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Solidarity Lessons for a Challenging Era

January 21, 2021


The beginning of a new presidency in any country ought to be a time of renewed commitment to unity among all her citizens. In the light of recent events in America and ongoing instability around the world, this call to social unity is more pressing than ever for the times in which we live. That said, achieving that unity is easier said than done, and perhaps only remains an aspiration, without the key ingredient of solidarity.

In the late 1980s, Solidarity was the name given to the trade union which led the resistance movement in Poland that eventually lead to historical social change in that country. The principle of solidarity can do the same today.

Solidarity is one of the four main principles of Catholic social teaching (the other three being the common good, human dignity, and subsidiarity). It is a principle that gives expression to the social dimension of the human person. We are social beings, made for communion with others and God. Our lives are interconnected whether we realize it or not. We communicate, we listen, we give, we receive, we know others and they know us. Through modern communications, we instantly know what is happening to people all over the world. This is the age of globalization when the world is becoming smaller and we realize we are part of a single human family. In recent years, we see this challenge with mass migration in places like Europe. Single countries on their own simply cannot cope. There has to be a global response. There has to be solidarity.

As a moral virtue, solidarity begins with empathy and compassion but doesn’t end there. Drawing from the experience of his native Poland, St. John Paul II wrote: “Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 38).

Solidarity, therefore, should always lead to action—nonviolent action—and practical steps to share and help alleviate the burdens of others. These ‘others’ include people of future generations. That is why the issue of climate change, for example, is so important, because greater measures of conservation are for the benefit of future generations and not just our own. In the words of Pope Francis: “The earth is lent to each generation, to be handed on to the generation that follows” (Fratelli Tutti, no. 178). Solidarity stretches us to embrace the past and the future.

This principle of solidarity is not just a horizontal or social value. It is grounded in the mystery of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. When God sent his Son into the world as a human being, divinity united itself in solidarity with all humanity: “For by his incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each individual” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22). When Jesus waded into the Jordan River to be baptized by John, he did so not because he had to, but because he wanted to show solidarity with sinners whom he had come to save. When he died in agony on the cross, Jesus entered into solidarity with all who are crushed by suffering and who need hope the most. For Christians, here is the spirituality of solidarity that finds its foundation in the life of Jesus himself. What a wonderful mystery to ponder! How great the love of Christ is—a love that lowers itself and empties itself in order to be with others in a solidarity that changes and gives new life.

For we who are disciples of Jesus, being immersed in his love moves us into new spaces and closer to new people. It pushes us to ‘bear with one another’s burdens’ (Gal. 6:2) and to move out of our buffered selves as we adopt a spirituality that embraces the whole Church and the whole world. For ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together’ (1 Cor. 12:26).

An inspiring example of this principle at work is St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941), a priest who was sent to Auschwitz during World War II. When ten of his fellow prisoners were sentenced to death by starvation, Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a married man with children. Kolbe spent his time in the bunker supporting, encouraging, and praying with the prisoners sentenced to die with him. Of the ten people left to starve, he was the last to die. Instead of complaining about his new circumstances, Kolbe saw it as a time to be in solidarity with others, and offer them the saving mercy of Christ when they needed it.

This is our call, too, to be people committed to solidarity as an expression of “political love, social charity, and social friendship,” as Pope Francis describes it in Fratelli Tutti (nos. 180-183). This can be practiced by us in simple and ordinary ways. So, for example, if we feel isolated and lonely, then we have entered into the space where thousands of people have been before us. If we get sick and end up in the hospital, we join the company of those we forgot about when we were well. If we fast on Fridays, then we enter the company of millions of people who go hungry every day. If I am waiting in a line at a grocery store, I am in solidarity with everyone else who buys food for their families. Here is solidarity played out daily, moving us from our comfort zones, bringing us into communion with new people, and challenging a globalization of indifference where people are kept apart in their own social and political groups.

Ultimately, solidarity is an expression of love. As Christ moved close to us to be in solidarity with us, so we, too, bear his love and saving power to the people to whom he sends us. As St. Catherine of Siena pithily puts it: “Love does not stay idle” (Letter T82). It moves us into new spaces to draw close to the people who need that love and who will be saved by it.

As America begins a new chapter and the call is once more made for national unity, let this unity not be a thin veneer that covers deeper cracks. The Solidarity movement in Poland in the last century was more than a name of a movement or group. It was a people imbued with the spirit of solidarity that saw others as more than just subjects of the same law and even fellow countrymen and countrywomen. Rather, it was a spirit that recognized others as brothers and sisters who are part of my life and whose needs concern me. At this time of global pandemic and uncertainty, may we Catholic Christians step up to our vocation to be people of unity that is the fruit of our commitment to solidarity. As we move forward, united we stand and in God we trust.