Fourth Sunday in Lent
- The Charitable Activity of the Church
By Rev. Charles Bruehl, D.D.
My dear Friends: The miracle recorded in the gospel of to-day, though a stupendous manifestation of Divine power, strikes us mainly as a touching sign of Christ’s tender love and broad sympathy for the people. Attracted by the charm of His words and held by the mysterious influence that radiated from His presence, they had followed Him into the desert, forgetful of their bodily needs and unmindful of the inconveniences of the journey. Weary and hungry they listened, in holy rapture, to His discourses, and eagerly drank in His words of heavenly wisdom. The day was far spent; the sun inclined towards the western hills; no human dwellings were near. Jesus was deeply moved by their perseverance and their zeal; His sacred Heart was flowing over with mercy for them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd. He opened His bountiful hand, and in His condescending solicitude gave bread to the multitude, as His Heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air and makes the waving harvests grow and multiply for the children of men. In the wide sweep of His unbounded and ready compassion he embraced all the needs and ills that dog the footsteps of man on the rugged and tortuous paths of life; for every form of distress and woe He had a speedy remedy; for every ailment and smarting sore a healing and soothing touch; for every depressed and broken heart a word of cheer and comfort. But that He should stoop to supply such an ordinary want, as is the daily, ever-recurring craving for food, shows a delicacy and refinement of kindness, at once sweetly human and sublimely Divine. The value of his miracle of ineffable benevolence is enhanced by the fact that it was wrought at time when the days of our Lord were darkened and embittered by the growing opposition of the Pharisees. The people however, knew that Christ had their interests at heart, and clung to Him in spite of the venomous accusations by which His enemies sought to poison their minds against Him. It may have been a great solace to our dear Lord when He observed the attachment and gratitude of the crowds that followed Him wherever He went, and even intruded on the few hours of rest which He reserved to Himself and His disciples. Full well did the people realize that they never had a better and more sincere friend than Jesus, and that all His power was at the command of His goodness.
That love which, throughout His earthly life, our Lord had borne to the people, He wished to remain in his Church. The Church was his fair and immaculate bide, and as such was to share the sentiments of His sacred Heart. And it always has been thus. The history of the Church bears witness to this great outstanding fact: the Catholic Church has never swerved from the traditions of her Divine Founder; ever has she been a Church of the people; never has she betrayed heir true interests; she stood on the side of the oppressed, the downtrodden, the poor, even as her Master did.
Through her untiring efforts social conditions have improved in every quarter of the civilized world. The Cross has changed the face of the earth and made it habitable for the poor and the miserable, who before the dawn of the new religion of love suffered the most inhuman treatment. Though her gaze is immutably fixed on eternity, never has the church turned away her face from human misery and affliction; on one hand, she holds the treasures of heaven, with the other, she dispenses temporal gifts to those who are in want. “How admirable is the Christian religion,” says Montesquieu, “which, though it seems to have no other object than the happiness of the other life, yet makes our happiness in this.” She has girded the globe with institutions of relief of every description; she has given her best sons and daughters to the service of the poor and the suffering; she has sent them to bring alleviation and consolation to those who were despised and loathed by the world; her houses of worship were asylums for the persecuted, and in their shadow the burdened and the hopeless would gather, as they thronged around Christ when He walked the roads of Palestine. One of the chief glories of the Church are her works of mercy, shining through the ages with undimmed splendor. The charitable activity of the Church, the wonder and the despair of the world who would fain emulate and surpass it, shall now engage our attention. May the noble examples of the past warm our hearts to similar deeds of love and kindness.
A - The root of the unfailing charity of the Church is to be found in the teaching and the example of Christ. From heaven He brought that beautiful and inspiring doctrine of the brotherhood of men and the law of neighborly love. Our ears are now attuned to this celestial message, but how strange did it sound to the pagans, for the very soul of heathenism was selfishness and pride. Compassion was regarded as a weakness, and pity as foolishness. Hence the lot of the poor was sad and gloomy. The old Roman world was a world without charity, a cold and heartless world, in which it was hard for the poor to live and breathe. The idea of the immense value of each human soul was foreign to the pagan way of thinking; and if the heathen cared little for the eternal welfare of the poor, he cared still less for their temporal comfort. The religion of Christ changed all this. He humanized the lot of the unfortunate. The cardinal virtue of Christianity is love; for every human being is precious in the eyes of God, and linked to us the bonds of a true and sacred brotherhood. It was this doctrine that puzzled the pagans, as appears from the reflection of one of their philosophers. “It is incredible,” he says, “to see the ardor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator has put into their heads that they are all brethren.”
The works of mercy are part and part and parcel of Christ’s gospel. They are extolled and made indispensable for salvation. They pave the way to heaven. They cover a multitude of sins. They atone for our shortcomings; they secure God’s blessings and mitigate the last judgment. Charity is an imitation of God’s generosity and makes man god-like. St. Gregory exhorts the faithful to be god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God, as there is nothing so Divine as beneficence.
The wealth of the Church was regarded as the patrimony of the poor, the widows and the orphans. The laws of the Church enjoined on the bishop the care of the poor and the widows. He distributes the offerings of the faithful, thus delicately sparing the self-respect of the poor, since they receive these alms not as gifts of men, but as gifts from God. One of the early councils decrees: “You, bishops, must have care of the orphans, and see that they are not wanting in anything; you must be parents to them and fathers to the widows; you must assist the adult to marry, procure work for the artisan, and succor the disabled; you must offer hospitality to the stranger, procure bread for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothes for the naked; you must visit the sick and relieve the prisoners.” No program of charity could be more comprehensive. These words embodied in the canons of the council are the faithful echoes of the teaching of Christ. The supreme duty of Christian charity was inculcated by all zealous teachers of the gospel from the beginning. Let us single out one, as a representative of his time, St. John Chrysostom, who speaks of mercy in these stirring words: “She is the queen of virtues, lifting up man to heavenly heights and pleading powerfully in his behalf. Mercy has strong wings; she penetrates the clouds, soars above the stars and enters into the very heavens. This you may learn from the sacred writings, wherein you read: Thy prayers and thy alms ascended for a memorial in the sight of God. This means: though you have many sins, fear not, if you have alms and works of mercy to plead for you; they will blot out the hand-writing that stands against you.” From such teaching which placed charity first in the hierarchy of virtues and made the works of mercy the most efficacious means of expiation, a most vigorous charitable activity was bound to grow up. The beauty of the Church’s teaching on charity and the novelty of its doctrine cannot be denied, and is admitted, albeit grudgingly, even by its enemies. Thus, Lecky writes: “Christianity for the first time made charity a rudimentary virtue, giving it a leading place in the moral type, and in the exhortations of its teachers. For the first time in the history of mankind it has inspired many thousands of men and women to devote their entire lives to the single object of assuaging the sufferings of humanity. It has indissolubly united, in the minds of men, the idea of supreme goodness with that of active and constant benevolence.” Nay, more, it has given inexhaustible vitality to charity, because it has linked the love of man to the love of God. And so Christian charity has flowered and filled the earth with its perfume, because its roots are sunk in such fertile soil in the bosom of God.
B – A theory may be very attractive; but the reality may fall very short of it. How was it in the Church? Did her practice of charity correspond to her lofty teaching? Let history give the answer.
The beginnings of active charity coincide with the beginnings of the Apostolic preaching. In the infant Church the works of mercy were well known and universally practiced. Jerusalem has set an example never surpassed, never equaled. “And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul; and all things were common unto them; neither was there any one needy among them. For as many as were owners of lands or houses, sold them, and brought the price of the things sold, and laid it down before the feet of the Apostles. And distribution was made to every one according as he had need” (Acts iv, 32). Deacons were chosen to minister to the temporal wants of the needy; banquets of love were held where rich and poor united like the members of one family. Early did charity become organized that there might be no useless waste, but wise distribution. Every community was also a charitable society, and took care of its widows and orphans, or strangers and prisoners, and sent help to distant congregations in need. Never was Christian charity narrow, confining its activity to local boundaries.
Even the cruel persecutions that swept over the growing Church were unable to quench the flame of charity. Daily it assumed new forms to adapt itself to the peculiar needs; particular solicitude did the Church show for her children imprisoned for Christ’s sake. Yet even in these days of stress, when the Church was hunted down by implacable enemies and every Christian was outlawed, when her possessions were forfeited and she only found safety in the bowels of the earth, she provided not only for her own poor, but helped the pagans, when in distress. “You forget,” says Tertullian in his Apology to the heathens, “that notwithstanding your persecutions, we pray for you and do good to you; that if we give nothing for your gods, we do give for your poor, and that our charity spreads more alms in your streets than the offerings presented by your religion in your temples.” That is the hallmark of true charity, the willingness to assist even our enemies in their afflictions. During the persecution under Gallus, 252, when a pestilence raged in Carthage, and the heathens threw out their dead and sick upon the streets and ran away from them for fear of contagion, St. Cyprian assembled his congregation and exhorted them to love their enemies; whereupon all went to work and rested not till the dead were buried, the sick nursed and the city saved from desolation.
As the resources and the power of the Church increased, her charitable activity expanded and grew to imposing proportions. After Constantine we see Christians build hospitals and houses of refuge for the strangers, the poor, the sick, the aged, the orphans the foundlings. By this time, Christian relief work had become so extensive as to encompass every need and affliction. In the reign of Gregory I, there existed hospitals in Rome, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and in many towns of the East. Withall, it must not be forgotten that the means of the Church were limited, as most of her children belonged to the poorer classes. In spite of this, private charity was practiced to an astonishing degree. St. Basil himself nursed the sick in his hospital at Cesarea and did not shrink from contact with lepers. St Jerome founded a hospice in Bethlehem and induced Roman ladies of proud ancestry to sell their jewels and palaces for the poor and to exchange a life of luxurious ease for a life of self-denial. For Christian charity is not content to bestow gifts, it gives what is best; personal service, elevating friendship, and the touch of a loving hand. Wherever the shadows of misfortune gather and thicken, the stars of Christian charity rise and soften the darkness of every calamity. What the Church has done for the poorest of the poor, the friendless slaves, would fill volumes; where she could not break their chains, she eased the burdens and made the galling yoke mild and sweet. For the ransom of slaves and captives the Church would not pause at the sale of her sacred vessels. Nay, many a Christian has given his own liberty as a ransom for some poor slave or captive. The redemption of captives was considered as very meritorious work. Religious brotherhoods sprang up for the purpose of redeeming captives from their cruel lot.
In the Middle Ages charity flourished as never before. In general, it may be said that ages of faith are always fruitful in works of mercy. Says an unprejudiced author: “No period has done so much for the poor as the Middle Ages. What wholesale distribution of alms, what an abundance of institutions of the most various kinds, what numbers of hospitals for all manner of sufferers, what a series of ministrant orders, male and female, knightly and civil, what self-sacrifice and devotedness!” The scope of charity enlarged continually; no want went unrelieved. The monasteries became centers of relief work and havens of refuge, whether they arose in the trackless forest or the crowded city. Montes Pietatis for the loan of money on reasonable terms were erected to save men from the grasp and the extortions of soulless usurers. Charity showed itself inventive and resourceful to meet new conditions, growing from the advance of civilization.
The last centuries have witnessed a splendid growth of the charitable organizations of the Church. They have seen the rise of new religious orders devoted to the service of afflicted mankind, among them the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Nuns of the Good Shepherd consecrated to the reformation of wayward gifts. This rescue work is, indeed, very arduous and ungrateful and ranks high among charities. The seventeenth century may boast of having given to the Church one of her noblest saints, Vincent de Paul, whose name is blessed by millions and whose life is an inspiration to all lovers of humanity. The deaf and the dumb, the blind and the crippled, the aged and the feeble minded, the insane and the very outcasts, have fund friends to gladden the hearts and to bring the light of joy into their lives. The tongue of an angel could not do adequate justice to the works of charity accomplished by the Church within the last generations; they are numerous and bright as the stars of heaven. There is one name, however, which we cannot pass over in silence; a man who shall not be forgotten, as long as the love of neighbor dwells on earth: I mean Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul. The conferences have ramified and spread all over the earth, and the good which they have done is incalculable. But the Church has many names of equal brilliancy in the annals of her history. And, besides, there are many of her children who have lived devoted and consecrated lives of service, but whose names have remained unknown and whose countless deeds of charity have not been chronicled, except by the recording angel. The charitable agencies maintained by the Church in our times are so vast and elaborate as to defy any attempt at description; the sums invested in them are enormous; and yet these heavy burdens and taxes are borne without complaint by the faithful, who give cheerfully for Christ’s sake.
By far the greater part of the history of Christian charity shall remain forever unwritten. The spontaneous charity of the individual rarely becomes known to others than those who benefit by it. The power of Christian charity is felt everywhere; but it does its work silently and without heralding it. It follows human misery into all its lonely griefs with friendly sympathy and ready help, without the slightest thought of publicity. The charity that advertises is not genuine charity, for our Lord has said: “When thou dost alms, let not they left hand know what they right hand doth. That thy alms may be in secret, and they Father who sees in secret will repay thee.”
My fear Friends: We have reviewed the charitable activity of the Church, not for the sake of pride and vainglorious ostentation, but for the sake of inspiration and imitation. Let us look into the mirror of the past and strive not to degenerate from the lofty ideals of our fathers. The poor we shall always have with us. There is always a call for charity and service. There are many tears which we can dry; many wants we can relieve; many dark lives we can brighten; many broken hearts we can cheer. Our faith shall be tested by the works of mercy it has prompted. Faith without works is a dead and a useless faith, and does not avail to salvation. Let us make evident the faith that is within us and let us make good our calling by works of kindness and love. Those are the dark days of the Church, when the flame of charity burns low; may charity shine as bright in our days as it ever shone before! What a reward will be ours if our lives are rich in deeds of love; for thus will the Judge speak at the final reckoning: “Come, ye blessed of my Father; for, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it unto me. Amen.