I want to share again the story that I recounted on Holy Thursday, back in April: A couple of years ago I led, for six days, the men of our of St. Pius X Seminary at Loras College on retreat.
We traveled to Mobile AL, the first American home of Mathias Loras, the first bishop of Dubuque. There, we visited Loras’ home, his college, Spring Hill, where he was its first president, and in a less spiritual moment, went to the beach. All in all, it was a terrific experience. But, after all the preparations, the 1000 mile drive to Alabama, and then the full two days of presentations and leading discussions, a little rest and quiet time for prayer was most needed. But, it was not to be, it seemed.
For, on Tuesday of that week, we drove 2-1/2 hours west of Mobile to New Orleans. After having studied Bishop Loras’ life of service, we felt it important to spend a day in actual service. As we all know, New Orleans has been a place of exceptional suffering over the recent years. Our service there was in union with the Presentation Sisters, who run the Presentation Lantern Center (PLC) The PLC serves the homeless of New Orleans, helping them with obtaining housing and other needs. However, the central activity of PLC is to offer noontimes meals for “their guests”
When you arrive at the PLC, what you see are many, many people (240 persons were gathered that day), a rather energetic group, with all kinds of shouts, laughs, and conversations going on. As was no surprise, this time would not be quiet, reflective time either! Our host, Sr. Vera, after giving us a tour of the Center, told us that we ought to go out amongst their guests, the homeless, and talk with them. A bit nervous, and wondering, “what can I talk to them about?” I stepped out into the courtyard and began to casually say hello to the folks. A man immediately caught my eyes, waved me over, and said, “God told me in a dream last night that you would come to talk to me.”
Dennis, a 50 yr. old African American man, told me all about his life, how he slept each night on the streets, how people mistreat him, how he sometimes reacted in anger to them and thus mistreated others, and how a particular woman, whom he fancied, had rejected him and how sad this made him feel. But, then he told me how much God loved him and how much he loved God. How he just longed for a place where he could sit and quietly read the word of God, something he found hard with no place to call his own. Then, it amazingly occurred to me that both of us, from seemingly different worlds, wanted that day exactly the same thing—some quiet to pray and discover God. We shared the same need, the same suffering.
So, I asked him if I could pray for him and then if he would pray for me. He agreed. I prayed that he could find a home where he could rest and read about God and learn about him. That God’s spirit would come to him and convince him of His love, no matter what any human person might say, and that others would understand him. He prayed for me that I could understand fully God’s ways for me and that I could guide others to Christ. Because we shared a common need, I could show compassion to him and he could be compassionate to me. Lunch was then ready, but Dennis’ last words said so much, “I will never forget our conversation.” Neither will I.
After speaking about the first two ideals identified in our parish’s strategic plan, FIDELITY to the Gospel of Jesus and the Church, and HOSPITALITY, seeing that each parishioner and guest feel welcome and comfortable, we today consider the third value, COMPASSION. As in our pastoral strategic plan, where it says, “A Christian community demonstrates its compassion by being attentive to each other’s needs and by responding to the needs of people beyond the community.”
What exactly is compassion? The very origin, etymology, of the word COMPASSION, helps us understand. This word has a Latin origin, from com- "together" + pati "to suffer. But, we look to another Word, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, God, who shared our human condition and its sufferings, showing us the compassion that the love of God. He is the compassionate one because he is God with us in our suffering, as seen supremely on Calvary. He didn’t “float” above our human condition—he entered into it! We are to imitate this kind of compassion.
If our parish is to be a place of compassion, we must see our weekly gathering as a gathering of persons deeply in need of the love of God. All of us! Then, inasmuch as we have come to the Lord in our need, and he has saved us with his love, then we can share in compassion this love with others in similar need.
How can we identify if we’re needy enough to be a compassionate member of this community, to be compassionate?
Litmus test: Do I find myself too often in a state of judging the shortcomings of others? If so, I have little capacity for compassion, for only the person who knows first of all her or his own deep neediness can see and respond to the needs of others. For compassion is not merely alleviating the distress of others, it is a sharing in the suffering of others.
Dennis in New Orleans taught me how to be a more compassionate person—not so much responding to and alleviating his suffering, but rather sharing his suffering, seeing my need, his same need, and sharing in it, helping him bear the same thing I was bearing and letting him bear mine.
St. Vincent de Paul knew quite a bit about compassion. When speaking about compassion for the poor, he knew the poor person before us was not the only impoverished one. He said, “we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.” Masters and patrons! In other words, we need and depend upon the poverty of others—to teach us compassion. The poverty of others, both their material and spiritual poverty—hunger, thirst, grief, doubt, despair and so much more—all show us our own poverty. In giving to others, we discover our own needs too being filled.
If we are to be a parish characterized by compassion, it will mean that we must be more than nice, more than kind, more than charitable. We must see our own poverty, then each of us come to Jesus to be healed. Only then can we be truly compassionate, helping others bear their sufferings with the love of Christ and letting them bear ours.