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Encountering Christ in the poor of Rome

First slide

“Per favore, Padre. Posso avere qualcosa da mangiare?”

The homeless man in front of me would like something to eat. He asked me for food yesterday, and he is quite likely to ask me again tomorrow. Same time, same place.

Each weekday along with my seminarian classmates, I walk for approximately 30 minutes from my home at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome to where I attend theology courses at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Along the route are some of the most beautiful churches and monuments of the Eternal City. You can stop in at the Church of the Gesù and Chiesa Nuova, baroque masterpieces containing the tombs of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Philip Neri, respectively. You can walk across the majestic Piazza Venezia, see Trajan’s Column, and stroll down the quaint Via Giulia.  

Along the route are also some of the many homeless men and women who sadly populate the streets of this global capital. Some are refugees, some are Italian. Some are combative, and some are heartbreakingly gracious. Some are truly indigent, and some are hustlers. Together, they serve as our tenured faculty in the school of charity, challenging us to go outside of ourselves and to put others first. After so many interactions, the poor do not remain strangers. They are Paolo, Maria, Muhammad and Alphonso.

Our Lord tells us that whenever we encounter the least of those around us, we are serving — or not serving — him. It is a demanding standard that can only be met with God’s grace. There is something so personal about walking through a city. During my years in corporate America — commuting each day in my climate-controlled car, NPR playing quietly — I was unlikely to ever encounter the poor. Now, I see them up close each day, whether I am feeling generous or not, whether I am in a rush or not, whether I am having a good day or not.

At the NAC, we are blessed to have a stocked pantry of food items, miraculous medals and information brochures for poverty services in the city to distribute to those we encounter. The handouts are worthwhile. More worthwhile still are the small dignities that we can show those we encounter. Will I even smile, give eye contact, or stop to talk or pray with the Christ who is in front of me today, perhaps distressingly disguised? The wisdom of St. Teresa of Kolkata provides a helpful encouragement: “Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”

Nugent, who is from St. Agnes Church  in Arlington, is in his first year of theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020