Vatican cardinal: Charity is not welfare activity, but a witness to God (Corrected)

Caritas workers distribute supplies in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Caritas
Caritas workers distribute supplies in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Caritas


Corrected May 23, 2011, 9:15 MST. Removes description in ninth paragraph that said Knight took the issue to the press.

Christian charity is not ordinary social work undertaken by religious people, the Pope's director of charitable activities told Caritas leaders on Saturday. Rather, it must “bear witness to God” at all times.

“Of course, charity must respond to the immediate needs of those who are suffering,” said Cardinal Robert Sarah, addressing Caritas Europa officials at a Vatican gathering on May 21. “But it cannot ignore the deepest cause of suffering of the human person, which is the very absence of God.”

“Hence, rather than first being oriented to society,” he noted, “the primary characteristic of such exercise is to bear witness to God.”

The cardinal drove home the point by quoting with what he described as a “striking” statement from Blessed Frederic Ozanam, a 19th century founder of the Society of Saint Vincent De Paul.

“Our fundamental purpose is not to go out and help the poor,” said Ozanam, whose organization is well-known for its service to the needy. “For us, this has only been a means. Our purpose is to maintain the Catholic faith within us, and to allow its diffusion to others through the instrument of charity.”

Cardinal Sarah, who heads the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, told Caritas Europa directors and vice-directors that the international Catholic charity had reached a “key moment” in its history, 60 years after it was established by Pius XII.

That Pope “wished to give a concrete and practical sign of the Church's concern for the countless situations crying out for assistance” after World War II. He organized Caritas Internationalis as a Church ministry, to “make present, through specific works of charity, the charity of God himself.”

Recently, however, Vatican officials have found the need to strengthen Caritas' Catholic identity and increase its focus on evangelization.

Disagreement over the new direction led the Vatican to seek a replacement for Caritas Internationalis Secretary General Lesley-Anne Knight earlier this year. The Holy See appreciated many of Knight's accomplishments, but said it needed someone else to give the international charitable organization a stronger "Catholic identity."

In his address, Cardinal Sarah described Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” on the subject of Christian love, as “the magna carta for our direction” in the coming years.

The cardinal's speech quoted extensively from the letter's reflections on what charity is, and is not, for Catholics.

“For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others,” the Pope wrote in a passage highlighted by Cardinal Sarah. In fact, charity is “inseparable” from the Church's other two fundamental tasks: “to proclaim the word of God” and “celebrate the sacraments.”
Cardinal Sarah called attention to several other papal statements to flesh out this vision of the Church's works of mercy.

The first, from a 2006 address to the World Conference on Charity, was a reminder by Pope Benedict that “in the charitable organization, God and Christ must not be strange words.” The true strength of Caritas, he said in that address, “depends on the strength of faith of all its members and collaborators.”

Cardinal Sarah said this “theocentric focus” was the reason for a series of spiritual exercises and days of reflection that the Pontifical Council Cor Unum had organized in recent years. “Caritas Europa is part of this,” he reminded its leaders, “and we count on your collaboration.”

The cardinal also invited directors of Caritas Europa to meditate on a concern he said was “surely at the heart of Benedict XVI's pontificate,” expressed during his May 2010 visit to Fatima, Portugal.

“In our time,” the Pope said on that occasion, “in which the faith in many places seems like a light in danger of being snuffed out forever, the highest priority is to make God visible in the world and to open to humanity a way to God.”

“And not to any 'god,' but to the God who had spoken on Sinai – the God whose face we recognize in the love borne to the very end in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.”

Cardinal Sarah explained that Caritas Europa should align its priorities with those of Pope Benedict, and see its activity as “the 'visiting card' that can open the door to Christ.”

“Charity is a divine gift,” he observed, “bestowed by the God who is love.”

The cardinal stated that the one who bears witness to this love “becomes an apostle.” Through the work of such apostles, “a seed of belief is sown even in the most skeptical.”

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