Empathy Coaching: Pray with the Pope!

This weekend I attended a couple of parties with many teachers in attendance. Deep and earnest conversations prevailed, with subjects ranging from the Common Core and American individualism to the definition of justice and the role of the visual and performing arts in education. (Party tip: if you want your guests to leave your party musing happily on the engaging conversations they had, invite teachers!)

One particularly inspiring conversation I had plunged into the depths of character formation. Specifically, how can parents and teachers encourage empathy in children? Everyone involved in this discussion agreed that wrestling with abstract theories and ideas is critical to a liberal education, and that looking at how those ideas affect the lives of actual people is also important. Students should read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, for example, and they should be open to some experience with contemporary entrepreneurs and with individuals who rely on welfare for survival, people who have not prospered in a free-market economy for one reason or another.

I recalled a conversation I had with several bright high school students some years ago, after hurricane Katrina. My young interlocutors insisted that government organizations like FEMA were unnecessary, even dangerous, in a free-market economy. When a natural disaster hits, they argued, the local business community will naturally take the burden of emergency rescue and subsequent rebuilding upon themselves, out of their own self-interest. While the response of the federal government to Katrina can hardly be held up as a shining example of effective government intervention, I wondered if these economics students would feel so certain about their position had they lived in, or even visited, the disaster zone. Three of my children and I joined a mission trip to Mississippi a year after Katrina, and we were astonished at the slow progress of recovery. A year after the hurricane, and so much to be done! We visited folks in formaldehyde-ridden FEMA trailers. We spent time with people who couldn't find jobs, and with others who had lost family members and were still grieving. We marveled at (and yes, I judged) the big-screen TVs some folks had bought with their FEMA money. Then we heard stories about despair and chaos, and we considered: why not buy a giant entertainment system when the world on the mesmerizing screen is the only thing that reminds you of beauty and order?

Spending time with people who live out the ideas we study promotes empathy. Feeling empathy with a fellow human's plight does not, of course, guarantee we will endorse his lifestyle or abandon all our critical thinking about the human condition. But empathy does promise that we will use both our heads and our hearts when we learn. And the heart is central to Christian life.

Luke's Gospel shows how Jesus sees the law: with his Heart. When speaking with a scholar of the law, Jesus celebrates the truth and life in the scholar's summary of the law: “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” (10:27). The only verb, the mover of this sentence, is love. The heart is essential. Once our hearts are engaged, we tap those other powers, the will, the mind. When we love, we can become integrated, whole. Without the heart, we find only pieces of the truth and life that can set us free. With stunning simplicity, John tells us (in 1 John 4:8), "Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love."

One of my favorite children's ministry duties at the Apostleship of Prayer is writing reflections for children. Each month I offer two reflections and companion activities on the prayer intentions of the Pope. One prayer is the Pope's universal intention, which is a prayer for humanity all people of good will can support. The second prayer is the evangelization intention, which focuses specifically on the work of the Church throughout the world. This month, for example, the Pope's universal intention is for victimized children, and his evangelization intention is for Christians everywhere to prepare for the coming of the Savior.
Original artwork by Trevor Gundlach. Used with permission.
December's universal prayer intention--for victimized children--may seem like a wild thing to ask children to consider. I confess, I was apprehensive at first about having to explain this intention in words children can understand. As I prayed about a prudent approach to my reflection, I couldn't stop thinking about the Sacred Heart of Jesus: the Heart of Jesus, on fire with love for us, especially for the children he welcomed into his arms; the Heart of Jesus, pierced and wounded by the sin that fractures human lives. It's all about the heart. Our task as parents is not to shield children from sin, to pretend evil doesn't exist, but to form their hearts to respond bravely. Many children are naturally afraid of the dark, but I've never met a parent who leaves all lights blazing in the bedroom, avoiding darkness at all costs. Little by little, with dimmer and dimmer night lights perhaps, we teach our children to trust, to be brave. To remember that we are just in the next room and morning will come soon. We strenghten their beautiful little hearts and help them grow into adults who will not cry when the lights go out.

Praying with the monthly intentions of the Pope strengthens our hearts. And because the Pope writes his prayer intentions in response to needs he sees all over the world--a bigger world than I can imagine--his prayer requests unite us. When children pray with the Pope, they learn empathy. Month by month, they hear about people all over the world who are struggling. Bit by bit, their hearts expand to encompass these brothers and sisters they may never meet in person.

Praying with the Pope encourages children to become active world citizens. Praying is a mysterious and powerful activity. This month the Pope does not ask us simply to acknowledge that victimized children are suffering the world over, passively adding it to our mental list of evils; no, we pray. We gather our mind, our will, our heart, and we pay attention to someone who must not be neglected. When praying with the Pope, with the whole Christian church, becomes a child's lifelong habit, the Lord can work wonders in and through her great big heart which is so accustomed to being attentive to the needs of others. And we trust that God honors our prayers, especially the heartfelt prayers of his precious children, and sends his grace to those in need.

Advent evokes our deep longing for the Lord. Let us welcome Jesus into our hearts. Perhaps praying with the intentions of the Pope will help us welcome, in like manner, all his people into our hearts as we pray for them, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Come, Lord Jesus.