By David Came (Feb 6, 2009)
The following is an excerpt from the new book Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate (Marian Press):
It was Friday evening, August 3, 2007. It had been a stressful work week for me — on deadline for Marian Helper magazine, which I edit for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. So I decided to treat myself by picking up a copy of The New York Times.
Well, imagine my surprise when I saw mercy writ large in the day's headlines, right on the front page.
Let me explain. The Times was reporting on the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis on August 1, which had stunned the nation and raised serious concerns about the safety of our nation's infrastructure of highways and bridges. Of course, the immediate concern in the aftermath was about the five confirmed deaths and the 20 to 30 people who remained missing after the collapse of the bridge. My initial reaction was one of great sadness and concern for the victims and their families, as well as concern for the safety of our nation's bridges.
Then, as I scanned the page, I noticed the feature with the headline: "Stunned Victim Turns Hero in Busful of Children." There was a photo alongside the story of a man named Jeremy Hernandez.
A Good Samaritan in the Day's Headlines
As I started to read the story of this Good Samaritan's act of heroism, my mood changed to joy. I couldn't help but think of Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth and his insight on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let me share the essentials of Ellen Barry's feature story in The Times about Mr. Hernandez. Then I'll get back to Pope Benedict's insight:
By the time they reached the Interstate 35W bridge, the children on the bus were waterlogged and serene, some still in their bathing suits, ready to go home. It was a rare moment of quiet, and as the bus crossed over the Mississippi River a few of the counselors, barely out of adolescence themselves, had dropped off to sleep in their seats.
What happened next is difficult to describe, even a day later. Angi Haney, a counselor, realized first that she was not in her seat, and then that she was not touching any part of the bus, and then that "we were all just flying in the air." T.J. Mattson, a 12-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses, looked out a window and saw water on the other side. Dust filled the bus, blotting out its passengers.
And then they came to rest. Jeremy Hernandez, the whip-thin 20-year-old who worked as the summer program's gym coordinator, remembers time seemed to congeal. Then something broke the spell, and his heart began pounding, and he jumped over two rows of seats and kicked open the back door. He remembers coolers flying, and he remembers passing along children to strangers lined up like a bucket brigade.
"I just acted," Mr. Hernandez said [the day after]. "I just moved, my feet were just moving. My body was following."
The people gathered at the Waite House, the center in the Phillips neighborhood that sponsored the bus trip, were shocked, but their shock was mixed with joy. Of the 61 children and others on the school bus who plunged along with the bridge, only 14 required hospitalization, and 10 of those were quickly released.
Notice how this Good Samaritan simply acted to save lives at that chaotic moment aboard the bus. He didn't stop and analyze the situation.
'The Lightning Flash of Mercy'
Keep that in mind as we turn to Pope Benedict's insight on Jesus' parable of the Good Samarian in the Gospel of Luke (see 10:25-37).
A man has just been robbed and beaten, and he is lying by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road. Will anyone stop to help?
Benedict picks up the narrative here, writing:
And now the Samaritan enters the stage. What will he do? [Unlike the expert in the Law who had just been questioning Jesus] he does not ask how far his obligations of solidarity extend. Nor does he ask about the merits required for eternal life. Something else happens: His heart is wrenched open. The Gospel uses the word that in Hebrew had originally referred to the mother's womb and maternal care. Seeing this man in such a state is a blow that strikes him "viscerally," touching his soul. "He had compassion" — that is how we translate the text today, diminishing its original vitality. Struck in his soul by the lightning flash of mercy, he himself now becomes a neighbor, heedless of any question or danger. The burden of the question thus shifts here. The issue is no longer which other person is a neighbor to me or not. The question is about me. I have to become the neighbor, and when I do, the other person counts for me "as myself " (Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday, 2007, p. 197).
In this light, can't we say that Jeremy Hernandez was "struck in his soul by the lightning flash of mercy" when "time seemed to congeal" and he knew what he had to do? Just as the Samaritan stopped by the side of the road to aid the seriously injured man who had been robbed and beaten, so Mr. Hernandez "jumped over two rows of seats" on the bus and "kicked open the back door" to save the lives of his fellow passengers. The same merciful response led him to pass along "children [from the bus] to strangers lined up like a bucket brigade."
Along with this dramatic rescue, one powerful image of this lightning flash of mercy that never ceases to amaze me is how firefighters risk life and limb in the face of roaring flames to save people trapped in fires. They are the epitome of the Good Samaritan as the one who "now becomes a neighbor, heedless of any question or danger."
But you and I face less dramatic examples of this call to serve our neighbor in need. Last year, in my parish of Sacred Heart in Pittsfield, Mass., we took up a second collection for a family in desperate straits. Along with my fellow parishioners, I was immediately moved to be as generous as possible. The mother had just suffered a severe heart attack, while the father had recently lost his job. To make matters worse, it was a family with small children.
Yet how many times have I failed miserably to respond to the lightning flash of mercy? I sense a prompting to stop and help a homeless person on the street, but I squelch the urge and pass by on the other side of the road. It's Saturday, and I feel a pang of conscience about not helping my elderly neighbor down the street by offering to pick up her medications and buy her groceries. I rationalize that I'm too busy with my own chores at home.
What about you? Have you ever been struck in your soul "by the lightning flash of mercy"? Think of the times when you have responded or failed to respond.
'A Heart Which Sees'
Interestingly, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Pope Benedict also touches on the parable of the Good Samaritan in his section on the distinctiveness of the Church's charitable activity:
Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc. ...
One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and whenever we have the opportunity, independently of partisan strategies and programs. The Christian's program — the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus — is "a heart which sees." This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly (31).
In the first paragraph of this excerpt, Benedict speaks in a similar vein about his teaching on the parable of the Good Samaritan in his book Jesus of Nazareth. We are called to respond to "immediate needs and specific situations" in caring for our neighbor. Then he begins to enumerate the corporal works of mercy, which provide a number of situations in which we are called to help our neighbor in need.
The Pope's remarks evoke the Last Judgment discourse in Matthew, where Jesus says that we will be judged on our performing the corporal works of mercy for those in need out of love for Him. In summing up, Jesus, in the person of the King, tells the righteous: "Amen, I say to you, what you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me"(Mt 25:40).
In the second paragraph of the excerpt, the Pope describes "the program of the Good Samaritan" as "a heart which sees" "where love is needed and acts accordingly." Here, we can think of those in the Last Judgment discourse of Matthew who are condemned precisely because they did not perform works of mercy when they saw their brother or sister in need (see Mt 25:41-46). Even more specifically, we can think of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus where the Rich Man failed to notice Lazarus, a poor man covered with sores, who was lying right at his door (see Lk 16:19-31).
Do we have eyes to see those who are in need in our neighborhoods, parishes, and places of work? Or are we literally passing them by on our way home?
I'll never forget a couple of years ago when I got a flat tire on my way home from work. I had pulled off to the side of the road and was just getting ready to change the tire while dressed in a sports coat, tie, and slacks. Noticing me fumble with the car jack in my nice clothes, a couple of workmen in a pick-up truck pulled over and offered to change my tire. They had hearts that saw me in my need.
A Foundation for Our Service to Others
How can we best develop a heart that sees? For Pope Benedict, the key is an intimacy with the Lord that nurtures the giving of ourselves in service and a "radical humility" like that of Christ Himself upon the Cross:
Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: If my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.
This proper way of serving others also leads to humility. The one who serves does not consider himself superior to the one served, however miserable his situation at the moment may be. Christ took the lowest place in the world — the Cross — and by this radical humility he redeemed us and constantly comes to our aid. Those who are in a position to help others will realize that in doing so they themselves receive help; being able to help others is no merit or achievement of their own. This duty is a grace. The more we do for others, the more we understand and can appropriate the words of Christ: "We are useless servants" (Lk 17:10). We recognize that we are not acting on the basis of any superiority or greater personal efficiency, but because the Lord has graciously enabled us to do so (Deus Caritas Est, 34-35).
We develop such intimacy with the Lord through daily prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, and frequent reception of the Sacraments. Above all, intimacy with our Savior is fostered by receiving Him regularly in Holy Communion and being quick to confess any serious sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Out of such a prayerful and sacramental life, we are empowered to give our lives in service to others and to do it with real humility, as servants of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
The Pope is concerned that without this kind of foundation, we will be prone to take a secular approach to our charitable service. Yet then what will we do without the love and mercy of God to sustain us — when we reach the end of our own human resources? In that vein, he writes:
It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. Clearly, the Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God's plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work. A personal relationship with God and an abandonment to his will can prevent man from being demeaned and save him from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism. An authentically religious attitude prevents man from presuming to judge God, accusing him of allowing poverty and failing to have compassion for his creatures. When people claim to build a case against God in defense of man, on whom can they depend when human activity proves powerless? (Deus Caritas Est, 37).
Speaking for myself, I know that in all my service and work for others, personal prayer and daily Mass are my lifeline. Especially when I miss daily Mass, I find that my strength and concentration start to flag.
What about you? What is the spiritual foundation for your life of service? Take a minute or two to examine your own spiritual life.
Moving on, in our next chapter, we discover that Pope Benedict has especially called on the sick and youth to be witnesses of God's mercy. Why has he singled them out?
Fulfilling the Mandate
As God has shown mercy to us, we are called to show mercy to others, especially those in greatest need. Otherwise, our witness to God's mercy will lack credibility and integrity. Like the heart of the Good Samaritan, our hearts should be disposed to serving our neighbor. To use Pope Benedict's powerful image, we never know when we may be struck in our souls "by the lightning flash of mercy" upon encountering someone in great need. Or to use another of Benedict's images, we need "a heart which sees" "where love is needed and acts accordingly."
Such a disposition of the heart is best fostered by a prayerful and sacramental life, so we are not running on empty when we are called to serve others in challenging situations that stretch us. In this regard, our love of neighbor should flow from our love of God, the One who first loved us. Then we will be empowered to give of ourselves in service and to do it humbly, as Jesus our Master did upon the Cross.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.