MOST CATHOLIC MONKS did not follow the Capuchin way, but the idea that the poor by being poor were closer to God had deep roots within Roman Catholicism. So did the idea that the rich by giving to the poor won favor with God. I’ve now visited Protestant anti-poverty organizations in more than 100 U.S. cities and seen how most aspire to help their clients move out of poverty, so I asked Friar Crowley how he follows what has happened to regulars at the center he started almost 50 years ago, in 1969.
Answer: He doesn’t. Many alcoholics and addicts eat at the center, ironically located across the street from the Irish-whiskey-glorifying Jameson Distillery, but Crowley said, “We treat everybody the same whether they haven’t got a problem or have a problem. … We give help to those in need without asking any questions.” I asked, “Do you pray with the people who come here?” He responded, “We don’t shove prayer down their throats.” Crowley did say that the center has worship services: “Twice a year.”
Crowley became a priest in 1958, at age 23, after reading and hearing about Francis of Assisi: “I loved him for his humility, his love of nature, and his love of the poor. … He gave me the courage to do exactly, no, to make an effort to do what he did.” When Crowley came to Dublin in the 1960s and saw people begging on the street, “My concern was to make sure no one dies of hunger. This is what I was called to. This is what I wanted to do.”
The idea that the poor by being poor were closer to God had deep roots within Roman Catholicism.
The Day Centre at first occupied two rooms at the back of the Capuchin Friary, where Dublin’s Capuchins live. Crowley fed soup and bread to 50 men, many of them alcoholics. Crowley moved the operation to a separate small building in 1976 and then to a larger building in 1997. He now heads a $5 million operation that offered 398,000 “units of service” in 2016, including breakfast for 250-300 and lunch for 500-600.
In the United States many of the poorest are alcoholics, addicts, or mentally ill, so how prevalent are those ailments among Crowley’s clients? His response: “I don’t know. I don’t go into the details of how many people have mental problems or drinking problems or drug problems. … Our main concern is the dignity of each person. We don’t ask them questions.” The center’s feeding room features faded white walls, a scarred tile floor, and 20 rectangular tables, each of which seats six. Off to one side sits a “family area” for women and children with two security guards standing by.
Crowley’s office, up two flights of stairs, displays a scarred desk, old Post-it Notes on the wall, a mismatched set of chairs, and a photo of him with Pope Francis. I asked Crowley whether he helps some of his daily eaters get jobs, and then follows their progress? He replied, “Some people probably have gotten jobs, but I don’t follow through with that. I’m very concerned about the privacy of each person, and what he does after leaving here, whether he makes good or does badly, that’s his concern.”
Since just about every anti-poverty ministry I’ve visited in the United States makes much of its success stories, I three times asked Crowley for stories. Finally, he told me one: A man in his 60s died about four or five months ago. He had eaten at the Centre off and on since he was 17 or 18. He drank up to 20 cans of beer every day and slept on the streets. Eventually he developed cancer. Crowley’s medical team got him hospitalized. He then entered a hospice and “died in great dignity. He had a good death.”
Crowley’s dedication is admirable, and many in the Irish press have admired it. Even though anti-Catholicism is running high in Ireland after some priestly pederasty scandals, the Capuchin Day Centre receives about 15 percent of its revenue from Ireland’s government and the rest from large and small contributors. It may receive more publicity on Aug. 25 or 26 when Pope Francis makes the first papal trip to Ireland in 40 years. When I interviewed Crowley on March 19, a papal advance team was scouting the Centre as a venue for a visit.
CAPUCHINS HAVE gained admiration in other parts of Europe as well. We don’t know where or on what day Spanish Baroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born, but we do know that his father was a barber in Seville, so Murillo was baptized in that then-wealthy city in 1618. This year in Seville, a yearlong celebration of the 400th anniversary of his birth is underway, with the city’s art museum displaying the depictions of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and Catholic leaders that Murillo painted for the Capuchin Convent in Seville.
The simple convent in the 1600s stood in sharp contrast to the Seville Cathedral, finished in 1517 just as Luther was composing his 95 Theses. Peter in Chapter 3 of Acts says, “silver and gold have I none,” but the cathedral, built as silver and gold began pouring into Seville from the Caribbean and South America, has “serious bling,” as one tourist guide puts it. It’s the third-largest church in the world and features the largest and richest altarpiece on earth, with 45 floor-to-ceiling gold-leaf, wood-carved scenes from the life of Christ. Silver sparkles in 80 chapels within the 253,000-square-foot interior.