ON THE CHRISTIAN NOTION OF CHARITY
Thoughts for the International Day of Charity
Despite tremendous progress in science
and technology, countless millions continue to endure various forms of poverty,
not only material but also – and increasingly – spiritual. Thanks in large
measure to the means of social communication, the plight of the poor and
suffering is no longer a distant cry for help but one that reaches the
attentions of many. A growing sensitivity to those in need and a willingness to
respond is becoming universally perceptible. This heightened solidarity with
the less fortunate and desire to share in their situations and difficulties is
heartily to be welcomed.
Two reasons for this increase in
solidarity on the part of so many people and organizations engaged in
charitable works were identified by Pope Benedict XVI. First among these is the
innate desire in every human being to love and be loved. This urge to love is
inscribed in the nature of everyone, regardless of their religion. Ultimately,
it is love, in all its multifaceted shades, that drives or animates us in all
of our activity. The second reason is more explicitly religious, for it is the
Christian impulse in the world which “constantly revives and acts out this
imperative, so often profoundly obscured in the course of time" (DCE n.
With its deeper understanding of love,
Christianity has made significant contributions to the culture of humanity. The
ancients interpreted love either as eros,
a self-seeking impulse, or alternatively, as philia, a sentiment characteristic of friendship. The Christian
understanding of a God-who-is-love reveals how each human being has love as his
very raison d’être and requires in response
that this love be transformed into its highest form, agape, namely: the gift of self to the other. This notion of love,
accordingly, no longer is satisfied with self-seeking (eros) or even reciprocity (philia),
but demands true concern for the other – even a willingness to sacrifice one’s
own self for the other. The novelty of this Christian notion of love (caritas) is found in the figure of
Christ crucified: the one who holds back not even his own life for the sake of
From the beginning, the Church,
following the instruction and example of her Founder, and in His name, has
never wavered in tendering whatever material and spiritual comfort she could
offer to the poor and suffering. For, beyond the merely pragmatic (or
philanthropic) aspect of helping one's neighbor, the Church seeks more
profoundly to manifest to the world God's enduring love for humanity. Few are
those who are not moved when confronted with the suffering neighbor; but fewer
yet are those who grasp that Christian charity pursues a meaning that
supersedes the risk of paternalism inherent in philanthropy. Charity manifests
a truer sense of care and compassion, communicating authentic love to the poor
and suffering, since it stems not from excess or return but from the very sacrifice
of self. In the exercise of Christian charity, the Church gives on what she has
herself received from God.
This Christian notion of charity,
furthermore, is authentically at the service of integral human development.
Charitable activities in our times require from their agencies both high
degrees of professionalism and constantly enhancing and empowering structures.
Whereas this is, doubtless, necessary, it is scarcely of itself sufficient.
Dealing with transcendent human beings means grappling with actual persons who
always need something more than merely technical assistance or philanthropic
care. People cannot be compartmentalized into their constituent parts: public
or private, physical or psychological, earthly or heavenly, religious or secular.
Rather, each person can only truly be seen in their wholeness and integrity.
Only a holistic approach to the person permits of solutions to the root causes
of their problems and helps them develop fully in their corporeal and
Countless men and women throughout the
history of the Church have given witness to an heroic degree of selfless love
toward their neighbors.
The Church is particularly happy that
the international community, by designating precisely September 5th as the
first International Day of Charity, wishes to recognize the extraordinary
witness of charity exemplified in recent times by Blessed Mother Teresa of
Calcutta. The motivation and reason for the Church’s mission of charity is none
other than Jesus Christ Himself, and the desire to bear witness to His love. In
her tireless work for the poor and the outcast this was also Blessed Mother
Teresa's inspiration and strength. Her life’s witness of love derived from what
Christ taught. In the service of charity, Mother Teresa sought not merely to
provide humanitarian relief or to change social structures. As she clearly
stated at her Nobel Lecture: "We are not just social workers. We may be
doing social work in the eyes of the people, but we are really contemplatives
in the heart of the world, for we are touching the Body of Christ twenty-four
hours" (December 11, 1979). Her life and example continue to challenge the
Church’s charitable organizations to be faithful to their specific identity and
in their work to always defend and promote life.
The Catholic Church is grateful that an
International Day of Charity is introduced for the first time into the calendar
of the United Nations in memory of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Honoring her
person, life and legacy also means recognizing the innumerable charitable works
the Catholic Church carries out daily in favor of the poorest of the poor, ever
faithful to the commandment and example of her Founder. In fact, the Catholic
Church remains the world’s largest non-governmental provider of education and
health service delivering no less than 26% of the world's health care. So many
Catholic charitable organizations work indefatigably for humanitarian relief
and development throughout the poorest regions of the world.
We are proud to commemorate this day as
an act of recognition and esteem on the part of the international community for
the service and dedication of countless individuals, Catholic organizations and
religious men and women, who like Blessed Mother Teresa, have brought the light
of their selfless love to those in need.