Caritas: Our Vocation to Charitable Love of Others

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

It has been said that no man is an island.  While each of us can claim a unique identity and a personal relationship with God, we are nonetheless called to live out our lives in relationship with others. All human community is rooted in God’s plan that brings us into ever-widening circles of relationship – first with our parents, then our family, the Church, and finally a variety of community experiences.  We cannot find fulfillment unless we have some community with others, a community in which we serve and are served, love and are loved.

When we speak of the Church as both a family and a community, we are speaking about our belief that at the heart of who we are as the Church is Christ’s call to love one another.  We owe each other a realistic and active love.  Our words, actions, and prayers must reflect God’s command that we love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34).

Throughout his Petrine ministry, Pope Francis has encouraged us to lead with love.  In an address early in his pontificate, he said, “A Church without charity does not exist.”  Our Holy Father explained that caritas [charity] is “an essential part of the Church” and that it “institutionalizes love in the Church.” This caritas has two dimensions: one of action and a divine dimension “situated in the heart of the Church” (Meeting with leaders of Caritas Internationalis, May 16, 2013).

On October 3, it will be my pleasure to celebrate the grand opening of Catholic Charities’ new Susan Denison Mona Center, an integrated multi-services facility that will provide critical resources to the residents of Prince George’s County.  Catholic Charities is also expanding its dental clinic, immigration and pro-bono legal efforts in Temple Hills, and is building as well a new Angels Watch shelter for women suffering from domestic abuse.  All this is an expression of the charitable love of Jesus as lived through his Church.

Today, we celebrate the life and work of Saint Vincent de Paul who exemplifies this institutionalized love of the Church.  Father de Paul lived in the early 17th century.  As a priest and spiritual director to a group of wealthy Parisian women, he saw an opportunity to help them live their faith more fully through a deeper spiritual life and by working in practical ways to serve the most needy in the local community.  This expression of caritas for the poor became an inspiration first in the formation of a community of priests called Vincentian Fathers and a community of sisters, the Daughters of Charity.

From this beginning, with the support of the Church, the charism spread.  In the Archdiocese of Washington, we are blessed by the Vincentian charism in the ministries of Saint Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families, Providence Hospital and Elizabeth Seton High School.  Many of our parishes have Saint Vincent de Paul groups which practice the ministry of charity, caritas, in our neighborhoods.

Each of these apostolates is grounded in a belief that authentic community begins by recognizing that every person has a transcendent dignity and contributes something to the life of the community.  In and through their work, they contribute to building a civilization of love.  As Pope Francis points out, caritas is not just for emergency situations for the ill or poor; there is also a need to care for the development of the people we serve.  It is a love that comes to a person’s aid but also a love that this pastor describes as “the caress of the Church to its people, the caress of the Mother Church to her children, her tenderness and closeness.”  (Remarks of May 16, 2013).

We are all called to be that caress to our brothers and sisters in the Lord.