CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Pope Francis greets workers, volunteers and clients at St. Maria's Meals Program of Catholic Charities in Washington on Sept. 24. Pictured from left are Katie B. English, a volunteer from Rockville, and client Frank Crosier.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Pope Francis greets workers, volunteers and clients at St. Maria's Meals Program of Catholic Charities in Washington on Sept. 24. Pictured from left are Katie B. English, a volunteer from Rockville, and client Frank Crosier.

Like Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address, Pope Francis gave brief and simple message when he came to pray over the lunch of 300 Catholic Charities clients in downtown Washington on Sept. 24. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Bon Appetite!” he said in Spanish. But instead of eating their teriyaki chicken, pasta salad and steamed vegetables, the Catholic Charities’ staff, volunteers and clients flocked toward the pope as he moved through the crowd, posing for pictures and reaching out to touch the homeless.

Shaking the pope’s hand was “majestic,” said Frank Corser, a resident at the Catholic Charities New York Avenue Men’s Emergency Shelter, who said he admires the pope’s smile and radiating joy. “It was a beautiful moment, it actually brought tears to my eyes... The things he believes in, I believe in. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy, you’ve got to like that,” said Corser.  

Though the highlight for all was seeing the Holy Father, the event began days before with the preparation of the food and setting up the tall white tent and more than 50 tables on the street outside of Catholic Charities headquarters, named after Cardinal James Hickey, the late archbishop of Washington. Arriving hours before lunch began, the clients and a Catholic Charities staff, volunteers and donors sat and chatted at the tables covered with baby blue tablecloths and vases of freshly cut yellow flowers. Catholic school students from the Holy Child and Gonzaga Vocal Ensemble as well as the Irish tenor Mark Forrest serenaded the group with hymns like the “Prayer of Saint Francis” and “How Great Thou Art.”

Katie B. English was one of the several volunteers to arrive early that morning to plate and distribute the meal. During her high school years at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, she and her family would come often to volunteer with St. Maria’s Meals, a program that serves a hot meal to the hungry outside Catholic Charities’ headquarters from a food truck every Wednesday evening. The college sophomore said she was happy to get the chance to volunteer with St. Maria’s Meals again, and of course, to see the pope. “He shook my hand twice!” she said happily, a feat perhaps accomplished with the help of her “I love Jesuits” T-shirt, a tribute to both the pope and her own Jesuit education at John Carroll University in Ohio.

“I love the [school’s] mission: they’re really forming young men and women to use the resources that they learned at John Carroll to do good in the community,” said English. In her own life, she said, “I’ve seen the face of Christ in those that I’ve served and that’s what I love most about [my faith]. I think that Pope Francis is putting a stress on that part of the Church's mission, which is really beautiful.”

Before he stopped in for lunch, Pope Francis walked through St. Patrick Church, directly next to the Catholic Charities building, to greet other clients inside. As he left the church, he entered Catholic Charities to bless their small chapel dedicated to St. Martin de Porres, and to a receive a gift: a book showing the social media messages of all those who pledged to pray, act or serve on behalf of the needy and vulnerable. As of Sept. 21, 100,007 people had taken the Walk with Francis pledge. As he stepped out of the building and into the waiting crowd, Pope Francis passed the understated Homeless Jesus statue— a monument showing Christ asleep on a park bench—identical to the one he blessed in Rome years ago.

Tyeshia Harrison, a resident of the Catholic Charities Angel's Watch Shelter and the mother of four boys, believed the lunch was more than an opportunity to see the pope in his first U.S. trip: it was a chance to show her appreciation to an organization that gave Harrison her life back. As a victim of domestic abuse, Harrison lost everything, she said. “Catholic Charities saved me and my family, so I had to come, and it’s an honor to be here,” she said. Harrison even brought her two youngest sons, Agape and Nemo, ages 3 and 1, with her. “Without [Catholic Charities], God knows where we would be and I thank God for their intervention,” she said.

Client Dwight Locke echoed the sentiment. “I love [Catholic Charities] because they gave me a chance when I came home from being incarcerated a year and a half ago...With the help of Catholic Charities, everything is working in my favor,” he said. Locke is a resident of the Mulumba House, which provides long-term housing and support services focusing on employment and sobriety. He now proudly works at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street as the night cleaning crew supervisor, and pays 30 percent of his income toward his stay at the home, he explained. “I was selected from the guys of Mulumba [to attend the papal luncheon],” he said, “and that lets me know I’m doing the right thing while I’m there.”

Like many of the clients, 801 East Men’s Shelter resident Ernest Earlodom dressed up for his encounter with the Holy Father, wearing a striped blue button-down and sweater vest. He left the lunch with a full stomach, memories of greeting a joyful pontiff, and a wrapped cookie he hoped to share with his daughter. “[Catholic Charities] is helping me out rather than tearing me down—it’s rebuilding my life so I can have a better connection with my family,” said the father of three, ages 12, 4, and 3. As a Christian, he said, meeting the pope was a tremendous experience. “I shook his hand and took pictures I’ll get to show my kids,” he said.