Deus Caritas Est to look at people the way Jesus does

Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est challenges young people to look at people as Jesus would have done, something which is easier to say than to put into practice. This was the view of one of three students from Lower Hutt’s Sacred Heart Colle

Beverley Telfer

‘Act justly, live tenderly and walk humbly with our God’

Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est challenges young people to look at people as Jesus would have done, something which is easier to say than to put into practice. This was the view of one of three students from Lower Hutt’s Sacred Heart College speaking to a symposium on the encyclical held at Connolly Hall on Saturday 14 October, organised by the Archdiocesan JPD Commission.

The students, Aniela Tkacz, Laura Kavanagh and Tafadzwa Dhlakama, who had studied the encyclical when preparing for the Catholic secondary schools’ O’Shea Shield competition earlier in the year, were sharing some of their thoughts with attendees. They felt that the main challenge lay in trying to apply justice in today’s world, to form their own opinions and look behind the labels society puts on different people and groups. Their studies had reaffirmed their belief that as Catholics they needed to keep a balance in their future lives between work and ‘getting ahead’ and the necessity to be aware of injustices and work for change in society wherever it was needed.

The executive officer of the JPD Commission, Sr Mary Hepburn, spoke to the first part of the encyclical. This deals with the twin concepts of love – eros and agape – how they are intertwined and relate to our lives in a fundamental way. Eros is the giving and receiving of love on a one-to-one basis, while agape, seeks the good of the ‘other’ – concern and care for others shaped by faith.

Both form part of the sacred/secular continuum and both were lived out by Jesus in his public life. We have a choice in our spirituality of love – to engage with all of our world or only with selected parts. The Eucharist, so central to our faith, is only fully celebrated in community, and is fragmented if not reflected in love – of God and of our neighbour. Benedict urges us to strive always to live this out (n 18).

Part II of the encyclical is entitled Caritas – the practice of love by the church as a ‘community of love’. Fr Gerard Burns outlined the historical background of social action in the modern church beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 urging a fairer world for all. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (1963), encyclicals such as Mater et Magistra and Populorum Progressio and developments stemming from Vatical II all focused on the church as an intrinsic part of the world, obliged to contribute to its well being. ‘Action in the world is a constituitive part of the gospel’ and can’t be separated (Justice in the World, 1971).

In Deus Caritas Est Benedict is addressing the overarching aspect of how we should act, in contrast to the modern emphasis on individualism. The key paragraph 25 talks of the three-fold responsibility of the church – proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacraments, and exercising the ministry of charity, which is ‘an indispensible expression of her being’. The encyclical then discusses the indissolubility of justice (addressing causes) and charity (dealing with symptoms) (n 31) and states ‘The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful’ (n 29).

The symposium then heard from four lay people on how they tried to apply the principles of Catholic Social Teaching in their lives:

Postal worker and member of the Catholic Peacemakers group, John Maynard, spoke of his formation in the Catholic Youth Movement, later the Young Christian Workers’ Movement, where the See, Judge, Act, Reflect method was inculcated into him. He has been involved for some years in the trade union movement and is still very active in trying to achieve justice for workers. He spoke of the importance of Catholic social teaching in all his activities – in his work, his union involvement, and as a member of both the JPD Commission and the Wellington Catholic Peacemakers group.

Peter Harvey then spoke of his involvement with the Eastbourne Rights Group, and more specifically the Korohiwa Centennial Project in Eastbourne. The real issue behind the ‘Eastbourne revolt’ was the sudden demolition of low-cost housing near the old bus terminal while the community was still engaged in talks with the Lower Hutt City Council. Many of the older and low-income people who had lived in the houses still do not have permanent accommodation. Contrary to common perceptions, many in the Eastbourne community are on fixed incomes and are not wealthy. The community needed a voice of its own and Peter saw his involvement as a part of the effort to see justice and fairness applied.

A recent law graduate, Nuala McKeever, spoke of her impressions after six months working at the High Court. Her observation was that the criminal justice and penal systems appeared to focus more on the management of offenders than on achieving justice in the community. The emphasis is on individual responsibility with little recognition of social structures. Sentencing, the area in which she works, does not include punishment as one of its purposes. Rehabilitation is an aim, but from this perspective the penal system has been described as a cumulative failure. Restorative justice is slowly spreading, with four programmes operating out of district courts but needs more work. She felt there is more need for rehabilitative justice programmes, particularly in view of the early life experience of most offenders.

Sr Catherine Hannan, then spoke of the work of the Compassion Centre, the most public face of which is the Soup Kitchen. She said that the Centre always sought to preserve the dignity of their clients, who came from all cultures and walks of life. Though the Centre’s core mission is the provision of meals, there is also a strong element of advocacy. In conjunction with the South East and Central Wellington PHO it has been possible to offer nursing advice, and advice is also available on benefits and problem gambling and there is a Māori legal service. Otago medical students made a regular annual visit to meet and communicate with the Centre’s clients. There is a huge volume of support from all sectors of the Wellington community – other churches, community groups and individuals. The centre is able to channel those who want to help and those who need it as well as provide an opportunity for commingling. One heartwarming recent occasion she shared with the group was a special birthday dinner which one of the volunteers had organised and paid for to celebrate his 25th birthday. All his friends had come and contributed to the cost in lieu of gifts and mingled with the Centre’s clients. It was a wonderful affirmation of the generosity of everyone connected with the Centre and gave great hope for the future.

In wrapping up the symposium, Des Lyons in the chair thanked all who had contributed to what had been a stimulating and energising afternoon.