Last month, before his historic trip to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, Pope Francis made his first apostolic visit off of the Italian peninsula by travelling to the little island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea. He was inspired to visit this out-of-the-way place after reading the headlines about migrants from Africa who had died at sea in search of a better life in Europe. He went to Lampedusa to pray and show his concern and solidarity with the suffering and forgotten people living and dying on the margins of society. It was a simple gesture of charity. It was also an important key for understanding this new pontificate.
The Holy Father went to Lampedusa to reawaken our consciences, which are too often numbed by one of the tragic consequences of sin: indifference. Like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan we can too easily sidestep the real human suffering that we often encounter right under our nose. “It’s none of my business,” we assure ourselves. After repeatedly ignoring the troubling pangs of conscience that rightly disturb us, we find that conscience troubles us less and less. We become deaf to the cries of human suffering and blind to its many manifestations.
This disorientation and blindness caused by sin has far-reaching effects. Pope Francis spoke in Lampedusa about a “globalization of indifference.” We are losing our ability to weep over human suffering, cruelty and injustice. “It’s not my concern,” we assure ourselves. This numbing of conscience is facilitated by an individualistic culture of well-being, which allows us to think only of ourselves.
I have been reflecting much on this idea of a globalization of indifference. I recognize that this is not merely a societal problem because I see it in myself. It is easy to remain busy about many things and ignore the needs and sufferings of my neighbor. That suffering may be in my own home or office. How easily we can turn our backs on the suffering and exploitation of the undocumented immigrant with such rationalizations as “what part of illegal do you not understand?” How easily we can turn our back on the homeless panhandler, justifying our inaction with the presumption that they are somehow responsible for their plight!
Suffering is all around us. Much of it is invisible, and we prefer to keep it that way. I am thinking of the loneliness of the elderly and homebound and of the forgotten prisoner. Often it is right before our eyes, but we are too caught up in our own concerns to acknowledge these muffled cries for help. I am thinking of the young single woman with an unplanned pregnancy and the hopeless and confused teen contemplating suicide.
During the conclave preceding his election Pope Francis called for a less “self-referential” Church, a Church more focused on mission and outreach to those on the margins of society. It is not enough to open the doors of our churches with improved access to let everyone in. We have to be willing to pass out through those doors in search of the lost and abandoned in order to minister to them and bring them home.
Through a number of simple yet powerful gestures over the last four months Pope Francis has been showing us what this looks like. He is giving us a beautiful witness of the primacy of direct practical charity in bringing about a new evangelization. The practice of charity, genuine love and concern for others, provides the necessary context for an effective and compelling sharing of the Gospel in all of its fullness. Our task is to dismantle the globalization of indifference and develop a culture of genuine fraternity and concern for one another, especially the least of our brothers and sisters.