On Sunday, I enjoyed a beautiful day on Federal Hill for the Columbus Day festival and parade. After the parade and some wonderful Italian food, I walked back to the Cathedral and happened to meet a gentleman who saw my Roman collar and asked if I were a Catholic priest. He then told me something of his extraordinary personal story. Born in the African nation of Eritrea, he was still a teen when a terrible war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He lived in a Catholic village in the mountains, but the violence of the conflict reached even there. He told me about his education at the LaSalle Christian Brother school in the area and the Italian brothers who helped young people escape the violence and find refuge in Italy. This man told me about the Italian priests, brothers and nuns who sheltered him and so many others and how they helped him and his brother to travel on to Rhode Island where they had relatives. His life has been difficult and marked by trauma, but he glowed when speaking of the kindness of the brothers and priests who helped him and his family at a time of great anxiety and suffering.
I left that moving conversation grateful for his witness of the power of solidarity and compassion. I was also struck by a key aspect of what it means to be Catholic, a word which means universal. In the Catholic Church, we retain our unique cultural identity while striving for universal communion in the Lord. It was precisely that shared faith, transcending nationality, that brought those young brothers of war and into safety. While our globe is divided by national boundaries, rivalries and many terrible hatreds, we pray across those boundaries. In our Mass, we raise our voices in so many languages and that prayer brings us to revere and help one another in the care of the sick, the poor, the young and the vulnerable.
This core aspect of authentic Catholic faith, compassion and solidarity finds its roots in the story of Israel. In the ancient world nations contended for domination for one another and they often cited their gods as license for conquest. Israel, the elect of the Living God, learned from the Lord that their special gift was not intended for exploiting other peoples, but that they were to be a blessing to the nations. The prophets reminded the people over and again of the call to compassion, even for the foreigner and the vulnerable poor. The prophets taught a new way of relating to others, one which began with the goodness and generosity of God and overflowed to neighbor.
Jesus, the Son of the Most High, revealed this truth by his own compassionate care for one and all. He summed up his call in the beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan. When asked ‘who is my neighbor?’ he offered this model of compassionate care for any and all in need. It is a parable of one who is “other” recognizing and acting upon the common human bond for one of another culture.
As I write these words, I am reading the terrible reports of the terrorist attacks in Israel and I am reflecting upon our debt to the Jewish people for their own gift of universal compassion for neighbor. Even after so much suffering, wherever Jewish communities are found, there will be care for the poor and sick. This is certainly the case in Providence and in Rhode Island.
I am sure that the coming days will see much controversy and that the conflict will escalate, but I feel moved to make some observations now. The attacks on Saturday were not war so much as a pogrom. The terrorists hunted and murdered men, women and children because they were Jewish. They burned terrified families out of their homes and abused and kidnapped the elderly and the disabled. These were despicable acts of hatred and injustice. Shame upon the perpetrators and upon the leaders who would inculcate such hatred! As men and women who believe in the sacred dignity of all human life, it is important to pray for an end to violence and for a just peace. As men and women who recognize that all are neighbor, it is also essential to identify these violent attacks as evil acts of anti-Semitic hatred. Rachel has wept for too many of her children.
Here in Rhode Island, I hope that we will act in solidarity and compassion for our Jewish friends and neighbors. These terrible reports and images open old wounds and cause trauma and fear. For many Jewish people, this old story of hatred and violence leaves them feeling isolated and vulnerable. Now is the time to be a neighbor and to express our care and support. As Jesus taught so well, the good neighbor lifts the suffering, binds their wounds, and journeys alongside them. May we do likewise.