Historic basilica will be open all day, sending missionaries out to bring the Good News to city's homeless.
Of all of America’s major cities, Baltimore has acquired one of the worst reputations in recent years. Riots that broke out after a death involving police and a young African-American male dominated the news in early 2015. And the city recently has had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation.
Meanwhile, homelessness and drug addiction are chronic problems.
Fr. James Boric, a young priest who is pastor of one of the city’s highest-profile churches, is all too aware of the difficulties. He wrote recently to his parishioners at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary about “Eric,” a man who begs nearby.
“He is addicted to heroin and various opioids,” Fr. Boric wrote. “Because of the poisonous additives in the drugs he consumes, he has sores in his fingers and his arms that literally go down to his bone. He can’t even put his hands in his pockets without feeling excruciating pain. Mentally, he is distraught. I can often hear him screaming from the top of his lungs as I pray in the rectory chapel.”
The priest also pointed out that there are three African-American women who sleep in the bus stop directly across the street from the Basilica. “I have personally paid for hotel rooms to get them out of the cold on the most brutal of winter nights,” he confided. “But at over $100 a night at the local hotel, I can’t afford to put them up for long.
“There are hundreds of Erics and bus-stop ladies in Baltimore,” he said. “But what are we doing to help them … to love them … to bring Christ to them?”
This week, Fr. Boric’s response to these and other ills is beginning to take shape. If all goes well, it could be transformative for his parish, and for the city.
As he explained in an interview, it’s not “rocket science” to figure out the Christian response to rampant despair, whether it takes the form of violence, homelessness, addiction or other ills. The infrastructure is there: the beautiful and historic 200-year-old basilica and the people who make up the parish. It’s just a matter of finding ways to make those elements work together more effectively.
More fundamentally, Fr. Boric knows he is not a savior for Baltimore. Christ already has the title “Savior.”
“If the City of Baltimore is going to change, it needs Christ. The only real solution to racism, violence, drug use and broken families is Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “Who is going into the neighborhoods and proclaiming the Gospel? The Mormons do it. The Jehovah Witnesses do it. But where are the Catholics?”
In broad outline, the new approach will be both inward- and outward-looking — an approach involving action, but action based on prayer.
Catholics believe Jesus Christ is present and alive in the Blessed Sacrament — the bread that is consecrated during Mass — because at the Last Supper he blessed the bread, saying “This is my body” and instructed his followers to “do this in remembrance of me.” His real presence in the Eucharist is manifested both in the consecrated bread the faithful receive at Mass but also in the hosts that are reserved in each church’s tabernacle. At special times of prayer, a priest places one of these hosts into a special stand, a “monstrance,” that is displayed, or exposed on the altar, for the faithful to venerate and pray in front of. For many, this is a time of meditation, when they believe they can listen to the voice of God speaking silently to their hearts.
So the first part of Fr. Boric’s plan is to make this kind of prayer, known as “adoration,” available all day long — for anyone who comes into the basilica, even if they are not Catholic and cannot receive the host by mouth. While the basilica has closed at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the past, its opening hours have now been extended until 8 p.m., with adoration taking place for most of that time.
That change required raising money to pay for additional security, but for Fr. Boric, it’s worth it. No longer will those seeking some quiet prayer time, such as the stressed-out office worker or those facing serious illnesses at nearby hospitals, be met by locked bronze doors right before rush hour begins.
Hours for confession also are being extended.
Fr. Boric is confident about his approach. He’s seen it work in the past.
“I remember last year a young man came into the basilica, in his 20s, atheist, would consider himself definitely living an alternative lifestyle, and just felt this peace in the basilica and immediately wanted to talk to somebody,” he recalled, during an interview in his office across the street from the basilica. “So he came over to my office, we talked, and he joined our [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a process for people to join the Church]. So, there’s something about the basilica, you can argue that, but there’s something more about the presence of Christ that leads people. I just want to let that facilitate itself.”
The second part of his approach is to use young “urban missionaries” who will work full time in bringing the Church’s message of reconciliation to the streets, especially to the marginalized. Fr. Boric wants to emulate a model that has apparently been successful in another large city with similar problems — Denver. The successful program there is called Christ in the City.
And the basilica just happens to have an old, unused convent where urban missionaries can live. Fr. Boric envisions them giving up a year of their lives to evangelize, minister, and bring the love of Christ to homeless and addicted residents of the city. The first two missionaries, who are both college students, were to begin their year this week.
“They will not be providing handouts. Rather, they will help the needy get to soup kitchens, shelters, welfare agencies, and various Catholic Charities,” he said. “The missionaries will learn the names and the stories of all the homeless around the basilica. They will become friends with them. They will bring Jesus Christ to them.”
The priest told his parishioners that he and three seminarians already do something like this, walking through the streets of Baltimore praying the Rosary. “We encounter the people. We invite them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. And we invite them to discover the Catholic faith,” he wrote in a letter.
Those efforts brought nine people into the Church this past Easter, and since then, nine other people have asked to become Catholic. “God willing, we will bring another nine or 10 new folks into the Church before Christmas,” Fr. Boric said. “Imagine a Baltimore city parish that is bringing 18 people into the Church every year. It won’t take long to really impact our streets if we keep bringing them Christ. Once word gets out, the 18 people could turn into 30 or 50 or more. This is how the early Church grew. This is how we will grow again.”
Parishioners of the basilica, and Baltimoreans in general, could make a difference in the lives of homeless people and panhandlers — who are usually met by a brush-off — just by getting to know their names and using them.
“A lot of these guys don’t hear their names for months,” Fr. Boric said. “We can at least do that. We can give them some good news.”