What Makes Charity 'Christian'?

Author: Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes


Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes

On 10 September, Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, President of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum", participated In the annual meeting of the Catholic Charities at Newark, Now Jersey, speaking to the 600 delegates on the subject, "What makes Charity 'Christian'?".

Catholic Charities is the charitable organization of the Bishops of the USA, dedicated to the care of the needy in the country. Some numbers help to understand the vastness of the operations of the agency: in 1999 it assisted 9.5 million persons with a financial burden of 2,260 million dollars. The full time employees are 50,488. The organization includes 200,000 volunteers.

It is significant that the Church in the USA, present outside the country through Catholic Relief Services, has pointed out an increase of poverty and of the need to give to eat to the hungry: in 1999 they fed 3,500,000 persons, an increase of 32% over the previous year. In a nation that is so prosperous, the contribution of the Church wishes to be a sign of the concrete charity that wishes to meet the real needs of human beings. On this path, the President of "Cor Unum" has offered a word of support and encouragement to the Catholics who are engaged in these activities. Here is the Archbishop's speech.

A friend of mine works for an international consulting firm. This firm helps large corporations and institutions to identify that strategy which will realize their goals most effectively. In 1998 the founder of the firm joined with the Rand Corporation, an important think-tank in the United States. The German name of this firm is Abels and Grey. Abels and Grey is known for preparing so-called "Corporate Mission Statements". The purpose of these statements is four-fold: They shape public opinion. They entice potential consumers and investors. They match human resources to the requirements of a business strategy. And they organize and supervise public relations and media work.

The methods used to achieve these objectives are really two-pronged: On the one hand the Corporate Mission Statements are aimed at the market. On the other, they are directed toward the internal dimension of the client organization.

Abels and Grey has offices in the USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, and Germany. Its clients include Deutsche Bank, Daimler Chrysler, Telecom and Bayer-Leverkusen.

At this point you might be wondering why I have introduced you to a company like Abels and Grey. It appears to me that this agency confirms, in a certain sense, the project which has brought us together today: the need for a true vision of Catholic charity.When we look closely at the proposals of such a consulting firm, we see that its vision has a mandate to articulate in both a logical and emotional way both the values held by the enterprise and the objectives needed to inculcate those values.

Both aspects have to be clear so that the employees can buy into and associate themselves with the way the firm perceives its own identity.

In formulating that identity, Abels and Grey enumerate four essential prerequisites:

a) The first is Scope—Whatis the reason for the enterprise's existence?

b) The second is Strategies—Whatis the company's approach to marketing and its specialization or specific area of competency?

c) The third is Norms of behavior—What are the practices and procedures which both champion the company's specialization or competency and also promotes the value system of the enterprise?

d) The last one is Value Conceptualization—Whatdoes the enterprise actually believe in?

I am particularly interested in the fact that a consulting agency like Abels and Grey would place so much emphasis upon its own activity, upon its values and objective and strategies. This highlights for me how relevant our endeavor is in our own time.

The sources of data indicate that Perception Management is the new discipline for leadership and for gaining the decisive edge in the field of competition. In the modern communications era, it is the shaping of perception that turns out to be the competitive advantage.

Let's apply this information to the need for a vision of Catholic Charity because, even for reasons of economic efficiency, it is important to review the role of "charity" in the new millennium that has just opened.

So, I thank you for having invited me to this meeting. I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to contribute to your reflections. My experience has given me a strong desire and a certain competence to share with you. Ever since I became President of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum" over five years ago, I have been deeply involved in the field of charity. I have been busy in addressing, on a global scale, the opportunities provided by charity and the problems posed because of charity.

In every corner of our world today there isa great desire and an eager readiness to help those in need. No one In the civilized world denies the need to alleviate poverty and to help the needy. At the high point of the war in Kosovo in the Balkans an appeal for aid was made on TV. It was addressed to all people of good will. I came back from the war zone and was asked to participate in the appeal—a two-hour special program on Germany's most important television channel. The result of the appeal was a donation totaling approximately 15 million US dollars. Previously I had experienced another surprise in Taiwan: it was the concern of Buddhists for the victims of the earthquake. I had carried around with me the idea that Buddhists were above all nitty-gritty earthbound concerns. I thought that they only aimed at self-redemption through the emptying of their own ego.

But, in the vicinity of Taipei, I visited a newly constructed temporary village, which had been built by a Buddhist nun at a cost of one million US dollars. Such generosityis certainly not an uncommon thing in our time. Everywhere we are familiar with charity organizations funded by leading figures in society. Just to list a few, people make donations for programs for the return of child soldiers to civilian life, for AIDS victims in Uganda, for refugees in the Congo and in the African Lakes region, and for the reconstruction of El Salvador after the earthquake. In your country there took place even a kind of spiritual revival. The world-famous sociologist Amitai Etzioni described its contours in his book, The Spirit of Community, Rights, Responsibilities, and theCommunitarian Agenda, published in 1993.

Clearly the Lord's commandment to love our neighbor has been a greatsuccess in our day. The Christian can only rejoice over this. Whoever is moved by people's needs is concerned first and foremost that those needs be addressed. The Good Samaritan in the Lord's parable doesn't first ask the robbed manlying at the roadside what religion he belongs to before he offers him charity. And yet, considering what I said earlier about "Abels and Grey", I wonder: What is it specifically that makes charity "Christian"? What is that characteristic or perception that defines its identity? Where, then, do the roots lie of the maxims of human solidarity so popular today? Who (so to say) holds the copyright for the concept of "charity"? Does it only express a universal humanitarian striving—in some sense a humanistic legacy, the fruit of Greco-Roman thought?

The ethical thought of classical Antiquity affirmed that society should be ordered on the basis of justice, not charity or compassion. The ancients were indeed familiar with the concept of mercy, ELEOS—but as an interior prompting of the spirit, and not as a principle for action. In fact, the moral philosophy of the Stoics enumerated compassion

among the diseases of the senses, which had to be combated. The philosopher Kant, too, rejected it as an impulse for action, and Nietzsche regarded it as a downright pathology. It was not the practice among the Greeks and the Romans to take care of the poor. Nor were the poor under the special protection of the gods. Zeus/Jupiter may have been called the "god of strangers", but never "friend of the poor". The welfare of the State for the poor was unknown. Whoever did good, did so as a service not to the needy, but to society as a whole, since in this way he contributed to the security of the social order. So public handouts of food, such as the distribution of wheat in antiquity, were destined for the citizenry in general, and in no special manner reserved for the hungry. It is also significant that in the social struggles in the Greco-Roman world the rebels never appealed to the gods.

Contrary to all appearances, therefore, it must be affirmed that lovefor our neighbor is not the fruit of secular humanism, but was born on the terrain of the biblical revelation. Still less is it just the product of our own magnanimous spirit or of an heroic commitment on the part of do-good Christians. As Christians we know we shall be judged by what we have done to the least of our brethren, or by what we have omitted to do.

But this teaching of the Lord—"as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25,40)—must not be isolated. It must be placed in the context of a far wider mission entrusted to us. When the Lord sent his disciples to the ends of the earth, he commanded them: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28,19). This missionary mandate given to them by the Risen Lord is the context that enables us to grasp in full the charitable activity of the Church. His words lead us to the roots of charity, to the reciprocal interaction of the great munera in which the Church is realized.

Church's fundamental mission: proclamation, liturgy, charity

Ecclesiology defines the three fundamental functions of the Church as martyria, leiturgia and diakonia. These functions can be distinguished, but in the concrete life of the Church are not kept separate; they are not watertight compartments. Rather, to express it in Rahner's words, "they inseparably belong the one to the other; in this unity, reciprocally related to and included in each other, they form the one self-realization of the Church" (K. Rahner, Handbuch zur Pastoraltheologie 1, 218). Martyria, leiturgia and diakonia arethe perceptible dimension of the Church's mission, its triple face. They have a need for osmosis—both within the Church's mission in its entirety, and also in the life of the individual believer, even though the Body of Christ has many members and the ministers of the Church are diverse. For what really transmits integral salvation to the human person and to the human community is only that proclamation of ours which takes shape in the concrete experience in service to our neighbor and is celebrated in liturgy.

Our quest for the identity of "charity in the new millennium" has thus led us to pay attention, first, and foremost, to the inseparable link between Church aid and the overall mission of the Church. Otherwise the Christian diakonia isthreatened with taking on a secularized facade. In other words, its planning and implementation are no longer performed in the horizon of the faith. Such a danger does not arise from the bad faith or indifference of pastors or of the leaders of the charitable organizations. The reasons lie in the spiritand mentality of our time and in many other contingent factors that impact our perception of charity.

Charitable activity permeates all the sectors and strata of society. It is linked to civil rights, to social duties, to the responsibilities of the State. From kindergarten to the retirement home, public welfare accompanies individuals during the whole of their earthly existence. That is why some charitable organization have also experienced a considerable development in some Western countries, to the point of becoming awesome providers of welfare services. When I recently visited Cologne to present a report on the occasion of the centenary of German Caritas, I was rather astonished to hear that Caritas has no less than 480,000 full-time staff members in Germany. In fact, after the State, it is the establishment with the largest number of employees in the country. Already before this, as I scanned the publications on charitable activity at my desk, I was struck by certain figures.

This data documented in a similar manner the magnitude and the influence that Catholic charitable organizations now have: for instance, in 1998 the American branch of Caritas responsible for charitable activities abroad, the CRS (Catholic Relief Services), had a budget of over 400 million dollars. The example of Italian Caritas, too, with a budget of some 38 million dollars in 1998, shows what financial muscle and what social power the Church can exert in the provision of aid to the poor.

However, the universal public support for charitable action undoubtedly challenges us to be vigilant so that we never lose sight of our Christian identity. The stream of secular sympathizers will hardly remind us of what we consider to be the typical Christian criteria for charity. To heighten our awareness of these criteria, and to remind ourselves about what it is that is specifically Christian about us, I point out to you the advice of the consulting firm I cited in my introductory remarks. Even more powerfully, however, fidelity to our task remindsus of our duty; for we have not appointed ourselves to the service of the needy by our own authority, but were called to do so by a divine mission. When countless socially active groups are involved in so many different projects for so many different reasons, we have been entrusted with a mission that needs to be firmly held onto. In this task only Christ can be our model, our point of view. We are all familiar with his words: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 22:37-39).

Love of God and Charity

We must pose this commandment of the Lord to ourselves whenever we enter into the service of the poor as Christians. In these verses of the Gospel we also find the criterion to differentiate ecclesial aid from secular social welfare. It consists in the fact that the Lord puts love for God in first place, giving it precedence over love for our neighbor. Love for our neighbor is always characterized by Jesus as the second commandment. Strength and purity thus grow in proportion as they grow from the love for God. Love for our neighbor is not self-sufficient. It is the "reflection" of love for God.

And let no one say he does not need to be reminded of this! The sociology of knowledge tells us: "What is no longer expressed, is forgotten". But even more noteworthy for our reflections is the emphasis that Jesus, in his reply to the teacher of the law, placed on the indispensability of love for God. Whoever considers the Yahweh-centered and demanding religious practice of the Pharisees, might think that they, least of all, would have needed such an admonishment.

The first part of the Lord's commandment—the commandment to love God—is found in the Shemá, a prayer as famous as the Christian "Pater Noster",that is recited every day by devout Jews, both in the morning and in the evening. This prayer recognizes that Yahweh is the one God. He made a covenant with Israel. He liberated his people from bondage in Egypt. This commandment is aimed to ensure that God's greatness be kept alive in the memory of the people of Israel, and that by virtue of this memory each Jew may deepen day by day his own faith in Yahweh and respond to him with love.

The words to love God "with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" must be engraved on the very heart of Israel and expressed in the circumstances and the situations of daily life: "and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Dt 6:6-9).

The Jews explained the triple formula in a very concrete way: "With all your heart" meant that God had to be loved with all one's inclinations, both with the good ones and also (by an effort of self-control) by the bad ones. "With all your soul" demanded unconditional love, even when God takes away life (nefesh). "With all your might" referred to one's own capacities and one's own goods. An ancient passage of the Talmud testifies how decisive it was for one's own spirit and one's own life to recite the Shemá. The Talmud is the collection of the religious laws and traditions of postbiblical Judaism. We read in it the following:

"While Rabbi Akiba [he died the year 135 after Christ] was being led to martyrdom, the time came for the recitation of the Shemá. In spite of the fact that his flesh was stripped with iron teeth, he took upon himself the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven [i.e. he recited the Shemá]. His disciples said to him: Master, no further [i.e. stop here].He replied to them: Throughout my life I have been preoccupied by this verse: "with all my soul", even in the case in which he removes our soul [i.e. our life]. I said: when shall it be possible for me to fulfil this? And now that it is possible for me, should I not fulfil it?"

The recitation of the Shemá dates back to the period of the building of the Temple (before 70 BC). It is beyond question that the Lord's life was bound up with the practice of the Jewish tradition. For him, an integral and essential part of his preaching is the service that needs to be paid to God with an undivided heart. This same horizon of faith Jesus may have presupposed in his contemporaries too.

The fact that Jesus formulated the commandment in its twofold aspect was undoubtedly aimed at underlining how indispensable it is to fuse together the two components: love for God must be expressed in the equally essential love for our neighbor, and love for our neighbor draws its strength from love for God, which in turn makes it possible. There is thus a close reciprocity between the two: faith and ethics are indissolubly linked together; the one implies the other. This is precisely the reason why Christian charity exists.

If we look at the Lord, today more than ever we cannot but be struck by how much emphasis he places on the first part of the double commandment. And looking at Jesus prompts us to ascertain whether, and to what degree, our way of loving our neighbor is rooted in God; that is, corresponds to the Lord's intention. It seems, in fact, that in our own time the parity between the two commandments has given way to a perverse imbalance. The charitable mission of the Church is understood without considering the pre-eminence that Jesus himself gives to loving God. The first part of the double commandment has been silently erased; there is no trace of it in the projects of charitable institutions.

It seems that even theologians try to avoid mentioning it in their "theology" of charity.

The risk of building a charitable house without foundations is recognizable. A serious reduction or impoverishment Christian aid comes to light in this error. If the indispensable link between love for God and lovefor our neighbor were to be forgotten, the mission of the Church would lose a significant factor of its dynamic.

The philanthropy so widespread in our society today has led to a considerable growth of the volunteer services also in the Catholic Church. We Catholics should maintain with pride that we discovered such services long before the United Nations and that we are glad embrace this "Year of the Volunteer" proclaimed by the United Nations as an opportunity to draw attention to them. I would like to cite some figures I have at hand that illustrate the scale of the services. The Conferences of the St. Vincent de Paul Society number worldwide some 800,000 members, who devote themselves to the poor and the sick. The Caritas groups in the parishes (AIC) have some 250,000 members. "Manos unidos" from Spain accomplished programs totaling 37 million US dollars in 1999, exclusively with the help of volunteers.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, if there are fighters against misery, we should confirm them and not ask about their motivation. Nonetheless, we also need to remember this important common experience: Charitable activity among active helpers leads to a deepening of faith, only if the connection between the first and the second part the Lord's commandment is kept view.

The many volunteers involved in charitable activity don't necessarily have to have an already mature faith. Their motivations at the beginning are often very different. Some devote themselves out of idealism, some out compassion. But it is surprising to observe how their gratuitous service leads them closer to God. This affirmation has a real foundation; it has been recognized by Jean Vanier, founder of the Arche, one of the persons with greatest experience in the supervision of volunteers. He sums it up like this: "Whatever motivation may lead volunteers to work with Arche, a deep impression is made on the hearts of most of them by their meeting with the handicapped, by their life with the poor. Their view of man, society and the church are changed. Almost all have rediscovered the faith of their childhood. I am surprised by the number of young people who have discovered Jesus in the poor, in prayer, in the Eucharist and in the church". It is clear that charity becomes a way to the Lord, depending on the spirit that reigns in our volunteer groups, and on the conceptions that their leaders transmit to their members.

I would like to illustrate this point in a more concrete way. After the recent earthquake in Umbria, I met Fr Lucio Gatti. He was sent to Nocera Umbra as responsible priest for a group of about 30 young Italian volunteers. He remembers above all the cries of grief and the exclamations of despair of those particularly struck by the disaster. He says: "I still cannot get out of my mind some of the things people said: "This God, whom everyone says is good, just look how he has reduced us, after a life of sacrifice..."

Or: "God has abandoned us, and you priests would do better to hold your tongues; how can you still have the nerve to say that God is good?" Or: "What have we done to deserve all this?" How can we reply to these questions?, he continues. I tried to reply by sharing and taking upon myself the burden of these people. I tried to do my utmost to be close to them.

The only way of responding to the people who call for help, who suffer, who weep, is this: to place ourselves at their side, with goodness, with simplicity, working tirelessly on their behalf, without thinking ourselves heroes.

Those who arrived at our camp to help us were not experts, but only youngsters of good will, who were asked to live a life of charity, forgetting themselves and placing others at the center of their lives. They were asked to help those in need in a selfless way, without expecting anything in return, because love strengthens and enhances the person who loves. We work throughout the day together with the people and for the people, devoting care and attention to them.

We, the group of volunteers, join together in joy, in song, in moments of celebration with the people and among ourselves. Our days are punctuated by some important moments of prayer, a simple and serious prayer: the prayer of the Church, Holy Mass, is the pillar on which rests all our efforts, all our action. We are too fragile to achieve anything by ourselves: one thing only is our strength: the truth to be sought, and to place our hope in, throughout our life.

We want to try to live like this, at people's side, with the desire that our life should speak for itself, with the desire of a true meaning to be sought and the yearning for a loving Father who, in this world where everything may collapse from one moment to the next, is the answer to everything and for all time.

The Gospel applied in this context undoubtedly creates a chasm between its demand and our "soft" way of living Christianity. Thanks to this dramatic situation, God once again demonstrated his love and his closeness through the generosity and devotion of so many youngsters, who with their dedication, their self-sacrifice, their self-abnegation, and their love have testified to the love of God.

Thanks to these young volunteers, people have rediscovered hope, and especially the will to press forward regardless, trying not to succumb to discouragement but to pull together and to get down to work to begin the process of reconstruction.

So ends the testimony of Fr Lucio. It indicates to us the great Apostolic opportunity and the missionary chance of the task assigned to us.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 September 2001, page 8

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