A Bishop's Perspective Bishop Burns

Acts of compassion uphold human dignity

A BISHOP’S PERSPECTIVE in the Juneau Empire,  March 31, 2014

This past week I was in Anchorage attending the fourth annual multi-day convocation of Catholic priests from around the state of Alaska. Our presenter was Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York City. Over 60 priests attended. The presentations were enlightening, the prayer time was wonderful and the camaraderie was a blessing. The convocation concluded on Thursday, which happened to be the 50th anniversary of the 1964 earthquake. The host of our gathering, Archbishop Schwietz, took me to Earthquake Park in Anchorage and we were there just before the moment when church bells throughout the state of Alaska were to toll in commemoration of the exact moment the earthquake occurred 50 years earlier. As I stood there on that beautiful day looking out at the uneven terrain and the glorious vista, I couldn’t help but to think of the lives lost in the earthquake and the destruction that took place.

Seeing the urgent needs of those who have suffered from natural disaster or those confronted with personal loss, our hearts are moved to compassion. This movement of love toward others seeks to address the threats to human dignity and human suffering, and contribute to the conditions for human flourishing. Those who do the direct work of relief and development in moments of great need act with compassion for the sake of humanity. Compassion, which comes from the Latin “cum passio” — to suffer with — moves us to act for justice and love. We identify with the one who is suffering, identify so much with them that we “feel” the hardship that they are undergoing and we want to do what we can to help.

Bibi Guhl received a lamb from CRS so she can earn income selling wool, milk and new lambs. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS
Bibi Guhl received a lamb from CRS so she can earn income selling wool, milk and new lambs. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

In another instance, I was moved when I recently read about an initiative by Catholic Relief Services on behalf of widows in Afghanistan. In this impoverished and war-torn nation, women with husbands are able to support their families through work in the home while their husbands labor in the fields to generate a cash income. But widows must rely on whatever food their families can give them and do not have the means to buy other necessities like household goods or medicine that require cash.

This particular initiative, which is an illustration of commitment to the most needy among us, has offered these widows an effective way to develop a livelihood. In a village outside of Herat, CRS has provided a female lamb to each widow along with instructions on how to keep their lambs healthy. Now, some of the lambs have produced their first offspring. This will give each owner twice as much wool and milk to use and sell. Along with money for much-needed supplies, the lambs are giving these women hope for a better future. This program is also providing a model which other groups in and outside of Afghanistan may be able to adapt for the widows and orphans of their own communities.

Those familiar with sacred scripture are aware of a recurring theme: the special love of God for widows and orphans, who in the ancient world were the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. This theme acknowledges the dignity of human life and seeks to celebrate, promote, and protect this dignity at all costs through acts of charity.

Such commitment as we see toward widows in Afghanistan or those who experience natural disaster is rooted in two convictions: 1) That the greatness of human dignity demands that we work constantly for justice — a justice that is more than mere convention or fleeting trends but instead grounded in eternal truth; and 2) that to achieve justice, love is necessary, a love animated by compassion and sacrificial charity toward the other.

As St. James writes in the New Testament: “Pure religion before God is this: to look after orphans and widows.” (James 1:27) This quote expresses something that I think secular people and people of faith would agree on, that “pure religion” — if we are to call it that — could not be disconnected from acts of justice and the ultimate expression of love for others. Our Pope Francis is teaching us this. While justice is the giving of something to someone that is due them, true acts of love and charity go beyond justice to offer a sacrificial dimension — a giving of oneself to another. For the Christian, we look at Christ’s sacrificial love for us on the Cross as a model of serving and helping others.

For Christians, we are at the midpoint of the season of Lent. During this season of preparation for Easter and our celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we commit ourselves to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the biblical tradition, all three of these spiritual practices are closely bound together.

Just as God is the Father of us all, so too are each of us brothers and sisters. Our almsgiving, here and abroad, is a recognition of our solidarity with each other as members of the human family.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.


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