Poor Find Their Place at ‘Heart’ of Bronx Church


Parishioners and others filling St. Rita of Cascia Church in the South Bronx lived out the words they heard Pope Francis preach that morning for the Universal Church’s fifth World Day of the Poor.

“You are the treasure of the Church,” the Holy Father said. “Your place is not at the door of the church but in the heart of the Church.”

The congregation at St. Rita heard Pope Francis deliver his Nov. 14 video message in Spanish for the World Day of the Poor, and then again when Father Pablo Gonzalez, pastor of St. Rita and St. Pius V parish in the Bronx, delivered the pope’s remarks in English.

The message came during a worldwide prayer meeting dedicated to the poor and organized by Fratello, a France-based charity. The video earlier included scenes from dozens of sites around the world including St. Rita’s, a U.S. representative.

“How happy I am to be with you on this day,” the pope said. “I want to remind everyone how much God loves us, and how much God loves you.”

The pope said he knew how much “many of you” were suffering in prisons, hospital beds and in the world’s poorest neighborhoods, where many times they might not be sure of their next meal or where they would be sleeping that night.

“I ask Mary…to protect us under her great mantle of tenderness,” Pope Francis said.

At St. Rita, the World Day of the Poor was commemorated with spiritual activities Nov. 13-14 in which the poor were invited to the church and held up as models through their personal testimonies of faith. Many were commissioned to go forth as evangelizers by Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen at the end of the morning Mass he offered following Pope Francis’ prayers. 

So many people in the packed church came forward for the crosses and rosaries given to each evangelizer that supplies were insufficient to meet the high demand. Father Gonzalez announced more would be in place by next weekend.

One of the parish’s newly commissioned lay evangelizers, Jennsys Herrera, said the weekend helped her discover how spiritually poor she was.

“I need to fill myself with God and His spirit, so that I can help to fill my husband and kids with His spirit,” the married mother of three sons told CNY.

Her youngest son, Jefferson, 14, who helped to translate his mother’s remarks, said he initially was not looking forward to coming to St. Rita’s.

The weekend “was (God’s) way of showing me how to get closer to Him,” Jefferson said. “He’s the one who knows what’s best for me.” 

During his homily, Bishop Whalen expertly switched between English and Spanish. “The reality of hope is seeing with the eyes of faith, being able to see with the eyes of God,” the bishop said. “We hear today not just with our eyes, but with our heart.”

In this Year of St. Joseph, the bishop promoted the saint as an example of someone who lived “with hope.” 

This was true despite having a job that did not bring St. Joseph security beyond what he could produce with his own hands, and not knowing exactly what each day would bring.

“There were days he could provide for his family, and days when he wasn’t sure,” explained the bishop, but even then St. Joseph’s never strayed from his faith.

That faith helped him to work hard for his family, even when he wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. “He did it like St. Joseph—quietly, faithfully, because of love.”

The parents in the St. Rita’s congregation were like St. Joseph in that they carry their children in the same way he carried Jesus. 

“Your children, even with all the difficulties of the South Bronx, are the light of hope for all of us,” he said. “The great treasure we have—your family love. It’s worth more than anything you can put in your pocket.” 

That morning, Matthieu and B​​énédicte Lorentz, a young newlywed couple from France who are newly arrived to the Bronx as missionaries with the France-based Misericordia Foundation, shared personal testimonies. 

Before arriving in New York they served in Chile for eight months, bringing the Gospel to the poorest of the poor, and helping them to discover hope in frequently dire situations. The couple spoke about a young boy who became involved in sports activities run by Misericordia. Through his athletic pursuits, his parents slowly joined in other activities for couples and families.

“God is the master of hope,” Matthieu said. “He’s watching over you during the difficult times in your life.”

At the start of the day Nov. 13, Father Gonzalez said, “Welcome to all the poor. The Church is your house—always.”

Auxiliary Bishop Peter Byrne served as principal celebrant and homilist of the 10 a.m. bilingual Mass Nov. 13. Among the concelebrants were Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, vicar general and moderator of the curia of the archdiocese, and Father Gonzalez as well as Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

Bishop Byrne, in his homily, called to mind the selfless examples of St. Damien De Veuster of Molokai, a missionary who worked among the lepers in what is now Hawaii; Blessed Stanley Rother, a priest from Oklahoma who served impoverished indigenous people in Guatemala and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, whose feast day it was. Mother Cabrini arrived in New York Harbor in 1889, with six Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, nine years after she founded the religious congregation in her native Italy.

“To be among the poor is to be in solidarity” with them, Bishop Byrne said. To be in service of the poor “is to see Christ in the other.”

After the liturgy, a man who identified himself as Lawrence, 61, of the Bronx, gave a personal testimony about poverty.

“You see me walking with the cane because as I stand here today, I have two bullets in my spine. I blame no one. It’s nobody’s fault but my own, because of the life I lived.”

He shared that his background included years spent in a penitentiary, as one who was homeless and hungry, and who used and sold drugs. “I started drinking and drugging when I was 10 years old.”

In February 1994, as he entered a store, someone put a gun to his spine and shot him twice. Doctors told him he would never walk again. “I can’t run, but I am walking,” Lawrence said to applause.

In April 2017, “I went into detox rehab,” he said. After his discharge, he found refuge at St. Anthony Shelter for Renewal in the Bronx, run by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

In April he will be five years clean, he said.

“I never thought I could have a peaceful life like this,” Lawrence said. “If it wasn’t for me going to St. Anthony’s, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

He said he went there determined to change his life. “It feels so good,” he said, to have as some of his best friends, “brothers, priests and sisters.”

“It was a time in my life that my soul was real dark. God has changed me so much. I never knew that all I had to do was just surrender.

“The life I have now is so beautiful,” Lawrence said. He acknowledged those who feel that if they do not have money they do not have anything. “Yes, we need money to pay our bills, but I wouldn’t give up my God for all the money in the world....And today I can truly say I love myself.”

On Saturday afternoon, Father Gonzalez presented a bilingual catechesis on forgiveness. “When Jesus was dying on the cross, He was thinking about you and me. And He was thinking, especially, about all those sins” that you think cannot be forgiven.

“Whatever your sins are, God will always forgive you,” he told those assembled. 

“That’s why today you have to think about your sins, to say sorry to the Lord.”

To accept the mercy of God, Father Gonzalez said, will also help us to forgive each other. “This resentment is hurting us all,” he said of the ramifications of not forgiving one’s brother or sister.

“The mercy of God transforms our hearts,” Father Gonzalez said. “We were created by God to love each other. We are happy when we love each other. That’s why we are so unhappy when we fight with each other.”

The participants broke into groups of five to share their experiences of God’s mercy.

Missionary of Charity Sister Clare, a catechist at the parish and assistant to the superior of her convent, described Saturday’s gathering as “a joyful family atmosphere.” 

With parishioners inviting inside the homeless outside, “we had quite a few of our really poor homeless here,” she said, noting during lunchtime those who had remained to partake in a shared meal. “They fit right in.”

The weekend celebration, Sister Clare said, is “a real sign of what the Church is—one body,” the “mystical body of Christ.”