For the past couple of weeks I have taken up Pope Francis’s recent encouragement that we read his encyclical Laudato Si. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never read it before, but I decided that now is as good a time as any to remedy that problem. While I’m still only a couple of chapters into the document, there has been so much that has both resonated with me personally and has led me to reflect on the events of today. It’s truly a prophetic document. There is one passage in particular that’s stayed with me this past week, after the US witnessed yet another murder of a person of color by a police officer and cities across the country have erupted in protest in response.
However, before I get to that teaching from Laudato Si, I want to go back to a homily Pope Francis gave a few weeks ago on the feast of Divine Mercy. When the pope spoke about mercy he first focused on who God is and the mercy he shows us. He said:
“God never tires of reaching out to lift us up when we fall. He wants us to see him, not as a taskmaster with whom we have to settle accounts, but as our Father who always raises us up. In life we go forward tentatively, uncertainly, like a toddler who takes a few steps and falls; a few steps more and falls again, yet each time his father puts him back on his feet. The hand that always puts us back on our feet is mercy: God knows that without mercy we will remain on the ground, that in order to keep walking, we need to be put back on our feet.”
We need to continually remind ourselves about the truth of who we know God is. He is the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to chase after me, even though he knows my sins. He searches until he finds me. He crawls down into the ditches and thorns of my sin to pull me out. And, rather scolding me for all the ways I failed, he rejoices when he carries me home. This is who God is. This is God’s mercy.
From there Pope Francis focused on how after we’ve received God’s mercy we need to show it to others. He said, “We need the Lord, who sees beyond that frailty an irrepressible beauty.… And if, like crystal, we are transparent before him, his light – the light of mercy – will shine in us and through us in the world.” Through grace, the very life of God freely given to us to heal and transform us, God is making my heart like Jesus’ heart. Jesus’ command to love our enemies is also the promise that through him we will actually be able to. However, we are not passive observers in this process of healing and transformation. Growing in holiness requires our free cooperation. God is certainly the primary mover, sustainer, and the voice of inspiration, but our response is not without struggle.
In his homily, the pope warns us against succumbing to the “virus of selfish indifference,” which he describes as, “A virus spread by the thought that life is better if it is better for me, and that everything will be fine if it is fine for me.” Instead, he urges that “we be profoundly shaken by what is happening all around us: the time has come to eliminate inequalities, to heal the injustice that is undermining the health of the entire human family!” In other words, we can rest on our indifference and privilege or we can allow ourselves to be “profoundly shaken” by the injustices around us, so we can respond with mercy and justice.
This brings me, finally, to that passage from Laudato Si that’s remained with me. Writing about how imperative it is for us to learn about and understand the many injustices in our world, Francis says:
Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening…into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it (LS 19).
In other words, we cooperate with grace and avoid the virus of selfish indifference by listening to others and taking their suffering upon ourselves. It is from there that we are motivated to act with mercy and work for justice, because we have first allowed our hearts to be shaken by the suffering of others.
Nearly five years ago I was “profoundly shaken” from my indifference in a way I will never forget. When the Syrian refugee crisis was receiving widespread attention, I initially thought of it as just one more terrible thing happening in the world. Then the picture of a little boy, Aylan Kurdi, began circulating on the internet. He was three years old in the picture, only a little older than my eldest son was at the time. In the picture, Aylan was lying on a beach. His knees were tucked under him, his arms were at his sides, and his head full of light brown hair was turned to the side. He looked just like my son did when he slept in his toddler bed. But this little boy wasn’t sleeping, he had drowned in the Aegean Sea and his body had washed up on the beach. Aylan died along with his brother and mother when his father was unable to hold onto them during a storm, and they were swept out to sea.
When I saw the image on my computer screen, I wept. When I read the story, I wept again. Every time I see the image, I still come close to tears. The power of this image broke through my indifference. It allowed me to—in a small way—experience the suffering of this family. This is the beginning of compassion, when a cold heart thaws enough to have a glimpse of the profound injustice in the world.
On Monday of this week, we celebrated the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church. The Gospel reading for the day was the story of Mary standing at the foot of the cross when Jesus, with his dying breaths, entrusted John the Apostle to her as her son. It was at Calvary that the prophecy of Simeon was fulfilled. As only a mother could, Mary allowed her heart to be pierced by the suffering of her son. Mary is our model of compassion. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict reflects on Simeon’s prophecy:
“From Mary we can learn what true com-passion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one’s own. In the writings of the Church Fathers, a lack of feeling—insensitivity toward the suffering of others—is considered typical of paganism. In contrast to this attitude, the Christian faith holds up the God who suffers with men, and thereby draws us into his ‘com-passion.’ The Mater Dolorosa [Suffering Mother], the mother whose heart is pierced by a sword, is an iconic image of this fundamental attitude of Christian faith.”
Today, in the midst of so much suffering—in the world, our cities, and our homes—we must beg Mary to intercede for us, to ask her son to give us the grace we need to listen and learn from others. We need the Holy Spirit to wake us up from our self-centered concerns and make the suffering of others our own. We need the grace to be profoundly shaken out of our privileged indifference and confront every form of racism in our hearts and in our nation. Then the Lord can use us as agents of mercy and justice.
Photo Credit: Rob Bulmahn on flickr – Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.