A Saint, Not a Sucker

While walking home after shopping, a woman encountered an older man with a cardboard sign which read, “Homeless, anything will help.” As she handed him a dollar, a man roared by in an SUV and yelled, “Sucker!” The woman was disturbed by this, not only because of the man’s rudeness, but also because she knew his sentiment is shared by so many. What he thought he saw was a con artist or a lazy bum. But what she saw instead was a human being in need.

When we encounter the homeless, the poor, the desperately needy, what do we see? A human being in need? If so, that’s good. Better yet, however, is to see the face of Christ himself, as did the sixteenth century Italian saint we honor today, St. Camillus de Lellis.

Thanks to a gambling addiction and an incurable war wound, he knew both poverty and pain. God’s grace, however, helped him conquer his addiction and a lifetime of serving the impoverished sick as a nurse and a priest. To assist in this ministry, he founded an order which still continues today, the Camillians, who wear a distinctive red cross on their cassocks.

St. Camillus made it a point to seek our the impoverished sick to give them consolation and practical help. On occasion, people thought his actions were foolish. If they lived today, they might call him a “sucker.” For his part, however, St. Camillus would remind his critics that, as the gospel teaches, Jesus himself is encountered in the needy, and he challenged them, and he challenges us, to do the same. “The poor and the sick are the heart of God,” he said. “In serving them, we serve Jesus the Christ.”

Photo Credit: St. Camillus Parish website

7 Replies to “A Saint, Not a Sucker”

  1. Help the poor, certainly. But HOW to help the poor . . . that is the conundrum. To give money without requiring some responsibility on the receiver’s part might be considered little more than “enabling” that person’s irresponsibility. That might be why St. Paul wrote, “Him who doesn’t work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). On the other hand, do those who are better off have the responsiblity to help the poor pull themselves up from poverty? And if so, HOW so?

    1. Our church is on a long street along with many other churches of differing denominations. Locally, this stretch of road is known as “church row.” Every week, we get plenty of visits at the office by those seeking handouts. As the last church on the street, right on the city line, it’s pretty clear when the person at the door has been “working church row” all day, before getting to our door.

      Some are desperate people sincerely in need. Others are, in fact, con artists looking for a quick buck. We can’t see into the hearts of others, and our benevolence budget certainly isn’t bottomless, so we can only do our best to prayerfully discern one from the other. Sadly, we can’t be right every time. Often enough, however, these folks reveal their true motives.

      When we get the “I just need enough gas money to get me to to Georgia” line, and we offer to go across the street and fill the family’s tank, and they refuse because they’d rather have the cash… we know.

      Similarly, when the family claims that they haven’t been able to give their starving children (conveniently at their side as big-eyed props) a good meal in days, and we produce a basket full of food enough to feed a family of four for a week, and they walk away from it because they’d rather have the cash… we know. Or, when we hand the family a gift certificate to the local supermarket with “For groceries only, no tobacco or alcohol” written on it, and they throw it on the ground and stalk away… we know.

      On the other hand, that is not by any stretch of the imagination ALWAYS the case. Some people accept what help is offered with humility, thankfulness, and tears in their eyes. Even better, some of these folks stick around long enough to hear about the gospel. In the spirit of 2 Thess 3:10, and not “enabling,” we do hold to a strict policy that nobody can receive a benevolence payout or offering more than once in a 90-day period. We believe that when we offer help, it should be used to help these folks get back up on their feet to the point where they’re either self-supporting, or part of a more permanent and personal support network (preferably family!). For some, that’s exactly what happens. Sadly, for others, within a few days or weeks they’ll be at our door again after a day of working church row.

  2. Dear Rich- You raise a difficult point. You may know that many churches, for instance, will give grocery store certificates to persons looking for help, instead of cash. As individuals we can do what we can to support those services and agencies we know are responsible and effective. But the person on the street corner? I always give and try to see Christ in their face. Do I know what they’ll do with the dollar or so I give them? No. Hopefully for something they need. But if not, I recall what a wise Scottish monk once said to me: “Scott, being a Christian means sometimes being used.”

    Fr. Scott

  3. My pastor saw someone giving money to a woman outside our church. He asked all of us parishoners not to do this, but to send people in need to him. Would it be a good idea to instruct beggars to try the nearest Catholic church? However, I know our priests do not need more work.

    St. Camillus is a great patron saint for those who tend toward addictions.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    @K. Louise- Yes, people asking for help at times of worship, especially if they’re aggressive, can be problematic. Best to refer it to the pastor, who may already jhave a relationship with these persons.

    @Draz- Sounds like your parish assumes the opportunity of being on “church row” in a responsible and prudent way. We want to be compassionate and helpful, but also “wise ans serpents and innocent as doves.”

    As for the “my relative died and I need to get to Georgia” story, I’ve heard endless variations on that one. When investigated, they’re never true…

  5. If I see a man or woman standing in the subway tunnels where the heat can be dangerously oppresive And quietly asking for loose change my sons will always give them something. If I see a man or a woman going through garbage cans on my street looking for bottles to take to a recycling machine to earn a few pennies, My husband has beenknown to give them a five dollar bill. They are working awfully hard in horrible conditions…I
    Would not want my kids to see me look the other way and say these ones are not worthy.&

  6. Anne- God bless you for your generosity and witness to your children. You’ve planted some valuable seeds.

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