Faith Matters

Fr Dominic McGrattan: opening doors of mercy and help for the homeless in Belfast

A new lifeline for those experiencing poverty and homelessness in Belfast opened last night as St Patrick's Church started its soup kitchen ministry. Fr Dominic McGrattan explains the inspiration for this concrete act of mercy

The Door of Mercy at St Patrick's Church, Belfast, which is to become a soup kitchen for the homeless. Picture Damian Caddell.

THE Year of Mercy just past, given to us by Pope Francis, invited us to contemplate the mercy of God revealed in the face of Jesus, his son.

It offered us the opportunity to reflect on how we might better radiate and reflect the tender love of God in our world and to seek to draw others into experiencing that love and mercy.

One significant aspect of the jubilee was that each local church was encouraged to open its own Holy Door: a Door of Mercy.

When pilgrims would walk through the Door of Mercy and allow its meaning to enter their hearts, they would become different people.

Traditionally, the Holy Door would be located at one of Rome's papal basilicas.

Pope Francis invited pilgrims unable to travel to Rome to enter through these Doors of Mercy in their own dioceses and experience first-hand "the love of God who consoles, pardons and instils hope".

St Patrick's was blessed to host the Door of Mercy for the Diocese of Down and Connor.

Pilgrims flocked to our historic and much-loved church to celebrate the jubilee, to receive mercy and to be people of mercy.

It was clear to all who visited that the Year of Mercy had caught the imagination, especially at a time when the living of mercy seemed to be very absent from our world.

Justin Welby, speaking in Westminster Cathedral, drew a parallel with the door in the wardrobe of CS Lewis's Narnia series.

He explained that Doors of Mercy open to us a different world: "What we find on the other side of the door is another world, where new rules apply, where the deep magic of the Kingdom of God is what prevails."

To discover what these new rules are, it is necessary to consider the meaning of mercy.

If we examine its etymology, we discover that our English word, mercy, goes back to the Latin, misericordia, which is composed of two words.

'Cordia' is familiar to us from such words as 'cardiologist' and 'cardiac.' It means heart.

The first part, 'miseri' refers to suffering.

Mercy, then, means to have a heart for those who suffer or, more precisely, to have a heart willing to suffer for others.

The Bible shows us glimpses of how this mercy looks in action. In Acts 2:42-47, we read that the early Christians were so filled with the Holy Spirit that "no-one claimed any of his possessions as his own". Rather, they "distributed to each, according to his need".

One pastor observes that it was not Karl Marx who invented the principle "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need".

Marx lifted it from the New Testament, but made the mistake of thinking it could happen by political coercion.

His followers created a human inferno, but their failure should not cause us to reject the ideal.

Part of mercy involves the effort to provide every human being with access to this world's blessings: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless (Matthew 25:31-46).

The work of charitable organisations and voluntary bodies is invaluable in renewing in our society a much-needed culture of social responsibility.

It also preserves us from cynicism in the face of a serious shortage of public funding for so many social outreach programmes.

For social responsibility to be a hallmark of our society, we have to be clear that motives of self-interest will not be sufficient, nor will market forces sustain that effort.

We have to accept that something of the gratuity, of the self-gift, of the self-sacrifice that lies at the heart of Christian life is essential.

Too often, mercy is seen in terms of exchange rather than as the excess of abundant love.

As St Therese of Lisieux cautions, mercy correctly understood is not the result of human effort but rather God's free gift.

We do him a disservice if we think our efforts win us brownie points with an exacting task master.

Our good works are meant to stretch our hearts, sometimes almost to breaking point, so as to make them big enough to receive all the love God wishes to give us.

To receive mercy, and to be a person of mercy, is to have a big heart.

And the people of this parish are big hearted.

Consider their extraordinary generosity in restoring this church, preserving it for future generations as a privileged place of encounter with divine mercy.

Its restored spire - surmounted by the ultimate sign of mercy, Christ's Cross - is slowly emerging from the stonemasons' scaffolds to once again cast its benign shadow over our beloved city.

But our people know that St Patrick's is more than bricks and mortar, more than a museum in which to preserve relics of the past.

It is a church made up of living stones, God's people bound together by the Spirit, whose good works give him glory (1 Peter 2:1-17).

In such a church, there can be no closed doors. That lesson is emphasised in that classic Easter text from St John which tells of the disciples' life-giving encounter with the risen Jesus in a locked room (John 20:19-31).

The disciples are huddled together in fear, hiding behind closed doors, incarcerated. They are merely existing, not thriving.

Their fear confines them to a prison and prevents them from passing to a place of freedom. And yet, there is no door so thick, none so strong, none so securely locked that Jesus, alive and risen, cannot simply speak his words of peace and mercy and unhinge. The power of Christ opens doors that seem impenetrably shut.

That is why the priests and people of St Patrick's open the doors of our hearts and our church to welcome those of you in our community who have fallen on hard times.

That is why we are developing our Door of Mercy space into a soup kitchen which we hope will provide a safety net and vital lifeline to those of you experiencing poverty and homelessness.

In your face, we see the face of Jesus, who knew what it was to be homeless from birth, to be misunderstood and gossiped about, to be judged and condemned. We want you to know that you are welcome, that you are loved, just as you are.

Perhaps in the past you experienced closed doors: doors to friendship, education, employment or opportunity. Perhaps the door was shut in times of crisis. Perhaps you've gone through doors which didn't always lead to safe places.

Here, you are welcomed through doors which promise to enrich your welfare, doors that have the power to liberate you from a place of bondage and release you to a place of blessing.

Here, you cross a threshold of hope into a space where you can hear Jesus say: "Peace, I want you to begin a fresh journey with me."

By his divine mercy, Jesus invites you to take the first step in the journey to hope.

  • Fr Dominic McGrattan is curate at St Patrick's Church, Belfast

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