We encounter them when we walk down the streets of Richmond or Arlington or Virginia Beach, or get off interstate exit ramps: homeless people pleading for loose change or a couple dollar bills to get something to eat. The sight may be so common we’ve gotten good at ignoring these folks: maybe we dismiss them as “bums” unwilling to work, or decide they’ll spend whatever we give them on alcohol or drugs.
It’s a dichotomy: we live in a consumerist society that places heavy emphasis on the accumulation of material things, the creation of wealth and the exaltation of self, but hidden in plain sight are people who are poor, forgotten, suffering or living without life’s basic necessities. As Christians, we feel compassion toward them. We might even make some contribution to help these neighbors in need. But inevitably, we assume “someone else” will solve the problem.
During a Mass on the Italian island of Lampedusa Monday, Pope Francis brought this point home, reflecting on the thousands of poor, war-torn African refugees who have died over the years, struggling to reach a better life by swimming across the Mediterranean Sea.
“The culture of comfort…makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial,’’ Pope Francis said. “They offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others.”
Our society glorifies individual achievement, but our Catholic social teaching proposes instead solidarity as a virtue by which to live in community and foster growth for the common good. Solidarity, Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1988 encyclical Sollicitudo rei Socialis, “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people….”
Instead, he said, solidarity “is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say the good of all and of each individual, because we are all responsible for all.”
How do we exhibit solidarity? First, we pray. Secondly we act for the good of others: we stand with farmers and workers who produce our food but seek fair and just wages by supporting ethical business and trade practices. We speak out against government oppression in foreign lands and support—materially and spiritually—our brothers and sisters around the world struggling for freedom; we contribute financially and advocate for just policies to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
This call to solidarity is both collective and individual. The U.S. Bishops note in “Called to Global Solidarity” that “The Church’s teaching on international justice and peace is not simply a mandate for a few large agencies, but a challenge for every Catholic community of faith….” This call to global solidarity is rooted in the call to love, Pope Benedict XVI said in his encyclical: “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good.” (Caritas in Veritate).
Our faith challenges us to see social concerns not as disturbances to our comfortable life or problems for “somebody else” to solve, but as God inviting us to see the face of Christ in fellow human beings.