I feel with them

Friday, July 15, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am

Many moons ago, when I taught seniors at Quigley Catholic High School in Baden, I developed a course titled “Christian Lifestyles.” It was a one-semester required course for those students in their last year of high school preparing for graduation.

The ultimate goal of the course was to help the students come to understand that there are four vocations, calls from God: the married life, the single life, the consecrated life (religious sisters and brothers) and the ordained life (deacons, priests and bishops). My hope and goal was that each of the students might be able to come to know those vocations and each be attentive to God’s call in their lives. After all is said and done, the purpose of a vocation is to provide a path for each of us to get to heaven.

As part of the curriculum, one of the building blocks that I used was to help my students see how our hearts and likewise our feelings play in our life’s journey. Building on the Greek word for feeling, pathos, I wanted my students to come to an understanding of the differentiation between three significant types of feelings: apathy, sympathy and empathy.

Apathy — the opposite of love; having no feelings for anything or anyone at all.

Sympathy — the experience of having feelings FOR someone.

Empathy — the experience of having feelings WITH someone; to be able to identify with, to experience in a deep and heartfelt way what another person is going through.

What’s next?

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, our lives have been riveted by ongoing violence in our cities and in our country. On Thursday of last week it was Dallas, Texas. On Wednesday it was St. Paul, Minnesota. On Tuesday it was Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On Monday, the Fourth of July, it was our own Liberty Avenue and Wood Street in Downtown Pittsburgh. On each of those days and in each of those cities, violence struck. It robbed us once again of any sense of peace. It forced us to fear. We asked the recurring questions: When might the next act of violence occur? And where? How safe am I? Can anything stop this litany of tragedies?

As I pondered those questions over and over again (as I’m sure many of you did as well), I couldn’t help but think of the one place where violence and love are neighbors to each other: in our hearts.

Unfortunately, more and more people are using their hearts as weapons, if not for outright violence then for the subtle violence of gossip or revenge or bigotry or ill will or rash judgment.

Let’s not forget! The heart is intended by God as a vessel of his love. It is the place where we are to recognize God’s love and our love one for another. Isn’t that why the symbol of the heart is so important on Valentine’s Day?

And so, it seems to me that we need to take a look at these two neighbors within our hearts from the vantage point of our pathos, our feelings or lack thereof.

On the one side of the heart, there is apathy. It cares nothing about others or the other who is God! Apathy becomes the fuel for violence, gossip, revenge, bigotry, ill will, rash judgment and blasphemy.

On the other side of the heart, there is sympathy and empathy — which encourages, strengthens our care and love for others and God.

Two fronts

As I have been thinking over all of this “stuff” in the course of these last days, I have been drawn in my prayer to apply my empathy on two fronts.

First of all, I must have a spirit of empathy for police officers, especially those who serve in Pittsburgh and in every one of our southwestern Pennsylvania communities. I empathize with them because, given the violent behavior of a very few of their number, so many police officers are being targeted as being something other than what they represent. The vast majority of these officers are a part of our lives, there to protect us, to watch over us, to encourage our good relations with one another. I can empathize with them because I know as a priest and a bishop what it feels like for my brother priests and myself to be judged by the bad actions of a few who wear the “collar” as do we.

Second, I must have empathy for the victims. I feel (as I’m sure you do, too) for those innocent victims who, without any warning, either lost their lives brutally or were stripped of their dignity. This is true whether they lost the dignity of their race or the dignity of their uniform. How tragic that some could look on the victims, on any victim, with bigotry or callousness. Yet especially in this Year of Mercy, and always as a matter of fact, doesn’t Jesus call us to use our power of “empathy!”

It seems to me in these very challenging times, as the world, our country and our homes increasingly become sites of violence, hatred, prejudice and rash judgments, we need to cherish the great gifts of empathy and sympathy that God has placed in our hearts.

We need to pray earnestly that we may less and less use our hearts as weapons and use them more and more as God created them to be used — as reflections and instruments of his love. If we’re serious about God and our faith in him, we need to use our hearts not as weapons but as vessels of God’s love. We need to root out apathy from our hearts and let sympathy and empathy win out.

In the end, that’s what Jesus came to teach: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

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