Compassion for those we never meet

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One of the modest pleasures I look forward to each morning is an hour in the library where The New York Times is awaiting me. So, I lug my Styrofoam cup of decaf and a couple graham crackers over to a convenient table and prepare to scan the world’s news. Without fail, the first sight that usually catches my eye is a disconcerting photo near the upper margin of the front page. On the very morning that I am writing this column it was an extraordinarily depressing picture of an Iraqi family; they were running for their lives, leaving the city of Mosul now under attack by an invading group of militants. The father, walking ahead, is carrying a bundle of clothing; the mother is carrying an infant in her arms and a young boy is bringing up the rear lugging a net bag of what looked like oranges.

I hesitated for a few moments in my reading and thought to myself: here I sit in a nice cool, quiet room reading the morning paper with hardly a care in the world. No military force will cause me to run from the city of South Bend or Notre Dame; we live in a peaceable patch of land. But here before me I stare at a family on the run. Where were they headed, what would they eat for lunch today, an orange, perhaps? Where could they find a restroom out there in the desert? Where would they sleep tonight? What would happen to their home and personal possessions back in Mosul? So, when I compared my situation that morning in the quiet of the reading room to that of this fleeing Iraqi family, all I could think was that this is pure madness, a world that is out of sync: a family is forced into intolerable circumstances because of centuries-old differences of culture and religion, and here I sit comfortably, my only concern being what would be served for breakfast. My only solace came from the weak excuse that this is happening across the world somewhere every day; what could I possibly do to settle such an age-old dispute. I turned the page and went on reading, dreaming idly of cinnamon toast and coffee.

Later that morning, as I prepared to write this column, I first read the Scriptures for the forthcoming 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time where two lessons speak about the promise of abundant water to drink and more than enough bread to feed a crowd. It occurred to me that these two Scripture lessons might be used as resource material for homilies in parishes around our country where conditions are radically different from the lives of the millions of people in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, parts of Africa and other places around the world. The great challenge to the pastor/preacher, therefore, it seems to me, is not to incite a sense of guilt on well-intentioned Christians but to help those who search for wisdom understand that even though they may not be able to change the sad conditions in those far off countries, it is still incumbent upon us not simply to pray for something more promising and hopeful to happen but to be aware that we live in one world on one planet and the Middle-Eastern family pictured in the newspaper is as much part of us as the neighbor next door. It is called human compassion for those whom we have never met and will probably never meet in our entire lifetime.

Scriptures for Aug. 3

Isaiah 55: 1-3

Romans 8: 35, 37-39

Matthew 14: 13-21

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.


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