Serving the Poor, Pope Francis-Style

“One day a fight broke out between two of the guys at the day center and one stabbed the other with a screwdriver before running off. The guy who got stabbed rather than wait for EMTs stumbled off towards the hospital near my house.” After getting off work, and while walking home, ”I followed a trail of this man’s dried blood on the sidewalk for blocks.” It made for the kind of reflection on the violence of poverty you’re not likely to experience unless you’re involved directly in a poor community.

At the same time, the service had its rewards. “On my days off I would go to Dunkin’ Donuts and my homeless friends would be there hanging out, and not realizing it was my day off they would run up wanting to talk about whatever issues they were having. It went beyond a typical job.” McIlree found it impossible to walk around Center City Philadelphia in his free time without running into people living on the streets who he knew.

This was the crucial experience, for McIlree: Somewhere along the way, those that he served stopped being “the homeless,” the conceptual, faceless mass that most Americans see when looking at society’s most disadvantaged. The homeless had become people, individuals whose names he knew and life stories he had learned.

It’s this message of direct contact with the needy that many are seeing emphasized by the new pope—in his inviting homeless men to his birthday party, in washing the feet of prisoners at a youth detention center, or lovingly cradling the head of a severely disfigured man he saw on the street.  His idea of poverty fighting involves sneaking out of the Vatican at night to serve homeless people in person.

Katie Dorner graduated from Gonzaga University, a Jesuit college in Spokane, Washington, last May, and set out for her JVC placement at the Dolores Mission Parish in East Los Angeles in August. She says she knew she wanted to be a JV from her freshman year in college. She now serves as a youth minister at the Catholic elementary school where she says her daily duties involve creating safe spaces for youth in an often violent community where families can be torn apart by deportation. “It’s hard to be around a child whose father was sent away because of immigration policy,” she says.

Dorner feels invigorated by the recent messages out of the Vatican, and says her fellow progressive JVs feel it as well. “I live with five other young women JVs and as feminists and allies of the LGBT community we feel there’s more growth that needs to happen in the church, but we love Pope Francis, we talk about him a lot,” she says. “He really stresses the role of the lay community, so we’re really affirmed by who he is. It’s just a special time to be here.”

Other current Jesuit Volunteers and leaders in the organization that have been organizing new recruits for the poverty fight for years have all expressed to The Atlantic in emails that the inauguration of a Jesuit Pope has wired fresh voltage into their efforts. The JVC Facebook page timeline is filled with Francis associated postings, and discussion of the Pope's movements have lit up social networks of young Catholic progressives around the country.

Anthea Butler, a religious-studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sees the shift from sexual morality to poverty and social justice in the Vatican’s messaging as less a break with the past than a return to it.

“What Francis is saying is not new, this is the Catholic Church’s teaching. He’s doing what Jesuits always do. Jesuits get gritty with it. They get down in the dirt and do things. They know how to speak to lay people. This is the core of who Francis is as a Jesuit, that he is out working in the streets.”

In fact, in Butler’s estimation the radical change was the shift towards extreme social conservatism in American Catholicism. “Francis is pointing them back to Jesus,” she says.

McIree considers himself just another Jesuit Volunteer in a long line of men and women who joined the organization and gave a piece of their life to serve the poor. Regardless of whether their stories were told, whether they were individually recognized or even whether Catholicism was increasingly demonized in the eyes of the world, the church's progressive members have always sought to embody the message Francis is making a particular priority.  But, McIree admits that it’s nice to have the pope electrifying the world and winning broad support with this message. McIlree feels vindicated after years of having to justify his beliefs to peers that only saw the church's misdeeds.

"Of course it's great to have a Pope who's not from the old order, especially after so many years of bad news in the church," he says, adding: "It has definitely energized my spirituality, I'm going to Mass every Sunday again and it feels great."

The Jesuit Volunteer Corp doesn't know yet if they'll see a big surge of applicants looking to live Pope Francis's dream for the church as a group of street hardened poverty fighters; it's too soon to gauge the size of this year's applicant pool. But Andrew McIlree isn't convinced the enthusiasm surrounding Pope Francis will directly translate into more Jesuit Volunteers in American inner cities—the program's demanding reputation precedes it.

"Everyone loves the idea of what the JVC about, but not many people are willing to really live it. Just like so many people love the idea of being a Christian: truly living as one is different matter."

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker and writer based in Philadelphia. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, and he is columnist at The Fix

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