In one horrendous plane crash in December 2005, Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, Nigeria, lost 60 students. I was president of the college. As soon as I could, I traveled to Port Harcourt to be with and to pray with the parents, siblings, relatives and friends of those who were killed. It was no easy mission. Yet because of the deep Christian faith and love of these parents, the meeting took a surprising turn. Parents who had lost one, two or, in one case, three children reached out to me with compassion and kindness. Even as I tried to console them for the loss of their precious children, many tried to console me, saying that as president of the college, I had lost 60 children! Such kindness and compassion, such an ability to reach out beyond their own grief, I will never forget.
This Lent and every Lent, we Christians profess that “the kindness and generous love of God our Savior has appeared” (Ti 3:4). Words like love, power, light, truth and justice are often employed to describe the coming of God, but the Letter to Titus uses the word kindness. Perhaps we should take this as a special challenge this season: to show more of the kindness of God. It is something the parents in Port Harcourt did even in the depths of grief. As St. John Chrysostom writes: “We must be more kind than just. Kindness alone reconciles.”
In traditional Catholic teaching, kindness is the virtue opposite the vice of envy. An envious person is unappreciative, resentful, tries to tear down others and takes secret satisfaction at the misfortune of others. When tempted toward envy, what is the alternative? “Try a Little Kindness,” sang Glen Campbell. Kind-ness entails an ability to reach out beyond our own situation, good or bad, to show goodness and compassion to others.
Abraham Lincoln once echoed the writings of St. Francis de Sales when he said: as “a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall, so with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” Many may recall a line by former president George H. W. Bush, who in his 1988 Republican National Convention acceptance speech called for “a kinder and gentler nation.” Today, under the leadership of a new president, we still hope to move toward this kinder, gentler nation. Yet such change begins with the individual. Where and how can we be kinder and gentler—with our family and children, with our neighbors and strangers, with fellow drivers on the highways or walking the streets of our cities?
Many times in Africa I was called up short for not properly and kindly greeting people. In my brusque U.S. manner, I would rush to the heart of the matter in making a request: “One ticket, two eggs, or how much is this?” The response was a kinder, gentler greeting: “Good morning, Father.” Only then could we do business. Greetings are important. Might we not offer such informal greetings as a pleasant surprise at the checkout counter, to the bus driver or bank teller or the police officer at the mall? Might we not listen to our children or a neighbor more patiently and set aside our automatic answers and solutions? When we do speak, might we heed the advice of Adolfo Nicolás, superior general of the Jesuits, who said that before speaking, you should ask three questions about what you will say: “Is it true, is it kind and gentle, and is it good for others?”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saw the beauty of kindness: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” And St. Paul urged the Christians of Rome to “remain in his [God’s] kindness” (Rom 11:22).
Lent is the Christian’s journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. The Gospel of Matthew says of Jesus that “a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench until he brings justice to victory” (12:20); Jesus is “meek and humble of heart” (11:29). This Lent let us try to put on the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. It is an appropriate time to show forth God’s kindness, and at the very least to “try a little kindness.”