When I was a student I spent some time working with ‘down and outs’ through the Simon Community, and later through the Saint Mungo Community. The work was so difficult, so harrowing, both physically and mentally, that nobody was allowed to work for more than six months. After that you were told to leave, rest, and then get on with the rest of your life, leaving the work to newcomers. The acts of charity performed by St Martin, St Francis, and Pope Francis continued long after they had first discovered Christ in the neighbour in need. This was possible not because they were endowed with a superhuman strength of will power denied the rest of us, but because they repeatedly turned to God to have their weak human strength continually surcharged with the divine.
To do this St Martin became a hermit and eventually founded a monastery where others could find the strength that he received. St Francis became a hermit too and then founded a religious order where his followers would be inspired in deep contemplative prayer, to serve the poor as he did. Bishop Bergoglio became a hermit in his own home, as he began to spend more and more time in the prayer that would alone enable him to continue being the Bishop of the poor without the compassion fatigue that afflicts the best of us. In choosing to become Pope of the poor, and in choosing the name Francis to remind himself and the church that he is committed to serving the poor, he redoubled his time for prayer to two hours each morning. If any engagements, particularly those that take up his time in the evening, threaten to prevent him having quality space and time for prayer in the morning, then his ‘minders’ have been ordered to cancel them.
Jesus said quite clearly, “Without me you have no power to do anything”- so those who feel that they are inspired to help the poor will inevitably suffer from compassion fatigue unless they follow the example of Pope Francis. If he is going to make the church into the church for the poor, then he can’t do it alone. And if those who feel inspired to follow his example and join him, forget to seek help from the same person to whom he turns each day, then the great enterprise will end up no more than a pipe-dream. Who is busier than Pope Francis? Yet he finds the time each day to go into the inner room to pray. What better Lenten resolution can we make then, than to follow Pope Francis to find in prayer what simply cannot be done without it.
Lenten Course. First published in the Catholic Herald.