Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry
Overcome Indifference and Win Peace
We are now at the eighth day of the 12 days of Christmas – and each feast tackles some facet of human existence in the story of the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. And as we recognise Mary’s physical motherhood of the Son of God, we celebrate her Son as the Prince of Peace.
Two weeks ago, there was huge publicity for the agreement at the World Climate Conference, COP21, in Paris. All of the nations of the world committed themselves to do what they can to ensure that, for example, some island nations do not vanish under the waves as sea levels rise. There is a recognition that we are contributing to the destruction this beautiful earth where we live – and that life on barren Mars Is a poor alternative!
Pope Francis has chosen for his theme for World Day of Peace – overcome indifference and win peace. His message is simple. Renewing the face of the earth will not be achieved just by new laws and international agreements. Ecological degradation is merely a symptom of poisonous elements in our human ecology. Indifference towards the physical environment is paralleled by indifference towards people. Peace will never be the fruit of a barren human heart. The seeds of peace will grow only in the soil of compassionate, merciful hearts and societies. Our physical and human ecology will be saved, not merely by new policies and pledges but by new people.
The Pope suggests that indifference comes from various sources. We are able to get information from around the world in a matter of seconds – and yet it can be hard to distinguish the disasters elsewhere from the regular diet of disaster fiction that is part of our culture, even from an early age. We can be well aware of what is happening elsewhere but can feel either indifferent of helpless in the face of earthquakes, war, floods or famines. We can even feel that our hard-won comforts are threatened by the cries of the needy. Having much wealth does not guarantee a big heart. As Pope Francis put it last Lent, “When we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others : we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure… Our heart grows cold. As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well off.” Similarly, Pope Benedict wrote in 2009, “As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers and sisters.” .
When God vanishes from the picture, there tends to be a decreasing sense of ‘us’ and a growing sense of ‘me’. Strangely, it seems that solidarity is best seen when people are afflicted by problems at their own doorstep. The recent floods in these islands have generated huge amounts of generosity and self-sacrifice. As was always the case, those who have least tend to share most.
The Christmas message, this story written by adults for adults, speaks of a God who is with us, a God who is not indifferent to our human condition, a God who shares the lot of the weak, from being a child refugee to the Cross. The bridge between created and Creator is built, not just by the physical shedding of his blood as the price for sin. Rather, throughout his life he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant and accepting death on the Cross. (Phil 2:7-8). He, the one who was not a priest in his own time (Hb 8:4) and who was cursed by being hung on the Cross (Gal 3:13) has reached out to those who were beyond his own people and group. His new covenant with humanity invites those, who would follow him, to reach out to those who are near and those who are far away.
And it may seem strange, but a person can be generous to others in need and still be indifferent. Christian solidarity is not merely a question of giving to others from our excess or our unused possessions. It is not be confused with travelling to help them for a few weeks. ‘Voluntourism’ may help others in some ways – but it may be directed at benefitting me rather than them. Lack of food can lead to a hungry stomach but lack of solidarity chills the heart. Solidarity in the model of Jesus, who became poor for our sake (2 Cor 8:9), means sharing the crosses of those in need. It means giving of ourselves and not just from our savings.
We do not having many dying from hunger in this country. But we have many dying from a broken heart. Poverty is not just a lack of things but includes a sense of being useless, a burden, unwanted in society. In that sense poverty is always relative. If our government wants to overcome poverty, then that will never come merely from providing more things or services. Things and services are of relatively little value unless they raise self-esteem and generate a sense of hope for the future. Our Catholic school has to be very careful that we do not merely espouse wonderful Gospel values but in practice favour the strong over the weak. Christian solidarity will be costly. It means giving up pleasures and privileges. As the Pope says, many families make great sacrifices to provide their children with a “counter-cultural” education in the values of solidarity, compassion and fraternity! Only saints would do that – but we are called to be saints.
This is an important them in this Year of Mercy. Those who experience the mercy of God in their own lives cannot then rest on their laurels. As Pope Francis puts it, solidarity is much more than a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. Solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all, because compassion flows from fraternity.” Believers in the Baby of Bethlehem are called upon to change unjust relationships in the world and never to benefit from them. Peace will be the fruit of a culture of solidarity, mercy and compassion”. It will never be the fruit of war, violence or the defence of me.
This Octave of Christmas moves us away beyond the cosy world of a handsome baby with his parents in the beautifully clean stable. We have been invited to wrestle with adult themes as we see the God walks with those on the fringes of religious society. That is where the shepherds, the Magi from the East, the tax collectors and the thieves on Calvary were situated. He did not reach down to them. He lay, ate and died with them.
That is why his followers are called to overcome indifference and win peace. The way of God is the way that we are asked to walk as well. That is the standard against which we will rightly be judged in this year of mercy.
Bishop of Derry