Benedict delineates the elements of charity

Those who carry out the Church’s charitable activity ‘must be people moved by Christ’s love’

By Deacon Bob Hunt

Last month, in honor of Pope Benedict XVI, I offered a summary of the first part of his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “God Is Love,” and promised a summary of Part II of this letter this month.

Benedict opens with a quote from St. Augustine: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.” The Holy Spirit is the power that makes the hearts of believers one with the heart of Christ and so inspires them to love others as Christ loved them. “The Spirit,” Benedict writes, “is also the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son. The entire activity of the Church is an expression of love that seeks the integral good of man.” This activity includes the Church’s proclamation of the Word, her administration of the sacraments, and the charitable ministries in which she engages “to attend constantly to man’s sufferings and his needs, including material needs.”

Love of neighbor is the responsibility of every individual believer. It is also the responsibility of the Church as a community. If love is to be an “ordered service to the community,” it must be organized. This was first realized by the Church in her earliest days, when believers held all in common and were bound together by the teachings of the Apostles, by Communion, by the breaking of the bread, and by prayer (Acts 2:42-45). When the duties of the Apostles became overwhelming, they called seven men to take on the responsibilities of charitable service to others (Acts 6:1-6). Benedict writes, “With the formation of this group of seven, ‘diakonia’—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.”

The ministry of charity (diakonia) is a constitutive part of the Church’s nature and reason for being, along with proclaiming the Word of God (kerygma-martyria) and celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia). While the Church’s love is especially for those who are members of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10), it is not reserved for them but extends to all in a universal love toward every man and woman, as the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us (Luke 10:25-37).

Building a just social order is a political goal of the state, assisted by the Church with her insights on the nature of justice and the duty of the political class and all citizens on how to build such a society and what such a society would look like. Indeed, lay Catholics have the responsibility to form their political activities according to their faith, which includes a responsibility for loving service, and so contribute to the building of a just social order. Regardless of how just a social order is managed, however, there will always be suffering, there will always be loneliness, so there will always be a need for loving service. Man does not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4).

“We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything,” Benedict insists, “but a state which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.” Benedict lauds the efforts of state and Church, and other religious traditions, as well, to work together in many initiatives toward the same goal: “a true humanism, which acknowledges that man is made in the image of God and wants to help him to live in a way consonant with that dignity.”

Benedict delineates the essential elements of Christian and ecclesial charity:

First, following the example of the Good Samaritan, “Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” Benedict reminds that those in need require more than just their materials needs met. “They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern.”

Second, “Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.”

Finally, “Charity . . . cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends.” This does not mean that God and Christ are left out, for often the absence of God is the deepest need of others. But Christians “realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love.”

“More than anything,” Benedict writes, those who carry out the Church’s charitable activity “must be people moved by Christ’s love, people whose hearts Christ has conquered with His love, awakening within them a love of neighbor.”

Benedict XVI, requiescat in pace.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.

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