"Like it or not, we must be good to the poor, because if we're not, we're going to hell."
That's a quote I've heard a few times now from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia. It happens to be one of my all-time favorites, because one cannot escape it. It prompts an instant examination of conscience: What am I doing to help? What have I done today? And what have I done for the person right in front of me and for the person who is suffering a world away? What more can I do?
Pope Francis is also this blunt. Time and again, he turns his attention to the indifference of the world, to the tendency of humans to ignore the suffering of their fellows, even as it goes on right under their proverbial noses.
On Christmas Day, this is how he put it: "My thoughts turn to all those children today who are killed and ill-treated, be they infants killed in the womb, deprived of that generous love of their parents and then buried in the egoism of a culture that does not love life; be they children displaced due to war and persecution, abused and taken advantage of before our very eyes and our complicit silence. I think also of those infants massacred in bomb attacks, also those where the Son of God was born. Even today, their impotent silence cries out under the sword of so many Herods."
Writing about his time in Rome helping to elect Pope Francis in an e-book titled "Praying in Rome," New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan reflected on Chaput's comment about the road to hell: "(W)hile that's a rather blunt statement, all of us need to reconnect to this vital lesson." And about the pope, he said: "Francis is reminding us ... (t)o take care of the poor, to visit the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to tend to the sick."
As Edward Norman writes in his 2002 book "Secularisation": "The Church is the body of Christ in the world. This is nearly a literal description for those who locate themselves in the tradition of the historic understanding of Christianity: Christ committed himself to a living company of people, who were for all time to convey his truth. To be Christian is to be integrated with this body, this company."
This, of course, is counter to a culture that values its independence, even as the talk of "choice" often insists on rejecting the worldview described above, one that sees human nature as fallen and God's love for us a gratuitous gift which compels us to grateful, radical action in surrender to His will.
As Norman writes: "Modern people, including many Christian adherents, are now impatient of doctrine -- of personal submission to God -- and are only too willing to trade it in for the easier allure of the service of humanity. This attracts the plaudits of modern opinion, is less divisive, is now less socially marginalizing also, and allows the individual freedom to contrive religious and moral ideas designed to express privately held beliefs."
A Christianity without truth, without right and wrong and clear awareness of sin and evil, reconciliation and redemption, is not for real. It misses the boat.
Which is why the pope, if you listen to him, talks time and again, too, of the devil. It's not to terrify the people he shepherds, but to wake up the world. Indifference has consequences. And for the Christian, it's eternal. The Christian difference of a life lived for others, out of love, brings with it witness to faith, hope, and joy. I'm guessing it wasn't under your tree or in any gadget, but it's a promise for the new year for anyone serious about resolute renewal.