Make Jesus' 'Gospel friendship' the heart of Catholic social ministry, says bishop

A person passes a homeless man lying on a street in Washington Jan. 28, 2023. During the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington that day, Auxiliary Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski of Baltimore said the "centerpiece" of Jesus' ministry was friendship, and that by this friendship, Jesus makes heaven possible for those with no hope, no future and perhaps no friends, and for those on the margins. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) – Auxiliary Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski of Baltimore recalled in a homily Jan. 28 the kind of greeting he would always receive from a Puerto Rican woman who was a member of the parish he pastored in Philadelphia's Kensington section, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"No matter where our paths crossed," whether it was the supermarket, church or the post office, "she'd stop, let everything drop, reach her arms out (and say): 'My heart, my soul, my everything, my all, the love of my life' and give me a great big hug," he said. "She would hug me like she was never gonna let go."

"I loved it because just for that moment I was seen, recognized, appreciated, valued, esteemed. It was really beautiful," he told attendees at the opening Mass of the 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.

"I hope you've experienced that. I really do, that someone looks at you and says, 'You're really special to me. You're my heart and soul. The sun rises and sets on you,'" he said, adding to laughter from the congregation: "And I don't mean your dog jumping up and down, happy to see you when you get home from work!"

"Seriously, when (people) really look at you (and say): 'I care for you deeply, you're the love of my life' – if you have experienced that, you know something about the ministry of Jesus, because that's Jesus' style of ministry," he explained.

"Jesus comes rushing toward people, arms outstretched. He sees people, he recognizes people: 'You are everything to me,'" Bishop Lewandowski told Massgoers, who packed a conference room at the Washington hotel where the Jan. 28-31 social ministry meeting was being held.

About 500 people representing 100 dioceses in 44 states and the District of Columbia registered for the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, which had as its 2023 theme "Blessed Are the Peacemakers." The previous two gatherings were convened online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Catholic Social Ministry Gathering is sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Relief Services and Bread for the World, along with other USCCB offices and 20 national organizations.

Bishop Lewandowski, a Redemptorist who was named an auxiliary for Baltimore in 2020, was the main celebrant of the opening Mass. Father Michael J.K. Fuller, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, concelebrated, and Deacon Ricardo Serdan, parish administrator of Holy Trinity Church in San Antonio, Texas, proclaimed the Gospel.

"Jesus knew a lot of people and called a lot of people friends. It started with his apostles," Bishop Lewandowski said in his homily. "Jesus spent a lot of time with his friends, being invited to weddings and banquets and he was the friend of those with no friends – sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors."

His friendships "with people on the margins, the outcasts, broke the rules," he said. "Jesus calls everyone friend. He said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. Jesus lived and died for friendship. He actually gave his life for his friends. Jesus takes our human experience of friendship, enhances it and takes it to another level: we call it Gospel friendship."

Bishop Lewandowski pointed to the "beatitude people" in the day's Gospel reading from Matthew, as people whom Jesus "gave his time to." The reading, Matthew 5:1-12, is the apostle's account of the Sermon on the Mount and it begins with the eight Beatitudes, which declare that among others, the meek, those who mourn, the persecuted, the peacemakers and those who are reviled and falsely accused on account of Jesus are blessed.

"They were Jesus' friends … not troubles and tribulations," the bishop said. "These are the folks Jesus threw his arms out wide (for), rushing toward them (saying): 'You are everything to me, my heart, my soul. I live and die for you.'"

Jesus' befriending people "was active. It wasn't passive. It didn't just happen," he said. "When we look at his friendship, we come to understand it is the centerpiece of his ministry and …. makes heaven possible for those with no hope, no future, perhaps no friends, those on the margins, those set apart, those who are lost."

When "someone shows up crying at your door, someone shows up hungry and needing shelter, someone needs to go to immigration court and they want someone to accompany them, do you see them as beautiful and blessed?” Bishop Lewandowski asked. "Maybe you have had to … intervene where there's been a fight or (go) to the bedside of some dying, help someone who has been evicted – people who don’t seem beautiful or blessed at all."

But these are the “beatitude people” who were Jesus' friends, he said.

Bishop Lewandowski said he wished friendship was among the topics addressed in preparations for the world Synod of Bishops on synodality taking place in October. "Spiritual conversations, encounter, moments of grace, all these wonderful things" are part of the synodal discussions, "but where is friendship in all of it?" he asked.

"I know it seems a bit simplistic to reduce Jesus' ministry to friendship, but I think sometimes we make things too complicated," he said. "Sometimes we need" a friend like his Puerto Rican parishioner "who drops everything and comes rushing toward us," he added.

"Right now, Jesus will do that for you in the Eucharist. He'll come rushing toward you," Bishop Lewandowski said. "Please, when you leave here go and do the same."


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