There are invisible people in the city where I live. There are also many invisible people in your town or city. No, they are not hidden by Harry Potter's invisibility cloak! Their physical appearance means that most of us who pass by tend to avert our eyes and basically ignore them, or even treat them as less than human. Many of them are the kind of people referred to by Pope Francis in the universal prayer intention entrusted to the Apostleship of Prayer for the month of June. "Human Solidarity: That the aged, marginalized, and those who have no one may find - even within the huge cities of the world - opportunities for encounter and solidarity."
What does it mean to offer opportunities for encounter and solidarity? I think that a starting point is civility and politeness. That could be as simple as holding a door for someone coming behind me. I have an inborn tendency to do that. I naturally glance behind me to see if someone is close enough that it is convenient to hold the door. I do it for anyone, but especially for the elderly, people carrying packages and those who look as if they need it. I am amazed at how often the person in front of me doesn't even make an effort to be polite, even if you're just two feet away. The door slams. I'm tempted to go up to them and give them a piece of my mind.
There is a step beyond civility. It's entering into a relationship with the person. That doesn't have to be an intimate relationship. It can be simple: smiling or making a comment on the weather or the Raptors or the Blue Jays. Or, commenting on the book they are holding. It would be scary to start a conversation about serious moral or ethical issues. I think that basic human interaction helps establish the solidarity that Francis refers to. It's almost as if we are acknowledging each other as human, as people who like to be spoken to and recognized.
Solidarity is a way of recognizing that we are all in this together, that we are all human beings who are created by God. We are worthy of respect. It doesn't matter how much money I have or how old and fragile I am or how I am dressed. Many of us do avert our eyes. However, I have discovered in the heart of this large city that human discourse and solidarity is quite possible. As I am composing this post on my iPad, I'm sitting across from a few fellow customers at a coffee shop. They are people that I occasionally come across. We exchange pleasantries and are human with each other. I have no idea where they stand on significant issues of the day. But that simplicity is the basis of solidarity.
Anne Michaels offers a good parable in her work Fugitive Pieces.
"A respected rabbi is asked to speak to the congregation of a neighbouring village. The rabbi, rather famous for his practical wisdom, is approached for advice wherever he goes. Wishing to have a few hours to himself on the train, he disguises himself in shabby clothes and, with his withered posture, passes for a peasant. The disguise is so effective that he evokes disapproving stares and whispered insults from the well-to-do passengers around him. When the rabbi arrives at his destination, he's met by the dignitaries of the community who greet him with warmth and respect, tactfully ignoring his appearance. Those who had ridiculed him on the train realize his prominence and their error and immediately beg his forgiveness. The old man is silent.
For months after, these Jews - who, after all, consider themselves good and pious men - implore the rabbi to absolve them. The rabbi remains silent. Finally, when almost an entire year has passed, they come to the old man on the Day of Awe when, it is written, each man must forgive his fellow. But the rabbi still refuses to speak. Exasperated, they finally raise their voices: How can a holy man commit such a sin - to withhold forgiveness on this day of days? The rabbi smiles seriously, "All this time you have been asking the wrong man. You must ask the man on the train to forgive you."
About The Author
Philip Shano, SJ. teaches at Regis College, oversees their spiritual direction training, serves as the Provincial's Assistant for the Native Apostolate, and is involved in our social apostolate in the Toronto area.