The street, another Church

Notre-Dame-de-la-rue "I often say, and it's true, that the guys who are outside, are locked out. They can't come inside. They are locked out, and they are not allowed in anywhere. It's the opposite of what we would imagine," said Father Claude Paradis, founder and person in charge of Notre-Dame de la rue (NDLR) for a little over two years, the only undertaking of its kind in the city.

Firstly, this new diocesan organization has few restrictions. "It doesn't cost much. My office is the street," declared Father Paradis. And the reception is different from that of other resources for homeless persons. Without questioning the crucial need for their work, Father Paradis pointed out that it isn't always easy to feel comfortable at these places.

"Sometimes, centres will say: 'We welcome everyone unconditionally.' Except that arriving at a certain time is mandatory; taking a shower is mandatory; shaving is mandatory; going to sleep at a certain time is mandatory. So, it's not really unconditional, but rather full of conditions," he said.

Moreover, he believes that many of the homeless refuse to go to shelters, even in -30 oC weather. "They feel free outside." Father Paradis, his acolyte Kevin and a small team of volunteers take the time to meet with people in the street. Their services include distributing a bit of food, coffee and water, but especially, being there for those who often don't have any self-esteem left.

Father Paradis explained, "What are you really hungry for? What does life mean to you?" He likes to compare this spiritual thirst to "The Final Judgement," a section in the last pages of the Gospel according to Matthew: "I was naked and you clothed me... I was hungry and you gave me food." 

"What does 'I was naked and you clothed me' mean? What does the dignity of human life mean to you? People hunger to be someone for another person. People hunger to be loved by another person," he explained. "That's how it is in 2016: we can no longer simply apply the literal meaning. 'I was naked' refers to human dignity. It involves more than simply providing T-shirts to the homeless," he said.

"The street is my parish"

Can the thirst for spirituality only be quenched in the comfort of a place that meets societal standards, like a retreat house or a church? [AP1] Although these are ideal locations for that purpose, they are not accessible to the people that Father Paradis and Kevin accompany. Father Paradis said, "In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis expressed that what saddens him the most about the clergy is the lack of spirituality with regards to the poor." The Argentinian Pope addressed this message to the clergy in particular. Father Paradis believes that "it's a huge problem," which he hopes to help remedy with Notre-Dame-de-la-rue.

"Everyone needs spirituality. That's why we have this regard for them and accept them just as they are. We try to accompany them part of the way, at their pace. If they don't want to go to a centre, we will journey with them another way." Father Paradis pointed out that most of the people he encounters have been "tossed around" from foster home to foster home. In the street, returning to a centre involves being once again exposed to social workers, the bureaucracy, the "system," as we call it. People are wary from having been repeatedly let down.

Finally, another aspect that moves Father Paradis is that sometimes the people he helps confess to him.

"They don't always know that they are confessing, but they are." He has taken confessions in parks, but also at an injection house and at a brothel. "They are strange places," he admitted, although he wouldn't change places for anything in the world.  

"Some priests ask me, 'How do you do it?' I answer, 'How do you work in a parish?' I'm not capable of working in a parish. I couldn't do it." The street is his parish. "I often say, 'I am a recovered drug addict and I used to live in the street. The street brought me to the Church, and once I was ordained, the Church sent me right back to the street.' I often say that the street is my Church."

 

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