To a rapt audience, he told the story of St. Francis of Assisi embracing a leper, recounted O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and recalled a piece from the novelist Pearl Buck about a son coming to understand the love of his father.
On Christmas morning, speaking to about thirty people at New England’s largest day shelter for the poor and homeless, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley began in parable, then unwrapped a teaching about the heart of the holiday.
“God’s love, that never grows old, that never grows stale, never grows tired of loving us, never grows tired of forgiving us, never grows tired of giving us another chance, of calling us to friendship, to community and to new life,” he said at St. Francis House. “This is what we celebrate at Christmastime.”
“That’s what the message of Christmas is all about: We can always have love, even if we have nothing else,” the Cardinal said.
After he spoke — in both English and Spanish — O’Malley helped lead the group in three Christmas songs, then individually greeted many of the guests of the shelter who had come to hear him.
Karen LaFrazia, St. Francis House’s executive director, said O’Malley’s words were a powerful reminder for the people who come to the shelter.
“For so many of our guests it’s a very painful time of the year,” she said. To have the cardinal speak “about how much they are loved and how worthy they are and how they should treat themselves with dignity, to me that’s a message that can hopefully carry them another 364 days until he comes back again next Christmas,” she said.
Also at the service were some of the 30 volunteers who were helping to prepare and serve the shelter’s massive Christmas meal, which 500 people were expected to attend.
St. Francis House, which does not turn anyone away, said they were readying a huge amount of food including 140 pounds of stuffed chicken breast, 200 pounds of red-skinned mashed potatoes and 60 pounds of apple stuffing.
Later, speaking to reporters, O’Malley discussed income inequality in the United States and around the world, calling it a “serious problem,” and adding that there is a growing awareness as people witness its effects.
“So many people homeless. So many people working but not able to make ends meet. And, at the same time, fewer and fewer people accumulating more and more of the world’s wealth,” he said.
O’Malley also spoke about the intersection of politics and hunger.
“It’s very disturbing to see that, in the midst of the problems of hunger in our country, our Congress is thinking about cutting back food stamps. There’s a disconnect out there,” he said. “But hopefully Christmas time is a moment for people to reflect on this.”
O’Malley left the shelter later in the morning and was set to celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Alberto Rodriguez, 45, did not attend the service at St. Francis House, but was among the people waiting to attend the 11:30 a.m. Christmas meal. He said he’s been coming to St. Francis House since May and, at nights, either stays at the Pine Street Inn or sleeps outside.
Rodriguez said he used to work in New York fixing up apartments but lost his job when his employer went bankrupt. He used his last paycheck to come to New England, he said, and after a stint in Bangor, Maine, he relocated to Boston because he heard there were better services available for people on hard times.
Rodriguez said he finally got a new job in November, but was fired two weeks ago after his boss found out he was homeless.
“I’m back to square one again,” he said.
Rodriguez said life is extra difficult around the holidays, but he is coping with his situation as best he can.
“I mean, what choice do I have?” he said. I “just accept life the way it is.”