The measure of our Catholicism is our sensitivity to those in the greatest of need

Father John A. Kiley

Tip O’Neill was speaker of the US House of Representatives and Democrat congressman from Massachusetts for much of the latter half of the last century. Mr. O’Neill was also a very generous benefactor to Boston College, dedicating a building on the campus that bears his name. A small room in that building boasts much O’Neill memorabilia – his desk, gavel, campaign signs, family mementoes, and many publications. On the wall above the speaker’s desk, in bold print, are some words Mr. O’Neill spoke at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building in Washington on November 1, 1977. Mr. O’Neill’s remarks are actually a quote from Mr. Humphrey himself and can easily take one’s breath away when read in the light of much of the legislation proposed, pending and passed here in the state of Rhode Island. Mr. O’Neill exclaimed, “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Christian sensitivity toward those at the dawn of life is nobly recalled in the ministry of St. Vincent DePaul and his Daughters of Charity who patrolled the streets of Paris each morning rescuing newborn infants placed in drop-boxes by mothers who could not care for them. Christian sympathy for those in the twilight of life is fondly evoked by the ministrations of St. Jean Jugan and her Little Sisters of the Poor who to this day tend to the senior indigent community. Christian solicitude for those in the shadow of life is quietly but energetically revealed by local diocesan ministries like Substance Abuse Recovery Support Services, Respite Care for short-term relief to family caregivers, Respect Life Office for the unborn, Immigrations and Refugee Services, and the Cabrini Fund that helps with child care services. Such attention to these who are least in the eyes of the world is indeed the mark of a good government, the sign of a healthy Church and the ultimate judgment on which all believers will be assessed on the last day.

Lack of sensitivity toward hurting brothers and sisters at any stage or state in life is the background for this coming Sunday’s familiar parable from St. Luke’s Gospel concerning the leprous beggar at the rich man’s door. Jesus emphasizes the grim circumstances of the beggar’s life: “And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.” Jesus slyly adds a bit of dignity to the leper’s plight by giving the poor soul a name: Lazarus. This Lazarus is the only figure in all of Jesus’ parables to be given a name. His plight doesn’t lessen his humanity. Jesus also describes the nameless rich man by dressing him “in purple garments and fine linen” and noting that he “dined sumptuously each day.” Alert worshippers this Sunday will notice the similarity between this tycoon and the first reading’s high rollers noted by Amos the prophet: “Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils.”

Although Jesus left the rich man nameless, later Christians labelled him “Dives,” which is simply the Latin word for “rich.” Poor Dives ultimately winds up in hell where the careful reader or listener will notice a dramatic alteration in his attitude toward his fellow man. All of a sudden, a very thoughtful and considerate Dives begs Abraham and Lazarus to return to earth and warn Dives’ four brothers about their need to repent and reform. Sensitivity toward his fellow human beings, the very quality he lacked in life, is now his over-riding emotion in the next world.

Remember that the parable never suggested that Dives harmed or injured or abused Lazarus in any way. Dives’ sin was not mistreatment of Lazarus; his sin was neglect of Lazarus. Dives didn’t even know Lazarus existed. Recall here the words of Hubert Humphrey spoken by Mr. O’Neill: “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” How sensitive is today’s average Catholic toward the children, the aged, the sick, the needy and the handicapped who make up our community? The unborn child facing abortion, the aged and sick confronting assisted suicide, the needy wanting bus fare, the handicapped needing assistance, and the luckless who need employment. The measure of our Christianity, the measure of our Catholicism, let alone our government, is our sensitivity toward the Lazarus at our own door.