February 16, 2006
On Dec. 25, 2005, His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, issued his first encyclical letter. It is addressed "to the bishops, priests, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful," and titled "God Is Love," words taken from the First Letter of St. John (4:16).
The encyclical is divided into two parts of similar lengths. The first is a philosophical-theological treatment of divine love. It is profound and requires several readings to be fully understood and appreciated. The second part is less demanding. It concerns itself with putting love into practice in parishes, in dioceses, and in the Church Universal as well.
In the second part of the encyclical, the pontiff insists that the Church has, and always will have, an obligation before God to engage in charitable works. Just as she must always teach what the Lord has revealed and make available to the faithful the Mass, the sacraments and all means of salvation, so too must she ever be involved in undertakings of charity as an integral element of her life and reality.
The Holy Father then provides a brief history of charity in the early Church. He begins with an account of the naming by the Apostles of seven deacons to care for the needy in the Church of Jerusalem shortly after the Descent of the Holy Spirit. (Cf. Acts of the Apostles 6:1-7.) He reports what St. Justin Martyr recounts about the charitable activities of the Church in the 100s, what Tertullian recounts about them in the 200s, what St. Ambrose recounts about them in the 300s, and so on, making it crystal clear that commitment to aiding the poor, the sick and the stranger has always been an essential component of the Church’s mission.
The Successor of St. Peter next focuses on a number of rather controversial matters as regards charity and the Church, among them, the right of the Church in a free society to engage in appropriate charitable works, the need to keep these works free of improper political involvements, and the obligation never to use charity as an instrument of proselytism.
Finally, Benedict addresses charity on the local scene, that is to say, in the parish and in the diocese, and here makes a number of points that merit both our attention and meditation. Examples are the crucially important role that volunteers are to play in the charities of parishes and dioceses, the necessity of having professional personnel in Catholic charitable efforts well-prepared both intellectually and spiritually, and the genuine humility that is to mark the words and deeds of all who engage in endeavors of charity in connection with the Church.
On Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006, the day on which the text of the encyclical "God Is Love" was made available in the United States, the Board of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York was meeting under the leadership of its chairman, Mr. John J. Phelan. At each place, on top of the agenda for the meeting, the executive director of Catholic Charities, Msgr. Kevin L. Sullivan, had placed a single sheet of paper with the papal coat of arms at the top. The paper contained this citation from the encyclical:
Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all a 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. The Church’s charitable organizations, at the diocesan, national and international levels, ought to do everything in their power to provide the resources and, above all, the personnel needed for this work…Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but also dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity…As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but rather a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith that becomes active through love.
I read the citation and thanked Msgr. Sullivan for providing it to the Board in such a timely fashion, just a few hours after the encyclical was released in its English edition. Additionally, I promised him to tell the readers of Catholic New York in my next column of some of the marvelous works that the Catholic Charities family is achieving in our community day after day, week after week, year after year. In fulfillment of this promise, here is a partial list of those works for just this past year:
4,000,000 meals through community and parish food pantries,
150,000 prepared meals served in community kitchens,
90,000 meals served in senior centers this past year, along with another 1,000 meals for the homebound elderly,
professional psychological counseling and treatment for 25,000 families and individuals,
service to over 50,000 immigrants,
athletic programs for more than 30,000 youngsters,
residential and support services for more than 5,000 runaways and at-risk teenagers,
day care for 3,500 infants and young children,
emergency financial assistance for more than 15,000 families and individuals,
addiction treatment for almost 5,000 individuals,
pre-job training for 7,000-plus individuals,
hot-line responses to between 85,000 and 90,000 persons,
social service referrals to 35,000 families and individuals,
summer camps for 3,500,
professional guidance for 7,000 families at risk,
eviction prevention for 1,500 families,
advocacy services for 20,000,
foster homes for 5,000 children and group care for 2,000 adolescents,
temporary, transitional or permanent housing for more than 4,000 families, and on and on.
Yes, there is more, much more; and all of it is made possible because of the generosity of our Catholic people and the splendid commitment of the board and staff of Catholic Charities to those most in need. I suspect that in 2007 our new Holy Father will be here in New York to address the United Nations and rejoice with the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York as we move into the 200th anniversary of our establishment. On that occasion, if the opportunity offers itself, I will tell Pope Benedict XVI how his first encyclical is being lived out here; and I will thank him for reminding us what joy there is in putting into action the truth that "God is love."
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York