Building a Culture of Encounter: Making the Invisible, Visible

by Evangelization, Faith & Life, Value of Human Life

This video makes me want to run out onto the street and hug every homeless person I meet. The images of the people dressed up in shaggy, dirty clothes being walked past by their relatives without a second glance is a perfect expression of what happens on a day-to-day basis. What these people feel as they watch their loved ones walk by without even the slightest bit of acknowledgement is in fact the daily reality for most homeless, who experience this indifference not just from one individual, but from each person who walks by; they have become accustomed to being invisible.

The reactions of those in the video who walk past their “homeless” relatives are an important key to understanding where we as a society stand in the face of the suffering of others. Some, like the man who walks past his wife and the one who walks by his cousin, almost seem to recognize their relative and start to look at the person a bit closer, as if something seems familiar, before promptly looking away and continuing to walk forward. It’s as if they refuse to stop and look further, like they don’t want to know who these people are, or see their suffering. They prefer to remain indifferent.

Last summer Pope Francis made a July 8 visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is the destination of African emigrants, many of whom are Muslim, who wish to come to Europe. Many times seeking an escape from violence or poor living conditions, the migrants pack onto overcrowded boats and sail under dangerous conditions, with many dying along the way.

In his homily for Mass that day, Pope Francis warned against a “culture of comfort” that “makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others.”

“In this globalized world,” he said, “we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.”

“How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another?”

I know that I am also guilty of this attitude, and can be counted among those who raise their hands in a shameful affirmation of my positive identification with this question: I too am indifferent, I too am part of this “culture of comfort.” Like those who walk past their relatives in the video, it is difficult and troubling to admit that we can be like this. Often times we don’t even realize or know, but when faced with the reality of what our attitudes frequently are, we are shocked and deeply saddened by what we see, like the woman who cries when she realizes that she walked past her sister on the street without even glancing down.

The solution to this cultural epidemic is none other than a greater sense of fraternal solidarity which enables us to see others not as nameless bystanders, but rather as our own brothers and sisters, or in the case of this video, as our wives, husbands, uncles, aunts and cousins. This is also something Pope Francis has spoken about frequently since his election, and was a theme he stressed heavily in his message for the World Day of Peace earlier this spring.

It is something that the individuals in the video learned the hard way, but will not soon forget. I am sure they will never view the homeless in the same way. Let’s think about ways that we can burst our own “soap bubbles,” as our pontiff coined, and truly go out to encounter those around us. Maybe this will come through volunteering at homeless shelter, or a soup kitchen, or maybe it will simply mean looking into the eyes and faces of those we pass on the streets instead of keeping our heads high, or our eyes on the ground. However we do it, let’s all make the commitment to build a “culture of encounter,” and what St. John Paul II referred to as “a civilization of love.”

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