July 11, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Charity requires us to care for those we don’t know

(Fifth in a series)

"Were you there when one carried unaware?"

When Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to help Jesus carry the Cross, it was unlikely that he knew whom he was helping.

This Fifth Station on the Way to Calvary invites us to pause in prayer as we observe Simon being brutally cast into the role of unchosen helper to Jesus.

He had no idea whom he was forced to help, and so we have before our mind’s eye the truth that charity is for all, including those we do not know. This station on the way to Calvary also focuses our conscience on the call to charity when it is unchosen.

Tradition has it that Simon was a farmer on his way home after a day’s work in the fields. He must have asked “Why me?” as he wondered how it could be his fate to happen along just when this unknown criminal needed help with his cross.

We don’t know for sure but, apparently somewhere along the way to Calvary, Simon must have become a reluctant but, nonetheless, willing helper. It seems the dynamic of Simon’s attitude must have become “Of course, I will help.”

We can believe he had a change of heart because we learn later in the Scriptures that Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus, had become disciples of Christ and are portrayed as active members of the Christian community. Simon was forced to provide an act of charity, and divine Providence made it a conversion experience that affected even his sons.

Prayerful reflection tells us that even if a person is originally unaware, one could hardly be so close a participant in the Passion of Jesus without becoming personally affected.

I think there are times when any one of us could feel as if we are Simon of Cyrene. It is not uncommon to come upon a situation when conscience tells us we should help someone we don’t know.

That is the case, for example, when we are asked to help the indigent with alms. It is the case when we are asked to help poor people who we serve in our home missions in some of our rural and inner city parishes and schools. Charity is for all and often for those we do not know, especially the poor.

It occurs to me that Simon of Cyrene could also be viewed as a patron for health care givers. Most people involved in health care don’t really choose their patients. They are expected to provide help to anyone, even under trying circumstances.

I think of those who are involved in hospice and those who serve as nurses in oncology centers. I especially think of those folks who day and night provide

on-the-spot care in the emergency rooms of our hospitals.

Mothers and fathers are caregivers for their children. You not only provide for your children’s health and physical needs, but also for their education. You care for the unexpected needs of your children over and above your everyday jobs.

And eventually, as the years pass by, you sons and daughters become caregivers for your aging and ailing parents. You also know that the unexpected needs that come about with growing old become a call to unscheduled charity.

The story of Simon of Cyrene is a dramatic illustration that charity is rarely scheduled by calendar. Most of us truly want to live lives of Christian charity but, to be honest, much of the time we would like to schedule this call according to our convenience. And so I focus on the unexpected aspect of charity as a challenge that requires a heart open to the enabling help of God’s grace.

I alluded earlier to the challenge of being called to charity for the unknown and unseen. Most of us will readily accept an inconvenience when it means helping a friend or family member in need.

We are not as willing to go the extra mile for an “anonymous” person in need. Yet, when Jesus taught us that we are all sisters and brothers, he enlarged the notion of family.

We need only reflect on the story of the Good Samaritan, who cared for the victim of robbery at the side of the road. We need only reflect on the charity of the poor widow, who put all that she had into the Temple offering.

The lesson we can refresh as we pray at the Fifth Station of the Cross is our readiness to accept the call to unexpected charity—charity for all.

Our Christian challenge is to continue to try to overcome the natural self-centeredness that nudges us to sidestep unchosen opportunities to help our unknown neighbors.

God blessed Simon of Cyrene. He blesses us, too. †

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