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Charles Lewis: A prayer for Francis the panhandler

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  • April 15, 2019

For a number of years there was a panhandler standing outside St. Michael’s Cathedral in downtown Toronto. His name was Francis. I liked him quite a bit. Which should not be thought of as a given since there are some panhandlers who, over the years, have gotten on my nerves. I know it is not a Christian thing to say but there it is.

I would see him outside of St. Michael’s sometimes before and after Mass. I usually gave him something but not always. But we always spoke though I had to be careful not to get in the way of his earning a living.

For some reason I never asked him why he did not get a regular job. In my self-righteous moments with other panhandlers I would explain about how I used to wash dishes, wait tables (I was the worst waiter in the world) and even drove a school bus. In other words, no work was beneath me.

“You’re a strong young man, get a job,” I would say.

Which is not really bad advice.

In one of my less generous moments I wrote in the National Post about a panhandler who annoyed the hell out of me because of his obsequiousness. I even yelled at him one time. He had a habit of making people coming in and out of church feel guilty through his smarminess.

Tack on more time in purgatory for me.

But for some reason I never felt compelled to challenge Francis on his work ethic. When I like someone I often just accept who he or she is and leave it at that.

Looking at Francis you knew he had a hard life. His teeth were bad and I imagine they hurt like hell from time to time. My guess is he was in his early 40s, but people who have to scrounge for a living age much faster than those who live in comfort.

He was not homeless, he told me. He lived in a rooming house with a communal kitchen. I think it was a good place from what he said. One fall day he told me with a certain pride he would cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the others in the house. He claimed to be a top-notch cook.

I do not in any way want to romanticize Francis or my relationship with him. I was never asking him to my home and we made no dates to have lunch or catch a movie.

I noticed others coming out of St. Mike’s would call him by his first name in a tone that indicated warmth and fondness.

Then for a period of time I was gone from the Cathedral and then returned.

But one day coming out of Mass it dawned on me he was no longer around. I thought nothing of it. I know men and women who panhandle will often move to a better territory.

I asked around later only to find out that he had died sometime before. I felt bad about it as soon as I heard and for a week or two after, but then I moved on.

Then the other night, for no particular reason, I realized something that made me feel ashamed. I had never prayed for his immortal soul. Like many Catholics, I pray for all sorts of people. I say novenas and have Masses said, sometimes for the sick and at times for those who have died. There are prayers and Masses for friends and the family of friends. Some of these people I have never met.

So I began to pray for him. I usually say the Hail Mary or an Our Father or the Divine Mercy Novena. This time it was different. It was spontaneous in that I suddenly realized I was in prayer without words.

It was frankly an experience of prayer I rarely have. I knew for certain that my thoughts and words to Mary and Jesus were being heard and the soul of Francis was being looked after.

I remembered that since the Holy Trinity, Mary and the saints live out of time that my prayer for him could not be late. Eternity is all of a moment.

Any prayer said, whenever it is said, always was, always is and always will be.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)


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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.