Was That Jesus?

“When you see a poor person, you are looking at a mirror of the Lord and his poor mother. So, too, in the sick you are contemplating the kind of infirmities he took upon himself for us.” – St. Francis of Assisi

In September of 1998, I was in Rome to teach a short course on film writing and directing at the Pontifical Gregorian University. One day, in the midst of a pleasant stroll through the heart of Rome, I witnessed a startling and very distressing sight.

The incident took place a few blocks from the Franciscan friary of Sant’ Isidoro where I was staying. I had just purchased a train ticket to Assisi and was walking back to the friary. As I reached the corner of via L. Bissolati and via S. Basilio, I looked to the right and was jarred by the sight of an old, homeless woman defecating on the sidewalk. It was obvious that she was suffering from diarrhea. Not to mention embarrassment. She was holding her worn, tattered skirt tightly around her waist, leaving her exposed – totally naked – from the waist down. Her legs were slightly spread apart, helplessly waiting for the attack of diarrhea to end. I took in this sickening sight in a flash, then quickly turned my head away and crossed the street.

When I reached the opposite curb, I stopped and looked back. It was beyond sad. I didn’t know what to think or feel. The situation was made worse by three young men who walked by and taunted her…laughing at her deplorable situation. Within two minutes, she was able to move on. But before doing so, she gingerly walked to a nearby trash can, still clutching her skirt about her waist, and rummaged through the can for a piece of newspaper, which she used to awkwardly wipe herself off.

I was totally overwhelmed and confused by what I had seen. I stood motionless as she walked away and slowly disappeared in the urban landscape.

Was that Jesus?

Later in the day, I was sitting alone in the Basilica dei Santi Dodici Apostoli (a church run by Conventual friars)…wondering, thinking, praying. Oh how we long to find God in some moment of spiritual ecstasy, looking for the Divine in some spectacular or extraordinary event. Yet God comes to us, if we are to believe – fully believe – what scripture says, in a humble disguise, in unexpected places. God comes to us poor, hungry, thirsty, diseased, imprisoned, alone and lonely. God comes to us in an old woman forced to use a public street for a toilet. God comes to us in people, places and ways that make it difficult for us to see Him or receive Him. We don’t find God where we expect or want to find Him.

Lord, I have often prayed to be able to see you, hear you, touch you and know you where you really are, yet when I do see you in a lowly, dirty, perhaps crazy person living on the street, I don’t know how to respond. Teach me, I beg you, what to do. Knowing You are in the poor, is one thing; knowing how to embrace You in the poor is a much more difficult matter. Open my heart to know how to respond the next time I see You defecating or urinating on the street. Help me share the wonders of Your love…in the squalor of life.

The words of Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM, Cap., who was the Preacher to the Papal Household, echo in my head: “…we do not fully welcome Christ if we are not ready to welcome the poor person with whom He identified Himself.” This is really the core message of Pope Francis.


6 Responses to “Was That Jesus?”

  1. 1 graceskalski January 6, 2014 at 6:27 am

    What a profound message for starting the day and for starting the rest of our lives.

  2. 2 aliceny January 6, 2014 at 9:52 am

    You have reminded us, Gerry, in very basic terms what “seeing Jesus in others” can really entail. And, no, it is not always going to be pristine or sweet smelling. That is the reality that encompasses the lives of the poor and the societal outcasts. I am learning that it must be my reality also.
    Thank you.

  3. 3 Jerry January 6, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks for this post, Gerry. It reminded me to pray to see others as St. Francis would have seen them and as Jesus saw them.

  4. 4 luigidaniele January 8, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks for this post Gerry, and while we’re at it, for Sun and Moon over Assisi.

  5. 5 luigidaniele January 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Sorry, Gerry. This is a test. Please ignore.

  6. 6 greatart3923 January 10, 2014 at 9:43 am

    A powerful testament and a reminder of the call to kiss the leper

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