I once heard a story about one of the shortest and most powerful homilies that I have ever come across. I don’t know the name of the priest who delivered the homily nor when he preached it or to whom. In some sense, I am glad about that lack of historicity, because this tends to affirm the timelessness of its important message and its relevance in every age. This is the homily in its entirety.
“During the time that I am preaching this homily to you today, 1,500 people — most of them children — are dying from hunger and hunger-related diseases. By the time this Mass is completed, a total of 7,500 people will die from the same causes. And one of the saddest things about this tragedy is that some people won’t even give a damn about these deaths. To make matters even worse, some of the people who are listening to this homily ultimately will be more upset about the fact that I have used the word ‘damn’ in church than they will be about the fact that so many people have died.”
One of the key themes our Holy Father, Pope Francis, often speaks about is the scourge of indifference. In fact, he has called this the “greatest sickness of our time.”
When Pope Francis speaks about indifference, he describes it as a toxic combination of self-interest and apathy in the face of the violence and suffering of the world. Indifferent people are so caught up with themselves and their own pursuits they ignore the pain of others.
At one of the interreligious summits held in Assisi on the anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis spoke pointedly on the topic, stating that indifference “is a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive.” It is a “disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervor, giving rise to a new and deeply sad paganism.”
Pope Francis’ charge of paganism is directed at those who seek an illusory form of peace. He states that true peace is not found in the calmness of those who avoid the difficulties of life by turning away from them if their personal interests are not at risk. He adds, peace “is not the cynicism of one who washes his hands of any problem that is not his.” Peace “is not the virtual approach of one who judges everything and everyone using a computer keyboard, without opening his eyes to the needs of his brothers and sisters.”
While the Holy Father gives a “modern spin” to the topic of indifference, I think it is easy to see his comments reflect and are inspired by some of the venerable readings from the Sacred Scriptures.
One passage, in particular, from the words of the prophet Amos (6:1-7), thunders with denunciation of the people of his time for their apathy. He charges that they are so preoccupied with the self-indulgence of their feasting, drinking and partying that they are oblivious to the “collapse of Joseph,” which is a reference to the decadence which is causing the dissolution and destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel.
Another Biblical passage that expresses a stinging rebuke of indifference is found in the Gospel of Luke (16:19-31), where Jesus tells the parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” to condemn the obliviousness of the wealthy man to the sickness and hunger of the poor man just outside the door of his house. The aloof indifference of the rich man to even share with Lazarus the scraps that would fall from his table is reciprocated in a great reversal in the afterlife. There, in the Kingdom of Heaven, the tables have turned. Now, in response to his lack of concern and caring, it is the rich man who yearns for a cooling drop of water from the tip of Lazarus’ hand that will never come.
How sadly, then, that it seems that there tragically remain far too many people who still have not learned the lesson about the devastating effects of indifference. The complacency, apathy and obliviousness from the days of Amos and Jesus are still with us — as Pope Francis warns us about their new manifestation in the modern forms of this apathetic sickness. Let us not allow our self-preoccupation and self-satisfaction to blind us to the trials and sufferings that are so great and prevalent.
It is true that we cannot solve every problem or rescue everyone who is in danger amidst the abundance of social ills that seem to be ubiquitous in our time. We cannot do it all. We can do something. Each and every one of us can and must select at least one cause — one charity — one ministry of human concern to which we give our heart-felt commitment and allegiance.
We cannot remain indifferent. For — with every day that we ignore the pain and suffering in the world around us — there is the danger of the parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” unfolding again. With every day we remain aloof from the trials and troubles and struggles of our society, we dig yet another shovel in the chasm between us and the “Lazaruses” of our time — which the Gospel warns can become an impassable chasm, which over time can become as wide as eternity.