Thirty years ago, in late December of 1987, St. John Paul II promulgated his encyclical Sollicitudo rei Socialis, or On Social Concern. Reflecting on Blessed Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio on its twentieth anniversary, John Paul called attention to the continuing need to address poverty and underdevelopment. He pointed to the divisions, both East-West and North-South, which were widening the gap between rich and poor. He called attention to superdevelopment and consumerism, which were contributing to spiritual impoverishment, especially in wealthy societies. He called for authentic human development which values being over having. He invited all people to solidarity and to work together to overcome the structures of sin that prevent true development and peace.
One well-quoted passage from the Sollicitudo rei Socialis is St. John Paul II’s description of solidarity:
[Solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all (no. 38).
Today, we continue to struggle to encounter the “other”—of different class, race, culture, religion, etc.—and to truly see the concerns of those who are vulnerable as our own concerns. Pope Francis, for whom the “globalization of indifference” and the “throwaway culture” are important themes, reflected on our contemporary challenge:
God is asking each of us: “Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?” Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!”, and then go on our way. . . . In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business! (7/8/13).
Both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis invite us to solidarity. During Advent, we wait in anticipation of the utmost expression of solidarity, the coming of Emmanuel, or “God with us.” What does the invitation to solidarity mean for us, as Catholics, during the Advent season as we prepare for Christ’s coming? What concrete actions can we take during this season to go beyond “vague compassion”?
Particularly relevant are St. John Paul II’s and Pope Francis’ reflections on consumerism as a barrier to solidarity because it can cause us to value things more than people and blind us to our obligation to care for people who are vulnerable.
During these weeks before Christmas, we are inundated with advertisements that aim to convince us that we can only be happy if we buy this or have that, and that family and friends will love us more as a result. We should see this as a spiritual struggle. How can we reject these illusions, refocus on Jesus’ imminent coming, and prioritize our relationships with others, in whom God is present?
In my own family, we exchange gifts at Christmas, but we limit our spending and try to be aware of the ethical implications of our purchases. I often utilize the fantastic CRS Ethical Trade website, which connects ethically-conscious consumers with numerous extensively-vetted companies committed to social and economic justice. Some years, my extended family has foregone gifts to make donations to charitable organizations. We have found that experience rewarding and refreshing.
As a parent myself, I am quite aware that celebrating an “alternative” Christmas can be difficult with children. Instead of making radical changes in a short time frame, one approach is to work gradually towards moderation in gift-giving while introducing new activities that value persons over things. We participate, for example, in a parish program to purchase gifts for children on behalf of low-income, incarcerated parents. I see it as a victory that my 5-year old speaks proudly about the toy he picked out for Randy, a child of the same age whose parent is incarcerated. It is of course our “encounter” with God and neighbor that leads to solidarity, which is why service activities orientated towards relationship-building can also be effective at building the groundwork for solidarity. Activities based in encounter can become fertile ground for conversation about poverty, inequality and the ways we can respond as individuals and communities.
Towards the end of Sollicitudo rei Socialis, St. John Paul II writes:
I wish to ask [all men and women] to be convinced of the seriousness of the present moment and of each one’s individual responsibility, and to implement – by the way they live as individuals and as families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions and by personal commitment to national and international undertakings – the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor. This is what is demanded by the present moment and above all by the very dignity of the human person, the indestructible image of God the Creator, which is identical in each one of us (no. 47).
I pray that during this Advent—and beyond—we can all take this challenge to heart. Let’s work together to create a culture of solidarity!