WASHINGTON (CNS) — The causes of what Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference” are numerous: material prosperity that leads people to be unaware of the suffering around them, selfishness that causes people to ignore those in need, or a sense of hopelessness that paralyzes action.

But an ambassador, a humanitarian worker and an advocate for the poor, each a speaker at the March 23 dialogue at Georgetown University in Washington, believe humanity can overcome callousness by seeing each person as a brother or sister in Christ.

Titled “Global Indifference, Solidarity and Development,” the dialogue was organized by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown.

Quoting Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, speaker Michele Broemmelsiek noted, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Broemmelsiek, the vice president of overseas operations at Catholic Relief Services, said that to truly love a person in need, what is done for them should not be temporary help, but something that “hopefully transform lives.” After the devastating 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, for example, CRS has helped rebuild homes by using shelter engineers to show people how to build sturdier structures. The CRS homes are the ones that withstood the typhoon that came a year later, said Broemmelsiek.

The CRS houses are “very simple, but they have style,” said another panelist, the Rev. David Beckmann, after watching a video of the group’s rebuilding efforts.

“That is preaching the Gospel to those people. It’s not just putting up a cheap house that they can live in, but it’s treating that house as their home, as someplace (where) a person who God loves would live,” he said.

Rev. Beckmann is a Lutheran pastor and the president of Bread for the World, which organizes “Catholics and all stripes of Protestants to lobby Congress and the president for changes for hungry and poor people in our country, (and) all over the world,” he said.

He sees that defeatism can cause people to believe that poverty is inevitable. However, since 1990, the number of people in the world who are in extreme poverty has been cut in half, he said. “This is an issue on which there is huge hope for transformation,” Rev. Beckmann said.

Knowing his heart for the poor, Rev. Beckmann hopes that the pope’s journey to America this September will “help us stir up a Gospel-grounded movement to end hunger and poverty. I pray that Pope Francis’s visit will be a turning point for the world and for our own nation, maybe change a bit how our nation relates to people in need,” he said.

The globalization of the economy, which has created so much wealth in the world, has also helped to create the globalization of indifference, said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

“The system works, it is the greatest generator of wealth, but it doesn’t remove the fact that this system is also generating much inequality,” he said.

As he does in his work, he urged Catholics to fight against all structures and institutions that leave behind members of the human family. He quoted the words of Pope Francis, noting, “When we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others, something that the Father never does.”

Transforming lives of the poor in the world is not a simple mission, acknowledged Broemmelsiek. But even in countries full of turmoil, she knows from experience that the “reality of the world is full of these incredible points of light, even in the darkest places that you can imagine,” which should bring people the courage to act, she said.

Though the problem may be global, fighting indifference begins at an individual level, she said. “Maybe we really can’t solve the world’s problems by packaging rice and shipping it all over the world, but perhaps the experience of the engagement in that moment, of doing an act of goodness opens you to that broader discussion about what is happening,” she said.

Near the end of the discussion, Georgetown senior Kendra Layton spoke of her trip to a resting place for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and to a Catholic school in Bangladesh for children of the slums, both alternative break programs through the school that focus on issues of social justice.

She believes that overcoming indifference means being present at the margins and doing what one can, like the hummingbird from a comforting fable she once heard.

In the midst of forest fire, the hummingbird carried drops of water from a stream to try to quench the flames. When asked by the other forest creatures what she was doing, she replied simply, “I’m doing what I can.”

Humanity should battle against the institutions and ideologies that contribute to poverty and inequality, said Layton, “but in the meantime we must all be hummingbirds, recognizing what (the Rev.) Martin Luther King Jr. called the ‘network of mutuality’ or that what St. Paul said: ‘If one suffers, we all suffer.'”


Di Mauro is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.