When he was canonized in 2010, Brother André Bessette became the first saint of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Saint André’s primary duty as a religious brother was as a porter, or doorkeeper, at Notre Dame College in Montreal, where he welcomed all who came to the school. He later performed similar duties as keeper at Saint Joseph’s Oratory nearby.
Known for his hospitality, he offered a listening ear and consoling words to troubled visitors. After he prayed with them, many visitors even experienced miraculous healings. Abandoned crutches and canes line the walls of St. Joseph’s Oratory to this day.
In the spirit of St. André’s hospitality and concern for others, André House of Hospitality welcomes the homeless of Phoenix, Arizona, to receive dinner, free clothing, blankets, showers, restrooms, laundry services, and other immediate needs. I, along with 10 other Notre Dame students, had the privilege of working at André House this fall break. By hospitably providing for the needs of the guests there, we were able to imitate Br. André.
Brother André, however, did not just have compassion for people in their physical needs. Father Jean-Guy Dubuc writes in his biography of the saint, “It was … quite normal for Brother André to ask his visitors to go to confession, to receive Communion, to do penance, and to pray to Saint Joseph. Before healing the body, Brother André sought to convert the soul. … He wanted to touch the heart while healing the body.”
This aspect of Br. André’s ministry is not forgotten at André House. Mass is celebrated there daily, a Bible study is offered weekly, and guests are invited to both. André House staff and volunteers attend the daily Mass and gather at noon for reflection before lunch. André House works to care for the whole person, body and soul.
Each night, we students gathered for reflection on the day’s events. On the last night, when we were joined by the staff, discussion arose about the dual nature of André House’s mission and how its two aspects are related.
On the one hand, André House is intensely concerned with meeting the guests’ bodily needs. Staff and volunteers work incredibly hard toward this end. One volunteer last week even gave up his own shoes to a guest when the house did not have any in the man’s size. Yet, as one staff member noted, shoes are in one way “just an excuse” to reach the guests’ hearts and care for their souls, which are the truly important things in the long (read, “eternal”) term.
Similarly, a student brought up enforcement of the 10-minute time limit on showers. He observed that rudely rushing the guests would defeat the purpose of caring for them spiritually, even if this would allow more guests to shower. He had noticed while serving at a different organization, where efficiency was highly valued, that those who received services were sometimes regarded as numbers and not given much authentic human attention. He appreciated that this was avoided at André House. Yet he noted this while still exhibiting great concern for the guests’ bodily needs. Indeed, this student happened to be the same one who gave up his own shoes.
The full nature of André House’s mission was visible at dinner as well. Unlike many soup kitchens, André House serves more than just the homeless. Staff and volunteers go through the line and eat with the guests. In fact, anyone is welcome to come to dinner, even the well-off. André House emphasizes the human dignity that all people share in bearing the image and likeness of God and intentionally breaks down barriers between the homeless and the rest of society. Again, André House does more than provide for bodily needs.
This helps to illuminate the relationship between the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are intimately related to one another at André House. Indeed, bodily help is offered, not just to help the body but to reveal the value inherent in the whole human person. The guest is given help precisely because of his or her bearing God’s image, due to which he or she has been called into intimate relationship with God through Christ and His Church. Christians remember the importance of spreading this Gospel while they perform the corporal works.
Also, valuing the ultimately greater importance of the state of people’s souls helps to dethrone efficiency and productivity in a culture that often idolizes them. While purely humanitarian organizations do real good, faith serves as a check against a creeping cult of efficiency.
Furthermore, faith helps one to keep going when work is difficult or seems futile. One staff member noted, “If we were a secular organization, we’d have run out of steam after six weeks.”
Finally, it is helpful for us students to remember the relationship between bodily and spiritual care while on service trips. While we might not enact great systematic change (as noble a goal as that is) in a single trip, we can do great good if we help the downtrodden to better recognize their own dignity in the eyes of God.
Thus, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy exist naturally and most efficaciously together. Jesus’ own life bore witness to this. He healed to affirm faith, He performed sensible miracles to reveal unseen realities, He forgave sins and then restored health: He healed the body, He healed the soul.
Shaun Evans is a sophomore studying theology and philosophy. He can be found in the first-floor six-man of Stanford Hall reading medieval philosophy, translating Greek texts, playing euchre, and eating sponge candy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.