June 9, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

As a community of love, Church committed to charity

The second section of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “God is Love” concerns the practice of love by the Church as a “community of love.”

The Holy Father began this section with a quotation from St. Augustine: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.”

The Church’s charitable activity manifests Trinitarian love. He wrote, “In the foregoing reflections, we have been able to focus our attention on the Pierced One, recognizing the plan of the Father who, moved by love, sent his only-begotten Son into the world to redeem man. By dying on the Cross—Saint John tells us—Jesus ‘gave up his Spirit,’ anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit that he would make after his Resurrection.”

He said the Spirit, in fact, is that interior power that harmonizes our hearts and moves us to love our brethren as Christ loved them, when he bent down to wash the feet of the disciples and, above all, when he gave his life for us.

“Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also the responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community.”

The Holy Father reminded us that awareness of this responsibility was evident from the very beginning of the Church. He cited the text from Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved, but its essential core remained: “Within the community of believers, there can never be room for poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.

“A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office.”

The social service which the Apostles were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was truly a spiritual service, so the office of deacon which was created “carried on an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor.” With the office of deacon, the ministry of charity became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

“The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” The pope cited examples from early Church history to demonstrate this. Justin Martyr, who died c. 155, in describing the Christians’ celebration of Sunday, also mentioned their charitable activity, linked with the Eucharist as such. He mentioned Tertullian, who died around 220. He had noted how the pagans were struck by the Christians’ concern for the needy of every sort.

Diaconia was the name given to the institution responsible for works of charity. In Egypt, it became an institution within each monastery responsible for works of relief, for the service of charity. Also in Rome, the diaconia was an essential part of the Church from the beginning.

The Holy Father cited the story of the deacon martyr, St. Lawrence (c. 258). Lawrence was responsible for the care of the poor in Rome. After the capture of the pope and of his fellow deacons, he had been given a period of time to collect the treasures of the Church and hand them over to the civil authorities.

First of all, Lawrence distributed to the poor whatever funds he had found. When he was to appear before the authorities with the Church’s treasures, he did so. He had gathered the poor of Rome and presented them to the authorities of the city, saying “these are the real treasure of the Church.”

St. Lawrence is remembered as a great exponent of ecclesial charity. Even the apostate Julian (c. 363) said the Christians’ charitable activity needed to be emulated and surpassed because it was the reason for the popularity of the “Galileans.”

Pope Benedict wrote: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacraments and exercising the ministry of charity. These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. Charity is not a kind of welfare activity that could be left to others, but is an indispensable expression of her very being.

“The Church is God’s family in the world. In this family no one ought to go without the necessities of life.”

And charity extends beyond the frontiers of the Church. †


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