True Source of Christian Charity

by Cardinal Robert Sarah


At Catholic Charities' 2012 Annual Gathering held in St. Louis, MO from Sept 30 to October 2, 2012, , the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Cardinal Sarah, urged the agency to draw strength from its Catholic identity and take part in the new evangelization. President of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” Cardinal Sarah is also a member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.

Publisher & Date

L’Osservatore Romano, October 2, 2012

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you and participate in this annual gathering of Catholic Charities USA, which also marks my first time visiting the United States. I also thank your President, Father Larry Snyder both for his invitation to speak to you and his dedicated leadership and service to Catholic Charities USA. I greet each one of you from the many Dioceses and organizations that you represent. Here in the United States, Catholic Charities USA are well known among other Catholic charitable organizations for providing an impressive array of charitable works: from programs for health care for the elderly and children, work with sick patients, assistance to expectant mothers, and adoption services to feed and legally protect the poor. Also, I am especially happy to greet Catholic Charities of St. Louis who is celebrating the centennial anniversary of its foundation.

Cor Unum”, my Dicastery at the Vatican, is entrusted with the concrete realization of the Holy Father’s charitable intentions, particularly when disaster strikes somewhere in the world. Our task is to encourage and coordinate the organizations and charitable activities promoted by the Catholic Church. “Cor Unum” also works to foster the catechesis of Charity and support the faithful to give a concrete witness to evangelical charity. Each year, Catholic Charities USA through the generosity of over 300,000 of its volunteers lends its services in favor of the poor. This certainly confirms that the experience of God’s generous love challenges us and liberates us to adopt the same attitude towards our brothers and sisters. Since the beginning of the history of the Church in the United States, this personal experience of Christ’s love has been the unifying force that moves Catholic men and women of all ages to get involved in the works of mercy, justice and compassion for the poor. Numerous Catholic charitable institutions and structures have been established to assist the orphans, the immigrants, the ethnic groups and all people in need. Countless Americans of different walks of life have made the service to the poor their whole dedication. There were also religious, men and women who have sacrificed their whole lives to be witnesses of Gospel love through their generous service. The Church will always have a preferential love for the poor. Faithful to the Commandment of Jesus, she can never turn a blind eye to the sufferings of our unfortunate brothers and sisters. Indeed, we can all attest to this significant role that Catholic Charities has played in your nation’s history. Catholic Charities have helped shape this service of Gospel love into an essential part of American culture. 

The Catholic Identity: our greatest challenge and our “Gateway” to renewal

But, today, the Church in America, including Catholic Charities, face challenges that threaten this heritage that has been passed on to us by previous generations. The times in which we live in are characterized by an aggressive secularism that seeks to exclude the role of religion in public life and as a consequence, set up a culture without God, wherein everyone can live without the law of truth and love engraved in the heart of every human being by the Creator. Secularism seeks to substitute God and His divine law with personal opinions, ideologies, pleasures and needs. If God is taken out, only degradation and sufferings will follow. If good citizens are forced to leave aside their religious convictions, then society would not only exclude the contribution of religion, but also would promote a culture, which redefines man as less than what he is. If citizens whose moral judgments are informed by their religious beliefs are ignored, then democracy itself is emptied of real meaning. Pope Benedict XVI has already warned us of this troubling development. He said, “it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.” (January 19, 2012 address to the U.S. Bishops in Ad Limina Visit).

Catholic Charities are not exempt from being affected by this secularized mentality. In the past, some Catholic Charities have contracted with civil authority to provide foster care and adoption services. But recently, civil authority through its own legislation has tried to pressure Catholic adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, a clear violation of Catholic teachings. Catholic charitable agencies are given the choice to comply or withdraw from the adoption/care business. The economic and financial crisis that we are experiencing at every level in both the U.S. and in other continents continues to particularly affect the poorest of the poor, those who have no means of protection and security. In addition, more and more we often meet “new” forms of poverty in people who have lost their jobs or who have some fragile family situations. There are people who are often lost, in obvious difficulties that are not only economic.

Faced with these new and complex situations, we have to exercise an “intelligent” charity that is capable of listening and discernment; an organized charity that is capable of innovative responses to the crisis; a charity that understands the causes of the problems and is able to not only provide the needed services but also accompanies those who are in trouble. In these new situations of difficulty, we need to recognize the significant questions on the meaning of suffering and life. This is why we need to be able to give a comprehensive answer. In particular, we feel guided by a principle of faith, which is valid not only for our work “ad extra”, but also within (“ad intra”) our organizations: the defense of life from its beginning to its natural end.

Faced with these challenges in our service to the poor, we may be tempted to change our principles, to compromise and give in. In an episode of the Gospel, we read that Peter walked on water to reach Jesus who was beckoning him to come. As long as Peter kept his eyes fixed on Jesus, the strong winds and the frightening waves could do him no harm. Pope Benedict XVI in Apostolic Letter for the Year of faith encourages us to put our hope in Christ. He said, “we will need to keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus Christ, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2): in him, all the anguish and all the longing of the human heart finds fulfillment. The joy of love, the answer to the drama of suffering and pain, the power of forgiveness in the face of an offence received and the victory of life over the emptiness of death: all this finds fulfillment in the mystery of his Incarnation, in his becoming man, in his sharing our human weakness so as to transform it by the power of his resurrection” (Porta fidei n. 13).

In a merely human point of view, we may think that such difficult circumstances can be an obstacle to freely realize the Church’s mission of charity. On the contrary, I believe that such time and peculiar circumstances present us with an exceptional occasion to go back to the roots of our Catholic identity. Thus, our Catholic identity, besides being a challenge, is also a “gateway” to renewal for our charitable institutions. Catholic Charities USA is defined by a heritage that is Catholic, deeply connected to its roots in the Gospel and in the Catholic teaching and tradition. Tapping into our Catholic roots will be a source of renewal for you and will help you to rediscover and appreciate this great treasure, which is our Catholic faith and tradition. How appropriate and opportune that Pope Benedict XVI, on the occasion of proclaiming the Year of Faith, in his Apostolic Letter “Door of Faith”, points out the importance of faith in our charitable work: “Faith without charity bears no fruit, while charity without faith would be a sentiment constantly at the mercy of doubt. Indeed, many Christians dedicate their lives with love to those who are lonely, marginalized or excluded, … because it is in them that the reflection of Christ’s own face is seen. Through faith, we can recognize the face of the risen Lord in those who ask for our love” (Porta fidei n. 14).

Roots of Christian charity

Having reflected on the significant role that our Catholic beliefs played in our charitable works and the need to renew it, I wish now to focus more on the “Christian character” of our charity. What makes a charitable agency “Christian”? This is the question that I wish to treat.

Pope Benedict XVI, in the Introduction of Deus caritas est pointed out to us the answer: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). These words, he says, express “with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith” (n. 1). In order to begin to grasp the Church’s ancient confession, “God is love,” Pope Benedict believes that two actions are needed simultaneously: love of God and love of neighbor. When one of the scribes asked, “Which is the first of all the commandments,” Jesus replied, “The First is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29-31). Holding together this double commandment, the Pope seems to say, is key to understanding the raison d’etre of the Church’s charitable activity. Faith and life are indissolubly linked together; the one implies the other. Indeed, Christian life implies the living out of faith, hope and love. This is what makes charity “Christian”. It is what gives Christian charity its specific and irreplaceable identity.

In the first lines of Deus caritas est, the Pope describes what “makes” a Christian: “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (n. 1). God lets Himself be so moved by man’s situation that He becomes body given out and blood poured out in Christ in such a way that “we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving” (n. 13). For the one who accepts God’s primordial love, love is the answer to the gift of love. It becomes visible in the men and women who reflect His presence.

Essential Characteristics of Christian Charity

1) Christian Charity is an essential part of the Church’s mission

First, the practice of love – charitable activity (diakonia) - along with the proclamation of God’s Word (kerygma-martyria) and the celebration of the sacraments (leitourgia), is of the very essence of the Church’s mission. For the Church exists in this world as the instrument of God’s will: “His will was that men should have access to the Father through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature” (Dei verbum n. 2).

The mutual bond of the three ecclesial munera brings us back to the intrinsic bond between charity and evangelization. We are on the eve of the Synod of the New Evangelization, which begins next week in Rome and which represents a new challenge for all our charitable organizations during this Year of Faith.

We can start with a simple question: What is the connection between our charitable action and evangelization? If our charitable action is an ecclesial action, then of course it is permeated by the Gospel. How can we evangelize ourselves within our organizations, allowing the Gospel to penetrate our sentiments and our thoughts so that our work reveals God who has called us? What can we do in our organizations to link together charity and evangelization in the life of those who work with us? The pastoral priorities of the New Evangelization should also be taken up by our organizations, since they are organizations of the Church.

Another aspect of this ecclesial nature is the link with the Pastors of the Church. Every Catholic charitable work should function faithfully within the mission and structure of the local diocese, with special respect for the role of the Bishop. This ecclesial communion is essential to our mission. The link with the Church and her global mission should not be perceived as an obstacle or a limitation in regards to the problems we face, but instead must be understood as a condition of possibility so that our action may be implemented and fully understood.

2) Christian charity draws its source from prayer

Love cannot be given to one’s brothers and sisters unless it has first been drawn from the genuine source of divine Charity, and this happens only in prolonged moments of prayer, of listening to the word of God, of receiving the Sacraments and of adoring the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life. Blessed John Paul II affirms that “only a worshiping and praying Church can show herself sufficiently sensitive to the needs of the sick, the suffering, the lonely especially in the great urban centers – and the poor everywhere.” (Address to US Bishops in Ad Limina, December 3, 1983).

The encyclical Deus Caritas est focuses on the “spirituality” of those working in charitable agencies. “… in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a ‘formation of the heart’: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others…” (DCE n. 31a).

Service to our neighbors, therefore, also makes demands upon the heart, not primarily in the emotional sense, but in the very rational decision to desire the best for the other person, even at the price of self-sacrifice.

Concluding Remarks

In such a difficult time, living faithfully our Christian heritage is itself a challenge. But, our Catholic identity can also be truly a “gateway” of renewal and a sure path to bearing lasting fruit in our charitable work. All this that I have told you, is eloquently summarized in St. Paul’s hymn of charity, where he points out to us the best program for our charitable work (1 Cor 12: 30-31; 13: 1-8).

In fact, the lives of the Saints bear witness that it is possible, with the grace of God, to live out this Christian love. How many Saints and Blesseds there are who have loved in this way! Their works of love and service to the poor have endured through the ages. Look at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s mission to the poor and underprivileged in terms of schooling, St. Francis Cabrini’s tireless efforts towards defenseless immigrants, and St. Katherine Drexel’s concern for the oppressed Native Americans and Blacks. When we truly live out this hymn of charity in our own personal lives and in our organization, then all our charitable activities realized in the name of the Church will also endure; because “love never comes to an end” (1 Cor 13: 8).

I thank you for your attention.

© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2012

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