‘The only way to survive here if you don’t have a job is to become a drug dealer. The lucky ones drive cabs and don’t have to,” Donovan explained to me. He is groundskeeper at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
I thought of Donovan as I watched the first pope from the Americas greet millions in Rio de Janeiro on World Youth Day, and particularly as Pope Francis embraced a man who testified to having let drugs all but destroy his life, only to find hope and healing in the faith that built St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital, which treats men and women suffering from drug addiction.
There is a “selfishness that prevails in our society,” Pope Francis said. He spoke of “dealers of death” who “follow the logic of power and money at any cost,” and a “scourge of drug-trafficking that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death.” This reality, he said, “requires of society as a whole an act of courage.” He dismissed efforts at “liberalization of drug use,” insisting that “it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future.”
He went on to challenge and encourage, true to his pastoral call. “We must hold the hand of the one in need, of the one who has fallen into the darkness of dependency perhaps without even knowing how, and we must say to him or her: You can get up, you can stand up. It is difficult, but it is possible if you want to.”
Back in the United States, meanwhile, the media were focused on Anthony Weiner’s latest tweets of ill repute, appropriately under a name invoking “Danger.” He obviously has an addiction to confront. And it’s clearly not only to “sexting,” but also to politics. There’s a disorder about our lives when we come to believe that our human dignity depends on a particular job or position in society. There is life after making a mistake in politics. There is more to life than power and prestige. If the press conferences end, life can still go on!
We live during a time when at any given hour of the day, we can watch the lives of others on TV and online. The voyeurism is driven by a warped sense of what constitutes success, what makes for a meaningful life. It doesn’t come in “likes,” it’s inherent. It’s ours to cherish — and if we don’t, our culture is at risk of perishing.
It was hard not to be moved by the scenes this past week of a Holy Father visiting the favelas, the slums, ofVarginha. Beautiful children, delighted mothers, motivated fathers — they all held out their hands, hoping for a word with or a prayer from a man who lives the certainty of an eternal life that exceeds any temporal hopes or promises.
Pope Francis talked about our common humanity: “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.” A “culture of solidarity,” he said, “seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters, . . . builds up and leads to a more habitable world.”
In some circles, the word “solidarity” is seen as code for big-government politics, and its sister principle of Catholic social teaching, subsidiarity, which seeks to keep all organizational focus on the human person, is seen as “conservative.” That knee-jerk labeling is an impoverished, cynical, limiting view.
Moral guideposts were being highlighted and celebrated in Rio that can enrich our civic lives and help civil society flourish.
There is no million-strong welcome for a pope in Ocho Rios (it was over 3 million who came for Mass on Copacabana beach on Sunday), but Donovan, a convert to the Catholic Church, has gotten the message that the pope seeks to deliver to the world. Just before Thanksgiving, when I ran into him, still cleaning up from Hurricane Sandy, he was in a state of joyful expectation. That coming weekend, he would be receiving Communion for the first time. “When I am at a celebration of the Eucharist, I delight in the Eucharist. I know God is here. I feel his presence,” Donovan told me, standing in the small prayer hall adjacent to the church. The declaration came in the midst of poverty of a kind that could easily breed envy, as tourists from luxury cruise liners come through town day after day. And yet there is hope on some faces.
“I know my life has purpose. I don’t know what God’s will for me is, but I know he made me with a purpose. I know he loves me. And I just try to share what I know of him. Sometimes God’s purpose for us is in small things. Sometimes it is a smile to someone who is having a bad day — we all have bad days. We all have worries and troubles. Sometimes our purpose is to show a little love.” And so he does.
In Rio, Pope Francis talked about his desire to knock on every door in Brazil. Obviously, he can’t do that. But the Church he leads is one in which every single member has a missionary mandate. At the heart of that mandate is sharing a hope that is more powerful than politics, that can never be fully seen on TV, but that echoes what a nurse told Donovan in a hospital room he wasn’t expected to leave: “She told me that God wanted me to live, that he had a plan for my life, that I was special in his eyes.” Whatever you believe, perhaps we can at least all start with respect for our common human dignity, which no culture, no politics, no addiction should rob us of. It might just save lives and spare us from pols desperately clinging to a power that has rendered them powerless.