Shortly after finishing his historic address to Congress Thursday morning, Pope Francis declined to stay and talk with lawmakers, choosing to spend his time with a very different group of people: The homeless.
After receiving a standing ovation from Congress, Supreme Court Justices, and various other governmental officials, Francis left the U.S. Capitol to travel to nearby St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. There he spoke in front of roughly 250 staff and volunteers before joining another 300 people — many of them homeless — for lunch with St. Maria’s Meals, a project of the local branch of Catholic Charities.
“The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person,” Francis told the group, referencing the birth of Jesus Christ, who was born to Joseph and Mary in a stable according to the Biblical account. “[He] knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head. We can imagine what Joseph must have been thinking. How is it that the Son of God has no home? Why are we homeless, why don’t we have housing?”
“Joseph’s questions are timely even today; they accompany all those who throughout history have been, and are, homeless,” Francis said.
Francis was reportedly mobbed by gleeful supporters when he reached the site, but proceeded to work the crowd, wearing a grin noticeably broader than when he addressed Congress earlier that day. Chefs were said to prepare chicken and pasta for the event, creating dishes the local Catholic Charities CEO called “easy to serve, but very healthy, very nutritious.”
The food program began roughly three years ago, and reportedly serves dinner to anywhere from 250 to 500 poverty-stricken or homeless people each Wednesday. Catholic Charities helps run six homeless shelters throughout the city.
Washington, D.C. has been fighting a homelessness crisis for several years, only recently seeing a dip in the homeless population after launching several assistance efforts.
“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” Francis said. “There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side …[Jesus] tells us this clearly: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
The gesture is part of Francis’ longstanding support for the homeless since becoming pope. In addition to speaking out on behalf of the poor in Evangelii Gaudium, his first exhortation as pontiff, he has also made headlines for personal attempts to help the impoverished: Francis celebrated his birthday in 2014 by giving sleeping bags to the homeless, is rumored to sneak out of the Vatican at night to minister to those sleeping on the streets, and announced last November plans to install showers in St. Peter’s Square to serve those with no place to bathe. He also promised in January that the Vatican will soon start offering free shaves and haircuts to those who otherwise can’t afford them.
Francis’ trip has not been a joyous occasion for all homeless people, however. New York City police dispersed about a dozen homeless people from the foot of a Harlem train station on Wednesday, attempting to clear the area ahead of the pontiff’s visit to the city later this week.