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The story behind why Pope Francis will have lunch with the homeless

The pope visited St. Patrick's Catholic Church and blessed a Catholic Charities' meal for 300 clients on Sept. 24. (Video: Associated Press)
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When he first heard that Pope Francis was coming to lunch, Monsignor John Enzler, head of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, made plans for about 800 people to join him.

Enzler thought it was a great opportunity: With the pope walking among volunteers serving a free meal to 300 needy people, about 800 invited guests would get a chance to see the pope up close, in person.

Then Cardinal Donald Wuerl got wind of the plan.

“The cardinal thought that wasn’t a great idea,” Enzler said, with a self-deprecating chuckle. “At first I didn’t quite see it, but now I see it more clearly.”

Enzler said he was simply trying to find a way to accommodate people who had been supportive of Catholic Charities, but he said Wuerl feared it could be seen as “a moment to gawk at the poor.”

“The cardinal said, ‘This is a pastoral visit,’” Enzler said. “‘This is a moment for prayer and service to the poor, this is not a spectator event.’”

So at 11:15 a.m. Thursday, when Pope Francis comes to lunch at Catholic Charities headquarters in downtown Washington, he’ll find a much smaller crowd.

About 300 clients of St. Maria’s Meals, the group’s regular Wednesday meal for the needy, have been invited. They include the homeless, women who have been abused, people with mental illnesses and new immigrants — all of whom are among more than 100,000 people served each year by Catholic Charities’ programs.

They will be joined by 50 Catholic Charities staff members and 50 people who volunteer regularly to serve at the Wednesday evening meals. Another 50 people — half of them board members and their spouses, and half major donors to Catholic Charities — will also be there.

“It’s not a huge number of donors, but they’ve been generous, and they deserve to be part of this,” Enzler said. “They’ve been helping to make sure our programs are successful for years.”

Everyone invited will be seated at tables for lunch — without hundreds of others sitting in chairs watching them eat.

Enzler said Pope Francis is expected to bless the meal, then mingle with the volunteers and the clients. It’s unclear whether he will actually serve food — although church officials said they did not want the pope standing in the serving line, because it would look too much like a “photo-op.”

In some ways, Enzler said, the cardinal’s decision to shrink the crowd has made life much easier, because, “All of a sudden I had no tickets to speak of.”

“The demand is overwhelming. I’ve had volunteers come out of the woodwork. People are asking, ‘How can I serve? How can I be there?’” Enzler said. “But now we have such a limited number of people, it’s not a hard ‘no’ to say.”

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