Sixtus ll put him in charge of the treasury of the Church. Lawrence suspected that the Roman emperor would be looking for anything of value in the churches, so he sold such goods and distributed the money to the poor, the lame, the blind, to all those in need.
When the emperor ordered Lawrence to surrender the treasures of the Church, Lawrence replied it would take three days to collect them. On the third day, Lawrence showed him the poor, the lame, the blind and told him, “These are the treasures of the Church.”
The emperor was so enraged that he ordered Lawrence to be put to death. One tradition tells us he was roasted to death on a red-hot gridiron over a slow fire in order to prolong the pain. His willingness to suffer, to die for Christ, allowed him to make light of his pain and prompted him to say to his executioners, “You can turn me over now. I’m done on this side.” Lawrence died praying for the conversion of Rome, in the hope that the faith of Christ might spread throughout the world.
Pope Francis recalled the martyrdom of St. Lawrence and his response to the emperor in a recent homily at Santa Marta, where he lives and celebrates morning Mass, reminding us that the poor are the real treasures of the Church, not gold and silver, or money. To follow the Beatitude of the poor in spirit, Francis said, means being attached only to the riches of God rather than to money and power.
How Will We Know If We Are Following the True Spirit of God?
Adding to this dramatic theme, the Holy Father reflected on January 7 at another sermon in Santa Marta on the first letter of John, reminding us that not every spirit is to be trusted; it is necessary to see if they are from God. We can discern if what we are hearing comes from God, if we follow the spirit of God. But how can we know if it is the right spirit? Francis answers the question:
“The criterion is the Incarnation. I can feel so many things inside, even good things, good ideas. But if these good ideas, these feelings, do not lead to God who became flesh, do not lead me to my neighbor, my brother, then they are not from God. For this reason, John begins this passage of his first letter by saying: ‘This is God’s commandment that we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another.’”
“How many people seem spiritual: ‘How spiritual that person is!’ but they do not talk about doing works of mercy. Why? Because the works of mercy are the visible sign of our confession that the Son of God became flesh: visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, taking care of those who are abandoned… works of mercy: why? The reason is that each of our brothers, whom we must love, is the flesh of Christ. God became flesh to identify with us. And those who suffer are one and the same as the suffering Christ.”Serving our neighbor, our brother, our sister in need”, maybe “in need, also, of good advice, of a listening ear,” “these are the signs that we are following the path of the good spirit, namely the path of the Word of God made flesh.”
Connection to the Catholic Worker
These reflections connect us immediately to the founders of the Catholic Worker movement who lived out this Catholic spirituality expressed in the seven corporal and seven spiritual Works of Mercy, related to the famous Scripture passage in Matthew 25:31ff.
Peter Maurin, who brought the ideas of the Catholic Worker program to Dorothy Day, called us to perform the Works of Mercy at a personal sacrifice. Through his faith and his understanding of Church history, Peter taught us to change the social order through the daily practice of the Works of Mercy. The heart of the Catholic Worker movement is Matthew 25 and the Sermon on the Mount. The move-ment, and Catholic faith itself, cannot be separated from the mystery of the poor and Christ’s presence in them. Jesus said, “What you do to the least of the brethren, you do for me.”
At Casa Juan Diego we are blest in being able to serve Jesus in the poor. We are not serving Joe or Jose Smith or Laura Garcia, but Jesus in the disguise of the poor. Some ask how we can receive people who have no papers, people who may be dangerous, people who might take advantage of a merciful approach. Of course, one does have to be practical and pray for wisdom, but that does not rule out the commandment to reach out to those in need.
Dorothy Day recounted how sometimes she became discouraged with all the practical problems in Houses of Hospitality and how Peter would remind her of the importance of love for the poor. She said:
“Very often in the course of our meetings I had com-plaints to make, discourage-ments to pour out. Peter would look at me with calm affection and in a few words speak of the principles involved, reminding me of the Works of Mercy and our role as servants who had to endure humbly and serve faithfully.
“He liked to talk of St. Vincent de Paul. When the film Monsieur Vincent came out, we all went to see it. The last lines of the saint to the young peasant sister were words we can never forget: ‘You must love them very much,’ Monsieur Vincent said of the poor, “to make them forgive the bread you give them.’” [Monsieur Vincent, the story of St. Vincent de Paul, recently became available again on DVD.]
Dorothy spoke of the “long-continuing crucifixion” of the poor and the hope in sharing somehow in their poverty. As she said in her Easter meditation in the April 1964 Catholic Worker: “The mystery of the poor is this: That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love. The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”
Houston Catholic Worker, January-February 2016, Vol. XXXV, No. 1.