Reality Never Betrays

Abbé Claude's parish is literally the streets of Montreal, where he and his adopted son, Kevin (who also used to live on the streets), minister to his flock: the homeless people of Montreal.

A few months ago, some friends of mine met a priest in Montreal named abbé Claude Paradis. Abbé Claude spent years as a drug addict living on the streets; when he recovered he discovered his vocation to the priesthood. For years he has been the pastor of the Montreal parish “Notre Dame de la Rue” (Our Lady of the Streets). His parish is literally the streets of Montreal, where he and his adopted son, Kevin (who also used to live on the streets), minister to his flock: the homeless people of Montreal.

Some of our friends started to join abbé Claude on his journeys around the city to bring coffee and food to the homeless. When I went a few weeks ago, I was astounded by a man of total simplicity; he told us he is not a social worker, but a priest. He desires only to accompany his people. Knowing that for those people, it is very difficult to abide by structures and schedules, so he goes to them, ministers to them, and says mass on the streets. For the whole month of December, following the indications of Pope Francis, who invited the Church to go to the peripheries, abbé Claude and Kevin lived on the streets, sleeping outside, begging for money, and sharing life with the homeless.

Two weeks ago I was supposed to go around with him again but a last-minute emergency made it impossible. When I asked my friend Elisabeth how it went, she told me that she could not stop thinking about one person she had met. She gave coffee to one man at a metro station who said, “soon this coffee is going to be finished. Please tell me something good. Because my house burnt down, my wife left me, I can’t see my kids, and I need to hear something good.” She didn’t know what to tell him and was left speechless. She told me that she kept thinking of that man, and that she wanted to go find him to invite him to join us and abbé Claude for the Saturday Christmas Eve mass, where our Communion and Liberation choir was going to sing, at abbé Claude’s mass for the homelessoutside of a metro station.

So, Elisabeth and I went back to the metro hoping to find that man. When we entered the vestibule where a small group was congregated, I was shocked. These people were total outcasts: mentally ill, intoxicated to the extreme, and one man who was mutilated beyond recognition. There we found that same man whom Elisabeth had met days before: Calvin. We talked to people for a bit, but mainly listened to them, and invited them to join us on Saturday. Before we left, one man told us, “Do you know what they call this place? The end of the line; this is where people come to die.” When we left, we were in silence. At some point, Elisabeth turned to me and said: “Either Jesus is true for me and therefore for them, or He’s not; there is nothing in between.”

I thank God for this experience because it unleashed such a cry in me: the cry that Jesus come, the cry that He enter into the poverty that is not just those people, but me and this world. I felt so challenged by a reality that seemed so contradictory to justice, to beauty and to truth. And yet, I kept thinking of those shepherds from the Gospel: those first miserable people, the outcasts of society, to whom God revealed Himself, coming in a way that was totally unexpected, that didn’t agree with the ideas of justice and beauty that those who were awaiting the Messiah had in mind.

It was with this same tension that I arrived at another metro station on Saturday to take part in abbé Claude’s Christmas Eve mass. Imagine the scene: shoppers walking in and out of the station, homeless people gathered on the outskirts of the group we had formed, and two choirs brought together at the last minute to sing. Abbé Claude was not able to obtain a permit for a microphone, so we could barely hear the mass. At the beginning he invited the homeless people gathered to eat, even during the duration of the mass. When I asked Kevin if he thought many people would come to join us, he said probably not; it was snowy and cold, but then he said, with the same simplicity of abbé Claude: “Everything is in the hands of God.” Those two men had been sleeping on the street for a month, inviting everyone to join them at that mass; and I was still thinking about the few people whom we had met two days previous. Abbé Claude and Kevin incarnated for me Father Jose’s proposal to the volunteers at the New York Encounter: they had no measuring stick; they were content to follow what was happening over their images. In that moment, I realized that I wanted to be like them, to follow their simple way of looking at things, totally dependent on God's way of moving.

In the middle of the mass I found myself moved to tears. Here we were engaging in a gesture that was entirely powerless. The people we had invited on Thursday hadn’t come, the noise of cars almost drowned us out, and the music was certainly not superb. But when abbé Claude lifted up the host and said “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world,” I was overwhelmed. This is how God comes to me in every instant: among the noise and distractions of my life, he gently invites me, makes Himself present in the midst of reality, and shows me unceasing tenderness. This is how God saves the world, including those people we invited to mass who didn’t come and whose faces remain burned in my memory. I discovered that the method of God, born in a powerless way 2000 years ago, is the same method He uses today. It is not just “different” from my method (which is usually fixated on results, on the realization of my images, even the best ones), it is so much more correspondent, because it is the only method which is totally and utterly human, which shares all of our wounds, poverty and fragility.

When I went to communion, another priest who was present said to me: “Thank you for voice in the choir, but thank you even more for this smile you have.” I hadn’t even realized the extent to which I was smiling, but it was true: I was full of joy for the King of Kings who comes into the manger of my life and the world. I can only repeat the words of Pope Francis: “Contemplating his humble and infinite love, let us say to him: thank you, thank you because you have done all this for me.”