Originally posted in August 2009
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one He sent.”
This week, I read about a man who did believe – and who spent his life doing the work of God.
His name was William McCarthy. But countless people knew him as just “Father Bill.” He died last week at the age of 82. For 55 years, he served as priest in Quincy, Massachusetts. In the late 1970s and early 80s, he noticed the rise in homelessness in his neighborhood and wanted to do something about it. He set up cots in his church basement, so that people could have someplace warm to spend the night.
His parishioners were not happy about it. “If you want to be popular,” he once said, “don’t open a homeless shelter.” He eventually found a building at the end of a dead end street, next to the town’s animal shelter, and there created the first of what became a network of homes for the homeless. It was called “Father Bill’s Place” – a place for people who had no place to go, no place they were wanted.
But Fr. Bill wanted them. He wanted them to feel wanted. And safe. And loved.
And they did. And they never forgot that – or him.
A former resident last week said of Fr. Bill: “He was everybody’s priest.”
People remembered how they used to see Fr. Bill outside the building, sharing a cigarette with the some of the residents — the sick, the alcoholics, the abandoned, the abused. It was his flock.
He fought for them, tirelessly, and never gave up trying to get more money to fund the shelter. He would never take no for an answer. Even when someone had given tens of thousands of dollars, Fr. Bill always came back for more. They could never say no. He’d never let them.
But more remarkable than what he took from others was what Fr. Bill gave.
A priest who lived with him remembered coming back to the rectory one night and discovering that all the mattresses in the guest rooms were gone.
Fr. Bill had given them to a family from his shelter that had finally found a home– but didn’t have any beds.
And when a friend once asked him why he never wore the nice winter coat she’d bought him, she learned that he had given it away to someone who needed it more.
I don’t think anyone would deny that Fr. Bill McCarthy was doing the work of God.
Or that he believed in The One God sent. And that he lived what he believed. And that he understood, deep in his heart, what Jesus meant when he called himself “The Bread of Life.”
What we sometimes forget is that the Bread of Life contains many ingredients.
There is the flour of compassion and sacrifice. The salt of courage. The yeast of love. And the water of patience — patience to let it rise, and let it work.
It is the daily bread that gives hope. To countless people in Quincy, Massachusetts, it also has given them a home.
And it has given us, as well, a lesson.
In today’s gospel, the skeptical followers of Jesus ask him for some sign – this, even though he has just fed thousands with a few loaves and fish.
How often do we ourselves ask God for some sign – some proof of His existence?
How often do we bargain with Him?
Help me find a job, and I promise I’ll never miss Sunday mass again.
Let me pass this test, and I swear I’ll keep up with my homework.
Give me something, God – and I’ll give You something in return.
But too often, like Christ’s followers in the gospel, we don’t realize what God has already given us.
He has given us bread.
Because He has given us His son.
And: He has given us people who believe in His son. People like Fr. Bill McCarthy.
We all know that we are just beginning the Year for Priests – and here, in our parish, we are in the middle of a novena to St. John Vianney, to pray for priests and vocations.
So yes, we pray that more men will hear God’s call.
But Mother Teresa used to put it this way: “Don’t pray for more priests,” she’d say. “Pray for more holy priests.”
Pray for more priests like Fr. Bill McCarthy.
Last Thursday, hundreds crowded into his small church in Quincy for his funeral, including many people he had baptized and married – and some of them were those he had helped get off the streets. Even those who didn’t know him came, because they just had to be there.
Residents and workers at Fr. Bill’s Place arrived by school bus. Some just sat outside on the steps and wept. They knew they had lost someone who did the work of God. A man who believed. In his cause. And in his Christ.
Two thousand years ago, people asked:
How can we do the work of God?
And Christ answered, simply: Believe. Believe in the one He sent.
He was telling the world: believe in charity. In sacrifice.
Believe in offering your coat to someone who is cold.
Believe in opening your arms to another, like Christ opened his on the cross.
Fr. Bill McCarthy believed. And the beauty of his belief is that it could not be contained. It had to be shared.
In a few moments, just before we receive Jesus in the Eucharist – our bread of life – we will pray together what we believe, our creed. Let us pray, as well, for a deeper appreciation of what those words mean – how we live them, and how we can carry them out into the world.
Because they are so much more than words.
They are, in fact, the work of God.