Posts Tagged ‘Deus Caritas Est’

Run-of-the-Mill Hedonism

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

After our youngest child went to college, we cut down to one car, and I began to take Chicago’s public transportation system, the CTA, more often. This led me back to some late nights on the bus and train, and has found me also schlepping my library books back and forth in canvas bags like the student I was years ago.

In these canvas bags are books culled from among some seventy libraries in Illinois. I order books electronically during the week, and pick them up at the university library before the weekend. The books rest beside me on the floor “on the CTA.” Also riding beside me may be the quietly desperate, the drunken, the pierced, the kindly, the overworked, or the preoccupied, many of whom are indeed busy with their phones. For part of my ride, I try to pray, despite the Blue Line’s urine scent. Sometimes in my reverie I try to imagine what relationship might exist between the books that I read and the people whom I meet.

The books I schlep are sometimes about high philosophical topics, the latest debates between believers and high-brow atheists. I suspect, however, that few, if any, of my fellow riders–say, the woman with the cursive cliche inscribed above her breast loudly discussing with her friend on the phone her desire to have her tattoos removed–pay much attention to the high-brow atheists in my canvas bag.

My public commutes have led me to reflect that the greatest impediments to religion are thus not so much outright rejection, but distraction, not so much disbelief, but forgetfulness, not so much disavowal, but abandonment.

Philosophers have sometimes asked, “What should we be doing?” and Peter Drucker decades ago queried, “What business are we in?” A very useful alternative question with the potential to “back us in” to a similar set of truths is: “What are we doing instead of what we should be doing?”

What are nominally Christian parents doing instead of taking their children to church on Sunday? Oftentimes, they are going to sporting and educational events. Having served on a number of Catholic school boards, I learned that even the board members with children were in some cases choosing sports over Mass.

It somehow still surprises policymakers that college students find other things to do besides studying. According to federal statistics, about a quarter of college students abuse alcohol often enough to hurt their academic progress.

What are many young urban adults doing instead of forming traditional male-female, two parent families? My answer may surprise you: They are not, except in the rarest of instances, forming same-sex parenting couples, who represent but a tiny statistical fragment in American society. Many young people instead join for a time the largest claimant families of all: street gangs, whose members number in the tens of thousands in many major American urban areas, and whose scope overshadows all other non-traditional aspirants to family standing. The street gang, with its false pose as “family,” is far and away the greatest physical threat to authentic family and religious life, and should be a national ministry priority.

Thousands more people get intoxicated and miss worship events than do miss them because they are reading Nietzsche. Alcohol and drug abuse aside, many people think they have something more fun and satisfying to do other than praying and serving others: watching or playing weekend sports, or simply going shopping.

All this leads me to propose that run-of-the-mill hedonism poses a graver threat to religion than does high-brow atheism.

Hedonism is not “all Animal House all the time” as it is life by the pleasure principle. Simple pleasures will do. To update Camus’ adage from The Fall, we can sum up our age: Modern men and women fornicated (often alone) and went on the Internet.

Despite the fact that many of today’s young adults went to sports, school, or gang activities most weekends instead of worship, drank their way through their college-age years (elite students confining their hedonism mostly to the weekends), live in a “boozetown” young adult entertainment district, engage in virtual violence, fornicate on the Internet, and rarely practice formal religion, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had almost nothing to do with this result, and Nietzsche didn’t give them the idea except maybe by wafting words through the Zeitgeist by way of the arts, letters, and film, some of which are indeed produced by Nietzsche aficionados.

Run-of-the-mill hedonism, predating just about every atheist who anticipated his or her own eternal non-existence, appears to take its own course, amplified and extended by profiting media, now targeted and consumed individually. “Sexperts” and cultural provocateurs like Dan Savage ride this turbulent tide, which nevertheless would flow without them.

Does the believer take arms against this sea of troubles? There is little point for religion to argue with run-of-the-mill hedonism, since hedonism is about enjoyment—like Pinocchio on Fun Island—only while it lasts. Jiminy Cricket could not talk sense into Pinocchio, who had to find out for himself–after the cruel metamorphosis of a boy into a donkey–the consequences of the simple decisions that kept him a puppet.

The alternative to run-of-the-mill hedonism ever is God’s unfolding love, but where beyond the choir is that Gospel heard? Believers continue to refute both atheism and hedonism, but their messages are jammed by the crackling static of hedonism, through which only random sound bites and tweets appear to penetrate. The faith, hope, and love encyclicals of the recent popes contain inspiration, but who knows it? Benedict XVI overturned Nietzsche and reclaimed Eros for the Christian in Deus Caritas Est (extending John Paul II’s Theology of the Body), but who has heard? Pope Francis has said that, contra hedonism, no one person is disposable:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 1, accessed 12/17/13.

Sometimes, Pope Francis’s words do break through the hedonic noise, drawing significant bandwidth and brain-width. How? Is it simply that, like St. Francis de Sales, Pope Francis offers beads of honey instead of barrels of vinegar?

To understand this Francis Effect upon hedonistic attention, we can consider in layers our responses to hedonism, from the high-brow on down. The high-brow response includes journals like First Things, which nobly strives to prevent Nietzsche aficionados from sowing more weeds. The middle-brow response, set at the level of the old Great Books discussions and of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, now dwells on the plateau of the PBS series–like Fr. Robert Barron’s numerous New Evangelization and new media efforts–and continually plows new ground. The low-brow response–wrestling in the mud with the hedonists–merely spreads around the mud.

But Christians have a fourth option. For this they must be willing to go “lower” than the hedonists, to go “no-brow.” In Pope Francis, Catholicism is once again reemphasizing this “no-brow” “rhetoric of the heart” (my son Mike’s phrase) that bypasses disputation through concrete personal acts of love and solidarity. Catholicism partially diverted from this approach after Vatican II when clergy became webbed within a pestilence of useless internal meetings during the era of “collegiality gone wild.”

The “no-brow” strategy includes the direct, personal living out of the Works of Mercy, both corporal (Matthew 25) and spiritual (I Thessalonians 5), and practices those good works (Romans 12) which take us directly beside another, and keep us there: to the hungry person who needs to eat, the sick person who needs care, the prisoner who needs a visit, the pregnant teen considering abortion, the student who needs to learn, the warrior regretting a war. Modernity has bureaucratized the work of the physician, the nurse, the teacher, the cleric, and the parent beyond recognition. But the “no-brow” stand of Christian personalism takes works of charity and justice back to immediate, direct human companionship, to “get beside” and “stay beside” another in joy. Hedonism has no answer, save slander and persecution, for the Beatitudes. That is in part how the message of Pope Francis continues to break through.

Believers hold that there is a truer joy in parting from hedonism. Happily one point of “finding out for ourselves” remains both divinely and naturally ordained: Because youth is ever fleeting, the same words that thirty-something Augustine was urged to tolle, lege, ever speak to us:

“Do this because you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14 [from NAB])”

At the bottom of my canvas bag, each week I put several meal bars, in case I should encounter one of the “brothers Christopher”–a lovely old phrase indeed.

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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True Christian love: Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis von Stade

Monday, November 15th, 2010

When one thinks of a touching (and doomed) medieval love story, the first historic couple who come to mind are Abelard and Heloise.

But this same 12th Century renaissance revealed another very intense and well-documented love, the spiritual love between the Benedictine Abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and her protege, the Abbess Richardis von Stade (ca. 1123-1151).

This friendship is dramatized in the film Vision: From the life of Hildegard von Bingen, as directed by the noted German artist Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Promise, Rosenstrasse, Rosa Luxemburg).

First, some background on the film, which was scripted personally by director von Trotta from Hildegard’s own writings and letters, and accompanied by Hildegard’s music. Von Trotta therefore lets Hildegard substantially speak (and sing) for herself.

The film carries the viewer through major episodes in Hildegard’s life from her eighth year to her sixtieth (Hildegard lived until the age of 81, and indeed faced and overcame many other challenges not depicted by this film). Vision presumes that the moviegoer know who Hildegard is, and something of her life story. For further background on Hildegard, please see my previous post.

Vision demonstrates through a number of vignettes the many foundational contributions of Hildegard in music, theology, botanical medicine, gynecology, drama, and ecclesiastical polity as Hildegard strove for the foundation of an all-female abbey while seeking ecclesiastical permission to convey her visions to paper.

The warm collaboration between Hildegard (played by the luminous German actress, and I might add, singer, Barbara Sukowa) and Richardis (depicted by the lovely and intense Hannah Herzsprung), a young noblewoman for whom her family had ambitious plans, allowed Hildegard, who despite her genius had significant gaps in her formal schooling, not to mention poor health, to finish and illuminate her books of visions, theology, and science, with a significant assist from the monk Volmar, one of Hildegard’s earliest teachers and advocates (played with occasional humor by Heino Ferch).

Von Trotta utilizes the character of the nun Jutta (Lena Stolze), raised with Hildegard from a young age by the anchorite Jutta von Sponheim (Mareile Blendl), to bring Hildegard down to earth as the “prophet in her own country.”

Like Robert Bolt’s film A Man for All Seasons, von Trotta’s Vision depicts in part conversations which in real life were based upon letters.

Warning: film spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending of the film, stop reading here, see the film, then come back to this article.

It is therefore appropriate at this point to turn to a few of the letters of the actual players in this drama. Thanks to the continuous tradition of the Benedictines, and to the work of many scholars, we can read today what these characters were actually saying to one another over 800 years ago.

Vision dramatizes the struggle between Hildegard and the family of Richardis over the appointment of Richardis to leave Hildegard at Mt. St. Rupert to serve as abbess at Birsim (today Bassum). Hildegard made no secret of her opposition to this appointment, viewing it as based upon human ambition (presumably, to extend the influence of the von Stade family, rather than to follow a divine calling). Hildegard was not shy about her feelings, and wrote, literally, to everyone who would listen, from the Pope on down to Richardis’ mother and brother, respectively, the Margravine (played in the film by Sunnyi Melles) and Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen. Finally, Hildegard wrote to Richardis herself, all to no avail. Richardis moved away from Hildegard.

We turn now to the collection of letters, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, ably compiled and presented by the scholar Joseph L. Baird, and published by Oxford University Press in 2006. Here are a few key excerpts.

First, an impassioned plea from Hildegard to Richardis–

“Daughter, listen to me, your mother, speaking to you in the spirit: my grief flies up to heaven. My sorrow is destroying the great confidence and consolation that I once had in mankind. From now on I will say: ‘‘It is good to trust in the Lord, rather than to trust in princes’’ [Ps 117.9]. The point of this Scripture is that a person ought to look to the living height, with vision unobstructed by earthly love and feeble faith, which the airy humor of earth renders transient and short-lived. Thus a person looking at God directs his sight to the sun like an eagle. And for this reason one should not depend on a person of high birth, for such a one inevitably withers like a flower. This was the very transgression I myself committed because of my love for a certain noble individual. Now I say to you: As often as I sinned in this way, God revealed that sin to me, either through some sort of difficulty or some kind of grief, just as He has now done regarding you, as you well know. Now, again I say: Woe is me, mother, woe is me, daughter, ‘‘Why have you forsaken me’’ [Ps 21.2; Matt 27.46; Mark like an orphan? I so loved the nobility of your character, your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?”

“Now, let all who have grief like mine mourn with me, all who, in the love of God, have had such great love in their hearts and minds for a person— as I had for you— but who was snatched away from them in an instant, as you were from me. But, all the same, may the angel of God go before you, may the Son of God protect you, and may his mother watch over you. Be mindful of your poor desolate mother, Hildegard, so that your happiness may not fade.”

From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 47-48.

Then we skip ahead to the very sad turn, the sudden death of Richardis at the age of about twenty-eight within a year of her departure from Mt. St. Rupert. The following two letters are perhaps among the most forthright and touching in Christian literature, first the letter from Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen, notifying Hildegard of his own sister Richardis’ passing–

“Hartwig, archbishop of Bremen, brother of the abbess Richardis, sends that which is in the place of a sister and more than a sister, obedience, to Hildegard, mistress of the sisters of St. Rupert.

I write to inform you that our sister— my sister in body, but yours in spirit— has gone the way of all flesh, little esteeming that honor I bestowed upon her. And (while I was on my way to see the earthly king) she was obedient to her lord, the heavenly King. I am happy to report that she made her last confession in a saintly and pious way and that after her confession she was anointed with consecrated oil. Moreover, filled with her usual Christian spirit, she tearfully expressed her longing for your cloister with her whole heart. She then committed herself to the Lord through His mother and St. John. And sealed three times with the sign of the cross, she confessed the Trinity and Unity of God, and died on October 29 in perfect faith, hope, and charity [cf. I Cor 13.13], as we know for certain. Thus I ask as earnestly as I can, if I have any right to ask, that you love her as much as she loved you, and if she appeared to have any fault— which indeed was mine, not hers— at least have regard for the tears that she shed for your cloister, which many witnessed. And if death had not prevented, she would have come to you as soon as she was able to get permission. But since death did intervene, be assured that, God willing, I will come in her place. May God, who repays all good deeds, recompense you fully in this world and in the future for all the good things you did for her, you alone, more even than relatives or friends; may He repay that benevolence of yours which she rejoiced in before God and me. Please convey my thanks to your sisters for all their kindness.”
From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 48-49.

And then, here follows Hildegard’s restrained and irenic response. But note, however, her parting turn on the concept of obedience, with which Hartwig began his letter–

To Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen

“O how great a miracle there is in the salvation of those souls so looked upon by God that His glory has no hint of shadow in them. But He works in them like a mighty warrior who takes care not to be defeated by anyone, so that his victory may be sure. Just so, dear man, was it with my daughter Richardis, whom I call both daughter and mother, because I cherished her with divine love, as indeed the Living Light had instructed me to do in a very vivid vision.”

“God favored her so greatly that worldly desire had no power to embrace her. For she always fought against it, even though she was like a flower in her beauty and loveliness in the symphony of this world. While she was still living in the body, in fact, I heard the following words concerning her in a true vision: ‘‘O virginity, you are standing in the royal bridal chamber.’’ Now, in the tender shoot of virginity, she has been made a part of that most holy order, and the daughters of Zion rejoice [Zach 2.10, 9.9]. But the ancient serpent had attempted to deprive her of that blessed honor by assaulting her through her human nobility. Yet the mighty Judge drew this my daughter to Himself, cutting her off from all human glory. Therefore, although the world loved her physical beauty and her worldly wisdom while she was still alive, my soul has the greatest confidence in her salvation. For God loved her more. Therefore, He was unwilling to give His beloved to a heartless lover, that is, to the world.”

“Now you, dear Hartwig, you who sit as Christ’s representative, fulfill the desire of your sister’s soul, as obedience demands. And just as she always had your interests at heart, so you now take thought for her soul, and do good works as she wished. Now, as for me, I cast out of my heart that grief you caused me in the matter of this my daughter. May God grant you, through the prayers of the saints, the dew of His grace and reward in the world to come.”

From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 49-50.

While von Trotta’s film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen is beautiful and inspiring, the letters above complement the film in a profound and touching way. I highly recommend close study of Joseph L. Baird’s collections of Hildegard letters.

Indeed, such close examination of Hildegard scholarship reveals that it is very possible that Richardis was dead by the time Hildegard’s morality play, The Play of Virtues, or the Ordo Virtutum, was performed in its final form. Therefore, the lovely “play within the play” within von Trotta’s Vision, with a prominent role played by Richardis, may or may not have ever really happened with Richardis personally playing the part. The brilliant Hildegard scholar Barbara Newman astutely pointed out (Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, U. California Press, 1997, p. 223) that the very same words of praise for Richardis’ virginity contained in Hildegard’s letter to Richardis’ brother the archbishop appeared again in the very final version of the Ordo Virtutum. Therefore, who else but Richardis, according to “Central Casting,” would ever play the virtue Castitas, as inspired by Hildegard’s vision? Director von Trotta, by getting history probably wrong, more likely got a truth of the vision right.

How do I support my assertion that the love of Hildegard for Richardis was true Christian love? It is clear from the letters and the testimony of herself and others, at least on Hildegard’s part, that she loved Richardis completely and complexly, in all commonly describable ways, as a friend, a sister, a religious superior, a teacher, a student, a surrogate parent, an admirer, as a seer, as a patient to a caregiver, and by way of sacrificial Christian love, except for the love of sexual intimacy. This relationship appears to make concrete the teachings of Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. This multifaceted love might only be successful across a lifetime between two very strong and talented colleagues.

This kind of relationship would also probably not be tolerated in modern religious life! Even in her own time, Hildegard was asked, “What are you doing?”

I also can’t help recalling, however, that Jesus had his own Beloved Disciple.

To the modern witness, it may make perfect sense that Richardis would step away from Hildegard to lead another abbey shortly after the great project of Scivias was completed, especially since, to the modern understanding, the child must step away from the parent, no matter how loving. But we may never know Richardis’s mind on this subject to the degree that we know Hildegard’s. Whether Richardis received a spiritual call, had her own ambitions, was forced into accepting the abbey by her mother and her brother the archbishop (his letter points in this direction), or was seeking to put distance between herself and Hildegard (the timing of waiting to leave after Scivias was finished may indicate a planned departure), or all of the above, will remain an open question.

I am grateful that, into these open questions, such a director as von Trotta did not fear to step!

==

I end this post by sharing a number of reviews of the film, which are, as evidenced also by their titles, rather, if not humorously, divergent in their attempts to apply paradigms of various ages and interest groups upon the film and to Hildegard.

To the New York Times reviewer, Hildegard, known otherwise to history as a polymath, or universal genius, was the “multitasking nun.”

The Boston Globe applies in an otherwise perceptive review, the post-Freudian saw of “repressed eroticism.”

The dignified review from the National Catholic Reporter carefully relates that experienced nuns would recognize the “special friendship” (years ago also called, a “particular friendship”) that the film depicts in the story of a woman who “humbly initiated change.”

To the Christianity Today reviewer, the film did not convey enough of a “sense of the transcendent.”

Variety’s reviewer appears eager to end the review since the subject of the film is so obviously Catholic.

The San Francisco Chronicle thinks that Hildegard was a “very cool nun.”

NYPress.com sees “female will and independence” in the film.

The LA Times sees a “feminist centuries ahead of her time.”

Flip comments from the NPR reviewer, whose knowledge of the subject of the film (e.g., nuns, history) appears to be gleaned from. . . other films.

Roger Ebert sees the love between the characters as sublimated lesbianism, and is apparently unaware that Benedict XVI, like other recent Popes, explicitly recognized the sainthood of Hildegard in two Fall, 2010 general audiences, linked at my earlier post.

America Magazine, the Jesuit publication, saw Hildegard “caught in a riptide of lesbian love.”

Finally, two interviews with the director–

From FilmMaker Magazine, and from the Huffington Post.

Director von Trotta, in her FilmMaker Magazine interview linked above, explains why in this film she depicted participants kissing each other on the mouth in many different situations. She refers to a scholarly theory about mouth-kissing being more common prior to the Black Death, but it is probably safe to say that she is making a statement about a less inhibited and perhaps idealized “wholesome” approach to human love.

One final tale of the book Scivias, produced by Hildegard in collaboration with Richardis and Volmar. One important original manuscript of Scivias was taken to Dresden for safekeeping during World War II, where it was lost. Copies remain.

Vision as of 2011 is available for viewing on demand from Netflix.

Here is the link to the official website for the film at Zeitgeist Films.

© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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“The greatest poverty is not to know Jesus Christ”: Cardinal George at the Catholic Charities Centennial

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

On September 25, 2010, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago, gave the homily in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC, during the Eucharist celebrating the centennial of Catholic Charities USA.

His Eminence is one of the most thoughtful and insightful witnesses within contemporary Catholicism, whose contributions are often obscured from hearing by the media controversy of the day. His 9/25/10 reflections on charity and generosity within the context of the Catholic faith are worth lengthy consideration. I offer this report of them to you, first by this link to the official text of his homily, and then by my unofficial text below, which I transcribed from a television recording. The edition below includes a few of the Cardinal’s verbal insertions (there were only a few) into the official text, but is laid out visually closer to the way the homily was delivered (according to this witness):

Unofficial Transcription
Catholic Charities USA
Centennial Mass Homily – September 25, 2010
Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC
Francis Cardinal George, OMI:

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

It’s a great pleasure and a true honor, together with all of you, with Sr. Donna Markham, the chair of the national Catholic Charities Board, with Fr. Larry Snyder the president of Catholic Charities USA, and with all those associated with Catholic Charities in this country, all of us gathered today in our national shrine.

This centennial Eucharist is possible first of all because of a virtue. The Pope, in sending his congratulations for this anniversary, said that it will be an occasion for gratitude to Almighty God for the “abundant harvest of generosity, solidarity, and good works reaped.”

Generosity: Generosity is a virtue that has made possible the extraordinary record of help, and the even more extraordinary outpouring of hearts that we celebrate today.

The case statement for Catholic Charities is in the Gospel just proclaimed–the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, the prisoner, the least of Christ’s brethren–
We are commanded to see them and to respond.

But behind the cases and the case studies, behind the plight of the poor, behind the well-organized response to their needs through Catholic Charities, there is the Gospel and its imperative to love.

It is always important to give to a good cause. It is even more important simply to give, to be generous in imitation of the Lord himself, of Jesus who is generous to the point of self-sacrifice for our salvation. No matter the cause, disciples of the Lord Jesus have to give, are impelled toward generosity from the power of God’s grace working in them, in us. Salvation depends on this virtue.

St. John of the Cross reminds us in the evening of life we will be judged by love, examined in love. Made in God’s image and likeness, and created therefore out of infinite love, we will be asked how we have grown into the mind and heart of Christ, who saves us out of love. The One who loves us far more than we love ourselves will ask how we have loved those whom He also loves, and therefore have shown how we love Him.

If love, which is the form of every virtue, informs our life and our actions, we have nothing to fear in this life or in the next. So we are here, dear brothers and sisters, because of a virtue: generosity.

We are here also because of a motive: faith. It’s a particular faith, a faith, as St. James reminds us, that sustains works, a faith that becomes visible in works, a faith demonstrated by good works.

There are tensions, as we know, particular to such a faith and the good works that it motivates:

There is a tension between humanitarianism–helping the poor for the sake of the poor–and evangelization: helping the poor for the sake of Christ.

There is a tension between professionalism–helping others from the knowledge and skills that have the poor come to us on our terms, the terms of our social work, of our profession, of our health care–a tension between that kind of professionalism and ministry, which is going to the poor on Christ’s terms, and helping them as they want to be helped.

There is a tension even between charity and justice, especially when justice is interpreted as vengeance.

Pope Benedict solved this conceptually in his first encyclical, God is Love, Deus Caritas Est, when he pointed out very aptly, and very obviously when you think about it, but what the world has often forgotten, one cannot be just to someone you don’t love, and one cannot love someone without seeing to it that they are treated justly.

These and other tensions familiar to you are the stuff of many conversations–good conversations–but most of all, they are the stuff of daily life for Catholic Charities directors and staffs. And they are resolved in practice each day by many thousands of well-prepared and well-formed men and women who have put their lives, their careers, and often risk their livelihood in service to the mission of Catholic Charities.

Pope Benedict mentions them as well in his encyclical:

The personnel of every Catholic charitable organization want to work with the Church and therefore with the bishops so that the love of God can spread throughout the world by their sharing in the Church’s practice of love [the diakonia that Cardinal Cordes mentioned]. They wish to be witnesses of God and of Christ and they wish for this very reason freely to do good to all.

I take great pride in the Catholic Charities workers, the directors, those who are responsible for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese I serve. I take great pride because I see men and women could work in many places but who are in Catholic Charities because they know what the mission is, and more than that, the mission has transformed their own heart, and their lives in such a way that they they are trustworthy, that they can work out the tensions, that they can respond to the individual and keep the principles in mind and do so day after day, year after year. I take great pride in them, and to them especially, we owe a debt of gratitude today.

There remains always, of course, the temptation to resolve these conceptual and existential tensions by doing the works of charity–good works–as if God did not exist.

This form of self-secularization arises because the Church, especially in a time of great difficulty, can fall back on works that make sense on the world’s terms, on the critics’ terms. The Church is often praised for her schools, her hospitals, her charitable organizations and institutions–although not always. Two days ago I had to respond to an irate lady who was saying that Catholic Charities should close down its food kitchen in her neighborhood because the people made a mess when they came to eat there and her life was disturbed. We know as we try to sponsor low-income housing that this is always a very difficult kind of conversation, sometimes because people are genuinely afraid and that must respected–people have a right to security in their own homes. But often it is for other reasons as well that are hard to sort out.

So not every work that you do and Charities sponsor and I try to help in my own way, not every work is praised, and yet, yet, the Church is recognized for her works.

But concentrating on the good works doesn’t always save us from the comment that they are somehow in conflict with the Church’s doctrines, retrograde as they are. And that it’s just too bad one cant’ take only the works and forget the teaching, not to mention the teachers. However, we take what we can get from a world too often marked by self-righteousness that is, in Gospel terms, the sin against the Holy Spirit.
And we use the works to give us an opening. An opening for what?

We could not come together for this centennial Eucharist but for the virtue of generosity and the motivation of faith, both of which, however, are sustained and confirmed by a vision:

It is a picture of the Spirit of the Lord at work in the world, bringing good out of evil, hope from despair, life from death. It’s a picture proclaimed in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn, to give them oil of gladness in place of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a listless spirit.”

This is the text, as you know, that was cited by Jesus himself in the synagogue at Nazareth when he first returned to his home town. In the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus, having finished the reading, speaks to his friends and neighbors: “Today–Today–this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Today–it’s a long day, a day that will last until Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. It is His day, and in Christ, in Him, it is our day.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the greatest poverty is not to know Jesus Christ.

And the greatest challenge is to serve the poor in Christ’s name, with complete respect for their dignity and their personal freedom.

Today, then, on this anniversary date, our hearts are filled with gratitude to God, to our benefactors, to directors and staffers of Catholic Charities–to all of you–and all those whom you represent. And most of all, most of all, our hearts are filled with gratitude to the poor, without whom no one enters the Kingdom of God. God bless us all.

Catholic Charities USA
Centennial Mass Homily – September 25, 2010
Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Unofficial Transcription by Albert J. Schorsch, III

The Cardinal’s words call us to reflect, and to act:

“Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the greatest poverty is not to know Jesus Christ.”

“And the greatest challenge is to serve the poor in Christ’s name, with complete respect for their dignity and their personal freedom.”

Also, His Eminence’s concept of “self-secularization” is worth pondering.

© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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