Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati of Santiago greets homeless guests and invites them into the cathedral Aug. 19. CNS photo/Jane Chambers

Chilean homeless in tears at cathedral feast for Year of Mercy

By  Jane Chambers, Catholic News Service
  • August 23, 2016

SANTIAGO, Chile – Outside the cathedral, Ricardo Reyes, dressed in a black tracksuit, waited with nearly 250 other homeless people to pass through white metal barriers for a special dinner to celebrate the Year of Mercy. Inside the nave, 10 tables were covered with red and white tablecloths, waiting for the food and guests.

"I have been homeless for the last three years. My family kicked me out because I have problems with alcohol and drugs. It's tough living on the streets, because everyone thinks you are worthless and doesn't care about you. They don't want to give me work, so it is really hard to get by," he told Catholic News Service as he waited.

People like Reyes had traveled from all over Santiago, invited by volunteers in different parishes around the city. At 5 p.m. Aug. 19, Santiago Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati greeted the guests and invited them into the cathedral. Many became emotional as they streamed into the church and took in their surroundings: ornate gold leafing; red-veined marble columns and high ceilings with frescoes illustrating biblical stories; freshly polished floors and altar arrangements of yellow lilies and red and white roses.

Some embraced the cardinal, their eyes filled with tears of joy and disbelief to be in such a place.

Reyes walked purposefully up to the front of the nave and made sure he was as close to the cardinal as possible. The heavy wooden pews were soon filled with all of the guests.

Reyes' friend, Jorge Alfaro, was sitting beside him in a wheelchair, wearing a checked yellow scarf. He has been homeless for five years.

"Being homeless when you are in a wheelchair is very tough, because it makes it more difficult to find food and somewhere to stay, but my friends help me," he said. While he was explaining what coming to the cathedral meant to him, his sunken face crumpled and he started to cry, saying: "It is a very special moment which touches me deeply. It really means something for me to know that people care about us and want to help us and invite us in. Finally, we feel like we are valued."

In a little patio at the back of the cathedral, head chef Marcela Valdes had been busy preparing the Aug. 19 feast. Valdes knew that many of her guests would not have eaten all day and would be hungry. For hygiene reasons, the food was prepared off site, and she and other helpers packed dinner into white polystyrene boxes.

The menu included soup, Chile's famous empanadas, roast chicken, rice and creamed vegetables. It was washed down with a Chilean favorite: endless quantities of red and orange fizzy drinks.

Valdes has spent 25 years working for the Home of Christ, a network of shelters for homeless children established by St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, a Jesuit, who died in 1952. As well as cooking for the bishops, she cooks for the homeless.

"I really love my work because I know these people have nothing and I find working for them very fulfilling," she said.

Reyes and Alfaro took two empanadas, saving one for later when they were back on the streets. But, as well as eating delicious food, the evening was about creating bonds and recognizing the work of volunteers in ministering to homeless people.

Cardinal Ezzati recognized their work in front of their peers and the people they help. Each person – volunteer and guest – received a wooden cross. People sang and waved their hands in the air as the atmosphere turned festive.

Cardinal Ezzati told CNS that the Chilean church was responding to Pope Francis' call for the Year of Mercy.

"These people need to feel valued and loved and not like they are something that society has thrown aside," he said. "They have much to teach us about the spirit of solidarity and charity, which is what this year is all about."

The cathedral is in Plaza de Armas, in the heart of Santiago. It's where Peruvian, Haitian and Colombian immigrants hang out.

Cardinal Ezzati said the homeless "are always welcome to come to the cathedral" and noted that they "often use it as a place to rest and escape the heat in summer or the cold in winter."

"But for us the refuge they have in their own parishes is also very important; that is where they live and that is where they can create bonds with our volunteers and be helped," he added.

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