[dropcap type=”4″]M[/dropcap]arty Brounstein had no idea that he and Pope Francis were on the same page at that moment.
The author of “Two among the Righteous Few: A Story of Courage in the Holocaust” was speaking at Temple Emanuel on Ash Wednesday, which this year fell on Feb. 18.
“When I go into schools with this story, I always make sure the kids learn this word: indifference,” Brounstein told the crowd. “What perpetuated the Holocaust? Indifference.”
That statement grabbed my attention because it echoed Pope Francis’ message earlier in the day.
“Indifference to our neighbor and to God represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience,” Pope Francis said.
Frans and Mien Wijnakker, a young Catholic couple in Holland during World War II, refused to remain indifferent to the suffering of others. Brounstein travels the country telling their amazing story and how his wife, Leah, survived the Holocaust because of their courageous efforts.
The Wijnakkers risked their lives by hiding a total of 24 Jews in their home during the Nazi reign of terror that took the lives of 75 percent of Holland’s Jewish population. There were no exceptions: those caught assisting the Jews in any way would be summarily executed.
The Dutch couple had four children under the age of 5 when they began their lifesaving work. “They faced many challenges and dangers,” Brounstein said. “Most people would have quit.”
So what made them do it? Could it have been their Catholic faith? They risked everything to help complete strangers. We have to ask ourselves: would we have done the same? Just how far are we willing to take our faith?
There’s a book written in Dutch that explains the heroic efforts of the Wijnakkers, Brounstein told me. Young people in Ravenstein who are preparing for confirmation in the Catholic Church receive it as part of their preparation for the sacrament. “Use this to show how you should lead a Christian life,” they are told.
“They had the ability to care beyond themselves,” Brounstein said of the Wijnakkers. “If I could sprinkle that on people in 2015, what a wonderful world we’d have.”
In a way, that’s just what Pope Francis said in his Ash Wednesday warning against indifference. “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of His love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades,” the pope said.
How many of us are so entrenched in our own little world that we don’t notice the people around us who are in need? Between our smart phones, tablets and television sets, we seldom allow ourselves the silence necessary to hear God’s voice — a voice that prompts us to go beyond ourselves and to serve with love, no matter the cost.
Most of us will probably never have to risk our lives in order to help someone. The question is, what are we doing with this precious life that we’ve been given? Are we squandering it on trivialities? And what will the Father find when He looks into our heart and searches for compassion?
The prophet Joel cried out more than 2,500 years ago and his words still pierce our consciences today: “Even now,” says the Lord, “return to Me. Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). God is speaking to us through the needs of our brothers and sisters, just as he spoke to Frans and Mien. What will our response be? Lent is a good time to reflect on our need to repent of indifference. It’s a time to follow our Lord more closely, the One who came “not to be served, but to serve.”
When we do that, we’ll discover the deep joy that wells up in a heart that lovingly, fearlessly and humbly serves others.