Our age of instant communication often enflames the noble human desire to reach out to the masses and crusade across the world for justice. Countless websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and more have sprung up dedicated to charitable causes. The fight to stamp out hunger, the battle to put an end to crime, the campaigns to save endangered species are but a few of the gallant efforts to which so many people lend innumerable energies and contribute significant resources. But it seems like efforts addressing whole societies, good-intentioned though they may be, simply aren’t enough.
Recently Pope Francis offered the following remarks to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization:
Something more can and must be done in order to provide a new stimulus to international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something more than mere goodwill or, worse, promises which all too often have not been kept.
These strong words of our beloved Holy Father are a clarion call for justice, but are men strong enough to answer the call? As dignified as these words are and the sentiments they carry, does it not seem that in a world rife with political corruption, in a world conquered by endemic egotism, that such justice is impossible? After all, does not Jesus assure us in the Gospels: “The poor you will always have with you”?
It would be reckless to simply interpret these words of Jesus to mean, “Your efforts to alleviate suffering will in the end be futile.” (Br. Clement Dickie, O.P., considered this verse here last Christmas.) A dismissal of the precepts of charity to serve the poor among us offends not only the teaching of Christian morality, but Jesus Himself, whose face we see in the eyes of the needy and the outcast. Christians, motivated in a particular way by service to Christ, and non-Christians, guided by many principles confluent with Christian teaching, in service to truth, goodness, and justice, ought therefore—at least in theory—to be able to cooperate to effect an extensive reform of the world by speaking to the masses.
This being the case, why is systemic transformation of whole societies so difficult to achieve? The answer lies with the target of Christ: the human heart. Christianity, able to convert entire nations and cultures, touches the heart of a society because Jesus Christ touches the heart of each Christian believer who belongs to that society. Through Christianity’s unalterable respect for the dignity of every human person, she preserves the value of the individual. United by the respect of every man’s dignity, the many parts of the one body function as a single united whole. Christianity principally converts the hearts of men.
Facing the daunting task of universal amendment to ameliorate the lives of the suffering or forsaken, we do not shirk the precipitous climb that stands before us. Let us instead commit ourselves to the great plan of action of the saints, by honoring the dignity of each and every human person. Consider these words of Elisabeth Leseur:
Following Him, let us turn with tenderness to every person, however poor or sinful, and let us endeavor to be ‘all things to all men.’ Let us think less of humanity and more of men, or rather let us remember that humanity is only made of human beings and that each one of them needs the light and the strength that God gives, and it belongs to us to spread this light as far as we can.
Through the graces and merits of Christ, the effect of addressing individual souls will be truly durable and, beyond doubt, great.
Image: Chinese middle-schoolers celebrating Communism during a ceremony in Suining, Sachuan province, China (March 4, 2013)