Inspired by the recent heroic rescue of a young French child by the Malian immigrant, dubbed the 'Spiderman of Paris', Mamadou Gassama, Jean Amegble SJ writes on the evident compassion of this man and how the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary might also inspire all of us to be similarly heroic and compassionate in our lives, especially to the immigrants and strangers in our midst, whom Pope Francis challenges us to encounter and welcome.
Recently, the video of a young immigrant from Mali, Mamadou Gassama, saving a four year-old young boy clutched to the fourth floor of a building in Paris hit the headlines and the buzz of social media. He was nicknamed the Spiderman of Paris and was praised by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, who immediately granted him French citizenship for his bravery and exceptional courage. In this article, I would like to express my deep sorrow of how governments are dealing with the issue of immigrants and how the feast of Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, which the Church celebrates this week, can enlighten our attitudes towards immigrants in general.
I am grateful that the act of bravery of this immigrant is giving our societies in general a wonderful lesson. Climbing four balconies with ones bare hands to save a boy condemned to a certain death is not only an expression of courage but undoubtedly is also an act of love. According to Gassama, “he was just passing by after a match of champion’s league with his girlfriend and he saw the kid, and he didn’t think twice, he just climbed the four stories and saved the boy”. I am touched not too much by his bravery but by his burst of generosity, the kindness of his heart. The big contradiction we can find in our societies today is the coldness of our hearts, the indifference of people. In fact, all around the building were many people shooting the dramatic scene only with their phones, some preparing to catch the boy on the ground floor of the building where he would expectedly fall.
Beyond the act of courage or heroism, Gassama is showing us love expressed in actions. His actions stand in contrast against what Pope Francis called the culture of indifference. Pope Francis said that “we are accustomed to a culture of indifference and we must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter, of a fruitful encounter, of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God, the dignity of a living person”. The issue of immigration of sub Saharan young people is neglected because not only governments, but people in general, are not moved with pity. Our eyes are blind or we strive not to see the migrant, the poor, the homeless on our roads to work, to school, to gym or to the shops. Personally, I feel that we have to learn to have compassion, a compassion that moves us to passionately restore the dignity of the lowly and the poor. We often see with our eyes, and through our cameras, the problem of our cities and villages but we do not see and feel with our hearts and our hands. We are inclined to dwell in our comfort zones and are not brave enough to enter into the vulnerable space of creating a culture of encounter. The feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is an opportunity to see a way into that encounter.
What does the feast of the Visitation teach us?
The Catholic Church celebrates on 31 May the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. After the annunciation of the angel Gabriel, Mary while pregnant with Jesus left her home and visited her cousin Elizabeth who was already 6 months pregnant. Although Mary was already pregnant, she took a journey from Nazareth to the mountains of Judea in order to help her old cousin. The action of Mary leaving her home and her comfort zone to take on this painful journey into the mountains inspires me to leave my own securities, my own safety in order to encounter the people who are far from me. The feast of the Visitation is teaching us to dare take a journey to help people in dire need. In fact, it is a real journey because it requires from us courage to overcome our fears and our longing for personal security. I think, personally, that the culture of encounter can only be possible when we have named our fears and let ourselves become surprised by the beauty of the encounter itself. There is a joy that naturally radiates from two people’s encounter, a joy of moving forward together.
Mamadou Gassama and Mary show me a very good example of generosity. I do not need to know somebody before I help him; I help him because my heart is moved by a surge of generosity. People will criticise Gassama of doing it because he wants to be known, or to get cameras on him. Personally, I think that he is a hero because he was moved with compassion by seeing the child in danger. Courage and bravery do not define the hero first. It is the compassion of one's heart that truly defines the real hero.
Unfortunately, our current society will praise the extraordinary act of bravery over the compassion of the hero. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, will of course reward the bravery and recognise the high achievement of the young immigrant. All those other migrants, however, who are not brave enough or strong enough to perform superhuman actions will not be recognised by the French society. Society tends to welcome as migrants only the brightest of people and only the most extraordinary people can be cast as survivors worthy of such a welcome. What if the true heroes are those who are moved with compassion? What if they are able to overcome their fears and sacrifice their lives for others who are different from their race, origin, language and social position? What if we could be heroes like this again?