Alessandro, Requiescat In Pace

John Allen, in a January 13 article, shared this story:

In late December, a 63-year-old homeless man named Alessandro died during a particularly cold night in Rome, on a street near the Vatican. In itself there was nothing unusual about it in that the streets around the Vatican attract a high population of homeless, and every year, a few pass away during the winter cold.

What followed, however, amounts to another index of the “Francis effect.”

Students at the Urban College, a residence for seminarians from the developing world located on the Janiculum Hill across from the Vatican (and next door to the North American College, where seminarians from the United States reside), heard of Alessandro’s death and decided they wanted to do something.

They asked authorities at the university for permission to celebrate a funeral, and the idea landed on the desk of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican’s missionary department, which oversees the Urban College. Filoni signed on, and the Vatican official responsible for the pope’s personal charitable projects, Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, agreed to celebrate the funeral Mass.

On Friday, Filoni, Krajewski, 200 students, and a score of Alessandro’s homeless friends in and around the Vatican filed into the chapel at the Urban College to mourn his loss.

Krajewski downplayed his presence: “I’m a bishop of the streets,” he said. “It’s normal that I would do this.”

Still, the press by the students at the Urban College to organize a last gesture of tenderness for a man basically forgotten during life is one indication that the “Francis effect” is reaching down into the next generation of priests and future church leaders.

What a witness and challenge this recent Vatican story is to the universal Church, to the local Church, to the parish Church, to me.

I think here of Galatians 2:10, where Paul, seeking hand-clasping confirmation of his Gentile mission from the Apostolic Pillars, Peter, James and John, receives from them only one very specific injunction: “Be mindful of the poor.” “Which,” Paul adds, “is the very thing I was eager to do.” It’s worth noting that shortly after his election as Supreme Pontiff, Francis remarked,

During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo and Prefect Emeritus of the Clergy, Card Cláudio Hummes, a really close friend. When things got a bit dangerous, he comforted me. When the votes reached two thirds, the Cardinals began to applaud because a pope had been elected. Card Hummes hugged me and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ That struck me.

The poor, the poor! As I thought about them, I immediately thought about Saint Francis of Assisi, about war, whilst the vote counting went on, until all ballots were counted. Francis was a man of peace, a man who loved and protected creation. In our times, our relationship to Creation is not that good, right?  He was the man who gave us a spirit of peace, a poor man … How much I would like to see a poor Church for the poor.

The Fifth Mark of the Church

This is the trademark of any authentic apostolic mission, of the core mission of the Church, whenever she is being herself. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the argument that Francis Cardinal George made in his book, The Difference God Makes,

Being “simply Catholic” means starting with the poor. That’s the evangelical touchstone. You take a group that starts with the poor, and then you know that there’s evangelical motivation. There’s no power or anything else, because these people don’t have power. They identify with the poor, and then they say, things have to change for the poor. We have to see that the poor are better served in the name of Christ. The church will follow along, if they know that you’re changing the way that the world looks at the poor.

Every local Church must always, and even daily, undergo a re-formation in its communal and institutional priorities so that “the poor,” especially those close by (the primary definition of neighbor!), feel the warmth, nourishment and encouragement of her maternal and Christ-bearing love. But the poor are not merely detached recipients of a well-off and healthy Church’s ecclesial solicitude. Rather, they are the most treasured members of her Body, as the story of St. Lawrence the Deacon evidences when he declares the poor, the lame, the blind to be not the select beneficiaries of a wealthy Church’s treasures, but to be themselves the “treasure of the Church.”

When I worked at the Mother Teresa’s home for the homeless and dying in D.C., Gift of Peace, one of the residents referred to the house Chapel where we had a daily Mass for the residents, volunteers and sisters as “the Church of the Nobodies.” One of the sisters commented once that St. Matthew might add to that nomenclature, “…and theirs is the kingdom of the heavens…”


I’ll give St. James  the final word,

My brothers, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in ragged clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? Listen, my beloved brothers. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you dishonored the poor person. Are not the rich oppressing you? And do they themselves not haul you off to court? Is it not they who blaspheme the noble name that was invoked over you? However, if you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not kill.” Even if you do not commit adultery but kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. — James 2:1-10

8 comments on “Alessandro, Requiescat In Pace

  1. Tom Primmer says:


  2. MarkAlan says:

    Beautifully written. Amen, indeed!

  3. Excellent article. The notion of a poor Church for the poor could, I think, be misunderstood, especially when so many non-Catholic accuse the Church of hoarding wealth. We do have an obligation to help the poor, but we also have to have the resources to do that. So the “poor Church” is a Church poor in spirit, not necessarily poor in resources. We have various groups like the St. Vincent dePaul, Little Sisters of the Poor, and Mother Teresa’s sisters, who devote their lives to the poor. Those of us who do have some resources have a moral obligation to use part of those resources to support the work of these generous souls.

  4. Kathy Grobe says:

    While the seminarians are to be commended for their love in providing a dignified funeral for Alessandro, perhaps an even better tribute would be to actively engage in projects that would help curtail homelessness and assure that no one ever again would have to die cold and alone.

    • The beauty of the Catholic approach is, “both, and” — both are needed for dignity to be honored. And indeed the church in Rome, as you would guess, is awash with social action via the many Catholic institutions there. Including seminaries. As one cannot do all at once, each labor can be honored for its unique expression of mercy in action. Thanks for the comment!

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