by Father Mark Goldasich
Sometimes a piece of art grabs you. Honestly, I’d love to be on a plane to Rome right now to check out a new sculpture temporarily in St. Peter’s Square.
Called “Angels Unaware,” Pope Francis unveiled it on Sept. 29. The 20-foot-tall, three-and-a-half ton bronze depicts 140 migrants and refugees in a boat.
The figures come from various historical periods: from ancient migrant people to Jews escaping Nazi Germany to modern-day Syrians and Africans. You can get a glimpse of it on page 3 of this issue.
That sculpture has dominated my thoughts at the beginning of this Respect Life Month, as has this story:
A shop owner placed this sign in his window: Puppies For Sale.
A little boy asked the owner, “How much are you going to sell the puppies for?”
He replied, “Anywhere from $30 to $50.”
The little boy reached in his pocket and said, “I only have $2.37. Can I please look at them?”
The shop owner whistled and out came a dog, followed by her five little balls of fur. One puppy, though, lagged considerably behind. The little boy singled out the straggler and said, “What’s wrong with him?”
The owner explained that the vet discovered that the straggler didn’t have a hip socket. It would always limp.
The little boy said excitedly, “That’s the puppy I want to buy!”
The owner replied, “No, you don’t want to buy that little dog. If you really want him, I’ll just give him to you.”
With tears in his eyes, the boy said, “I don’t want you to give him to me. That little dog is worth just as much as all the other dogs and I’ll pay full price. I’ll give you $2.37 now, and 50 cents a month until I have him paid for.”
Shaking his head, the shop owner said, “You really don’t want that little dog. He’s never going to be able to run and jump and play with you like the other puppies.”
At that, the boy reached down and pulled up his pant leg to reveal a badly twisted, crippled left leg encased in a metal brace. He looked at the shop owner and quietly said, “Well, I don’t run so well myself, and the little puppy will need someone who understands.” (Adapted from Meir Liraz’s “Top 100 Motivational Stories.”)
The world could use a good dose of “someone who understands.” Pope Francis calls this a “culture of encounter”: “not just seeing, but looking; not just hearing, but listening; not just passing people by, but stopping with them; not just saying, ‘what a shame; poor people,’ but allowing yourself to be moved with compassion; and then to draw near, to touch and to say: ‘Do not weep’ and to give at least a drop of life” (from a homily on Sept. 13, 2016).
This is what true respect means: to see the dignity in each person.
Someone who lived this way was certainly Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, homes for persons with intellectual disabilities and their live-in assistants. You can read more about him and a local network of L’Arche on pages 8 and 9.
In his book “Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus,” Vanier notes that groups and societies are usually built on the model of a pyramid, where at the top, governing, are all of the powerful, the rich and the intelligent.
On the pyramid’s bottom are “the immigrants, the slaves, the servants, people who are out of work, or who have a mental illness or different forms of disabilities. They are excluded, marginalized.”
Jesus, says Vanier, comes and takes the place of someone at the bottom, “to transform the model of society from a pyramid to a body, where each and every person has a place, whatever their abilities or disabilities, where one is dependent upon the other. Each is called to fulfill a mission in the body of humanity and of the Church. There is no ‘last place.’
“Jesus, revealing himself as the least one in society, the one who does the dirty jobs, the one who is in the last place, calls his followers to be attentive to the least in society . . ..
“The Gospel message is the world upside down.”
When we dare to welcome refugees, become “someone who understands” and transform a pyramid into a body, then does the Gospel message turn things upside down to create a world where everyone can expect respect.