February 10, 2006

Love must be at the heart of charitable activity, pope teaches

By Sean Gallagher
Second of two parts

A holy card of a beaming Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is taped on a cabinet door on David Siler’s desk at the Archbishop O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis.

The executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries looked at the holy card and spoke about how Mother Teresa typified the distinct character of Catholic charitable activity about which Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote in Part II of his new encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”).

“She served the poorest of the poor … yet she did that out of love,” Siler said. “She went to Mass every day, prayed constantly, went to reconciliation to purify herself in order to be as loving as possible. She’s a real inspiration to me.”

The foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, beatified in 2003, was also raised up by the pope in his encyclical as a model of Catholic charity.

Referring to her life of prayer, Pope Benedict wrote that in her “we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbor but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service” (#36).

The pope wrote that prayer teaches those involved in giving aid to the poor “to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ” (#18).

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, archdiocesan vicar general, thought this observation by the pope was important.

“When we pray, we are going to encounter … problems, tensions, frustrations and challenges,” he said. “But we see them more clearly for what they really are. We see things with the eyes of Christ.”

Benedictine Father Denis Robinson, assistant professor of systematic theology

at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, said the connection between prayer and charity reflects the pope’s desire to nurture in Catholics a unified approach to living the faith.

“The pope understands spirituality as … the development of what might be called a Christian character,” he said. “So, in some ways, the distinction between faith and works, between what is sometimes called action and contemplation, is false. Christian living is [unified]. It is not possible to have one piece without the other and maintain integrity.”

According to Father Denis, the pope’s unified approach to the life of faith is reflected in his teaching at the start of Part II where he wrote that the ministry of charity is “as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel” (#22).

“If I am a Christian, that has real consequences for not only the way I think, but the way I live my life,” Father Denis said. “It has an effect on every aspect of my life, every action. I think the pope is challenging us to move to a more integrated understanding of ourselves and to see our Christian identity as all-consuming.”

Siler was encouraged by the pope’s emphasis on the Church’s charitable activity.

“For those of us in [the ministry of] charity, it really builds us up, and I think encourages us to say what we’re doing is critically important to the Church,” he said. “It’s not just something off to the side that we do so we’re nice and we look good. But it’s essential to what we do as a Church.”

The pope explained later the three principles of Catholic charity. One, it should respond to immediate needs. Two, it should not be driven by ideologies or political parties. And three, it should not involve proselytism, that is, it should not be used as a means “to impose the Church’s faith upon others” (#31).

But the pope went on to write that overarching all of these principles should be the fact that those who carry out charitable work in the Church’s name should be motivated by a deep loving concern for those who receive assistance.

Siler said this point is extremely important for those who do charitable activity because, in his experience, if they suffer from what he described as “compassion burnout,” they aren’t able to meet the deepest needs of those they serve.

“When you stop caring about the people you serve, you’re no longer effective because the people who come to us need that care and concern as much, if not sometimes more, than the material things that they need,” Siler said.

The pope also warned those involved in helping the poor against two temptations: being ideologically driven to creating a world without need on the one hand and, on the other, being driven to despair and inaction by the immensity of need in the world today.

Msgr. Schaedel said that the first temptation can lead a person to want to create “a heaven on earth.”

“That simply is not going to happen for lots of reasons, the main one being that the kingdom of God will never be perfectly achieved [here],” he said.

Nevertheless, Msgr. Schaedel said that this reality should not keep us from doing what we can, however small, to help the poor in our midst, even if the need is overwhelming.

To illustrate this, he told the story of a journalist who accompanied Mother Teresa as she tended a dying man lying among many others who were dying. The reporter asked her how she felt that her ministry makes a difference.

“She just said, ‘It makes a difference to him,’ ” Msgr Schaedel said.

Siler said that the needs of the poor in central and southern Indiana continue to increase.

But in comments reminiscent of Mother Teresa’s often-quoted words, “In this life, we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love,” he noted the importance of keeping love at the heart of the Church’s ministry of charity, something emphasized by the pope in his first encyclical.

“We do change the world through a single act of love,” Siler said. “It can become overwhelming, but I tell people to not look at the whole circumstance because some of those huge social problems we can’t change.

“Very simple acts of love can have a profound effect on the world.” †


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