October 6, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

True Christian charity flows from prayer

In early September, the national convention of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul took place in Indianapolis.

I was privileged to preside at the closing Mass. I expressed profound appreciation to those present for carrying on the mission of seeking the face of Christ in countless numbers of our poor. I am happy to say the society is thriving in our archdiocese.

Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, was beatified by the late Pope John Paul II in Paris in 1997.

In his youth, Frederic suffered a crisis of faith. In the depth of his internal struggle, he went into the Church of St. Bonaventure, stood in a dark corner and, in tears before the Blessed Sacrament, begged God to relieve his doubts and to lift the darkness. He promised God that if God did so, he would dedicate his life to the service of the truth.

Frederic surrendered his soul. The doubts left him and never returned. Consequently, he founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on his 20th birthday in 1833. One could summarize the Vincentian spirituality of the society as the inspiration to contemplate Christ’s face in the poor and to serve accordingly.

In his first encyclical to the Church, “God is Love,” Pope Benedict XVI had a lot to say about Christian charity in our times. He told us that our obligation to do works of charity as a Church is inseparable from the Church’s duty to proclaim God’s Word and to celebrate the sacraments. Our Holy Father emphasized the point that true Christian charity flows from prayer. If, as he says, we are to see with the eyes of the heart, we must pray.

The late Pope John Paul II said that just as in the days of Jesus when some Greeks came to Philip and the disciples and said, “We want to see Jesus,” so, in our day, people want to see Jesus.

People don’t want us just to talk about Jesus. They want to see the compassionate Jesus. If we are to show the face of Jesus to the world, we must contemplate the face of Jesus—in the Gospel and in prayer. This surely was the inspiration for Blessed Frederic.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said, “I don’t think there is anyone who needs God’s help and grace as much as I do. Sometimes I feel so helpless and so weak. I think this is why God uses me. Because I cannot depend on my own strength, I rely on him 24 hours a day. All of us must cling to God through prayer. My secret is simple: I pray. Through prayer, I become one in love with Christ. I realize that praying to him is loving him.”

She said, “We cannot find God in noise. Nature: trees, flowers and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon and the sun move in silence. What is essential is not what we say, but what God tells others through us. In silence, he listens to us; in silence, he speaks to our souls. In silence, we are granted the privilege of listening to his voice. Silence of our eyes, Silence of our ears, Silence of our minds; … In the silence of the heart, God will speak” (cf. U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, p. 479-80).

In his encyclical “God is Love,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone. Piety does not undermine the struggle against the poverty of our neighbors, however extreme. In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service of our neighbor, but is in fact an inexhaustible source of that service. In her letter for Lent in 1996, Blessed Teresa wrote to her lay co-workers, ‘We need this deep connection with God in our daily life. How can we obtain it? By prayer’ ” (# 36).

In the midst of poverty, sometimes we might doubt the goodness of God. Pope Benedict says, “Often, we cannot understand why God refrains from intervening [in the face of suffering]. Yet, he does not prevent us from crying out like Jesus on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ We should continue asking the question in prayerful dialogue before his face: ‘Lord, holy and true, how long will it be?’ Even in times of bewilderment and failure to understand the world around us, we Christians continue to believe in the goodness and loving kindness of God” (# 38).

So it was for Blessed Frederic Ozanam. †


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