The Bread of Life

Jun 28, 2024

The struggle of any missionary is to give effective aid to those who are in need. Yet, it is sometimes difficult to determine how best to aid others.

In the 1990s when I was a seminarian, a man came knocking on the door of our Columban house. He wanted to speak to a priest. I informed him that none was around. He asked who I was. “A seminarian,” I replied. “Great! Can I talk to you?” he asked. I let him in and we conversed.

The man said he was dying of an incurable cancer and didn’t have the money to pay for his medicines. He produced several medical documents confirming his condition. After that he talked about Columbans in other areas of Chile. Feeling pity for him, I gave him $50, a good sum in those days.

Months later, the man returned asking for me. Another Columban saw him and told me, “that guy has been dying for years.” Meaning he was a conman.

I felt angered that I had fallen for his story. I refused to see him, but he insisted. Finally, I decided to confront him. The man poured out his heart to me saying that his family and wife all thanked me for being so generous and compassionate.

Then he came to the point, could I give him more money. I said I had none. He asked if I could get it from the other priests, I said yes, but I wouldn’t disturb them. With this, he knew the game was over, got up, shook my hand and left. I never saw him again.

Years later as a priest, I was working in a parish in Santiago (Chile). We had opened a communal kitchen where we offered cooking classes for women so they could sell their baked goods. We also organised a children’s summer camp. The camp was a way of getting the children off the streets so that they would not be exposed to gangs and other harmful elements and they would also receive a good meal.

One evening, rioters looted our compound and stole the refrigerator, oven and many utensils from the kitchen. It was disheartening that some from the community had destroyed this communal venture. I didn’t think we would recover.

However, the following day, parishioners donated a used refrigerator and an oven and other items. It was great to see the solidarity of the people.

Are there deserving poor and underserving poor? The Gospel mandate is simple: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; naked and you clothed me; I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36)

Obviously, the conman angered me. Did he deserve what I gave him? As missionaries we try to be effective in our aid to those in need like the parish communal kitchen. However, there are moments when we have to take a leap of faith.

The following quote from Dorothy Day helped me let go of my resentment against that man: “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

Fr Chris Saenz is from Bellevue, Nebraska. He was ordained a priest in 2000 and served on mission in Chile. He is currently regional director of the Columbans in the US.

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