26 January 2016

No more anonymous faces

During his Apostolic Journey to the United States of America last September, His Holiness Pope Francis spoke of the "deafening anonymity" in which so many people now live:
Living in a big city is not always easy. A multicultural context presents many complex challenges. Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine. Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be. 

But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second-class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.
PHOTO: Don Emmert/AFP
During this same homily, the Holy Father went on to urge us to "go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness, and brings us to the school of encounter. He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and he opens before us the path of peace." In effect, he told us to refuse to allow people to remain nothing more than anonymous faces.

That phrase - deafening anonymity - caught my attention as soon as he spoke it, and it has not left me and it is a theme about which he has spoken several times throughout his pontificate.

In his encyclical letter Laudato Sì, he was right to say that "the daily experience of overcrowding and social anonymity can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behaviour and violence." He was also right to say that "love always proves more powerful" and that "many people in these conditions are able to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome (149)."

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he speaks of "a culture paradoxically suffering from anonymity and at the same time obsessed with the details of other people’s lives, shamelessly given over to morbid curiosity." Each of us, he said, "must look more closely and sympathetically at others" to enter into what he calls the "art of accompaniment" (169).

Even before this, he spoke of "the anonymous who rest in common graves" on All Souls' Day in 2014.

Having grown up in a big small town where your chances of bumping into someone you know as you run daily errands is quite large, the sense of being nothing more than anonymous face is something I cannot quite get used to. In fact, I don't like it at all. This is not to say that I have any desire whatever to be well known; quite the opposite! What do I mean?

There seems to be something in the culture of big cities, Rome included, that says you are not supposed to make eye contact with people as you walk down the sidewalk. These seems to me not only unchristian, but also inhuman because it degrades others to being nothing more than one more anonymous face to look past.

All of this is a long preface to an experience I had today while taking my walk through the streets of the Eternal City to restock my supply of Dr Pepper. At one point I happened to walk by a restaurant at the same time one of the employees was carrying a large box full of frozen meats from the storage area - around the corner - to the restaurant itself (the doors of which were shut).

Because he was using both hands to carry the box and guessing where he was going, I turned to him when I was in front of the doors and asked, in Italian, "Here?" He seemed taken aback and smiled broadly when he answered, "Yes, thank you!" I opened the door for him and he laughed happily as he entered because of the unexpected kindness (this is a city where people don't generally hold the doors open for each other, or even check to make sure the door isn't going to hit the person behind them).

I didn't learn his name and he did not learn mine, but I don't think we could call each other an anonymous face in a city of anonymous faces. We looked at each other for a brief moment and saw each others' humanity and left behind the fray of competition or self-absorption. How different would the world be if each of us did this each day, if we looked into each others' faces and met the needs we saw, however large or small? Let us not let others live in deafening anonymity!


  1. Thank you for this post Fr. Zehnle. It reminds me of the importance of "seeing and connecting" with people as we go through our daily lives. Whether this takes place by simply making eye contact and greeting them or through the extension of a simple kindness or courtesy as you did for the restaurant worker. The human connections is so important. I have often noticed that people will often give more attention to a stray animal than they do to the people they pass in the hallways of their work place. I appreciate your reminder that we must all do our part to replace anonymity by acknowledging human dignity with the warmth of a smile, a helping hand, common courtesy or a simple respectful greeting of others.

    1. You're welcome, Stefano! Let's try to help others lend a hand and a courtesy as often as possible.