Priest says meals program illustrates pope’s emphasis on serving poor

Washington volunteer Kristen Vibbert greets homeless men and women at a Catholic Charities-sponsored St. Maria's Meals Program dinner held every Wednesday evening in the nation's capital. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the homeless food initiative Sept. 24 during the Washington leg of his U.S. visit. (CNS/Chaz Muth)

Washington volunteer Kristen Vibbert greets homeless men and women at a Catholic Charities-sponsored St. Maria’s Meals Program dinner held every Wednesday evening in the nation’s capital. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the homeless food initiative Sept. 24 during the Washington leg of his U.S. visit. (CNS/Chaz Muth)

By Abbey Jaroma Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Gospel of St. Matthew records Christ telling his disciples that whatever they do for “the least of these,” they do for him.

One way Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington is serving Christ is by providing hot meals to homeless and other disadvantaged people every Wednesday evening outside the agency’s headquarters in downtown Washington, adjacent to St. Patrick in the City Catholic Church.

The St. Maria’s Meals program serves between 300 and 500 individuals, with the line beginning around 4 p.m. and wrapping around the building.

Robert Dolan, a homeless man who has lost two homes through foreclosure, was among those getting a meal on a recent Wednesday evening.

He told Catholic News Service he is so grateful for the weekly meal and Catholic Charities.

“Some days I don’t eat at all because I don’t have any food, but this is wonderful. I would starve if I did not have this on some days,” he said.

Shelters provide meals to their residents, but those meals cost an average of $1.10 per person, per meal, per day and are not as robust as what Catholic Charities provides, according to Msgr. John Enzler, president and CEO of the agency.

“We serve … a real good solid meal” prepared by staff and volunteers, he said. A typical dinner is a chicken sandwich with potatoes, salad and dessert, “like our own old Sunday meals when we were kids,” he added. “They love coming here because they get a good meal once a week.”

In September, the diners will have a special guest — Pope Francis.

The pontiff will pay a visit Sept. 24, the second of two full days he’ll spend in the nation’s capital.

“We can’t wait till he comes and blesses our efforts to reach out and take care of the poor,” Msgr. Enzler said. “The bottom line is for him is he’s coming because he truly believes our ministry is our call (as church). Our church is called to take care of those in need, the vulnerable.”

The priest said the pope will “bless this program, people who come for meals, volunteers, the staff.”

Beforehand the pope will address a joint meeting of Congress in the Capitol, or as the priest described it, “He’s going to see all the power people of this country (in) Congress, then he’s going to leave there and come here to Catholic Charities (and) have a chance to see the poor.”

“I’m convinced it’ll be his chance to really celebrate what he believes in: Make sure that you’re in solidarity with the poor, in solidarity with those in need,” Msgr. Enzler said. “We talk about basically being a church that (gives) a preference for the poor and … before he leaves he makes sure the poor are taken care of.”

He thinks the pope is “going to walk among the people and greet them. … We don’t know for sure but we’re convinced he’ll do that because once he sees people, he can’t stay away. He wants to get in among the people, greet them.”

Kristen Vibbert, a frequent volunteer at the meal service, said Pope Francis “is going to see a really good community of engaged individuals who are responsible and willing to reach out.”

She added that St. Maria’s Meals is just one of many services the archdiocesan Catholic Charities agency provides to those in need. “Pope Francis hopefully will be quite impressed with what he sees and how engaged Catholic Charities is in the community here.”

“We’re really trying to make a difference, to create a little more sustainability, a little bit better life for those in the community,” she said.

Erik Salmi, the director of communications of the Catholic Charities location, echoed the comments that the meals program is living out the mission that Pope Francis is trying to promote.

“I think we are definitely a church on the street, or a field hospital, or any of the wonderful metaphors he used about the church. We are out here, we are working with people, we meet them where they are and we serve them. I think that’s 100 percent what Pope Francis is all about,” he told CNS.

When the pope comes to St. Patrick’s, the street where meals are served will be closed down and Secret Service agents will be present — but other than that what takes place will be similar to the weekly protocol.

“Our hope is that he is going to have a few minutes to spend with folks, hear their story, and hear what it’s like (in their lives),” Salmi said. We often say the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but it’s very clear that there are a lot of people who are suffering as there are anywhere else in the world.”

Being homeless is “a lonesome, hard” experience, said Roland Woody, who was homeless until recently, after he got some help from Catholic Charities and other services in the District of Columbia.

“I really can’t describe it. It’s like you are locked outside the world, you are treated lower than a footprint. It’s hard to keep a job, hard to keep housing, and (there was no) no place to clean up — until I (found) Catholic Charities and got the help,” said Woody.

He said now advocates for the homeless, testifying at D.C. City Council meetings and the like on behalf of Catholic Charities and other outlets to urge they get public funds to keep doing what they do.

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