I passed through the main courtyard of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist on a sunny Sunday morning a few weeks ago. People were coming in for the 11 a.m. mass.
I wasn’t going to Mass. I had been the previous day up in Conception Bay South. I used to be a Basilica parishioner, although that isn’t the right word, but the pandemic intervened. At the Basilica I was a little bit shocked to see the presence of a uniformed security guard on the front steps. I was not astounded, though, because I know now the church is locked for most of the day. You can’t just drop in for a visit like you used to be able to do. There had been a couple of thefts from the Basilica. Television sets I believe from meeting rooms. That is what I was told from someone who would know these things.
Security guards at the Basilica? Not astonishing, really. At my old church, which was St. Patrick’s, the priest had spoken from the pulpit about “aggressive approaches” from beggars which was upsetting some older parishioners. I understood that and the moral dilemma it presented. St. Patrick’s Church is closed now. It was sold off like many church properties to pay a debt to victims of abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy over the years. I used to give a few dollars to one of the St. Patrick’s men looking for money. He always attended Mass once it started. He went to communion as well. I heard from him directly that the parish priest, despite the warning about aggressive begging, wasn’t above slipping him a few bucks. (I should have told you this was a complicated issue).
The central idea is the nature of “alms”. Alms are money, food, or other material goods donated to people living in poverty. Providing alms is often considered an act of virtue or charity. It is an ancient tradition and has been very much a part of “Holy Mother Church”. That is the way I was taught. Obviously, there are limits to alms and I suppose there must be.
Now a uniformed security guard patrolled the front steps on Sunday. In the parking lot, however, sitting on the pavement was a man with a cup in front of him. I don’t know if he was actively asking for money from those going in for Mass or just sitting there. Was the security guard a “one of” situation or a regular thing? I went back last Sunday to check it out. Sure enough there was a security person in uniform on the front steps once again. I didn’t see any beggars, but I might have missed them.
The central question for you to consider is classic. It is: “What would God do?” There is not an easy answer. The fellow to whom I gave money to at St. Patrick’s spent a lot of time in jail. He was a raging alcoholic and completely addicted to booze. I could have offered food to him, but he didn’t want food. He wanted a few beers. Should I just brush past him? Should I feed his addiction?
These are not easy issues and by what moral authority do I judge these matters? I don’t know the answers, but I know they aren’t easy. Faith can be a difficult thing sometimes.