By Giorgio Bernardelli / Vatican Insider
Vatican Insider hears from Etienne Villemain, the man who came up with the idea that ended up in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter “Misericordia et Misera”: “In our communities we usually meet the poor at the church entrance. But their place is in the heart of the Church”
Not many get to launch an idea which then appears in black and white in a Pope’s Apostolic Letter. But Etienne Villemain invites us to look beyond: “I don’t think it was a proposal we came up with, it was the Holy Spirit that suggested it to us…”
Etienne is the founder of Lazare, a French association which, for the past decade or so, has brought together young people who have chosen to open the doors to the homeless. He was 20 when he and a friend opened his apartment to a person without a fixed abode for the first time; today, there are 18 such homes in Paris, hosting 300 people in total, a community of homeless people and young volunteers. They were the life and soul of Fratello 2016, the pilgrimage that brought 4000 homeless people from 22 European countries to Rome on the weekend of November 11-13 .
In paragraph 22 of the post-Jubilee Apostolic Letter “Misericordia et Misera”, Pope Francis writes that it was his meeting with them that gave him the inspiration to institute a World Day of the Poor, as a concrete sign of the legacy of the Holy Year of Mercy. A Day which, from now on, will be celebrated on an annual basis by the whole Church, on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Sunday before the feast of Christ the King. It was Villemain himself who, introducing his friends to the Pope in the Paul VI hall, had expressly asked him whether the Church could institute a World Day of the Poor.
“I felt immense joy and a great sense of peace when I read that passage of the Apostolic Letter,” he says. “In our communities, we usually meet the poor at the church entrance. Jesus said to us: Whatever you did to them, you did to me. This is what the World Day of Poor is about. Understanding that we can no longer be Christians just by tradition; following Jesus means letting the poor into our lives”.
Francis’ decision is, in a way, the conclusion of a journey: in October 2014 Lazare had endorsed an initial pilgrimage to the Vatican with 200 French homeless people; the Pope received them on that occasion too. “We were all deeply moved by that first encounter,” explains Villemain. “That day, I saw people who were profoundly touched by God’s love. One woman said something that remained impressed on my mind: “I may not have a house to call my own but now I know I have a place in Jesus’ heart”.
It was so that the idea of Fratello 2016 came about in the context of the Holy Year. The international pilgrimage was led by the Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, a great friend of Lazare. Then, on Friday 11th – during the audience in the Paul VI hall, along with the proposal for the World Day of the Poor – came the powerful moment of prayer led by Pope Francis surrounded by homeless people who rested their hands on his shoulders and prayed with him. This was a visible sign of what it means for today’s Church to let itself be touched by the poor. “Two days later I had the chance to meet the new Pope before the mass in St Peter’s Square,” the founder of Lazare said. “I gave it another stab: ‘Your Holiness, would you agree to a World Day of the Poor being organised?’ He smiled and answered: ‘Yes’. Then the mass started and during the homily, he said off the cuff: ‘I wish today was the Day of the Poor…’”.
Why is this sign so important? “Because it will help us to understand that people on the street are not a problem for the poor; it is a challenge to all of us;” Etienne says. “It is only by facing up to this problem that Europe can rediscover its Christian roots. Approaching the poor means approaching Christ. It is by opening our doors to them that we discover how poor we ourselves are, placing us in the conditions for a real encounter with Jesus.”
Everyone’s attention now turns to 19 November 2017, when the World Day of the Poor will be celebrated officially for the first time. “The idea is that each nation should ensure moments of encounter with the poor,” he explains. “Of course some will be celebrating it with the Pope; but the important thing is for every local church to be properly involved in the event,so that it can be a chance for everyone to reflect on the poor and pray with them.”