It’s 15 below with a wind chill of minus 39 when I arrive at the cathedral tonight. The holy water is partly frozen.
Perched atop Summit Hill in St. Paul, Minn., the Cathedral of St. Paul is the mother church of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a Vatican-appointed National Shrine of the apostle Paul and a towering presence in the capital city.
And tonight, the first Monday of January, it is a refuge for 18 homeless people who will sleep on cots in the basement choir room.
When I join them they are snacking on yogurt parfait, chicken salad and Ritz crackers, quietly visiting as a curly haired toddler scoots around. “Toy Story” plays on a corner TV, and a teenaged mom feeds her 10-month-old daughter, whose eyelashes are speckled with yogurt.
I strike up conversation with a woman wearing a pink hooded sweatshirt and holding a 2-year-old named Lucy. She tells me two things: first, she’s afraid her daughter has a high fever, and second, she’s Catholic. Her daughter was named after the woman’s late grandma Lucille Anna, a devout, rosary-praying Catholic. Being in the Cathedral, she says, feels like a homecoming.
The 12-year-old sitting at my right seems equally comfortable in the gold-leafed church. “I love it,” he tells me.
When I ask his name, he warms at the question. “Everyone wants to know my name. I’m making a whole bunch of friends.”
I am reminded of a century-old quote from Archbishop John Ireland, who dreamed of a cathedral on a hill and commissioned its building: “There should be no one who, entering the Cathedral, is not able to say, ‘It is mine.’”
Tonight it belongs to this bright-eyed boy, Charles, who squirts a mound of whip cream on his yogurt parfait, gobbles up a second one and does a victory dance when he beats me in ping pong. Archbishop Ireland would be pleased.
“We want to be responsive,” Father John Ubel, rector of the Cathedral, says when I ask about Project Home, the local interfaith program that houses families like Charles’ who are on a waiting list for a more permanent shelter. “It’s one thing to preach the Gospel, but we also have to live it.”
That’s the message behind Kerry Weber’s new book published by Loyola Press, “Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job.” In it, Kerry, the 31-year-old managing editor of the Jesuit magazine America, chronicles her attempt to practice all the corporal works of mercy while maintaining her regular life.
“It’s not always easy and sometimes it involves sacrifice,” she tells me. “It’s being willing to give up some of those small things, not saying, ‘I’ll never watch TV again,’ but realizing there’s a good kind of tired and a bad kind of tired. The good kind is when you go to bed thinking you’ve done something to help build the kingdom of God. The bad kind is when you’re thinking, ‘Ooh, I should’ve stopped binge-watching “House of Cards” two hours ago.’”
Kerry was inspired by the wide-ranging interview of Pope Francis published in America last September, especially his creation of the gerund “misericordiando” – “mercy-ing” – a word she added to her Twitter bio.
Mercy-ing, she says, begins by being present, by looking for little ways you can dignify a stranger or lend a hand. It begins by following the lead of a church that opens its doors and rolls out the cots on the coldest nights.