by William Deatherage, Executive Director of Clarifying Catholicism
(IMAGE: Pope John Paul I. His short-lived papacy of over a month was marked by his friendly disposition. He eventually became known as “The Smiling Pope”)
The other day a friend of mine informed me that a relative of theirs was dying. Following this tragic news, they insisted that they would stay in constant communication with their loved one, as they told me, “we need to be there for people when they’re in their greatest time of need.”
As I write this, we are coming off the end of the Christmas season. I, like many others, have spent a substantial amount of time with people whom I care about. It seems that we reserve a few weeks at the end of the year for acknowledging blessings, reaching out to old friends, and serving others. My friend with the dying relative was right. We do need to be with people when they’re at their lowest. Likewise, there are also seasons that call us into greater reflection about giving and caring for others. But what happens throughout the rest of the year? Why does it seem like we forget the lessons we learn from the Christmas season so quickly? Furthermore, why is it that we wait for people to be in situations of danger until we finally reach out to them?
Depression, anxiety, suicide, and violence are all horrors that young people face. While my friend learned about their relative’s condition through their afflicted loved one, not everyone feels confident in asking others for help and support. It seems to me that every time tragedy strikes a community, a phrase I hear all too often is “they never reached out to us because they were quiet and didn’t talk to many people.” While it is impossible to read minds, I feel like there is a different angle that Catholics are obligated to take into account. Perhaps we should instead say, “They were quiet and didn’t talk to many people because we never reached out to them.”
Think about service. When do we tend to help people? Envision this. A person walks by struggling to carry a heavy package. It is possible that they would ask someone for help. But if they didn’t, I doubt that many bystanders would even notice their predicament. People will either assume that someone else will help or think that they are simply too busy to help. Now imagine that this package is invisible. Unless they actively sought out assistance, which is already unlikely, I wager that hardly anyone would even think about reaching out to them, even if they looked like they were struggling with something.
Now imagine this. The package is completely gone, but its weight still remains. Even without a tangible source of duress, their step is slow, their eyes are heavy, and their feet drag. How many people do you pass by every day who exhibit these characteristics? Can you visualize any of your friends and loved ones in this situation? I can assure you that when you come across such sorrowful individuals that they carry great packages of immeasurable stress in their lives. And though we may not see it, their package is shaped like a cross that we are obligated to volunteer to carry.
Service should not always be reactive, and it certainly should not be passive. If we truly want to love others, we cannot wait for them to be at their lowest before we offer assistance. We cannot wait for tragedy to strike before we ask someone if they are okay, and we cannot wait for Christmas to give. If the church is a hospital, we cannot afford to administer medicine at death’s door. If we really want to help carry someone’s cross, we should not wait until they’ve fallen a third time.
By service, I am not implying anything grand or formal. Instead, I advocate for actions as simple as smiling at someone. If we cannot master serving those we love on a daily basis through the humblest habits, how could we be expected to enact change around the world? College students are quite busy. Many of us do not make time to perform acts of kindness for the impoverished or temporally needy. The least we can do is extend the goodwill of Christ’s love to our fellow peers. Imagine how this could change community landscapes across the world.
All too often I will come across young theologians who profess a love for Church and all of Her teachings, but they will never even approach those who struggle emotionally. Often, it seems that the faces of the Church resemble those of pharisees, rather than Christ, especially in a competitive college setting. For a faith that professes nothing but kindness in teaching, it seems that practice does not always correspond to preaching. There is an awful exodus of young people from the faith, and people often blame it on their failure to reach out to the Church. However, perhaps we should view it as the Church’s failure to effectively reach out to them.
A patient will only see a doctor so many times before they switch to a different treatment, and the Church bears a great weight of responsibility to ensure that all people help each other through simple humble acts of service. Then and only then will the Church be restored as a force synonymous with love, care, compassion, and service. Christmas may be nearing its end, but it is our duty to extend the spirit of the season throughout the rest of the year. God’s flock is ravaged year round, and it is time that we tend to the sheep by extending the spirit of service well beyond the holidays. Pope St. John Paul II once said, “Genuine love […] is demanding. But its beauty lies precisely in the demands it makes. Only those able to make demands on themselves in the name of love can then demand love from others.”
Christmas may have ended, but I hope and pray that a new season of loving and serving will begin. Happy 2019. Thank you for supporting Clarifying Catholicism. God bless.