‘Like it or not, we must be good to the poor, because if we’re not, we’re going to hell.”
That’s a quote I’ve heard a few times now from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia. It happens to be one of my all-time favorites. Because there is no hiding from it. It prompts an instant examination of conscience. What am I doing to help? What have I done today? What have I done for the man right in front of me, and for a woman who is suffering a world away? What more can I do?
While getting the attention of the world with welcoming gestures, Pope Francis is also this blunt. Time and again he turns attention to indifference. He did this perhaps most dramatically in his visit to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa his first summer as pope. First he talked about a man “half dead by the roadside,” whom we might glance at and think “poor guy,” as we “continue on our way.” He warned against living in “soap bubbles,” separating ourselves from others and their plights.
He went on to say: “‘Adam, where are you?’ ‘Where is your brother?’ These are the two questions that God puts at the beginning of the story of humanity, and that He also addresses to the men and women of our time, even to us. But I want to set before us a third question: ‘Who among us has wept for these things, and things like this?’ Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?”
This weeping Pope Francis was talking about is a “suffering with.” It’s as old as Christianity itself. It’s why a Christmastime without reflection on and reconciliation with Christ has missed the point.
On Christmas Day this is how Francis put it: “The Child Jesus. My thoughts turn to all those children today who are killed and ill-treated, be they infants killed in the womb, deprived of that generous love of their parents and then buried in the egoism of a culture that does not love life; be they children displaced due to war and persecution, abused and taken advantage of before our very eyes and our complicit silence. I think also of those infants massacred in bomb attacks, also those where the Son of God was born. Even today, their impotent silence cries out under the sword of so many Herods. On their blood stands the shadow of contemporary Herods. Truly there are so many tears this Christmas, together with the tears of the Infant Jesus.”
Writing about his time in Rome electing Pope Francis in an e-book titled Praying in Rome, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan reflected on Chaput’s comment about the road to hell: “While that’s a rather blunt statement, all of us need to reconnect to this vital lesson.” And about the pope, he said: “Francis is reminding us of our Christian obligation for the corporal works of mercy. To take care of the poor, to visit the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to tend to the sick.”
And it is not simply because it is good to be good to others that corporal and spiritual works of mercy are necessary in the life of a Christian. As Edward Norman writes in his book Secularisation: “The true splendor of the love of God is not that we loved him but that he loved us.”
He writes: “The Church is the body of Christ in the world. This is nearly a literal description for those who locate themselves in the tradition of the historic understanding of Christianity: Christ committed himself to a living company of people, who were for all time to convey his truth. To be Christian is to be integrated with this body, this company.”
And the Church, he goes on to explain, “is a community which exists both in time and in eternity and whose sole purpose is to be Christ in action — it has no other function than demonstrating and transmitting his truth.” And “Christians are a people under discipline . . . whose vocation is to behave as Christ wills.”
This, of course, is counter to a culture that values its independence and talks incessantly of “choice,” even as it too often insists on rejecting the worldview described above, one that sees human nature as fallen and God’s love for us as a gratuitous gift that compels us to grateful, radical action in surrender to His will.
As Norman writes: “Modern people, including many Christian adherents, are now impatient of doctrine — of personal submission to God — and are only too willing to trade it in for the easier allure of the service of humanity. This attracts the plaudits of modern opinion, is less divisive, is now less socially marginalizing also, and allows the individual freedom to contrive religious and moral ideas designed to express privately held beliefs.”
A Christianity without truth, without right and wrong, and without a clear awareness of sin and evil, reconciliation and redemption, is not for real. It misses the boat. While we are here on earth, our humanity gets in the way of the transmission of truth. That is why we must keep examining our consciences and moving ahead in the life of grace.
Which is why the pope talks time and again, too, of the Devil. It’s not to terrify the people he shepherds but to wake up the world. Indifference has consequences. And for the Christian, those consequences are eternal. The Christian difference of a life lived for Another, out of a love born of His love, brings with it witness to faith, hope, and joy. I’m guessing that the key to this difference wasn’t contained in any gadget under your Christmas tree, but it’s a promise for the new year from anyone serious about resolute renewal.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.