Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est - 6

Enrico dal Covolo

The poor themselves as the real treasure of the Church

"Those who speak of charity speak of God himself. For those who do not evaluate their words with supreme caution this is a difficult and dangerous enterprise. Speaking of love is barely possible for angels, and even for them it is more or less difficult, according to the degree of illumination received.

"It is written that 'God is charity'; but those who aspire to conveying the depth of this revelation in words would resemble a blind man on a boat who wanted to measure how far the sand on the seashore extended" (Ladder of Paradise, 30, 197).

With these words, St. John Climacus (d. 649) expresses a thought widely shared by the Patristic tradition in both East and West. St. Augustine's statement (d. 430) is well known: Immo vero vides Trinitatem, si caritatem vides ("If you see charity, you see the Trinity"; De Trinitate, VIII, 8). Contemplating charity means contemplating the unfathomable mystery of God.

For this reason — out of humility or perhaps for fear of confusing the great Christian mystery with profane concepts — the earliest Fathers prior to the Council of Nicea said relatively little about love of God. They preferred to speak of it in an exegetical context (cf. the most important Patristic comments on Luke 10:25-38; Matthew 25:31-46; I Corinthians 13), and above all with reference to the nuptial metaphor of the Song of Songs.

Moreover, in the Patristic tradition firmly rooted in the Gospel, the link between love of God and love of neighbour is constantly stressed and never disputed. This link is explained with various arguments and from different viewpoints. Love of neighbour is sometimes seen as a primary condition for love of God, but on other occasions it is viewed as the opposite: its direct consequence.

From Basil to Chrysostom

In any case, it was the so-called Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus) and John Chrysostom (d. 407) in particular who — elaborating on several intuitions of Origen of Alexandria (d. 254) — succeeded with their theoretical and practical interventions in founding a sort of ordo caritatis, that is, in encouraging an organic theological and pastoral synthesis of love of God and love of neighbour, especially the poor and needy.

Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocians (d. 379), hypothesized a theory of Christian faith based directly on the bond of charity: "God", he went as far as saying in his Comments on the Psalms, "is not truly God except for those who are united with him in charity" (29, 3); and the pseudo-Basilian Enarratio in Esaiam extends love of God even to love of enemies: "We must love God with all our might so as to love (agapân) everyone near us [our neighbour in general], and also enemies, in order to be perfect, imitating the goodness of God who causes the sun to rise on the just and unjust alike" (1, 15, 9).

St. John Chrysostom, for his part, in his famous Homily50 on Matthew's Gospel, delivered in Antioch in about 390, developed more clearly the moral consequences of the theological discourse on love: "Let no Judas then approach this table!...", the homilist bursts out in the Eucharistic liturgy, for presenting oneself at the table with gold vessels does not suffice as a criterion of dignity.

"That table at that time was not of silver, nor that cup of gold, out of which Christ gave his disciples his own blood.... Would you do honour to Christ's body? Neglect him not when naked; do not while here honour him with silken garments, and neglect him perishing outside of cold and nakedness. For he who has said, 'This is my Body', and by his word confirmed the fact, has also said: 'I was hungry and you gave me no food', and 'as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me'....

"Let us learn, therefore, to be strict in life and to honour Christ as he himself desires..., spending our wealth on poor people since God has no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls.... For what is the profit, when his table indeed is full of golden cups, but he perishes with hunger? First fill him, being hungry, and then abundantly deck out his table also. Do you make him a cup of gold, while you do not give him a cup of cold water? And what use is this? Do you furnish his table with gold-embroidered cloths while you fail to make sure that he has the necessary covering? And what good comes of it?".

According to Chrysostom, this is Judas: the one who draws near to the Body and Blood of the Lord but in reality does not share his plan of life. Ever attentive to the practical implications and social importance of the identity of the faith, this is something that John does not miss an opportunity to forcefully emphasize.

He thus comes to one of the characteristic themes of his preaching: almsgiving. Begging for alms serves as a corollary: the shared Body of Christ calls the faithful to fraternal solidarity.

This explains why Chrysostom's sermons on the poor are preached in the presence of the Eucharist. Indeed, he creates a new language of solidarity, a twofold motivation that he does not fail to stress: firstly, partaking of the same banquet reinforces the bonds of communion; secondly, in the Eucharist is revealed the synkatabasis of God, that "condescendence" (humbling) which is the supreme revelation of agape.

Echoing Chrysostom, Benedict XVI affirms in his Encyclical that the Eucharist "draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation.... The sacramental 'mysticism', grounded in God's condescension towards us... lifts us to far greater heights than anything that any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish" (n. 13).

Thus, we reach the conclusion of Chrysostom's Homily: "Give alms", one reads in it, "and all things will be clean unto you. This is a greater thing than sacrifice.... This opens the heavens.... This is more indispensable than virginity: for thus were those [foolish] virgins cast out of the bride chamber; thus were the others [wise virgins] brought in. All these things let us consider, and sow liberally, that we may reap in more ample abundance and attain unto the good things to come..." (Homily 50, 3).

Many witnesses of charity

The Latin West takes this organic synthesis of charity from the East.

However, while the Latin Fathers did not develop to the same extent the philosophical and mystical aspect of the connection between love of God and love of neighbour, yet from the outset and independently of the Greek Fathers, they made the most of their moral consequences, especially regarding solidarity and almsgiving.

The word they commonly used to indicate this action was caritas, a term that still carries the same meaning today in popular language, so that "doing a charitable act" commonly means "giving alms".

In this regard, the Encyclical makes a broad digression and shifts to the Roman setting of the second century: "Justin Martyr (d. c. 155), speaking of the Christians' celebration of Sunday, also mentions their charitable activity, linked with the Eucharist as such.... The great Christian writer Tertullian (d. after 220) relates how the pagans were struck by the Christians' concern for the needy of every sort. And when Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 117) described the Church of Rome as 'presiding in charity (agape)', we may assume that with this definition he also intended in some sense to express her concrete charitable activity" (n. 22).

The historical excursus continues in the following paragraph of the Encyclical, when the Pope refers to primitive institutions in the Church for the service of charity. These were, in particular, the institution of the diaconia, which originated yet again in the East in the origins of monasticism, but spread in the West (above all in Rome) from the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Pope explains: "Charitable activity on behalf of the poor and the suffering was naturally an essential part of the Church of Rome from the very beginning, based on the principles of Christian life given in the Acts of the Apostles. It found a vivid expression in the case of the deacon Lawrence (d. 258). The dramatic description of Lawrence's martyrdom was known to St Ambrose (d. 397), and it provides a fundamentally authentic picture of the saint. As the one responsible for the care of the poor in Rome, Lawrence had been given a period of time, after the capture of the Pope and of Lawrence's fellow deacons, to collect the treasures of the Church and hand them over to the civil authorities. He distributed to the poor whatever funds were available and then presented to the authorities the poor themselves as the real treasure of the Church" (n. 23).

The allusion in the Encyclical to St. Ambrose (more precisely, to the De Officiis [ministrorum] 2, 28, 140) suggests at least a reference to that formidable witness of charity who was Bishop of Milan. His prophetic acts (in fact, criticized by some since the time of Ambrose himself), such as the melting down of sacred vessels for the ransom of prisoners, spring to mind; and we see again the admiring gaze of Augustine as a young man, contemplating his "model" — Bishop Ambrose himself — eternally besieged by catervae for poor people, for whom he generously did his best (cf. Confessions 6, 3).

Again referring to the West and to the practical exercise of charity, the Pope cited the Life of St. Martin of Tours, written by Sulpicius Severus in about 397, a few months before the Saint's death. Martin of Tours, first a soldier, then a monk and Bishop, shows — almost as an icon — the irreplaceable value of the individual testimony of charity.

"At the gates of Amiens, Martin gave half of his cloak to a poor man: Jesus himself appeared to him that night in a dream wearing that cloak, confirming the perennial validity of the Gospel saying: "I was naked, and you clothed me... as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Mt 25:36, 40)" (n. 40).

But in the monastic movement, since its birth with Anthony the Abbot in the desert (d. 356), love of God has entailed immense service to one's neighbour.

Contemplatio, the highest step in the ancient monastic lectio, has always been closely related to operatio, that is, the practical exercise of charity: in the face-to-face encounter with God who is wholly Love, the monk feels a need, which cannot be postponed, to transform his whole life into love and service. This explains the great monastic structures that offer hospitality, shelter and care, and the extensive initiatives of human advancement and Christian formation destined mainly for the poor.

The preaching and ascetic and charitable activity of the great monk and Bishop, Basil of Caesarea, were realized in the building of the Basiliade, a hospital town to shelter and treat the poor and sick that would become the centre of present-day Caesarea.

In short, the inseparable relationship between love of God and love of neighbour is the incentive along which the journey of holiness unfolds, marked by the witnesses of our Fathers in the Churches of East and West.

This is the "history of charity".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 August 2006, page 4

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