It's a late night in an empty church, a pitifully poor inner-city parish with a lonely priest : the sort of priest who's scrubbed floors and washed windows to turn an old parish convent into the first Catholic homeless shelter for women in Washington, where prostitutes sometimes find a night's safety, too. He keeps the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a tiny room in the dingy rectory.
As priests go, he's regularly accused of relying too much on Jesus Christ to get through the day : broke, but signing an $832 funeral bill for a person too poor to pay, signing chits for overnights in homeless shelters, finding the bill for bread for the homeless feeding program under his coffee cup, and locating money for it somewhere.
This night, the "late show" Mass was over at St. Mary's in Chinatown. Father William Curlin locked the front doors, and watched the people drive away from the abandoned site used as a parking lot.
"I felt very lonely," he said. "Suddenly I heard a noise and went back in. I saw a little boy running down the aisle with his hands out to be picked up. 'I've locked this child in the church,' I thought. Then I heard laughter : the mother and father over at the side praying at a little shrine. So I reached out, picked up the boy and swung him around. The parents came over and we laughed and joked. As they left, they waved goodbye. 'See you next Sunday, Father! God bless you,' they said.
"I re-locked the doors to the church; and as I got to the altar and genuflected, it hit me what had happened. Moments before, I had been unhappy and lonely. I said, 'Jesus, thanks for the kid!'"
They still tell the tale in Washington about Curlin, the inner-city pastor working with a young priest with loads of trouble. Curlin and the priest struggled for months with the young man's problems, and things finally turned around for the better. On the last night, Curlin asked the young priest, "Why didn't you come to me sooner?" The young priest replied, "Father, I wanted to. But when I talked to my pastor, the pastor said, 'Oh no, don't go to Curlin. All he talks about is Jesus Christ.'"
Fast forward two decades. Curlin these days is a gem among bishops and men, and he still does windows. As bishop of Charlotte, North Carolina, he and his priest secretary, Father Anthony Marcaccio, also do the cooking, the laundry and floors : and chase after two puppies. A regular retreat-giver to priests and bishops, Curlin, ordained in 1957, is regularly told he is naive in his dependence on Jesus. He tells priests, "When you put your hand out to pick up a crying child or feed a hungry man, your hand is the hand of Christ. I believe that.
"Sometimes it's the body of Christ. Sometimes it's a sandwich. Sometimes it's absolution. Sometimes it's a hug. Sometimes it's giving them money at the door; and sometimes it's taking money to help somebody else. I keep saying to the priests, 'Maybe God is saying something to us.' There might not be that many priests, but maybe God is saying 'You're a priest at the altar but more, a priest in the world.'
"Ministry to me is : and I honest-to-God believe this, with all my weaknesses and sins : that God is willing to get up in me and through me, my voice, my eyes, my hands, touch someone with his love. I think that's my ministry.
"I remember a priest on retreat once : the Dakotas or somewhere. He stood right up and said, 'That sounds great, but I wouldn't want to say that.' I said, 'You wouldn't?' He replied, 'No, that's like saying don't let me live tomorrow unless I live totally for you; and I don't know whether I'm ready to do that.' I said, 'Then why are you a priest? What's your security? Is it your bank account or the fact that you've got a beautiful church and filling up the place each Sunday? Is that your security?'
"See, I never had a full church. I never saw a full church unless there was a funeral or something. So I couldn't measure my ministry by money coming in. I saw poverty day and night. I'm up at night wrapping sandwiches to give at the door the next day because I lived alone most of the time. I'd say to myself, 'Why am I so happy?'
"My happiness was my belief that God was at the door with me handing out the sandwiches, and God was the one alongside some poor person dying, or paying foir a funeral I didn't have money for."
Curlin's "problem" is that he brushed up against a couple of Christ-dependent saints himself: raspy-voiced Jesuit Fr. Horace McKenna and quiet, canny Sr. Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu. Washingtonians above a certain age know that McKenna stormed the nation's capital on behalf of poor people, built So Others Might Eat : SOME : into a dining room for the homeless, and is memorialized in McKenna's Wagon, a circulating food truck staffed by Gonzaga High School students.
It was McKenna who left the bread bill under Curlin's cup. He also challenged Curlin, suggesting that he wouldn't know what it was to be homeless until he tried it.