Homeless persons find a spiritual father in Pope Francis

Jubilee Mass and Angelus for the Poor in St Peters Square Basilica on Nov 13 2016 Credit Daniel Iba n ez 4 CNA The Jubilee Mass for the Poor in St. Peter's Basilica, Nov. 13, 2016. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

Always close to his heart, around 3,600 homeless men and women were given the chance to be also physically near the Pope this weekend – and near the heart of the Church – as they participated in the Jubilee of Mercy.

From 22 countries around Europe, the men and women came at the invitation of Pope Francis, who has called the poor the "treasures of the Church," to participate in the European Festival of Joy and Mercy held in Rome Nov. 11-13.

From the UK, Josephine Kandeba said meeting Pope Francis was like "a daughter talking with her father."

"He is very humble," she told CNA. "He listened to me. When I stopped him, I said, 'Holy Father, if you don't mind, I want to say something'. He stopped, while I was holding his hand and while he was holding mine, and I said what I wanted to say to him."

Having been on the streets for years, Josephine now lives at a shelter in London. She said she never thought that one day she "could see the Pope."

Other pilgrims attending the event said they were struck by Francis' great love for the poor, and the attention he showed to all of them.

"Do you know why we're here?" asked Terence, another pilgrim from the UK. We've come "from all over the world at the Holy Father's invitation; that's why we're here."

Terence also pointed out that Pope Francis said "he's the Pope of the poor, and that has really stuck in my mind. Never before has a Pope said he's the pope of the poor. He's an exceptional man."

Organized by the French organization Fratello, the event brought in groups of pilgrims from around Europe and the UK, including a large number from France and Poland, and Rome itself. It was organized as a way to help the homeless participate more fully in the Church and in the Jubilee of Mercy.

Organizations from five cities in the UK – Father Hudson's Care, Cornerstone, the Church of Scotland and The Passage – together brought a group of around 50 pilgrims. The Passage, located in London, does street outreach in addition to having two hostels and a resource center for homeless.

The weekend's schedule for pilgrims included an audience and catechesis with Pope Francis on Friday, a vigil of Mercy at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Saturday evening, and concluded with Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday.

In between these, the schedule included Morning Prayer, faith sharing, and of course, some free time to tour Rome and to walk through the Holy Doors for the Jubilee.

Charlie Egan, another pilgrim, told CNA that he found it very moving when an older homeless man from France spoke to the Pope on Friday, with "tears in his eyes."

"And the Pope, he showed so much love," even giving the Frenchman a hug, Charlie said. "And then the Pope didn't go away, he had a chat as if they were in a restaurant."

"The Pope talked about every person, homeless or not, looking for that dream and that goal, talking about peace and love and charity."

Charlie said that before going on the pilgrimage, he had four days to "look back" at his life. He said that he had "messed up" his life by drinking and had practiced no religion for years, only coming back to the faith a few years ago.

But at the vigil at St. Paul Outside the Walls, Charlie said he had the chance to speak with a priest "about everything," and he came out afterward "with a bit of emotion."

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One of the messages he said he received that weekend was that even if you've lived a "bad life," there is still the sacrament of confession.

"Everything that Pope Francis said was brilliant," said Jacob Mensah, a young man, also from London. What struck him was what Pope Francis said about dreams being for everyone, and that they all "have dignity."

Fr. Padraig Regan, a chaplain at The Passage, said the weekend was a huge "sign of respect" for everyone who participated. It was incredibly important for each of them to be "taken seriously" by the Church.

One of the organizers of the group from the UK, Bénédicte Miolane, is a member of Fratello who now lives in London. She said that Fratello is already talking about how they can include even more people from around the world in the future.

The goal, she said, would be to make it like a World Youth Day, but a version specifically for the poor and homeless.

Terence said that another major thing that struck him "and changed his view" was the love he witnessed between "rough sleepers" (what they call those who sleep on the street) and the "ordinary" people also participating in the event.

"It was the love between them that I noticed," he said. "They have something about them, they show each other affection."

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Speaking to pilgrims at the event's concluding Mass Nov. 13, Pope Francis said: "Let us look with trust to the God of mercy, with the certainty that 'love never ends.'"

"And let us open our eyes to our neighbor, especially to our brothers and sisters who are forgotten and excluded. That is where the Church's magnifying glass is pointed."

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