Message in a Bottle

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Summer 2011
– PDF version –

A friend traveled to Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal in Quebec, Canada last autumn. My religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, commissioned him to journey to the site of the many healings attributed to Saint Andre Bessette, CSC. His task was to photograph the celebrations of Brother Andre’s canonization both in Montreal and in Rome. During his visit to Montreal he photographed pilgrims walking on their knees on the steep steps of the Oratory. He shot people praying in the chapels and gardens and the room where Brother Andre lived. My friend even photographed Brother Andre’s heart that is still enshrined at the Oratory.

When the photojournalist arrived back in Portland, we shared coffee, stories and the photos from his journey. As we sipped coffee at a local coffeehouse, he handed me a white paper sack and told me it was a special gift. I opened the wrinkled bag and took out a bottle of Saint Joseph’s oil from the Oratory’s gift shop. An artist’s sketch in blue, red and white of Saint Joseph carrying a white lily adorns the plastic bottle.

These words appear in several languages on the side of the 500ml container: “Brother Andre often advised those who came to him to rub themselves with some vegetable oil which had been burning in front of the statue of Saint Joseph. Even today, oil used in this manner remains a link with our tradition. It is an expression of faith. It is not the oil itself which cures, but the Lord who hears the prayers of the faithful.”

The unopened bottle of oil still sits on a bookshelf next to my bible in my bedroom. I admit I really do not know how to use it. I am not sure where this oil of devotion fits into the healing ministry of the Church today. In fact, I am deeply confused about many aspects of healing and how we carry on the tradition of Jesus reaching out to the leper, the blind man and the Canaanite woman’s daughter. I firmly believe there is a message contained in the bottle of oil. I just do not know how to get it out of the sealed bottle and into people’s lives.

Many believers question the use of such oil today within worshipping assemblies. Some people associate healing with snake oil salesman and sleight-of-hand trickery of fundamentalist preachers trying to make a living. Many liturgists frown upon such personal devotion because a bishop in the context of the Chrism Mass has not blessed this oil during Holy Week. This oil does not fit into the traditional sacramental life of the Church. This oil goes well beyond the clerical role of anointing the sick and forgiving sins within the seven sacraments of the Church. This bottle of oil used in the tradition of Brother Andre seems far removed from the sacramental, clerical and liturgical norms.

I know I am also not alone in my skepticism about physical, emotional and spiritual healing within the Church today. People are suspicious about healing because first of all we are all powerless over suffering. I have known and observed priests who refuse to pray with people individually because they are afraid to enter into the depths and uncertainty of people’s real suffering. Others are squeamish about body pain, surgeries, bloody accidents, physical abnormalities, paralysis and the fact that suffering itself is uncontrollable. Sacramental rubrics, liturgical rites and decrees from the institutional church cannot control suffering. For many clergy, if suffering cannot be controlled, the best form of healing is to avoid it all together.

I am also suspicious of healing based upon my graduate studies in our liturgical tradition and my training in pastoral and professional skills. The professional minister today is trained to avoid such attempts to heal because it does not fit into any field education requirements or competencies. In many ways the professional model of the church today has drained much of the Spirit’s presence out of any notion that healing happens with vegetable oil, scapulars, personal devotions, holy cards or prepackaged devotions of any kind.

During the lifetime of Brother Andre, the ministry of healing was a prime mission of many religious communities.  Religious communities of men and women in the past set out on horseback in the United States to found and build hospitals, orphanages, and care facilities for anyone who was lost, forgotten, ill or dying. Today the presence of priests, brothers and sisters in institutions of healing has given way to the latest technology and concerns over insurance coverage. Our church has lost much of its personal mission of healing.

I am desperate to find healing today. I simply do not know where to turn to discover answers. I stand daily amid the brutal chaos of people living with severe mental illness. Many people hear voices that tell them to kill themselves, to ignore their medications and to punish themselves. People sit in the rain around our building and cry out in the night. They lash out at passersby and refuse to speak with their counselors who are assigned to our streets.

I pray for healing for people who blame homeless people for being homeless. I want healing for every family so that our gay and lesbian children will not be abused or bullied. Hundreds of children have fled into the woods or the streets in Oregon because of domestic abuse. I lash out in the night to God that young girls are being trafficked in our suburban shopping malls or in upscale grade schools. I am not sure how much more I can take of the young mother diagnosed with breast cancer or the addict that refuses treatment or the honor student who cuts herself.

I realize I cannot control countries at war or how the institutional church treats people. If I can find my way into this bottle of oil, I may be able to focus my belief that God alone heals. I desire healing amidst the shambles of people’s stories and their regrets from the past. I am now realizing the message in the bottle is also for the cynic and the critic.

Hundreds of people came to Brother Andre every day during his ministry. I now sense his frustration about people’s lives. Andre first guided people to stay close the healing sacraments of the Church. However, so often people were not healed. They needed so much more than what he could give them. He reached for the oil that was there at the Saint Joseph statue because that is what was available to him. Brother Andre told some mothers to wash their children in dishwater and or to go to confession. He said all those things because he did not have answers to the depths of people’s suffering and anguish.

There is something in this bottle of oil that frightens me. I must come to terms with God’s healing love in the world that is more potent than my fear and more consoling than the oil from the Saint Joseph statue. God’s healing happens without our permission, rules or guidelines. God does not commit healing power only to the well educated, the immaculately dressed or the clean cut. God’s healing happens amidst the mess, chaos and confusion of everyone trying to figure out how to ease suffering, whether of others or their own.

God healed many people through Brother Andre’s intercession even though Andre was not a priest, not within the confines of the sacramental church.  The oil for so many was simply a reminder of what they already knew but had forgotten in the midst of their pain, that God alone eases suffering, forgives sin and offers new life for the body and the soul.

Someday I will have the courage to open the bottle of oil. I will take the risk of unsealing the bottle and opening my heart. I will risk that my relationship with suffering people allows God to enter and heal everyone beyond my imagining. I will take the step to pray with people upon their request. I will pour out the holy oil and believe in the miracle that Jesus’ passion leads to new life for me and for every person. Someday I will receive the message hidden in the plastic bottle on my bookcase.

Getting Our Feet Wet

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Spring 2011
– PDF version –

I admire our young whistleblowers. I am not referring to corporate moles or people who want to snitch on other people’s errant behavior. I am speaking about the young volunteers in our parish who are trying to tell us that so many situations in life need changing. These young students and many other twenty-something believers are finding their true vocations among suffering people.

These faith-filled followers of the gospel are blowing the whistle on the fact that so many people are starving for nourishing food, genuine companionship, available housing and affordable health care. These vocations are rooted deeply in the belief that God is still healing people and that everyone deserves at least the basics of life. Because these vibrant young people believe in the love of God, they are speaking out about the apathy, prejudice and lack of faith they find within the church today.

On October 17, 2010, the Church of Canada and all of our ministries in the Congregation of Holy Cross celebrated the canonization of Brother Andre Bessette, CSC. His legacy to our religious community is one of profound healing and hospitality among the sick and marginalized.  On that morning during Eucharist here at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon, two young people spoke about how their lives have been changed volunteering and ministering among God’s forgotten flock.

Taylor hobbled up on crutches to the microphone. He spoke deliberately, with great strength even though he had broken his leg in a bicycle accident. He told us that he has been volunteering here since he was fourteen years old. Taylor arrived here as a shy, skinny junior high student struggling with many personal issues. He has remained at the chapel volunteering because he has found his voice and purpose in life. Taylor now is a senior at the University of Portland and envisions his future tackling issues of poverty both locally and globally. He also served migrant worker camps while attending high school. He traveled to Kenya last year to explore environmental issues and now wishes to operate an orphanage in Kenya after college. His words on that day of celebration seemed so piercing and hope filled. He reminded us that faith lived out in this parish has profound meaning.  I felt such great gratitude for what God continues to reveal to Taylor and his response to people in need.

Valerie approached the microphone next feeling homesick for our community. She traveled from Chicago back home to Portland for the weekend to celebrate Saint Andre with our parish. She served as a staff member here and misses her hands-on work.  Valerie now attends the University of Chicago pursuing a degree in social work. She believes the link to real personal and social healing is through serving people surviving poverty. She connects Andre’s life of healing and hospitality with the vision and purpose of Dorothy Day.

I am so inspired by Valerie’s faith. Valerie told us that she was received into the Catholic Church as a senior at the University of Portland. One of her defining moments of faith was standing in a line for free health care during college. She was so afraid of being identified as “poor.” While she was standing in that line she was reading a book about Dorothy Day’s life that explained the concepts of human dignity being revealed by God’s love. It was a true moment of insight and conversion for Valerie. Her deep desire to serve people surviving homelessness and mental illness was born.

I reflect on these young vocations of love and service as we enter into the Easter season.  The Fourth Sunday of Easter in particular point us into the direction of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. On this Sunday we traditionally pray for the next generation of church vocations. There is much fear in the church today about the decreasing numbers of vocations to religious life and priesthood. People blame parents for not inviting children into traditional vocations while other people blame the sex crimes of the clergy for dwindling numbers of young men considering seminary. Some people blame a new liberalism while others blame the new conservative trappings of religious life.   There seems to be human blame in all directions, while Jesus is inviting young people to discover new roles as servants of the Shepherd.

Taylor and Valerie have entered the gate of Jesus through their own suffering. Jesus has welcomed them into a vocation of dedicated service that will last for years to come. These vocations are so genuine and honest, so faithful and solid. I am humbled as a priest that members of this generation continue to guide me into the Shepherd’s gate with their lives of integrity and purpose.

Valerie shared with me after the celebration of Saint Andre that she remembers standing in our lobby during one of her first weeks at the parish. One of her duties was to welcome people through our red doors for the various services we provide such as food, clothing and hygiene products.  She remembered that her feet were wet from riding her bike to work that morning in the rain. As she welcomed people she realized that everyone’s feet were wet, except the shoes of homeless people were squishing water. She realized she was called by God to offer dry socks. She then told me that she prayed she would have enough faith to offer shoes. Valerie then realized that she would need more faith to get people housing so they do not have to sleep in the rain. After visiting the parish for Andre’s celebration, Valerie realized that she could imagine healing large enough now to end homelessness.

Entering the gate for any believer to care for the shy sheep means dealing with messy situations. Walking through the gate also demands tremendous faith. These hands-dirty vocations of our young people show me that Christ is still inviting people into the life of passion, death and resurrection. I see the red door of our parish building being the eternal gate of welcome and hospitality, the entry into the sheepfold. I see shepherds of young people relating to people lost among the briars of prejudice and selfishness and forgotten among the wealthy and well deserving.

Valerie and Taylor know their sheep. The sheep also know their voices. These two vocations are authentic because both Taylor and Valerie have known suffering, personal loss, fragile egos and hurtful relationships. People suffering poverty respond to Valerie and Taylor because they do not hide their need for God or their own personal loneliness and poverty. They are leaders who are one with the sheep.

I long to get my feet wet in service alongside these new vocations. They hear the Shepherd’s voice with clarity and purpose and teach me to persevere. I want to work among Taylor and Valerie and others who believe that faith will heal people and that working together will someday bring homes for everyone to protect them from the rain.

Door Man: St. André Bessette

Originally published by U.S. Catholic, December 2010
– PDF version – Online version –

Brother André Bessette didn’t need fancy degrees to know how to welcome the sick who came to the Holy Cross community. Now, he’s the order of educators’ first saint.

My path to the priesthood, as with all priests in the United States, involved many years of higher education. I earned two degrees from the University of Notre Dame before being ordained a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1983. Later I received yet another master’s degree from Notre Dame. I learned all the appropriate professional skills. I studied the correct rubrics from scholars of liturgical history. The vision of the Second Vatican Council prepared me for what I thought my work would entail.

The education that truly formed me, however, has been learning to pray through my own suffering and the inconsolable pain of others. I am now a student of an uneducated orphan and sickly man, Brother André (Alfred) Bessette, C.S.C., born 30 miles from Montreal in 1845. Ironically, the frail, illiterate brother is our first saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross, a religious order that is best known for our achievements in education.

Brother André dedicated his life to St. Joseph and to people suffering from spiritual and physical illness. He convinced the Holy Cross community in Montreal in the early 1900s to build St. Joseph’s Oratory. Today, the oratory houses the many crutches, canes, and wheelchairs left behind by healed pilgrims who prayed to St. Joseph upon Brother André’s request.

Because of his ill health, members of Holy Cross did not initially want Brother André as a member of the Congregation. His novice master begged the community to allow him to stay because of his intense prayer. He professed vows and was assigned as porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal, the only formal ministry he held his entire life. He began to welcome the sick and the fragile, the ill and the outcast. His door became his entry into people’s deep suffering and isolation. André’s formally educated confreres quickly became displeased with so many sick people congregating around the schoolyard.

Brother André persevered in his devotions. He told people who were ill to pray to St. Joseph, to rub oil on their wounds, to believe in the miracles of Christ Jesus. He experienced God’s healing of thousands of people. He became known as the “miracle worker of Mount Royal.”

Now that I have come to the doors of the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon, I have learned to pray and serve from Brother André’s example. These red steel doors open every day to hundreds of people who cry for help dealing with mental illness or who are consumed with unending loneliness.

Our parish staff and volunteers welcome to our daily hospitality center people struggling to get off drugs, the recently unemployed, and those who have spent their entire adult lives living outside. We welcome people who lash out at others because they cannot heal from their own sexual abuse. We welcome people with gangrene and people who have just been released from jail. Every day we are confronted with our insufficient answers to unsolvable problems.

I arrived here at the red doors of the Downtown Chapel more than eight years ago disillusioned with many aspects of the church. I arrived here in great need of spiritual healing. I turned to Brother André to welcome me, just as he welcomed others in need of healing and consolation in Montreal. Now I experience what André encountered, the inconsolable pain of people. People living in poverty are now my teachers.

Because he could not read, André memorized the Beatitudes and other passages of scripture that offer hope to people in pain. He believed that faith alone was the answer to real human suffering. Confronted with hundreds of people each day waiting to speak with him, André often lost his patience. He was often rude and curt with people who did not want to pray. His curmudgeonly style did not deter people from wanting to be physically touched and emotionally affirmed by God.

I lose my patience as well when I realize in recent years the church has moved away from its healing mission, relinquishing many hospitals, nursing homes, and orphanages. The personal touch of healing has been replaced by large corporations and impersonal technology. At our parish doors, I realize that faith alone can motivate people to give of themselves when other people hurt in so many ways.

Brother André died on January 6, 1937. More than a million pilgrims streamed to Montreal for his funeral. In those days before jet planes, the Internet, and cell phones, the real communication of faith and gratitude spread rapidly among believers.

The Catholic Church canonized Brother André Bessette in Rome on Sunday, October 17, 2010. On that day, I unlocked our red doors in Portland and praised God for André’s example.

Blessing of photographs of Saint Andre

(This litany was prayed at Mass today for the blessing of the relic and images of Saint Andre)

Cantor: Hear us, O God

People: Hear us, O God

Cantor:

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our doors to the hospitality of Christ Jesus …(response)

Open our doors to the lost sinner and the illiterate friend…(response)

Open our doors to the abandoned child and to the abused neighbor…(response)

Open our doors to the weary traveler and the teenage prostitute…(response)

Open our doors to people starving for daily food and friendship…(response)

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our doors to the healing of Christ Jesus…(response)

Open our doors to friends relapsing from heroin, cocaine and alcohol…(response)

Open our doors to people with every incurable disease, illness and affliction…(response)

Open our doors to adult friends living the affects of childhood sexual abuse…(response)

Open our doors to families living outside and surviving under bridges…(response)

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our doors to the hope of Christ Jesus…(response)

Open our doors to people stranded in valleys of undiagnosed mental illness…(response)

Open our doors to our bullied children considered weak and outcast…(response)

Open our doors to neighbors lost in thoughts of suicide…(response)

Open our doors to people jailed because of mental illness and homelessness…(response)

Saint Andre of Montreal; open our hearts to the love of Christ Jesus…(response)

Open our lives to the care of Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary…(response)

Open our suffering to the consolation of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows…(response)

Open our doubt to the Cross of Christ, our only hope…(response)

Cantor: Hear us, O God

People: Hear us, O God

Cantor: Hear us, O God

People: Hear us, O God

Hope

Brother Andre Series: Number Ten

A twenty-something man limped to our front desk one morning to sign up for his routine of coffee, snacks and his monthly allotment of supplies. He gingerly approached the open window breathing heavily, his eyes and face blackened with bruises, his ripped clothing stained with blood and dirt. He requested just the basics of underwear and hygiene products, along with a new shirt and jeans. Our staff member jumped to her feet and asked him what happened. The street-warrior admitted that while sleeping in a doorway he had been beaten by a stoned teenager. He begged the on-duty staff member not to call the police or the ambulance because he had no money for any type of health care.

A middle-aged woman walked shyly into our parish lobby. Her years of severe depression weighed visibly on her rounded shoulders and tired body. She has been unable to find employment lately because of the lingering shadows of low self-esteem. She tries over and over again to feel better about her adult life, occasionally smiling and joining us for Sunday worship. Living in the present moment remains difficult because her childhood emotional and sexual abuse still causes threats of suicide and deep moments of feeling unworthy of life itself.

These raw stories are replicated daily at the Downtown Chapel. People’s lives are so complicated by abusive parents, lingering mental illness and people using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of survival. Some years ago we invited a psychiatrist to help educate our staff on these many issues. He spent several hours deeply listening to us express the concerns of our ministry. He simply reminded us of our true role in people’s lives, to offer hope within community, to offer faith in the midst of suffering.

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to remind us that we cannot fix someone’s abusive past or change their desire to sell their body. However, we can offer people a place of profound faith, of true and honest welcome, of genuine forgiveness and acceptance. We can welcome people when every other agency or center has turned them away. In other words, we can offer people hope.

Brother Andre surfaced hope in people’s lives. Thousands of people lined up to speak with Brother Andre because there was no other place for them to go with their bodily ailments and their weariness. Brother Andre welcomed everyone regardless of their pain. He touched their illnesses with prayer and sent them on their way with new hope. Even when people were not physically healed, they felt a deep sense of God’s tender mercy and love for them.

Brother Andre realized hope comes from embracing the Cross of Christ. “The more you suffer as you follow the Stations of the Cross, the closer you come to Jesus Crucified.” He never wanted to live without trials in his life. “In our prayers, we should not ask to be spared hardship; we should beg for the strength to bear it.” Brother Andre’s example still lives among us. He helps us realize the hope of Christ Jesus at the Downtown Chapel in every person who comes to us in need of love. We live boldly the motto of the Congregation of Holy Cross, “ The Cross is our only hope.”

The canonization of Brother Andre Bessette, CSC will take place on Sunday October 17, 2010 at the Vatican in Rome. Please join us for our Mass celebrating Brother Andre on Sunday October 17, at 10:00am at the Downtown Chapel.

Brother Andre, be our guide!

(Photo: Steve Scardina, St. Joseph Oratory, Montreal)

A Foot in the Door: A Community Modeled after Brother Andre Bessette, CSC

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, October 2010
– PDF version –

The only outside doors to our parish building symbolize welcome and hospitality to our neighborhood in downtown Portland, Oregon. Members of our pastoral staff and volunteers tell stories of homeless people recommending the “red doors” to other people living on the streets. Many among the urban poor people in our neighborhood do not realize we are a Roman Catholic parish, but the bright red doors are known by everyone as the place to receive many of the essentials of life.

People queue up to receive clothing once a month or a laundry voucher once a week from our daily hospitality center. Some residents of the single-room occupancy hotels enter our doors to seek money for non-narcotic prescription medications, or stand in line for a flu shot clinic. Others wait at our entrance for coffee and donated food, excess from local restaurants and grocery stores. Some homeless women may sleep at our red doors during the night. Some drug dealers may urinate on our doors during any hour of the day. One local newspaper even shared a picture of someone who had vomited on a competitor’s newspaper at the entrance to our building. Our doors were then named the “Best Place to Puke” in Old Town, Portland, Oregon.

These sacred doors also lead to the chapel where we celebrate Eucharist every day. When we celebrate Eucharist we all realize the importance of our community so people may find hospitality and healing. Last February we announced to our Sunday assembly that Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, CSC will be canonized in Rome on October 17, 2010. The congregation applauded and cheered. Nearly everyone here knows that our community is a community that Brother Andre helps build.

I was standing at our open doors after that Mass and one of our parishioners came up to our pastor and said, “This is where we find Brother Andre, at these doors, in this community!” Indeed, we rely on the intercession of Blessed Brother Andre, because each day we are faced with undying suffering, with questions no one can solve and with ingrained pain that has not healed for generations.

I remember when I first stepped through our steel and glass threshold. I was overwhelmed by the body odor that had clung to the inside of the building. There is no pine-scented chemical that clears away such an odor. I do not even notice that smell anymore after nearly nine years at the parish. There are so many more important aspects of people’s lives to consider.

Blessed Brother Andre, CSC was a member of my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross. He died on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1937. His service to people long ago in need of healing, comfort and consolation continues in our parish as we welcome people living outside or who do not know where to turn because of their mental illness or in their inability to find sufficient health care.

I do not look to Brother Andre for simple solutions to the problems we face at our door. However, his life tells a tale of great faith and dedication. Alfred (Andre) Bessette was born thirty miles from Montreal, Quebec, in Canada on August 9, 1845, the eighth of twelve children. He was always sickly. His mother instilled in him a great love of prayer and dedication to Christ and a special loyalty to Saint Joseph.

Alfred grew up in poverty, especially after his parents died. As an orphan he never finished school. He was illiterate but memorized many passages from Scripture, especially the Passion narratives of Christ. The superiors in the Congregation of Holy Cross did not want to accept Alfred into the community because of his frail health and lack of education. A local pastor, Father Andre Provencal, convinced the Holy Cross superiors to accept Alfred Bessette as a member. He added a note saying, “I am sending you a saint.”

It was through great prayer and the help of friends that Alfred became Brother Andre. He desired a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience. His sole assignment within the community was to serve as the Porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. His ministry at the door of the college became his path toward love and holiness. He never imagined or dreamed how his life would change or how others would respond to him.

Almost immediately, people were drawn to Brother Andre. He told many who were sick to ask Saint Joseph for help, or to attend Mass. He anointed the sick with special oil found in a lamp near the Saint Joseph statue. He rubbed people’s wounds with a blessed medal of the saint. People were cured of many ailments, diseases and sufferings. Many people began leaving their crutches, canes and prostheses at the college. Brother Andre believed strongly that God’s healing was available for every person surviving poverty.

Some members of the Congregation of Holy Cross criticized Brother Andre because of his ministry of healing and his devotions. Parents at the college feared that sick people would get too close to their children. Brother Andre never saw himself as a healer nor was he concerned in the slightest about his reputation. Andre recognized that healing happened not through him alone, but because people believed in the works of Christ and the intercession of Saint Joseph.

Several years ago a young Jesuit novice entered through our red doors to volunteer in our hospitality center. He noticed Brother Andre’s image hanging on the wall. The novice immediately recognized the image and told us that Brother Andre was his great-great-uncle. He told us a story of a relative going to see Brother Andre. She stood for hours in a long line. Finally she got the opportunity to hold Brother Andre’s hand and tell him that she was a relative from the United States. He told her to move along; his time was for people who really needed him. This story has stayed with their family for years. When relating the story, his relatives told everyone that Brother Andre was a curmudgeon, a cranky old guy who did lots of good things.

Indeed, Andre did not have time for people who were merely curious about him. His single-minded devotion to suffering people was evident well beyond the borders of Canada. He became friends with many people who believed in him and his life was rich with friendships even when he was exhausted from speaking with the thousands of people every week that wanted to see him.

I continue to learn much from the small-framed, pious man who was poor, orphaned and homeless. Our shared religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, is best known in the United States for higher education among the privileged. We are priests and brothers, educators in the faith, known for outstanding college football and living comfortable lives. That the frail, illiterate doorkeeper and barber, Brother Andre will become our community’s first official saint, is a great paradox. I pray that we all have the courage to understand his life and celebrate his sainthood.

The poor believed in Andre because he too was poor. He did not see his religious life as an opportunity to escape from poverty or from hard work. Andre’s hospitality was a lived example of Jesus’ desire to run after the one lost sheep even when he was exhausted and afraid. Christ’s command to search diligently for the lost coin is seen in Andre’s acceptance of people. Jesus’ request to ask for what you need, knock on the door with faith and seek always was the total life of Brother Andre.

I am challenged by Andre’s legacy as I stand at our parish doors. I am not economically poor and my faith often wavers from hearing stories of traumas I cannot heal. My greatest poverty comes in my sheer loneliness and deep sadness that I cannot heal the abuse people have suffered as children. I cannot mend their horrific memories. I do not have the power to repair people’s ability to keep a job. I possess no answers when people weep because they do not have love or intimacy in their adult lives. I have only the profound example of Brother Andre as he lived Christ’s invitation to welcome people into community.

People often bend my ear at our parish doors, arguing that if the homeless would just get jobs they would not be a burden on society. I have not read any description of Andre yelling and screaming at passersby, but I often want to shout at people when I hear their judgments. People come to us abused, addicted, and mentally ill and possessing no self-esteem. In this economic recession even the most educated and the most beautiful find employment difficult to attain. We welcome people living in poverty, following Brother Andre’s example, and do not blame people for the struggles and challenges of their lives.

Many church doors are still locked and some of our communities remain inaccessible to certain people within our Church and society. Some doors are barred to children of gay and lesbian parents. Many doors are closed to pregnant teens. Doors are bolted shut to recovering drug addicts who try to heal from multiple abortions. Other doors are closed to the elderly who seek help after being abused. There often seems to be no one on the other side of parish doors to help in times of deep depression, bouts of lashing out from mental illness and landing in jail or even for former clergy seeking help with alcohol addiction.

These are the parish doors that worry me, that keep me awake during the night. Our answers rest in the models of service and hospitality that Brother Andre still shows the Church. I must believe that Christ’s love is the cure for such loneliness and despair among so many people living on the margins of our culture and Church.

Before I open our church doors, I must become vulnerable to God. As I step into the unknown of people’s lives, I remember that only God can reconcile the broken, heal the sick and feed the hungry. There are days when I cannot come to God with anything but fear and a deep knot in my chest. On these days I try to be counted among the disciples who scurried to a dark room, locked the doors and wondered what to do next. Then I search for the words the resurrected Christ offered to them and now offers to everyone, “Peace be with you.” In these words I turn toward Andre’s legacy of living each day in deep prayer and rich satisfaction of the peace and joy offered by God alone.

I admire Brother Andre because he lived his life with passion. He lived an utterly simple life. Other people had to force him to wear a warmer coat and to replace his worn-out shoes. I am deeply changed by this man who simply lived what he believed, that the love of God would be enough for him. God’s love, as it turned out, was more than enough for him.

Every Friday night our parish doors are opened for a meal of soup and sandwiches. People eat seated in chairs stretched along the sidewalk after receiving the meal in our small lobby. We name this soup line “Brother Andre Café.” Simple food becomes the message of hospitality and an extension of the Holy Eucharist. We offer this community event even in the pouring rain or when few volunteers come downtown to help. We welcome people from local low-income housing apartments and people who live under Portland bridges. This is people’s Friday night out, a time to relax on plastic chairs and converse with new volunteers and friends. Brother Andre’s spirit is with us even in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Through Andre’s dedication, hard work and endless prayer, the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal, Quebec in Canada, stands today as a place of devotion and prayer for many pilgrims from around the world. When Brother Andre died, over a million people fought the frigid weather and deep snow to get a brief moment to view his earthly remains. I truly believe that Brother Andre Bessette, CSC still opens doors for people surviving poverty and living with the consequences of physical pain, mental illness and devastating emotional disease.

Saint Andre of Montreal, pray for us and welcome us home.


Heart

Brother Andre Series: Number Nine

I often listen to our student volunteers question their futures. High school students wonder if college is the best solution for future employment. College seniors panic about how to find next year’s job so they can start paying off student loans. As the students spend time at the Downtown Chapel, they begin to realize that faith and service are key ingredients to their future lives and careers. The young volunteers discover from people living in poverty that real relationship and genuine kindness will open many doors to the future.

Many students volunteer in our parish hospitality center searching for a deeper meaning in their lives. These talented people simply want to give their hearts to a real cause, a purpose, to make a difference in the world. Even though they worry about the weak economy, high rates of unemployment, student debt, and even expectations from parents, they simply desire to offer their hearts in service to real people.

Brother Andre simply gave his heart to God. Even though he was illiterate and sickly he chose to listen to the worries of the sick. Even though the Congregation of Holy Cross hesitated to accept Brother Andre, he was always obedient to his superiors. Brother Andre was determined to dedicate his daily life to Saint Joseph, the patron of Canada and the Brothers of Holy Cross. Brother Andre’s compassionate heart was fashioned from his own suffering and his faith strengthened from receiving people on the margins of society.

Brother Andre invited people into prayer as they lined up to speak with him. He envisioned a chapel where people could come in pilgrimage to Saint Joseph and to pray in gratitude to God. On October 19, 1904, the first chapel was officially opened. Because of the large number of people streaming to the chapel for prayer, worship and healing, a new, larger chapel was built by November of 1908. Then in 1914, the Superior General of the Congregation of Holy Cross granted permission for Saint Joseph’s Oratory to be built. The construction took many years and was only completed after Brother Andre’s death.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory stands today in Montreal as a beacon of love and healing for many people. The prayerful setting welcomes thousands of visitors and pilgrims each year. This place of prayer reminds everyone of Brother Andre’s complete dedication to God. Today, Brother Andre’s physical heart is on display at the Oratory. This French custom reminds us that Brother Andre literally gave his heart to the mission of God’s work, to people in need of spiritual, emotional and physical healing.

The students in our daily hospitality center remind me to offer my own prayer and work for the purpose of God’s people. Brother Andre’s story shows us that our searching must rest in God’s love for people in need of hospitality, healing and hope. In faith, we shall all discover our heart’s desire.

Photo: Steve Scardina, (Brother Andre’s heart at Saint Joseph Oratory in Montreal)

Holiness

Brother Andre Series: Number Eight

I learn a new reliance on God every single day. God teaches me this greater dependence because I do not know where else to turn with people’s overwhelming concerns. I cannot fix a young man who was in recovery from heroin and relapses just before his child is born. A young prostitute sneaks into the chapel to speak with me about the men who control her. An elderly man battling severe mental illness and loneliness confesses to me again in our hospitality center of his ongoing addiction to pornography. The circumstances of people’s lives demand from all of us a deep and unending faith.

Our ministry at the Downtown Chapel invites me into days of unanswerable questions, never-ending emotional turmoil and unsolvable situations. From the lives of people living in poverty, I learn how to trust God and come to terms with the fact that God alone heals. I must believe that there is more to come, that God is not finished with even the most stubborn of personalities. This is the place in ministry that challenges me into a deep and profound holiness.

Brother Andre exuded a real and often harsh holiness. He was often impulsive and certainly not perfect in his dealing with people who needed him the most. He stood on his feet for hours listening to people, and constantly being present to people was hard work for him. Especially as the years passed by and his own health grew precarious he grew more emotionally exhausted from his office hours. However, he never let go of his role to offer people a kind word and to lead them to Saint Joseph and ultimately to the love of Christ.

Brother Andre’s relationship with God and his real humanity grew together in his ministry and with his aging. Father Cousineau, Brother Andre’s Superior, recalls this daily tension, “During the early years of his work, Brother Andre rarely showed any signs of impatience….As he neared the end of his life, especially in the last three or four years, he did indeed express impatience more frequently….Many people, frightened by his ascetic expression or by the abruptness with which he put an end to meaningless conversations, failed to notice that Brother Andre maintained, despite his abrupt demeanor, a facial serenity which was the mirror of his inner peace….His outbursts of impatience were attributable, at least in my opinion, to his old age, to his failing health, and to the weariness his work caused him…”

Brother Andre’s holiness comes from entering into people’s unending physical and emotional suffering. He knew that only God could heal the people who came to him. He became harsh when he understood that healing was possible but the people doubted. He teaches us still in our day to believe in the power of Christ Jesus no matter our pain and uncertainty.

Hunger

Brother Andre Series: Number Seven

People from our neighborhood pour into our small lobby for a Friday evening meal. Our neighbors living in single-room occupancy hotels socialize on the sidewalk outside the Downtown Chapel. Members of other parishes volunteer monthly to create their special recipes for soup. They provide sufficient welcome with sandwiches and fruit at our red doors in downtown Portland. Our parishioners pour lemonade and brewed Fair Trade coffee. We welcome familiar faces that live outside and make sure people know they know they are more important than even the food.

We serve food in our lobby and on our street corner for many reasons. This low-barrier event welcomes people who normally fear institutions and especially churches. We continue this soup supper outside even in the pouring rain because so many drug dealers use our sidewalk. For a couple of hours on Friday nights, we claim the sidewalk ourselves to satisfy human hunger as well as a deeper hunger for belonging and community. Our presence outside also shows local business people and folks attending bars and restaurants that we are a Christian presence in the neighborhood.

Since Brother Andre served as porter in Montreal, we name this evening meal to honor him. The Brother Andre Café serving at our front door attracts dozens of student volunteers from the University of Portland and many other colleges, high schools and grade schools throughout the year. Volunteers from several Portland parishes including Holy Redeemer and alumni of the University of Notre Dame all cook soup and purchase peanut butter and bread for sandwiches.

Brother Andre practiced mortification even in his diet. Even though he was sickly throughout his life, he ate very little food. His favorite food was a mixture of flour and hot water. His restrained diet sometimes included a simple pea soup or beans. He rarely served meat when he hosted people in his simple room above the chapel where he lived. He rarely ate with his Holy Cross community because of the demands of his role as porter.

His diet was also an extension of his spirituality. Brother Andre wanted to identify with people who were hungry so he would be hungry for God alone. He never wanted to go against his vows of poverty even concerning his own health. Even his friends could not talk him into a full course meal or a rich dessert.

Our staff and volunteers at the Downtown Chapel admire Brother Andre’s quest to place his life among people living in poverty, those whom he chose to serve. During our Friday evening meal we see the dire effects of physical hunger among our guests. We also witness the deeper hunger of people who desire a voice in society, who wait for their daily bread and who long to find their authentic place around God’s table.

Humility

Brother Andre Series: Number Six

People surviving poverty sign up for some life essentials on weekday mornings at the Downtown Chapel. Some people need a heavier coat to protect them from the Portland rain. Others need clean white socks and shoes. Walking is the primary mode of transportation for many of our guests. A man whispers to a volunteer that he needs clean underwear because he could not find an open bathroom in the early morning. Socks, underwear, jeans and jackets become essential for people who live under bridges or in doorways of local businesses.

I see masks of embarrassment and fear on the faces of people who ask for such personal items. No person should have to inquire to strangers for such intimate bits and pieces of hygiene and clothing. These awkward moments are very humbling for so many people. These overwhelming situations become an opportunity for volunteers to enter into people’s suffering and listen to their stories. These instances have the potential not for rash judgment and condemnation, but of genuine conversation and real relationship.

Brother Andre expressed his reliance on members of Holy Cross by asking for the basics of life. His black religious habit that he always wore was threadbare. He never wanted to spend money on himself. The soles of his shoes were worn out and he only reluctantly accepted new ones. Brother Andre’s room was decorated with a single bed, a wooden chair and crucifix. He was quoted often, “There’s no point in seeking material comfort because it’s more difficult, then, to follow God’s way, as one should.”

Brother Andre’s ideas about material belongings were not just pious, scrupulous notions. He continued to live from his upbringing of poverty and suffering. He wanted to model his religious life on people who are forced to ask for the essentials of life in order to survive. He needed to live the struggle of finding a coat that fit him and shoes that would survive the winter. Andre humbly desired to open his life to the grace of God. He timidly relied on God for everything, including every material possession. He depended on God’s grace in such practical matters so he could be an instrument of God’s greater physical and spiritual healing for all the strangers who knocked on his door.

I struggle with the meaning of my many material possessions. I am still learning to rely on God and trust in providence. My teachers are people who line up under my bedroom window every day waiting patiently to change out of their wet clothing or get their toenails trimmed or their hair cut. The example of Brother Andre challenges me to live among our parishioners and friends struggling to ask us for their daily needs. I learn slowly to trust God for all things, to humbly ask for all I need in order to love and serve.