Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Say what? The love you never hear about today

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 27, 2022

In his wonderful book How Saints Die, Fr. Antonio Maria Sicari, OCD closes his fifth chapter with a reflection on the charity of the saints. Here he suggests that “there is one aspect that is too easily underappreciated: the saints of charity love the poor because they love Christ.” Indeed, he turns a common idea almost upside down as he continues:

They do not see Christ in the poor (almost exalting them). Instead, they see the poor in Christ. It is love for His whole body that makes them attentive to the suffering members. [p. 125]

Dying of Charity

Charity for the Christian is a supernatural virtue, conferred in baptism and strengthened through the Church in a growing willingness to love God. Thus Fr. Sicari argues that the great saints of charity are to be distinguished from all those who tend to idealize the poor, including Christians who may consider Christ Himself too abstract, or who may wish to enjoy a certain respect for their commitment to human liberation. These latter, he says, constantly repeat that what is done or not done for the poor, is done or refused to Christ. But while the saints are also convinced of this truth, they are even more convinced of what Fr. Sicari calls the “law of reversibility” embedded within it, namely that “all that is done for Christ is done for the poor.”

For this reason, the saints know the following:

  • When they honor Christ in their prayer and action and attention, setting aside time and energy for Him, they know they are also honoring the poor.
  • When they defend Christ (His Church, His Word, His Law, His Pastors, His Gifts), they know they are also defending the poor.
  • When they must choose between Christ and the poor, on account of hostility to or restrictions on the Church, they know that choosing Christ will be to the benefit of the poor.

Fr. Sicari argues that “this test of reversibility is needed above all today” when there is such an emphasis on “social charity” as “a pretext for resentment against the Church” and against the faith itself. And he cannot help but notice that “Christians do not grow in the faith with the same powerful drive with which they think they have grown in charity” (emphasis added). Instead, citing as a perfect example the work of St. Vincent de Paul, Fr. Sicari affirms that:

True charity, in fact, is born from the gaze that is never distracted, not even for a moment, from its focus on Jesus alive, recognized, and beloved, so much that Vincent always insisted: “The main purpose for which God has called us is to love Our Lord Jesus Christ. If we depart even slightly from the thought that the poor are the members of Jesus Christ, without fail we will lose sweetness and charity.” [127]

And then he quotes Henri Brémond, a great historian of Christian spirituality, who wrote:

It was not love for men that led Vincent to holiness, but rather holiness that made him truly and effectively charitable; it was not the poor who gave him to God, but it is God, on the contrary, who gave him to the poor.” [quoted by Pope St. John Paul II in the homily for the 250th anniversary of Vincent de Paul’s canonization]

Dying of Apostolic Toil

These remarkable insights are matched by the key ideas in his brief introduction to the very next chapter, “Dying of Apostolic Toil”. Here Fr. Sicari takes his cue from St. Leopold Mandić who taught the following to his theology students: “A priest must die of apostolic toil; there is no other death worthy of a priest.” And when his fellow Capuchins joined him to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary as a priest, St. Leopold explained:

Allow an old confrere to say a word to you: we are born for toil. It is a supreme joy to have the chance to busy ourselves with it. Let us ask God our Master that we may die of apostolic toil. [129]

This leads Fr. Sicari to make the following points:

  • If the truth of charity is necessary, even more necessary is the charity of truth, especially in those who are bound to “teach, communicate, and defend the Truth that God has revealed to us, above all, about Himself.” [130]
  • In the early Church (for example, during the time of the Arian heresy), it was not charity toward neighbors that was directly endangered but faith in the Trinity, “that first truth which allows us to define charity as the very nature of God” which is extended to, in and through the baptized.
  • Similarly today, the truth is falsely denied in the name of “charity”: that is, “the standard of charity is brandished in order to conceal aggression against the truth.”

Thus does Fr. Sicari choose to place great emphasis on the sacrifices the saints have always made through “the charity of their intelligence, with which they were able to defend and communicate the faith.”

I again recommend this book, published late last year by Ignatius Press, which offers brief biographical reflections on the deaths of many different kinds of saints: Antonio Maria Sicari, How Saints Die: 100 Stories of Hope. Its beauty is not just in the saints, but in this author’s deep perception of the sources of the Christian life. For it is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who are Love and who communicate Love; and it is the Church Christ founded that vivifies us with this great supernatural gift of Love.

Ask Paul in the first century or Augustine in the fifth. Ask Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century or Mother Teresa in the twentieth: Apart from Christ, we can offer at best a pale reflection of love, and only a broken sliver of the good.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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