A Church that is not quite but more than a church

Open 24/7; free Wi-Fi, charging of telephone, use of restroom, personal hygiene supplies, a sandwich and drink during meal time, and probably even soccer on TV.  Pets are welcome. No membership required. Welcome to what is described the coolest/hipster church, Iglesia de San Anton at Calle de Hortaleza, in the LGBT neighborhood of Chueca, Madrid.

We went to San Anton on our last day in Madrid. We almost missed it. When we entered the church, the mass was near the end so we stayed at the back and had the opportunity to observe. I thought it would be like the other churches we visited, I was wrong.

Welcoming all 24/7

Compared to the other churches we had the opportunity to visit, San Anton is a bit cramped and small. There are altars on the side, icons of various saints, petition boards and donation boxes. It houses the relic of St. Valentin. On the same side is a standee of Pope Francis. Its confessional box is only big enough for the priest to sit in, so rather than having the penitent on the side whispering to the confessor’s ear, he kneels in front and faces the priest. A long table by the door had brochures.

Near the altar were several people occupying the pews and attending mass. There were a few more people on well-worn but more comfortable armchairs occupying the other half of the church; some were participating in the mass while some just sat quietly. The ones on the armchairs are the homeless, with their assortment of bags and belongings that the San Anton welcomes. Whether they want to attend mass, pray, or just rest and seek shelter, the homeless are welcome. During winter, they can sleep on the pews.

According to the Madrid Journal, the Iglesia welcomes about a thousand people a day. Most of them are destitute. Father Angel says it is the only church open 24 hours a day in the Western world. On some evenings, the church shows soccer games on the television screens that are normally used to broadcast Mass at the Vatican, Papal appearances and other religious shows. Food is served in the back pews. Visitors can consult with medical volunteers. At San Anton, confession can be made via iPad for the poor of hearing.

Funding free dinners

Fr. Angel Rodriguez, the head of Messengers of Peace, is considered an unconventional priest and known for his work for the poor. He blesses pets, cars, and while he cannot marry people of the same sex, he blesses them. He took over the Iglesia de San Anton two years ago and turned it into a community center where believers and non-believers are welcome. Described as an innovator and a non-profit entrepreneur, he is the man behind Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is a mini-chain of four restaurants that are open to the public for breakfast and lunch, but closed for dinner. Its novel business model is not to steal from the rich, but rather to use revenues made by serving breakfast and lunch to paying customers to fund the cost of free dinner for the destitute. They feed up to 100 people chosen by the Social Services every night.

Inspired by Pope Francis, Fr. Angel believes that on top of receiving basic help, poor people need to regain a sense of dignity and purpose that is hard to achieve when eating in a soup kitchen. He said, “to get served by a waiter wearing a nice uniform and to eat with proper cutlery, rather than a plastic fork, is what gives you back some dignity.” Many of San Anton’s frequent visitors get to dine at Robin Hood and are amazed at the experience. The food is good, and they are even offered seconds. Robin Hood also attracts cooks and waiters who once worked for regular establishments, even high-end hotels.

Rethinking what a church is

At San Anton, we met Fr. Sr. Rosalia, O.P., a volunteer who has spent some time in the Philippines. We also met a Filipina at San Anton. She said she is not a volunteer. She is not homeless but is jobless; she is waiting for her work permit to be renewed before she can work again. In the meantime, she frequents San Anton.

We couldn’t dine at Robin Hood and it wasn’t the day Richard Gere was at San Anton but it was an inspiring visit. Iglesia de San Anton is an unconventional church that causes us to rethink what a church is and should be.

Dr. Mary Margaret Que teaches in the graduate programs of De La Salle University’s Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business. She is also the managing director of ExeQ Consulting Service. She welcomes comments at [email protected]

The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.

Topics: Green Light , Church , Iglesia de San Anton , Chueca , Madrid
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