Have compassion. Pay attention to human suffering. Do something about it.
That was the essence of Pope Francis’ instruction for Lent, 2015.
Two weeks in, I’m ready to concede: I’m failing. I suspect I’m not alone. The compassion part is not all that hard. Paying attention? Harder. But acting on anything? Like I said, failing.
Remember Francis embracing in St. Peter’s Square the Italian man whose face was grotesquely disfigured by boils? The pope wrapped his arms around the man’s head, and even kissed him.
That’s a gesture light years beyond anything I’m capable of.
But then he’s the pope, and I’m not.
Remember Francis traveling to the Italian island of Lampedusa where hundreds of African migrants drowned trying to get to Europe? He called Europeans “indifferent” to their suffering. Absolutely, I chimed in.
Yet millions of Americans aren’t just indifferent to immigrants coming over our own borders. We want them out, gone, shipped back to destitution and civil war. Among those Americans are millions of Catholics. Anti-immigrant politicians like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan — both of whom may run for president in 2016 — have worn their Catholicism on their sleeves.
Perhaps they missed the Lenten memo?
“Usually when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others; we are unconcerned with their problems, their suffering, and the injustices they endure,” Pope Francis said. “Our heart grows cold.”
No doubt that’s true. But I’d like to believe most of us do feel compassion for the homeless and helpless, for victims of violence in inner cities and surely, in recent months, of the gruesome death cult ISIS. At least while we’re hearing their stories or seeing their pictures on TV, we may even tear up. That makes us feel better about ourselves: look how we empathize.
We just don’t do anything more about it. We’re busy with kids, jobs, working long hours to save for college or earn promotions. Getting involved takes time and means sacrifice. Even within our own families, the neediest often lead messy lives. They may be unappealing, annoying, ungrateful, and difficult, the sort who latch on and demand too much.
Sometimes we have a tough time caring for each other in the smallest ways. Here in Boston, a desperate mayor wants to dramatically up the fines (from $300 to $1,500) on negligent homeowners who — a full month into massive, repeated snowstorms — have yet to shovel their sidewalks. Up and down my own street, next to an elementary school, this leaves kindergarteners to jockey with cars in the street. And the shoveling scofflaws aren’t old or disabled or too poor to pay somebody to shovel since they won’t.
I’m generalizing here, of course. We all know exceptional people who regularly work at soup kitchens, organize to build homes for injured vets, take in foster kids, do prison ministry. But that’s what makes these people exceptional.
“You cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of human beings. It’s wrong,” former priest and famed Catholic writer James Carroll told me last week. “That’s why the pope has riveted the world … the point of all great religions is compassion,” Carroll said, “to suffer with.”
But “suffering with” is painful, uncomfortable, a place we try mightily to avoid.
I’ve been a newspaper reporter all my life. This has meant sitting in the living rooms of people who’ve suffered awfully: fires, accidents, spouses or children murdered. This has meant multiple opportunities to “suffer with.” I will never forget the mother of Cedrick Steele, an 18-year-old college student gunned down for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that sort of “wrong place” shooting was happening with sickening frequency in her tough, gang-infested neighborhood. Natasha Steele had one other teen-aged son. And she was petrified for him.
In the tiny living room next to her dead son’s bedroom, Natasha Steele told me how important people would come by to offer condolences, like the mayor and the police commissioner. Reporters like me would come to hear her tale, tell her how sorry we were. But then, she said, we’d all go back to our nice middle-class neighborhoods where 18-year-olds aren’t shot to death in broad daylight on sidewalks just outside the corner store. We’d all move on while she’d still be stuck in her apartment blocks from where Cedrick fell, too poor to escape to a safer home with the one son she had left.
I felt enormous compassion for Natasha Steele. Like everybody else, I told her how sorry I was. I think I meant it. But what did I do about it? I wrote my story for the newspaper. And then, just as she predicted, I moved on.