The most beautiful title of the Church, which it rightly claims, is the ministry of charity that it practices. While most human beings are preoccupied with concerns for personal well-being, for procuring food and the pleasure of tomorrow, only the Church cares selflessly for the needs of others … only she deals in a disinterested manner with those individuals who are unable to satisfy their most basic needs.
In ancient times, among the many beneficent activities, one form was emphasized, namely, hospitality. Even then hospitality was nothing more than an exchange of rights and duties, a business transaction. The Church, however, would put into practice a new form of hospitality that sought no compensation. The Church was happy to offer hospitality to the many people suffering and afflicted. She built for them magnificent residences, to which she gave a name that reflected her noble sentiment: Hôtel-Dieu [in French, “residence of God,” hospitals that welcomed orphans, indigents and pilgrims, founded by the Church (translator’s note)].
During times of upheaval, the Church welcomed the sciences and knowledge and gave them a place of rest not only in her monasteries, but also established schools and universities so that knowledge could reappear gloriously in the midst of those who disparaged such learning.
The Church was even more generous with regard to the arts. In her churches she gave them a position they never had in the palaces of kings. She would attract enthusiastic and faith-filled artisans who, in turn, would give to the believing multitude and to the poor people overwhelmed by fatigue and labor, joys whose greatness and purity nothing could equal.
Frederic Ozanam, The goods of the Church, Œuvres complètes, volume VIII, chapter one.
- There was an ongoing discussion that took place in former eras, was continued during the time of Frederic and is still taking place during the twenty-first century. That discussion has revolved around the issue of the Church’s material possessions. Frederic discussed this matter in a small book and at the very beginning he stated that the material goods of the Church are not for her consumption but are to be placed at the service of those in need and at the service of all humankind.
- For the Church, there is nothing more important than charity. Charity, love, is the supreme commandment and must be concretized in action. If not, then in the words of the apostle, James, and our patron, Vincent de Paul, our words and our faith are lifeless. Charity … love … impels us to move out of our comfort zone and into an encounter with others, an encounter with those who are poor. There we are to heal the wounds of those who are scared, and we are to satisfy the needs of those who are abandoned.
- The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of servants who follow the example of the King who became the servant of all. It is in this manner that the Kingdom of God is built up (cf. John 13:1-15). That is quite different from what we usually see in the world. Christian charity is diametrically opposed to personal selfishness (a situation in which people only care about themselves). Charity builds up the community and reveals to people that they are bound together. Men and women are not islands but depend on one another in order to make real God’s plan. When Catholics state that salvation has a community component, they are affirming the reality that they are not saved as individuals, that love is relational, that the first commandment is to love God and the neighbor, and that people can fulfill that command only through service (cf. John 13:33-34; 1 John 3:11, 23; 1 John 4:7, 12; Romans 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; I Peter 1:22).
- In many of his writings, Frederic highlighted the Church’s contributions to civilization. In fact, one of his obsessions was to show that, thanks to the church, modern civilization had been built up and that the sciences and arts had been preserved even through some of history’s darkest times. It was the presence of the Church that encouraged the flourishing of knowledge and that established institutions (schools and universities) where that knowledge could be taught and made known to others: to love is to teach.
- The Church has preserved many important artistic works which have become part of the patrimony of humankind. Many accuse the church and say that those artistic holdings reflect the Church’s wealth. Frederic, however, views that patrimony as something that was at the service of the people … and as such it received its authentic meaning.
- Together with the Fathers of the Church and so many other witnesses to the faith, we can say that the true wealth of the church is found in those persons who are poor, and that charity is the church’s greatest adornment … everything else is incidental. As Saint Paul says: there are in the end three things that last: faith hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Questions for dialogue:
- Reread together the passage from 1 Corinthians cited above and share your reflections.
- Am I convinced that the first and most important reality is charity, and without charity nothing else makes sense?
- Am I convinced that the poor are God’s privileged ones, that they are the heart of the Church?
- How do we live our faith in community? What could we improve with regard to all of this? Are we building the community together with those who are in need?