Do gooders and justice doers - Madonna Magazine

Do gooders and justice doers

Peter Hosking SJ 09 March 2017

There is a distinction between a do-gooder and a person who lives guided by values of mercy and justice. Do-gooders can be motivated by giving from their surplus and simply offering short-term relief. This often keeps the victim indebted. Justice requires us to stand with those who suffer. In such solidarity we are affected and take time to learn what caused the pain. We may even understand who profits by it, so the root causes of suffering can be addressed and lasting change achieved.

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wrote ‘Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent: they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it, and committed to continuing care … Those who work for the Church’s charitable organisations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a ‘formation of the heart’: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others …’

Dean Brackley sj wrote an article some years ago called ‘Meeting the victims, falling in love.’ Dean had volunteered to work at the University of Central America after the murders of his brother Jesuits there on 16 November 1989. He died after battling cancer in El Salvador in 2011.

Dean wrote:

‘Waves of foreign delegations have come to El Salvador in recent years. Often the pilgrims deplane a little anxious, vaguely dreading what awaits them. As happens with most of our fears, it doesn’t turn out that way. The people are glad they came and receive them with open arms. If the pilgrims listen to the stories of flight from the army, torture and death squads, and since the war, of unspeakable hardship and premature death, then it will break their hearts. It is an experience of extraordinary richness, if the visitors muster the courage to take it in. The newcomers pass from observers to participants. The more they allow the poor to crash through their defences, the more unsettled they feel. They sense a gentle invitation to identify with these humble people, despite the differences between them. We all live a bit on the periphery of the deep drama of life, and even more so, in affluent societies. The reality of the periphery is thin, compared to the multilayered richness of this new world the visitors are entering. The benefits of modernity have induced in us a kind of chronic low-grade confusion about what is really important in life. These people shake us up because they bring home to us that things are much worse in the world than we dared to imagine. But that is only one side of the story. If we allow them to share their suffering with us, they communicate some of their hope to us as well. The smile that seems to have no foundation in the facts is not phony; the spirit of fiesta is not an escape, but a recognition that something else is going on in the world besides injustice and destruction. The poor smile because they suspect that this something is more powerful than the injustice. In this we encounter the truth which sets us free. The poor usher us into the heart of reality. They bring us up against the world and ourselves all at once. The victims of history – the destitute, abused women, oppressed minorities, all those the Bible calls “the poor” – not only put us in touch with the world and with ourselves, but also with the mercy of God. If we let them, the poor will place us before the abyss of the holy Mystery we call God. Clearly we need them more than they need us. It is a small wonder that people keep returning. Something has happened, a kind of falling in love …’

Immersions in Jesuit schools are motivated by a phrase ‘serving to learn, learning to serve’. This involves teaching people not to be afraid of the poor but to see them as their brothers and sisters, and to learn what role they have in their society’s hope and future. Good immersions are about the other. We enter into an experience that opens us to new people and relationships.

In Cambodia there is a program for the war wounded, especially survivors of landmines. During 1996, a 26-year-old Jesuit, Richie Fernando sj, died while trying to stop a troubled young man throwing a grenade into a classroom full of disabled students. In saving the lives of others, he gave up his own life. Richie wrote just before he died:

‘I thank God for these students, how they have been bringing out the best in me. I hope I can offer my life to them – to the fullest. His life and death speak of the depth of commitment and of relationships. His desire to serve others and his deep love for those students enabled him to sacrifice his life to save others.’

He had written a letter just a few months earlier and said:

‘I know where my heart is. It is with Jesus Christ, who gave his all for the poor, the sick, and the orphan. I am confident that God never forgets his people: our disabled brothers and sisters. And I am glad that God has been using me to make sure that our brothers and sisters know this fact. I am convinced that this is my vocation or mission. I know where my heart is. Much of our life is actually about knowing where our heart is. Indeed, every moment is an occasion to know where our heart is. To give from the heart is to allow ourselves to be moved emotionally, sometimes by feelings of dejection and at other times, joy. It involves feeling and testing our deepest longings and desires.’

Let’s hope we can one day say ‘I know where my heart is.’

All these stories in some way manifest Christ in the community. Christ invites us into the lives of others in a generous way. The Cross – that object of suffering and death – is a life-giving symbol. It invites us to care beyond our ego, to find a deep joy even amidst distress, and to offer a warm welcome to all, especially the marginalised. This relationship between mission and community is essential to who we are and what we become.


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