On September 27th the Catholic Church honors a great Saint: St. Vincent de Paul. He reminds us that although the salvation of the soul takes on the highest of priorities, relieving the needs of the human body cannot be left to others. We, as Christ-centered Catholics who seek the kingdom of God first, must combine evangelization and religious instruction “with” works of charity. As St. James wrote in his epistle: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:27) A world-renouncing spirituality joined to a spirit of charity is what will make the New Evangelization thrive in the West as it has in other continents.
Philip Jenkins in his book, The Next Christendom, argued that Africa is likely to be the next bastion of Catholicism in the twenty-first century. What Europe was to medieval Catholicism, Africa is now becoming to today’s Catholicism. In fact, in the year 1900 there were only 9.9 million Christians in Africa. But at the turn of the millennium, they numbered 360 million. It is estimated that at least 8 million Africans are baptized every year; which amounts to about 20,000 baptisms a day. Just when Christianity seems to be dying out in Europe, its growth in Africa continues to impress interested observers in the West. George Weigel gives a simple explanation for this rapid expansion: Christianity attracts massive numbers of converts in twenty-first century Africa- as she did in the second and third century Roman Empire -because it helped provide for those whom the rest of society preferred to ignore. He goes on to say that education, healthcare, and social services are deliberately linked to evangelization. Evidently, this joint effort of evangelization and charity underscores the progress Catholicism is making in Africa.
For the early Church, 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.”
Wherever the Gospel was widely accepted, people who were traditionally denied social status and justice in the pagan system- such as the poor, slaves, women and children –were seen by Christians as equals to the most privileged social caste. Pope Leo XIII summed up the kind of impact the Faith had on human dignity and progress:
"The Catholic Church, that imperishable handiwork of our all-merciful God, has for her immediate and natural purpose the saving of souls and securing our happiness in heaven. Yet, in regard to things temporal, she is the source of benefits as manifold and great as if the chief end of her existence were to ensure the prospering of our earthly life. And, indeed, wherever the Church has set her foot she has straightway changed the face of things, and has tempered the moral tone of the people with a new civilization and with virtues before unknown."
The origin of this new concept of equality and human rights originated from a heightened awareness of the dignity of the soul. After all, it was the rational and immortal soul that was created in the image of God. By association, however, the human body came to be understood as the most sacred material thing in the universe. As Pope Pius XI said, man is a microcosm- a world in miniature; as such, he has a worth far surpassing the whole universe. This understanding of the human person gave the Church Fathers, the Saints and the martyrs every incentive to not only to preach the Gospel, but to care for the infirmed at the risk of losing their own lives. In the third century, for instance, when whole towns and districts were wiped out from plagues, it was the Christians that demonstrated heroism by not only caring for their own, but also caring for pagans. Such a sacrificial love for humanity was unknown to the ancients. And it is a love that needs to be reawakened in America.
Today, in the West, there is a tendency among Catholics to partition evangelization and charity into two separate compartments. If evangelization is seen exclusively as something that serves the spiritual needs of people, then such a mission can easily be relegated to the middle and upper classes. From my personal experience, Catholic evangelists- by and large –are apt to avoid the lower class-minority demographic; not because of any racist tendencies, but rather because they simply can’t identify with that subculture. According to many of them, their calling is to relieve “spiritual poverty.”
Since the upper and middle classes are materially provided for, it is natural that the spiritual dimension be the chief concern among many Catholic evangelists. As result, doctrinal orthodoxy and moral purity becomes a high priority, as it should. But when the spiritual component of evangelization is disengaged from serving the poor, then a void is created. In the absence of Christ-centered, orthodox Catholics, charity-based initiatives and social services tend to take on a humanistic character in their absence. No longer seen as a single mission, evangelization and social services not only pursue different ends, but they are often inspired by different ideals. As such, those who honorably care for the poor do so without the sound moral and spiritual principles that evangelization requires for its mission. As it pertains to many Catholic organizations, what was once founded as a religious enterprise for serving the poor and ministering to the soul eventually was reduced to a secularized philanthropy.
If America is going to benefit from what Catholicism has to offer, then evangelization and charity- both native to the Catholic Faith –will have to exist side by side as one ministry for the common good of this nation. Catholicism will never compete with political demagogues and advocates of big government if minorities and the lower class are untouched by Catholic evangelization and charity. Quite often, the ministry of caring for the body (i.e., soup kitchens etc.) leads to unfamiliar and even hazardous places. Nevertheless, these are places where the Gospel can be preached too. Understandably, many Christians from the middle and upper classes are simply uncomfortable with this. So, they focus their energy on the salvation of the soul or spiritual poverty; which, again, is the most important focus of bearing witness to Christ. However, the nice thing about "spiritual poverty" is that it is found everywhere; including in our own parishes. As such, if we exclusively focus on the spiritual needs of people then there is no need to venture to the other side of town; the part of town where lifestyles are markedly different from our own.
To put it another way, the convenient thing about attending to the needs of the soul- as opposed to the needs of the body and the soul -is that you never have to leave the parish basement; our comfort zone is secured. However, there is a price to pay. The welfare State takes hold in society. False promises politicians hold out to the lower classes and minorities eventually acquires credibility and strength. And to be sure, proponents of big government will continue to have a monopoly on the underprivileged as long as Christians relegate their ministries within their own familiar environments.
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his first encyclical, On Christian Love, the following:
“The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”
This exercise of the Catholic Church’s three-fold responsibility was once the foundation for civilizing an unbaptized world; a world that was insensitive to human suffering. Africa is such a world: a world that is undergoing a lot of suffering but is also becoming, day by day, a sign of hope. It is true that Africa is being afflicted with the AIDS epidemic, political corruption, and high mortality rates. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is winning an impressive number of souls for Christ in that continent. And in doing so, the epidemics and the crimes against humanity will cease or at least diminish in time.
History shows that wherever the Gospel of Life is planted, civility and mutual love flourish. However, this can only happen when evangelization and charity work together for the common good. After all, people are willing to listen to the Gospel if the bearers of that Gospel relieve their hunger, loneliness and nakedness. This is what St. Vincent de Paul teaches us. By ministering to the totality of the human person- body and soul –totalitarianism is less likely to advance in our nation.