WelCom June/July 2021
This article is an abridged version of Jim Consedine’s keynote address to this year‘s St Vincent de Paul annual general meeting.
The central command of Jesus, ‘to love God and love your neighbour’ leads to our understanding from scripture that charity and justice form the component parts of this command. Today, I have been asked to reflect on, ‘the spirituality of charity’. But this can only be done by linking charity with justice the way the scriptures do. You cannot love your poor neighbours properly (charity) without also seeking to help heal the social situations that keeps them poor (justice).
The St Vincent de Paul Society founder, Frederic Ozanam, was clear about this connection in the 1840s. For him, charity and justice formed two sides of the same coin. He founded a newspaper to link the two truths. As the Vincentian website tells us, ‘In 1848, 15 years after the establishment of the Society, with poverty widespread in Europe, massive slums in the cities and 275,000 workers unemployed in France, he started a newspaper, The New Era, dedicated to securing justice for the poor and the working classes.’ (Famvin website)
To return to the present, I would suggest that at the heart of our response to need, initially is neither charity nor justice but compassion – placing ourselves into our neighbour’s shoes and allowing our hearts to expand and be touched. Accessing the situation, we then discern where to head to from there.
In essence, spirituality is a way of being, a way of living out our lives. And there is not just one way of doing so. While different spiritualities will have differing emphases, all authentic Christian spiritualities should share the basic imprint of the scripture to underpin their evolving traditions. For Christians, Christ is the beating heart of their spirituality. Our arms, legs, tongues, brains and actions give flesh to Christ in our time. Christ relies on us to act.
Pope Francis speaks specifically of charity in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, which essentially is about living a conscious spirituality for our time. In addressing all religious faith traditions, he spells out how charity should be practiced in relation to others, in the spirit of what he calls, fraternity – brotherhood/sisterhood. He says, ‘only the closeness that makes us friends can enable us to appreciate the poor today, their legitimate desires and their own manner of living their faith. The ‘option for the poor’ should lead us to friendship with the poor.’ #234
This is helpful for Vincentians, as it places relationships at the centre of charity. Our work is primarily exercised at a grassroots level interacting with the poor at a level of relationship. Working at grassroots with the poor poses special questions for us – how do we interact? What relationship do we have with them? Are they clients? Do we assess their needs objectively or are we judgmental about them? Do they become friends? Relationship sits at the heart of our connection with them, as it does in God’s connection with us.
To accept that the heart of Christ sits at the heart of the world, which is what our theology teaches us, requires us to constantly expand our own hearts, deepening our faith and love at each step. For it is only as love grows within that we can experience the love growing without.
This modern generation is privileged to see, understand and accept the enormity of our Creator God, whom most of us have constrained to a manageable level. This Great Spirit is much bigger than anything we have ever known, more colossal than anything the mind can imagine. And we teach that the Cosmos, with its billions of galaxies of which we humans form an infinitesimally tiny part on the tiniest planet, is where this Great Spirit of Loves dwells, always available to us, always caring about us, continuing to create, always calling us forward to greater practice of love, compassion, justice and mercy. As Vincentians, it is this Divine Spirit we draw on as fuel for every act of charity. Charity and justice call us to expand our hearts throughout our lives to the point where they are at one with the heart of Christ, active in this amazing, wonderful Cosmos.
Our physical hearts are the size of a small pudding. But our emotional and spiritual hearts can be as large as we want to make them, or as shrunken as a dried-up piece of fried sausage. I have met many people, sadly, who have allowed bitterness, a lack of forgiveness, unresolved grief or anger to shrivel their hearts to that size! Jesus said, ‘By their fruit you know them.’ (Matt 7)
However, I also know many more people with hearts so massive in their capacity to love, embrace and forgive, so inclusive, that you wonder at the depth of their holiness. Think Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, mosque shooting survivor, Farid Ahmed, Pauline O’Regan, Suzanne Aubert. Think of some of your own relations and friends, some even in your parish.
We are called daily to expand our hearts. When we fail to expand our hearts through love, we are holding back the plan of God for ourselves, humanity and creation. The key to growing such a spirituality is to see that personal sacrifice is often asked of us, not just an institutional response, which can appear at times quite ‘cold’. The saying ‘as cold as charity’ speaks to giving without a heart. Philanthropy can often appear like this. Vast sums given away may not necessarily be heartfelt, but more like re-arranging the bookkeeping and one’s conscience. That is not the way of Christian charity, which calls each of us to a personal response, to keep reaching out and growing in spirit.
Within an ever-expanding universe, followers of Jesus are invited to be open to a greater penetration by the mystery of Christ. Paradoxically, the more we engage with Christ and the greater our love for others becomes, the more the Cross of Christ will present itself on our road as we empathise with them, understand their burdens and walk with them on this sacred planet, which itself needs our love and protection. Like St Paul, ‘We preach a Crucified Christ, to the Greeks a scandal, to the Jews an obstacle, to the pagans, madness.’ (1 Cor 1/22-25) It’s nuts! But it is our gospel in a nutshell (pardon the pun!).
This teaching sits at the heart of all loving relationships, the bitter-sweet subject of a million songs and poems. We all know that love is much deeper than mere romance. Bitter-sweet, death – resurrection. This is the essence of both Jesus and St Paul’s teaching. Charity is a practical expression of such love.
Today’s theme, ‘the spirituality of charity’ is a useful phrase if we can see it as a concept challenging us to grow and expand our hearts towards justice as well as charity, to keep making them more inclusive, more compassionate, less judgemental, more tender, more Christ-like. As Vincentians, we are privileged to have the opportunity to be in close touch with the poor, to meet Christ and to expand our hearts by recognising the divine presence within them. Each encounter we have is an eternal moment. In this, we are most blessed.
Jim Consedine has been a priest in the Christchurch diocese for 52 years, serving as a prison chaplain for 23 years. He is the author of three books on restorative justice and the Church’s social teachings.