Giving the Free Gift of Self

Author: Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes


Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes
President of the Pontifical Council ‘Cor Unum’

Comment of Archbishop Cordes on Lenten Message for the year 2003

This unwritten saying of Christ, not found in the four Gospels, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles, reported by St Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, seems to have won universal approval—at least, as we look around us today. The market of philanthropic institutions is booming. All have on their masthead the duty to give to neighbour. Today no commandment of Sacred Scripture has had such impact from the pedagogical point of view as the appeal: "Do not be indifferent to a brother in need; take care of your sister in need. Give them what they ask for".

Charitable giving is fashionable

Hence multinationals invest in charitable activities. An international airline recommends its Help-Agency onintercontinental flights; poor children are shown on the monitor, then envelopes are distributed for a collection and the flight-attendants collect these lukewarm donations as passengers leave the plane. Everywhere we come across generous benefactors for noble causes—for example, on flights to Asia one finds the foundation for the "AIDS Orphans of Thailand". In Hochiminhville, the principal city in the south of the Communist country of Vietnam, I was recently greeted at the airport by a sign which, with the Christian word charity, invited me to support the poor. Being sponsors of a charity with the use of its own logo is now part of the daily work of marketing strategy. Ministers for international cooperation proudly show the high percentage of development aid in their governments' budgets. Bingos and charity galas with actors, sports champions or politicians are commonplace items everywhere.

The word of Jesus about not giving for publicity is forgotten

Do these widespread set of good deeds prove that Jesus' words have been accepted around the world and that it is now unnecessary to stress them today? Upon closer examination, we realize that those on the receiving end as well as the donors may have different purposes in their "altruistic" activities. The plethora of appeals for humanitarian aid can water down crucial aspects of Jesus' invitation as, for example, if the appeals hardly conceal the intention to improve the image of the person or that of his company.

In a world in which giving has become fashionable, one can attain glory and greatness with donations—only if Jesus words "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Mt 6,3), are deliberately ignored. The philanthropic atmosphere even makes it possible to make a business of solidarity; then over and above charitable purposes, there isalways a chance for those who manage the charity to subtract a substantial sum for their own needs. The democratic state therefore rightly imposes conditions before it will permit an agency to be designated as a humanitarian institution. In other regions, some shamelessly take advantage of their authority and get rich with the money that was destined for the poor. An example of this recently came to my attention. A national Caritas group wanted to carry out a million-dollar project in a socialist country. The state was not ashamed about pocketing $650,000 "for personnel and administrative expenses". This kind of robbery strongly contradicts our sense of justice and confirms the need to reflect at great length on the meaning of Jesus' words.

Giving for self-interest

Think of the way in which a third-century Roman citizen, Julius Paulus, understood what it was to give. He coined the phrase: "Do ut des"—"I give so that you will give to me; I give so that you will do something for me". Julius Paulus was an expert in law. With this phrase he wanted to sum up the reciprocity of contracts. But the attitude of the: "I give so that you give to me" does not just regard contractual law. It is also current in daily life—sometimes openly, sometimes more hiddenly. It is fostered by the economic models now in vogue that have the stamp of the economic liberalism of Adam Smith (d. 1790), who held that the individual's self-interest is the principal engine of the economy. The one who gives with this attitude takes as his objective what they get in return and their own advantage from having given. This expectation is not far from the analysis of giving and donating that is found in the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. In his work L'être et lenéant (1943- Beingand Nothing), heconceives of giving as a sequence of events. According to Sartre, giving would not have its motivation in friendship, love, compassion or in the will to alleviate the suffering of others. Nor would it, for this French philosopher, be an expression of generosity. He claims that it would be used in human relationships just to subjugate the person who faces me. Indeed, for Sartre the gift involves whoever receives it, puts him under obligation and subjugates him. Giving is a concealed manoeuvre of self-interest to imprison one's neighbour.

Need to hear the word of Jesus on the blessedness of pure giving

The word of Jesus that this year Pope John Paul II teaches in his Lenten Message therefore contains a necessary invitation and orientation for our time. "It is more blessed to give than to receive". Despite the popularity of giving, this phrase formulates a new exhortation and imposes clear limits. Thus it soon leads us beyond any superficial understanding. It does not only confirm the readiness to help, which in itself is right and just, but offers clear guidance to Christians.

Certainly, the Christian has a heart. He is glad to share with the needy, just as the Samaritan is moved by compassion and takes money out of his wallet (cf. Lk 10,32ff.). Before the state and society ever found out that it was their duty to provide assistance to the poor, the Church had taken upon herself the burden of those who suffer: the martyrdom of St Lawrence is an eloquent witness, and so is the bitter observation of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (d. 363) who, after his rejection of Christianity, angrily exclaimed: "The atheist Galileans feed our own poor as well as their own". But the philosopher Hegel, on his way towards a full understandingof Jesus' commandment, leads us beyond benevolence: "The true essence of love consists in abandoning one's self-consciousness, forgetting oneself in another Self, and yet, possessing oneself while setting oneself aside and forgetting oneself".

Christian forms of total self giving that last a life time

This line of thought one can help us discover the depth of Jesus' word. The Holy Father in his Message lists these existential forms of giving: "Men and women who, leaving all security behind, have not hesitated to risk their lives as missionaries in different parts of the world ... young people who, prompted by faith, have embraced a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life in order to serve God's plan of salvation" (n. 5).

In my visits representing John Paul II, I have often met these pioneers: the members of the Communion and Liberation Movement, who for years have worked in Uganda; the members of the Sant'Egidio community who in Mozambique are at the service of peace; the Focolarini,for example, in Thailand, or in their discreet mission in those Asian countries that are not free; families on the mission with the Neo-Catechumenical Way who offer hope in the slums of the great cities and fraternal help to families that are in difficulty. In this list of witnesses, I do not want to forget the thousands of men and women religious who risk their lives everywhere in the service of the Gospel.

All these men and women not only intervene with words in the humanitarian field—however important this may be. They not only organize and finance material aid—that is an indispensable contribution for facing the poverty and misery of their world. Instead, they make themselves instruments for the other—in the meaning that today's Lenten Message gives to charity, in which the Holy Father describes the highest form of availability for those who suffer as a "free gift of self to others".

Today it is not only those who are absent who remind us of this gift of self.

Among others the example of Fr Benzi

We have invited a man who has practised it for years and has attracted many supporters: Father Oreste Benzi, who can give his witness. He is the founder of the "Pope John XXIII Association". In 1968, with several other priests, Don Benzi began to gather young people and people who were materially or psychologically poor and look after them. He has founded 186 centres throughout the world in which so-called "normal" families live side-by-side with prostitutes, drug addicts and the physically and mentally disabled. He does not consider himself an "expert in the sector of charity". He is a simple man who is changing the world by 180 degrees. His motto is: "Young people don't need something but some one".

Pope urges a more evangelical way of giving to others

Thus the Lenten Message is more than an incentive to collect funds; more than a moral appeal to share. It reveals to the many possiblities of giving in their wholeness and aims to gather spiritual fruits. In the way we plan our lives, so steeped in the ideas of the society of the Ego, it sets up in front of us a critical mirror. It reminds us of the central messages of the Gospel. Let us take hold of them not just with our own energy and with pedagogical and psychological support, but because the words of Jesus are also a promise: "It is more blessed to give than to receive". Like the Beatitudes of the Gospel, Jesus' words give guidance, but his grace, at the same time, makes it possible for us to live them.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 February 2003, page 7

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