The archbishop of Boston brought a message of compassion and reconciliation to a downtown homeless shelter on Christmas, calling for a peace among people that mirrors God's forgiving love.
At St. Francis House on Friday morning, Cardinal Sean O'Malley asked all present to remember Jesus as "a baby born in a stable, in obscurity."
"All of us are put on this Earth to walk the streets of this world to find God among the poor, the suffering, the hungry, the thirsty."
O'Malley's service — and the carols he sang with audience members and a musical trio — were part of a day of celebration at the Boylston Street shelter that included a festive meal of chicken breasts filled with cranberry stuffing for an estimated 350 homeless and impoverished men and women.
Leah Robins, 30, a first-time shelter volunteer who came with a group from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, helped decorate the dining room, where tables were set with placemats, flower arrangements, flameless candles, and tiny tinsel Christmas trees.
"I really wanted to give back today, when everyone is busy, and make sure everyone feels welcomed and loved, on Christmas especially," she said. "There's just so many happy, smiley faces of people really ready to give."
Karen LaFrazia, executive director of the shelter, said the city's rising housing prices have forced more into homelessness and made it increasingly difficult for them to find long-term housing.
"The fundamental problem is there is just not enough affordable housing," LaFrazia said. "This neighborhood has seen an explosion of high-end, luxury housing, and it has just completely priced out anybody of modest means, and certainly anybody that's extremely low-income or homeless."
She said the day shelter has begun opening earlier in the morning to accommodate the large number of homeless people seeking refuge when overnight shelters close their doors for the day. Since January, about 5,300 men and women have come to the shelter, she said.
O'Malley also addressed the current crisis of homelessness as he spoke to reporters, pointing to Pope Francis's call for economic justice and saying he hopes the issue will be prominent in the presidential race.
"We live in a world where the rich are becoming richer and the poor are becoming poorer," he said. "Many people are homeless even if they're working because they can't afford to get housing. These are very great challenges."
Recent years have held a series of difficulties for Hope Daniels, 49, who said she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011 and then lost her mother three years ago. With tears welling in her eyes, Daniels said she had recovered from the tumor but now has a dark spot on her lungs, already afflicted with asthma.
She said speaking with O'Malley "took a whole lot of . . . bad things that's been going on with my health and everything, just took it away."
Daniels said she holds spots deep into long waiting lists for two subsidized housing developments and could have a long wait before a unit becomes available.
"I need something sooner than that," she said. "It's going to get cold out here."
The cardinal told reporters it was particularly meaningful to be at St. Francis House because St. Francis of Assisi was the first to assemble a Christmas crèche, using live people for the figures in the nativity scene.
"What he was trying to show was that Jesus was born in homelessness and in poverty because our God loves us so much that he made himself little, he made himself poor, he made himself vulnerable to be with us," O'Malley said.
"We're very grateful to all the people here at St. Francis House who carry on that same love of God and love of neighbor that we see reflected in this wonderful institution," he continued.
Richard Gelzer said he has been homeless for about seven years following a complex series of events that he summed up as family difficulties. The 68-year-old is not in touch with his brothers and sisters in the Boston area or his children in North Carolina, and he misses them at Christmas, he said.
"It's kind of sad, you know, wanting to be with family," he said.
The Army veteran, who in his youth was a private stationed at Fort Dix, now spends his nights at the Pilgrim Church Shelter on Columbia Road in Dorchester. He said he is working with the Veterans Administration to find a permanent home.
Still, in the moments after the cardinal's service, he was quietly singing "Joy to the World" as he picked up a glass of punch from the snack table.
"I'm enjoying Christmas," he said.