Rediscovering our neighbors, with help from Pope Francis, Mother Teresa’s Sisters

Father Jeremy Freehill and members of St. Ann Parish check on a neighbor during their weekly rosary walk through the church neighborhood on the south side of Peoria. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

My Vocation is Love / By Lindsey Weishar

In early October, Pope Francis released his encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti.” He offers the parable of the Good Samaritan as a model of neighborliness: “Like the chance traveller in the parable, we need only have a pure and simple desire to be a people, a community, constant and tireless in the effort to include, integrate and lift up the fallen” (no. 77).

Two years ago, I was preparing for a trip to India. I was fascinated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, and hoped for a chance to work alongside them in Kolkata (Calcutta). The opportunity presented itself in a trip for post-college adults that involved cultural immersion, service, and retreat.

In Kolkata the word “neighbor” was radically redefined for me. It’s not merely a recognition of the needs of others; it is perhaps foremost an openness to being helped. Each morning, after Mass at the Mother House, volunteers from around the world made our way to the work sites, where the MCs minister to those who might otherwise be forgotten. My assignment was Prem Dan, a home for the elderly.

VULNERABILITY IS AT THE HEART

While serving there, I constantly felt my littleness — in the heavy buckets of wet laundry we carried up to the roof for drying, in my uncertainty of how to properly make beds and fold clothes, in being hesitant to touch the women I worked with as I clipped their nails or rubbed lotion into their skin.

The temptation was to think that I could not really be a neighbor to those I encountered in India. At Prem Dan, I often felt it cost the caretakers more time and energy explaining to me what needed to be done than it would to do the work themselves. Pope Francis’ words speak to this fear: “He asks us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbour, but rather that we ourselves become neighbours to all” (no. 80). Christ also asked for my vulnerability: that I recognize my own need to be helped in order to better serve.

I’ve learned that this vulnerability is at the heart of being a neighbor. That Pope Francis’ call to rediscover our neighbors came in 2020, a time when physical proximity is perhaps at its lowest, reminds me that we are living through a time in which our neighbors especially need us.

EXAMPLE OF MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Missionaries of Charity in Peoria, to learn more about neighborliness in a time of pandemic. The Sisters have done a variety of work since their entrance to our diocese in 1991: they’ve run a soup kitchen, taught CCD, prayed and spent time with the elderly, and evangelized both within their neighborhood and throughout Peoria. Their main work is accompanying families, bringing them closer to Christ and the Church through relationship, and this is something they continue to do, despite the present difficulties. “As Mother Teresa said,” one of the Sisters told me, “we are a connecting link between the poor and the rich.”

In that role, the Sisters shared that lay people can help the Sisters in their work by providing for the material and spiritual needs of their neighbors. This may come in the form of providing a rent payment for a family the Sisters know, or assisting in one of the Sisters’ ministries, like CCD. In terms of their vocation, which has called these Sisters from India to our diocese, the Sisters reminded me that, “We are missionaries, (and as Mother Teresa shared,) ‘You go where your Spouse is.’” Their charism is quenching Jesus’ thirst and “serving is a means of putting love into action.”

ACCOMPANY THOSE PUT IN OUR PATH

This vocation to love is the call of us all. And we don’t have to go far to carry out this mission. Even in the midst of COVID, a friend from the India trip has encouraged me to connect with area ministries to ask how I might help and to practice “5 Knocks” on the doors of neighbors to check on them and minister to any needs they may have for groceries and socially distanced company.

As we make the journey through life, chances are that our position will shift between wounded and Samaritan. Perhaps we’ll sometimes occupy both positions at once. Mother Teresa’s Sisters and Pope Francis have taught me that this tending to our wounded world means recognizing the thirst of Christ in everyone we meet and accompanying those who have been put in our path. May we never be afraid to respond wholeheartedly to our neighbors, who image for us the face of Christ himself.

LINDSEY WEISHAR is a freelance writer and member of St. Matthew Parish in Champaign who has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Write to her at lweisharwriting@gmail.com

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