When I was a child, between 4 and 13, I would go down to the Bon Pasteur convent at midday to bring home some soup, bread, vegetables and sometimes meat. This is what the sisters would give us in return for me serving as an altar boy during Mass.
Sometimes, the children in the neighbourhood called me the “sisters’ soup kid” and I used to hit out when people said my mother didn’t know how to cook.
We lived in an old forge divided into rooms by wooden planks. Beyond three in the afternoon in winter and six or seven in summer, sunshine would not come into the kitchen. It was a dump, we lived in it, and people were frightened to come near us, except to bring shoes or clothes. My mother was keen to say thank you, even when we didn’t need either.
However, at times in my life when poverty was at its worst, there was a moment when we were truly happy and that was Christmas time. I don’t recall who in the family made the first nativity scene, but year after year, it became a point where all the local kids came together, even their parents. Every year, we created new characters and the crib was grew bigger. We were the poorest family, but we had something to offer everyone. We could bring some happiness to the neighbourhood. It was the Good Lord.
At Christmas time, we put the crib in what we called “the corner room”, a small storage space where we used to sleep. It had the only window opening onto the street, and passers-by could see the crib through the window. Thanks to it, people looked up to us for once, and we were proud. We were helping to make the children happy, rich and poor.
Why do I remember this crib in these times of soup kitchens, food banks and handouts, and of so many excesses in the face of so much unemployment?
It’s because I believe that, when children can swallow their shame, they can bring joy. They remind us adults, who are doing such a poor job of creating peace and justice, that material things cannot fix misfortune, nor even sharing what we have. Justice takes hold with people whose sincerity cannot be questioned. Children have this sincerity in abundance. This is why they are not giving us lessons at Christmas; they are offering us an example.