S+L logo

Catholic Charities: Reaching out to the periphery

May 29, 2013
Address by Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation at the 100th Anniversary Banquet of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto on May 16, 2013 at Villa Colombo, Toronto.
Dear Friends,
Thank you for inviting me to celebrate this momentous occasion with Catholic Charities of Toronto. As I prepared my thoughts on your hundredth anniversary, and as we at Salt and Light Television documented some of the great work of your 27 agencies spread throughout this vast Archdiocese, I realized that over the nearly twenty years of my priestly ministry in Toronto – in my capacity as pastor of the Newman Centre Catholic Mission at the University of Toronto, National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 and now, head of Salt and Light Catholic Television Network – I have had dealings with Mary Centre, St. Bernadette's Family Resource Centre, Saint Elizabeth Health Care, St. Michael's Homes/Matt Talbot Houses, Catholic Children's Aid Society, Covenant House, Birthright, Rosalie Hall, Rose of Durham, Rose of Sharon, The Loyola Arrupe Centre for Seniors, Providence Healthcare and the Society of Sharing. I know you well and admire your great work.
Your wonderful network of 27 agencies addresses the physical, social, emotional and economic needs of this community. You provide young people with support from neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. You look after the poor- providing quality day care for children from low-income families. Your clear stance for the dignity and sacredness of human life is manifested in the support and educational services offered to young, pregnant women, young parents and their children. You care for sick, elderly and disabled seniors, including members of the Francophone community.
You give flesh and blood to what Pope Francis has been speaking about for the past two months: “you dare go to the frontiers of society which are not only the geographic frontiers but the frontiers of poverty, of exclusion and of those who are furthest from God.”
Catholic Charities are schools of the works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual. Jesus, Himself declares how closely He associates Himself with the poor to whom we are generous, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me." (Mt. 25:40)
Tonight, let us reflect on the meaning of charity, and in particular, Catholic charity. In the minds of many in our world and Church today, “charity” means donations or generous actions to aid the poor, ill, or helpless; a charitable act or work; a charitable fund, foundation, or institution; benevolent feelings especially toward those in need; doing something out of charity; leniency in judging others; forbearance; alms or Christian love; agape.
Let us go deeper and discover the origins of this charity in our Christian tradition. When Jesus stood up in the Nazareth synagogue (Lk 4:16ff) to explain his mission to his neighbors, he proclaimed good news for the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind and liberty for the oppressed. These transforming provisions of the Jubilee became the banner under which he carried out the mission entrusted to him by his Father in heaven. Jesus taught his followers to meet the spiritual and material needs of their neighbors. He told them to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, and to bury the dead (Mt 25:31-46). These corporal works of mercy, called diakonia in the early Church form the basis of the social doctrine or teaching of the Church down through the ages.
The life of Jesus of Nazareth is the model of how we are called to live. His teaching has both personal and social implications. The social teachings of the Church, articulated beautifully in Papal encyclicals, shine the light of the Gospel of Christ and the Church’s moral teaching on changing social circumstances, to provide guidance and support to Christians as we seek to live our faith in the world. In this way, the teaching is both very traditional and ever new. Catholic Social doctrine flows from Jesus himself, and is built on the foundation handed on by the Apostles to the Fathers of the Church, and then received and further explored by the great Christian doctors. It is attested by the saints and by those who gave their lives for Jesus Christ in the field of justice and peace.
Pope Benedict XVI’s great encyclical Caritas in Veritate, signed and released in June 2009, is the latest in a series of social encyclicals written by our popes over the last 120 years, as the Church sought to apply its moral principles and social teaching to emerging economic and social problems.
That Social Teaching continues even until today. This morning at the Vatican, Pope Francis received five new, non-resident Ambassadors to the Holy See. They represent the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg and Botswana. In his address to the new diplomats, Pope Francis offered some profound insights on the current world situation.
“Our human family,” the Pope said, “is presently experiencing something of a turning point in its own history, if we consider the advances made in various areas. We can only praise the positive achievements which contribute to the authentic welfare of mankind, in fields such as those of health, education and communications. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. Certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident. People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way.
“…The worldwide financial and economic crisis,” the pontiff observed, “seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces men and women to just one of their needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have started down the path of a disposable culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling.”
You have asked me to offer you a Scriptural image that sums up your charitable work and can serve as a model for your future efforts of doing good for others. One particular Gospel passage that speaks eloquently to us tonight on this centenary is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), one of the most treasured parables of the Bible. It is a provocative story that reminds us that as Christians, we are obliged to spend time with people we don't enjoy, to be kind to our enemies, to strive for reconciliation with estranged family members, and to show our affection for people we don't get along with.
It is a powerful story, for it speaks of the power of love that transcends all creeds and cultures and "creates" a neighbor out of a complete stranger. It is a personal parable, for it describes with profound simplicity the birth of a human relationship that has a personal, physical touch, transcending social and cultural taboos, as one person binds the wounds of another. It is a pastoral story, for it is filled with the mystery of care and concern that is at the heart of what is best in human beings. The story is also eminently practical, for it urges us to cross all barriers of culture and community and to go and do likewise!
The legal expert who responds to Jesus' counter-question is certainly a good and upright man. The words, "wished to justify himself" may often be understood to mean that the lawyer was looking for some legal loophole to demonstrate his worthiness. Jesus demonstrates the superiority of love over legalism through the parable.
The priest and Levite (vv 31-32) are religious leaders of Judaism who would have been expected to be models of "neighbor" to the victim they would pass by on the road. Levites were expected to have a special dedication to the law. The "neighbor" turns out to be a Samaritan, the enemy of the Jew. Samaritans were hated by the lawyer's racial group. In the end, the lawyer is even unable to say that it was the Samaritan who showed compassion. He ends up saying: "The one who treated him with compassion."
At times we can be like the priest and the scribe who, on seeing the wounded man, passed by on the other side. We can be silent spectators afraid to involve ourselves and dirty our hands. We can easily write cheques or send in donations on-line, but remain on the periphery, never getting our hands dirty. Compassion demands that we get out of ourselves as we reach out to others in need. It means that we get our hands and even our reputations dirty. Indifference is worse than hostility. The hostile person at least acknowledges the presence of the other while reacting violently to it; the indifferent person, on the other hand, ignores the other and treats him or her as if they did not exist. That was the kind of indifference and insensitivity shown by the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side, leaving the wounded and waylaid traveler completely alone.
The Good Samaritan could have easily passed by on the other side. But this outsider from Samaria stopped and knelt down beside the stranger who was hurting, and became his neighbor and brother. This stopping and stooping, this pausing and kneeling down beside the suffering is not done out of curiosity or guilt, but out of love. The Samaritan's compassion brings him to perform a whole series of actions. First he bandaged his wounds, then he took the wounded man to an inn to care for him, and before leaving, he gives the innkeeper the necessary money to take care of him (vv 34-35).
Is this not the work of Catholic Charities? Is your work not imitating the example of the Good Samaritan who is none other then Jesus himself? More than 2,000 years after this story was first told, it continues to move people deeply. It teaches us what authentic charity, compassion, commitment and communion with others are all about. Charity, compassion, commitment and communion are the intimate nature of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this fact when he said: “The service of charity is also a constitutive element of the Church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being; (Apostolic Letter in the form of a Motu Proprio Intima Ecclesiae natura, November 11, 2012, introduction; cf. Deus caritas est, n. 25).
In his last Lenten Message to the Church as Pope earlier this year, Benedict XVI wrote (#3)” “Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term “charity” to solidarity or simply humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the “ministry of the word”. There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – towards one’s neighbour than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God: evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person.”
On Friday, March 7 of this year, during the meetings of the College of Cardinals in the Vatican Synod Hall that preceded the Conclave, one Cardinal addressed his brothers with these moving words:
“When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referent and then she gets sick. The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in a self-reference and a sort of theological narcissism. In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Evidently the text refers to his knocking from outside in order to enter but I think of the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out.
When the Church is self-referent without realizing it, she believes she has her own light… giving way to that very great evil which is spiritual worldliness… The self-referent Church lives to give glory only to one another. In simple terms, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that comes out of herself; …and the worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself, for herself.”
Those were the words of the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They must have had a powerful influence on the Cardinals gathered in that upper room for we know what happened to Cardinal Bergoglio several days later, on the evening of March 13, 2013 in the Sistine Chapel. Shortly after his election to the See of Peter, Pope Francis met with all of us in Rome who had worked hard in telling the world the great story of the Papal transition of February and March. The Pope explained why he chose the name Francis – not after the great Jesuit saint Francis Xavier, but Francis of Assisi. “For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”
In his first few weeks in office, Pope Francis has outlined in broad strokes the directions he wants to take the Catholic Church: toward a stronger witness of poverty, evangelical simplicity, charity and mercy. His simple, direct words, accompanied by moving gestures, have impressed Catholics and non-Catholics. He has called for the church to be less “self-referencing” – that is, less focused on its own organizational and theological problems and more involved in what he calls the “outskirts” of humanity and the daily reality of billions of people. In so many ways, he has already taken steps that indicate he will be leading by example when it comes to reforming church governance and transforming the modern style of evangelization.
To have an impact in today’s world, Papa Francesco has repeatedly said that both priests and lay Catholics need to go beyond the church’s normal boundaries. Addressing clergy, he told them, essentially, that they should get out of the sacristy and “make it real, as shepherds among your flock.”
Pope Francis uses concise, simple, conversational oratory, tethered to words or images of immediate communicative impact. His homilies and talks are marked not by theological complexities but by examples of daily life. He quotes his grandmother. He compares Heaven to getting cataract surgery. He addresses Catholic life at the parish level. He cuts across cultural and ideological lines and simultaneously comforts and challenges practically everyone in his path. He does this so deftly that he's even proved to be a good fit for Twitter. It's difficult to imagine someone being more inspirational in 140 characters! His tweet on March 19, the very day of the inauguration of Petrine ministry was meant for all of us here tonight: “True power is service. The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.” In his homily for the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday, in St. Peter's Basilica, he made a very striking exhortation to the pastors of the Church, bishops and priests, to take on “the odor of the sheep.”
Last Sunday, during his first Canonization mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis warned against "gentrification of the heart" as a consequence of comfortable living, and called on the faithful to "touch the flesh of Christ" by caring for the needy.
In the first days of his Pontificate, Francis told the world that he would keep his episcopal motto: “miserando atque eligendo,” taken from a passage of the venerable Bede, Homily 22, on the Feast of Matthew, which reads: Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, ‘Sequere me’. [Jesus therefore sees the tax collector, and since he sees by having mercy and by choosing, he says to him, ‘follow me’.]
On the Feast of St Matthew in 1953, the young Jorge Bergoglio experienced, at the age of 17, in a very special way, the loving presence of God in his life. Following confession, he felt his heart touched and he sensed the descent of the Mercy of God, who with a gaze of tender love, called him to religious life, following the example of St Ignatius of Loyola. Once he had been ordained to the episcopacy in 1992, Bishop Bergoglio, in memory of that defining event, chose, as his motto and as his programme of life, the words of St Bede: miserando atque eligendo. “Having mercy and choosing…”
The past two months have been filled with extraordinary yet simple gestures of goodness, kindness and charity, steeped in tradition, faith and the Gospels. The popularity of Pope Francis is due to a large extent to a style of preaching and speaking and to the easy, concepts on which he insists the most - mercy, forgiveness, tenderness, the poor, the “peripheries” - seen reflected in his actions and in his own person. The hope is that his words and gestures will open people’s minds and hearts to his deeper message: that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation, and that the truth and beauty of the faith offer more meaning than a culture dominated by production and consumption.
This man who came from the ends of the earth to Rome simply wishes to build up the church’s credibility so that it can more effectively preach the Gospel message – a message that continues to challenges many of the assumptions of the modern mindset. Those of us involved on the front lines of charitable institutions and programs are not only workers and agents known for our professional competencies. We must give a clear example of the Christian life. We are called to have mercy and to choose others for Christ. We are called to be witnesses. Yes, we may feed, clothe, visit, console, nurture and heal. But even more, we must give witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of the other Francis, the one from Assisi, we must preach the Gospel and use words if necessary. We are privileged instruments of the New Evangelization.
Dear Friends, the mission of Catholic Charities is to create neighbors, brothers and sisters out of complete strangers. We must do this with simple words, loving, patient gestures, tenderness and love as we kneel beside strangers who are hurting. Our stopping and stooping, our pausing and kneeling down beside the suffering is never done out of curiosity, guilt, efficiency or productivity, but out of sheer love.
This morning following his daily mass in the Chapel of Sancta Martha, Pope Francis met with representatives of Caritas Internationalis from every corner of the earth. He listened intently to the challenges faced by the poor in their regions. At one point in his unscripted remarks, the Pope said that one way to promote development was the example of Don Bosco, to give children the tools they need through education. The Pope then stressed once again the importance of “tenerezza,” “tenderness”, saying that at times the Church has lost sight of this. “The Church is fundamentally mother. The spirituality of Caritas must refer to this.” Pope Francis said that Caritas must “go to the peripheries to cure and promote the human being” and to bring to the Church “tenderness.” Though spoken early this morning in Rome, those very words are meant for us gathered here tonight to celebrate “Caritas Torontoniensis!”
Happy Anniversary! May the Lord reward you for all you do for his special friends who come to your agencies each day to experience the true meaning of charity, to find healing, wholeness, kindness, tenderness, and to see the face of God.