Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Mission Torn Asunder

Introduction: The Model of Charity

Every single canonized Saint possessed a great love for the poor. I have read a great many of biographies of the Saints and several of their writings, there is not one among them that was not generous with their material goods and more importantly, generous with their time in their quest to serve the poor. St. Vincent de Paul was one such man.

Every September 27th the Catholic Church celebrates the sanctity of this seventeenth century Saint. St. Vincent de Paul was zealous for the salvation of souls but he was also, to use his own words, “stirred by his neighbor’s worries and distress.” He embodied that Christian love so prevalent in early Christianity which touched both body and soul. Even to this day he is held up as the model for Christian charity. His witness is a reminder for us Catholic’s who want to win souls to Christ that he, like all the Saints, gave the highest priority to spiritual and moral needs of the person. Nevertheless, he never neglected the sick, the mentally ill and galley slaves. Under his inspiration hospitals in France were reformed, prisoners given hope and mental institutions infused with humane treatment. Such venues of charity were the means through which the love of Christ came in contact with would-be criminals and potential outsiders of the Church. Like the early Church, the number of conversions under St. Vincent was legion.

Catholicism Torn Asunder:

Yet, among today’s faithful Catholics there is a tendency to focus their ministry and their efforts almost exclusively on faith and morals; or, as some say, on “spiritual poverty.” Whereas, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the infirmed is left largely to social workers, philanthropists and even the government. One unfortunate side effect of this void- left behind by orthodox Catholics -is that it created an opening for political demagogues to enjoy a monopoly over the lower classes and some minority groups. More on this later.

The point is that there exists within the Church two subcultures: Catholics who rightly put the highest priority on the salvation of souls but are ambivalent about spending time with the poor, the mentally ill or the needy. On the other hand, there are those in Catholic circles who care little for people’s spiritual needs and are instead exclusively concerned about material poverty or the disadvantaged. But this split within Catholicism, one side caring for the soul and the other caring for the body, did not exist in those early years of the Church. The Father’s of the Church, for instance, put the highest priority on faith and morals in terms of evangelization and education. Still, they found the time to associate with the lowly as St. Paul instructed the Christians in Rome.

Early Christianity: Oneness in Mission

Many of us forget that the early Church was a powerhouse for making converts precisely because her mission appealed to the totality of man, both body and soul. Although the salvation of the immortal soul was her highest aim through evangelization and education, it was never divorced or compartmentalized apart from serving the needy. Indeed, Catholics exercised a kind of charity that was unprecedented and unheard of in the pagan world. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author could say the following about the charity of those early Christians: “You even joined in the sufferings of those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, knowing that you had a better and lasting possession.” (10:34) Acts of Christian kindness impressed even those Roman emperors such as Julian II who disdained Christianity. And it further gave credibility to the ministry of preaching. After all, if Catholics were willing to sacrifice themselves by feeding the hungry, caring for the infirmed and visiting prisoners in chains, the pagan people were willing to listen to what they had to say.

This body and soul combination in ministry was virtually inseparable and largely taken for granted. As Dr. Thomas Woods, author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization said, “Even the Church fathers, who bequeathed to Western civilization an enormous corpus of literary and scholarly work, found time to devote themselves to the service of their fellow men. St. Augustine established a hospice for pilgrims, ransomed slaves, and gave away clothing to the poor. (He warned people not to give him expensive garment, since he would only sell them and the proceeds to the poor.) Saint John Chrysostom founded a series of hospitals in Constantinople. Saint Cyprian and Saint Ephrem organized relief efforts for the poor.”

I would argue this is one important reason why Christianity appealed to so many people in those early years. On-lookers listened. Conversions were in abundance.

Christian Credibility: A Modern Day Example

In our day, this credibility was exemplified when Mother Theresa gave a talk at Harvard’s Class Day Exercises on June 9, 1982. She condemned abortion outright and extolled the virtue of chastity. As regards to abortion, she said, “And today, today [it is] unbelievable that the mother herself murders her own child, afraid of having to feed one more child, afraid to educate one more child. The child must die. This is one of the greatest poverties.” And about sexual purity she admonished students of Harvard University with the following words. “The most beautiful thing is to give a virgin heart, a virgin body, a virgin soul. That's the greatest gift that the young man can give the young woman, and that the young can give the man.” Yet, she received a standing ovation at the end of her address. Why? Because she loved the poor and the needy much like St. Vincent de Paul and the early Christians! Mother Theresa, in speaking about these counter-cultural doctrines, was able to do what few evangelists were able to do; and that was to speak the truth about abortion and chastity at Harvard University and get a standing ovation in response.

St. Vincent and Orthodox Catholics

Many who work on behalf of the Catholic Church, especially in the human service field, presume they can provide services to others without Christ. That is, they put little emphasis on prayer, on attending Mass and on obedience to the teachings of Christ. To be sure, many within Catholic circles who are more humanitarian than they are Christian. They would find it difficult to see the real presence of Christ in Eucharist. In word, their efforts lend themselves to saving the body while leaving the soul devoid of grace.

But something can be said about orthodox Catholics too. Although the spiritual needs of the immortal soul assume a higher priority than that of bodily needs, this truth has often been used by many orthodox Catholics to concern themselves exclusively with spiritual formation. Some have never seen the inside of a soup kitchen, a mental institution, or a hospice. I have often heard from others at men's conferences, retreats and other venues of spiritual renewal that it is their calling to relieve "spiritual poverty" or that it is not their calling to serve the poor. Although there is truth and legitimacy to these comments, the faithful of the Church have virtually left it to those less spiritual and less concerned about salvation to take care of the needy.

Those of us who put a high premium on orthodoxy and spirituality are not as strong as we can be on seeing the presence of Christ in the poor. St. Vincent de Paul reminds us, "[I]f you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor... his mission was to preach to the poor: He sent me to preach the good news to the poor. We also ought to have this same spirit and imitate Christ’s actions, that is, we must take care of the poor, console them, help them, support their cause."

In fact, all the Saints speak of poverty as something holy and special to our Lord. He even required that his disciples renounce everything in order to follow him. Now, the spirit of renunciation can be manifested through giving one's belongings to the poor or by a spirit of detachment. The willingness and readiness to give up all things for Christ is equally pleasing to him. In any case, our Lord sought out men and women who were poor in spirit. Again, St. Vincent said the following: "Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself."

Few of us realize that the very act of serving the needy is a prayer- a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to the Lord. Such charity is far from being a diversion from enjoying the presence of God. St. Vincent reminds us: "If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor."

St. Vincent de Paul teachers us, like the early Christians, we have to evangelize with charity. "With renewed devotion," he said, "we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons." Indeed, if our witness appeals to both the soul and the body in all that it implies, then twenty-first century Catholics will enjoy the same results of converting a pagan and godless world as our spiritual ancestors enjoyed in those early centuries of the Christian era. Our credibility depends on it.

Conclusion: The Social and Political Implications

For the last hundred years or so, the all-powerful State and its political demagogues have enjoyed a monopoly over the hearts and minds of the poor and needy. Their false promises of making life better them still have a strong an appeal among senior citizens, the lower classes and the minorities. The problem, however, is not only political in nature; it is principally a religious one. Perhaps we who love Christ and love the Church have left it to others to serve the poor. And without realizing it, we have paid a big price for it!