The new year is upon us and already we’ve watched as most government and political leaders continue the callous ways of the past.
Consider this: Just a few days before Christmas after reciting the midday Angelus prayer from the window of the apostolic palace, Pope Francis — rightfully Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” by the way — took note of a sign being held by one in the crowd that nearly filled St. Peter’s Square.
The sign was simple. It read “The poor cannot wait.”
Pope Francis, according to the Catholic News Service, read the sign aloud after it caught his eye. He said:
“It’s beautiful. It makes me think how Jesus was born in a stall, not a house. And reading that sign I think today of all the families without homes, either because they never had one or because they lost their home for some reason.
“A family and a home go together,” the pope continued. “It’s very difficult to keep a family going without a home to live in. During these Christmas days, I ask everyone — individuals, social agencies, authorities — to do everything possible so that every family can have a home.”
But as the new year begins, just the opposite of the pope’s request seems to be dominating the hearts and minds of those “authorities” who are supposed to help, who are supposed to be the compassionate side of government.
In a nation of untold riches, some of its richest members — we’re talking about many of those in Congress here — have decided to end unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans who can’t find work. One of our senators justified this cold-hearted approach to governing this way: If we extended unemployment benefits, we’d only be making those without work “part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
So too bad for the unemployed, I suppose. Too bad for their families. Too bad for those who will lose their homes because they can’t find a job and now won’t have even a modicum of money coming in to help feed their families.
There exists in our nation a well-entrenched notion that people who receive welfare love it; that they don’t want to work and instead just want their government checks. Remember the story of the welfare mom who allegedly drove to the unemployment office in a Cadillac? A former president used that image during his campaign and it turned out that it wasn’t true; it was the creation of a campaign advisor.
So do some research of your own. Ask someone who works with poor people, who deals with them, with their families, every day. Ask Sister Kathleen Sheehan who used to be executive director of the St. John Center for homeless men. With the exception of those people suffering from various forms of mental illness, she said, the men who visited her center every day would much rather have a job and a home. They’d much rather have a viable future.
Sister Sheehan’s successor, Maria Price, will tell you the same thing.
There are 12,000 or so children in Louisville public schools who are homeless. Ask them or their mothers if they’d rather be living in a shelter or have a home of their own. Ask their parents if they’d rather receive a small stipend from the government or have a job of their own.
Now that stipend, for many, is disappearing. As a society, it seems we’ve become what Pope Francis calls “indifferent and immobile” in the face of poverty and injustice.
“What is happening in people’s hearts?” the pope said after reading a letter from a man who was struggling to understand why there are so many tragedies, so many wars and so much poverty in the world.
“What is going on in the heart of humanity?” he asked.
Apparently, many of our hearts are hardened to such an extent that we’re disinterested in the plight of others. “I’ve got mine; you get yours,” is a cliché, granted, but clichés become clichés because they’re grounded in a modicum of truth.
Pope Francis has captured what’s happened, has said it better than anyone has said it in quite some time. We’ve become cold-hearted, to a large extent — not everyone, of course.
There’s the danger of painting with a broad brush here and as we know locally, there are plenty of people and agencies in the Archdiocese of Louisville who work every day to help those in need.
But the pope, in just a few words, has captured the essence of many attitudes toward the poor.
Our world is marked by “a globalization of indifference,” he has said repeatedly, which has led to a coldness towards “the suffering of others.”
“The succession of economic crises,” says the pope, “should lead to a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles.” And columnist Tony Magliano, writing about Pope Francis’ first World Day of Peace message, notes that “to a large extent, we have a brutal, winner-take-all economic model” where the rich get richer and the poor are left to scramble for the crumbs.
As Christians we know — and Pope Francis keeps reminding us — that’s not the way it should be.