The first meeting of RCIA at Holy Name Cathedral was fun. It was in the middle of September, when the weather was absolutely beautiful, and everyone was excited to begin the journey to the Church. Rather than having a class or lesson, we simply went to a pasta restaurant nearby. We were preparing to spend the whole year together mutually growing in the faith, both as candidates and catechumens, and as members of the RCIA team, so this meal was a great opportunity to know each person as he or she is. When the meal was over, there was a ton of pasta left over. My pastor, being generous and recognizing that me, a poor, lowly seminarian, would be able to enjoy leftover pasta, gave me a Styrofoam box filled with pasta.
I was ecstatic, and I instantly started thinking of how I would enjoy that pasta for supper in a few hours. I said my goodbyes to everyone and began walking back to Chicago Union Station to catch the Metra train back to the Mundelein area. I had walked a few blocks when I saw a sight that made my heart skip a beat. On the corner sidewalk of a busy intersection, I saw her. She was a young woman, maybe old enough to have a full-time career. She was a strikingly beautiful woman. And she was sitting on the ground, looking down, holding a sign explaining her position of destitution. I suddenly became very aware of my full belly and the full box of pasta in my hand, and I did what I knew I had to do. I crouched down, extended my hand and introduced myself. She looked up, shook my hand, and told me her name. I told her I have a box of pasta for her, and what happened next was as earth-shattering as the screaming meteor that crashed into earth and ended the reign of the dinosaurs: she grabbed the box and she smiled. I will never forget that smile. It was a small smile, a smile that can only come from someone who has nothing, a smile that just halfway touches the corner of one side of the mouth. It was a smile that showed that she was a person. She was no longer just a homeless girl. She was herself.
That smile has never left my memories. I grew up in a small town of about 900 people just outside of Wichita, KS. I knew nothing about the Big City of Chicago, and before coming to Mundelein, I had few interactions with the truly poor of the world. I didn’t really know why I was assigned to minister at Holy Name Cathedral in the heart of the city. But the reality of poverty cannot be avoided on the walk between Holy Name and Union Station.
That smile showed me why I need to be at Holy Name, and exactly where I need to grow to become a good and holy priest of Jesus Christ. Experiences like that are necessary to break me out of my comfort zone and put me face-to-face with Christ as I never expected to see Him: in the beautiful homeless people of Chicago. Holy Name itself is a parish that is truly alive.
The RCIA team has graciously welcomed me and allowed me to assist and, on a couple occasions, teach our faith to the great people preparing to enter the Holy Catholic Church. The priests I’ve met have inspired me with their words and examples to pursue God’s will diligently and faithfully. With respect to all those people, whom I am deeply appreciative for, the people that impact me the most are the ones sitting on the sidewalk along my walk. I have turned down many offers for rides to Union Station because to skip that walk would be to miss out on seeing Jesus Christ. I make conscious efforts to sincerely see each person, homeless or not, to look him or her in the eyes and greet him or her.
I rarely have much I can give to homeless people, but I always have my time, my smile, and my attention to give. The experiences have not always been good. I have been yelled at because I cannot give what a person is asking for. But each experience is truly a face-to-face meeting with Christ in some way. He is truly present there. I, as a seminarian and, God willing, as a priest, have to be able to see Him in each person I meet, especially in those I think He is least likely to be. Occasionally, He will show Himself. The sign of Christ is usually not something grandiose, but a small, simple smile from a human person.