Christmas and Pope Francis

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        This Christmas, many parts of the world are rent by violence, mayhem, and increasing religious fanaticism and intolerance. Across the globe, the gap between the few who are privileged and the many who struggle to meet most basic needs grows ever wider.

        Here in the United States, our political institutions are paralyzed by gridlock and dysfunction. Because of that, we are unable to address a host of persistent problems including high unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, a hallowed-out middle class, crumbling infrastructure, gun violence and environmental degradation. Simultaneously, our judicial institutions are increasingly unwilling to ensure of the equality of treatment under the law or access to justice by those who are not numbered among the 1%. 

           In the midst of these profound problems, the Christmas Season summons to put our aside despair, cynicism and pessimism over the present course of events and to embrace a message of hope and the possibility of radical change. The Christmas narrative describes the birth of a child to a humble carpenter and a loving mother who, by the singular power of his example and his message, was able to craft a demand for universal justice encompassing all of humanity that resonates to the present.     

          In this Christmas Season in particular, we should also be inspired by the example of a humble Argentine Jesuit who has no army and no political power, but who is able to lead by the power of his moral example. From his demand for unconditional love to his insistence upon peace and religious toleration, the Pope Francis has sought to reach out to all people of good will.

             In a meeting with journalists on March 16, 2013, Pope Francis announced that he would bless them silently, "Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers." In a papal address a week later, while he decried the "attempt to eliminate God and the Divine from the horizon of humanity," he offered this comment about nonbelievers: "[W]e also sense our closeness to all those men and women who, although not identifying themselves as followers of any religious tradition, are nonetheless searching for truth, goodness and beauty, the truth, goodness and beauty of God. They are our valued allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in safeguarding and caring for creation."

           On December 13, 2013, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium ("Joy of the Gospel"), Pope Francis restated the historic essence of Catholic social philosophy as he called upon people of good will everywhere, believers  and non-believers alike, to work for a better, more just world. The Pope proclaimed that "The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God's voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades."

          In unequivocal terms, the pope condemned the free market ideology that has become the conventional wisdom of this post-modern world: "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape." 

         The pope continued his lament that, "Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a 'disposable' culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society's underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised - they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the 'exploited' but the outcast, the 'leftovers.'"

          Pope Francis' call for social justice is profoundly conservative, but to the tone deaf, it sounds far too radical. He has reminded all of us that the status quo is no longer acceptable because it is incompatible with human dignity. Those who seek to know the truth of the human condition will acknowledge this basic proposition. By contrast, the clamor and indignation of the critics and naysayers are solely calculated to vindicate the status-quo irrespective of the suffering and misery it has spawned.         

          The Gospel of Matthew admonishes us, "To whom much is given, much is expected in return" and "What you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me."

          This Christmas, people of good will everywhere might commit themselves to the message of Pope Francis who insists that our collective capacity to promote social justice is greater than the sum of reckless individuals and feckless, unresponsive institutions that all too often pursue only their own short-term, selfish objectives. An added but equally important imperative is his insistence that we need to understand that we ourselves are the only instruments who can bring about the change that is so urgently needed.   



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