Pope Francis on Saturday tossed a speech he had prepared to give to a group of formerly homeless people and others who advocate for them, opting instead to listen to his guests before giving a short off-the-cuff message.
“I had written a speech to tell you, so I’m going to give it to you in writing, because I want to talk about what came out here,” he said in Spanish on Aug. 28, after an hour-long dialogue with members of the Association Lazare.
The French organization, known in English as the Lazarus Association, combats homelessness by running homes where young adults or families and homeless people live together.
Around 200 formerly unhoused people were part of the meeting with Pope Francis, according to the French edition of the website Aleteia.
Aleteia reported that during the encounter, Pope Francis extended a personal invitation to those present to share their experience with the Church, with the question: “What do you expect from the Church?”
One person reportedly responded: “What we can give to the Church is who we are. What the Church has given me is life.”
A 62-year-old man named Gilles, who traveled by plane for the first time in his life for the papal visit, said: “I was appointed this morning to introduce the meeting… I, who am not even a good believer.”
The man, who described himself as very shy, lived for 11 years on the streets of Paris.
“For me, the Church is Lazarus [Association]. And there may not be enough Lazarus in the Church,” he said.
A 36-year-old Muslim identified only as Kader also spoke during the encounter.
“I, this morning, thanked the Church for welcoming me; me, a Muslim,” he said, according to Aleteia.
Kader spent 15 years in prison. After his release, he was sleeping on the streets of Lyon, southeastern France, for two years before meeting members of Lazare.
He described a moment when once someone carrying a cross spat on him. “I told myself that Christians are all the same. Lazarus made me understand what the Church was,” he told Aleteia.
Kader said that the pope consoled him and thanked him for coming.
Those in Lazarus Association homes live as a community and have weekly dinners that all residents must attend. Residents refer to one another as “colocs,” or roommates.
The organization, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, seeks to combat homelessness by providing the unhoused not only with shelter, but also friendship, support, and community.
Pope Francis also met members of the association in May.
In a short speech inspired by the conversation on Aug. 28, Pope Francis reflected on the image of the door.
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“This experience of the open door, the closed door, the fear that the door will not be opened, the fear that the door will be closed in my face ... This experience that we have just heard from one of you, is the experience of each one of us if we look inside,” he said.
He invited those present to also think about God as a door and to ask themselves what their relationship with God was like by using that metaphor.
“I appropriate the door for myself and I do not let anyone in, or I am afraid of knocking on the door or I wait without knocking for someone to open it for me,” he prompted. “Each of us has different attitudes towards God.”
“Sometimes in life, you have to have the humility to knock on the door,” he added.
Pope Francis encouraged those present to leave the door open behind them for others also to enter into a deeper relationship with God.
The pope pointed out that the Lazarus Association is a small organization facing a great need and reminded members that the “yeast was also a tiny thing and that it was capable of multiplying, that the seed was a tiny thing and that it was capable of growing a large tree.”
“Pray for the Church,” he concluded, “that our Holy Mother, the Church, we men and women of the Church, learn to always open the door, and to have an attentive ear to those who knock on the door, sometimes weakly.”