In an emotional encounter in Assisi with people living in poverty, Pope Francis listened to the testimonies of a former homeless ex-convict who experienced a dramatic conversion after encountering a priest on the street, a Romanian woman in a wheelchair who has suffered from a chronic debilitating illness, and a refugee from Afghanistan.
The pope met with a group of more than 500 poor people from across Europe in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, a large church in the valley below the medieval hill town of Assisi that encompasses a small chapel, the Portiuncula, where St. Francis lived when he began the Franciscan Order.
In a brief speech, the pope underlined the importance of encountering the poor face to face and learning from their witness to hope at a time when those on the margins largely face indifference.
“It is time that the poor be given back their voice because for too long their requests have remained unheard,” Pope Francis said, standing in front of the Portiuncula during the live-streamed encounter on Nov. 12.
Pope Francis said that “meeting each other” was of the utmost importance, to “go toward each other with an open heart and outstretched hand.”
“For example, many people and many young people find a bit of time to help the poor and bring them food and hot beverages. This is very good and I thank God for their generosity. But I especially rejoice when I hear that these volunteers stop a bit and speak with the people, and sometimes pray together with them,” he said.
As the pope met with the poor in the basilica, he gave hugs, blessings, exchanged words, and even wrote a handwritten note to one of the men.
Each of the participants was given a gift of several items of winter clothing, a rosary, and face masks.
The pope heard testimonies from six people living in poverty, from Poland, France, Spain, and Italy.
A speaker from Majorca, Spain, held back tears as he shared with the pope his story of how he fell into a life of crime and drug trafficking as a young teen and was later sent to prison. After his release, he ended up homeless.
“I remained alone, jobless. I lived on the streets. I asked for help from a priest. He welcomed me with a smile. He gazed on me, and he said, ‘I will help you,’” Sebastián del Valle said.
“He brought me to the Caritas [shelter] for homeless people in Toledo, and I felt welcomed there,” he said.
While he was staying there, he interacted regularly with a group of volunteers who came to pray each week with those staying at the shelter.
“Through that way of praying, little by little I began to feel God’s love after many years,” he said.
One friend he made invited him to a Catholic seminar called “Life in the Spirit.” He reflected: “I didn’t know that that seminar would transform my entire life.”
“What I experienced was indescribable. I went to confession for three hours to a priest, and truly I felt loved,” del Valle said.
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“During the following days, without knowing why, I was so happy that one of my companions said that I was crazy. I continued that journey of love of Jesus Christ … I understood that Jesus was alive, that he loved me, and that he was giving me a new life,” he said.
“There were times when I begged to live, but now I am a beggar for the mercy of Christ.”
Among the other witnesses who shared their testimonies was a young married couple from France, Thibault and Florence Jarry, who answered a call to live as missionaries among the poor in Aubervilliers, a commune in the northeastern suburbs of Paris. They spoke while holding their four-month-old son.
“Right after our marriage, we said a great ‘yes’ to mission in order to be sent out as a missionary couple of mercy,” Florence said.
“We can also testify our joy to share the everyday of our neighbors, the everyday life of those who so often suffer a great material poverty, but also spiritual poverty and also a relational poverty,” said Thibault.
When Pope Francis arrived at the basilica, he spent a moment of silent prayer in the Portiuncula and placed flowers on the altar.
“Here at the Portiuncula, St. Francis welcomed St. Clare, the first brothers, and many poor people who came to him. He received them simply as brothers and sisters, sharing everything with them,” the pope said.
“This is the most evangelical expression we are called to make our own: hospitality. Hospitality means to open the door, the door of our house and the door of our heart, and to allow the person who knocks to come in.”
The pope pointed to the great example of St. Teresa of Calcutta of humble concern for the poor.
“Mother Teresa, who made hospitable service her life, used to love to say: ‘What is the best welcome? A smile.’ A smile, to share a smile with someone in need does good to both people — to me and the other person. A smile as an expression of sympathy, of tenderness,” he said.
In his speech, Pope Francis highlighted the presence of the French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin at the encounter with the poor.
Barbarin resigned as the archbishop of Lyon in 2020 after he was acquitted of a conviction of failing to report the sexual abuse of a minor by a diocesan priest.
The cardinal was present because of his association with a charitable group, Fratello, which helped to organize the event.
The pope said: “I would like to thank … His Eminence Cardinal [Barbarin] for his presence: he is among the poor, he too has undergone the experience of poverty, abandonment, distrust with dignity. And he defended himself with silence and prayer. Thank you, Cardinal Barbarin, for your witness that builds up the Church.”
This was Pope Francis’ fifth trip to Assisi. His encounter with the poor took place as part of the Catholic Church’s celebration of the fifth annual World Day of the Poor, which falls this year on Sunday, Nov. 14.
On arriving in Assisi, the pope went to the Convent of St. Clare to greet the Poor Clare sisters, who gathered to pray with them.
At the end of his encounter with the poor in Assisi, he stopped to have lunch with a community of Poor Clares in Spello, a nearby Umbrian hilltown, before returning to the Vatican by helicopter.
“May this meeting open the hearts of all of us to make ourselves available to each other; to open our hearts to make our weakness a strength that helps to continue the journey of life, to transform our poverty into a wealth to be shared, and thus improve the world,” the pope said in Assisi.
“Thank you to the poor who open their hearts to give us their wealth and heal our wounded hearts … Thank you all. I carry you in my heart. And, please don’t forget to pray for me, because I have my own poverty, and lots of it.”
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.
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