If there is one area that unites Catholics of all stripes and flavors, it is the desire to help.
This has been bred into us by the Gospel and the teachings of the Church, by the witness of hundreds of religious orders, many of which were dedicated to ministering to the needs of fellow men and women. Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Cor Unum and a hundred other charitable organizations are expressions of this Catholic drive to serve and assist.
It is striking, in fact, that even those well-known Catholics who are often in public dissent from various Church teachings such as abortion couch their positions in terms of the values of their Catholic upbringing such as helping the less fortunate.
Of course, the logic sometimes fails. A well-known Catholic columnist once wrote that he skipped Sunday Mass with his children so they could work in a soup kitchen. He missed a teaching moment by not linking the Eucharist with the service to the poor.
It is a link that is often poorly understood, even by Catholics. Serving others, the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick and imprisoned, the most vulnerable, is a great value in the Church, but it is important to understand why. Nearly everyone except for the most militant misanthrope expresses a belief in helping others. Atheists, in fact, make this a tag line for their campaigns: You can still be good without believing in God. All people will help others, if only those of their own family, or tribe, town, or country, ethnicity or race.
But Catholics see such service as something much greater: We believe that we see the face of Christ in everyone. We believe that every human being, from conception to natural death, has the inherent dignity of a child of God. We don’t distinguish on the basis of mental or physical functionality, on usefulness to society, on class or race, on friend or foe.
We see this as sharing in the grace of redemption bestowed on us by Jesus Christ through his monumental act of self-sacrifice. As the Apostle Paul wrote, of course some people can sacrifice themselves for a good person should the need arise, but Jesus gave up his life for we who were sinners.
So the actions of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity are profound not because they pick up dying people and give them a few hours of comfort. The secular cynic questions how useful that would be, and has a point if one’s goal is to see no more dying people on the streets. Instead, the profundity of Mother Teresa’s example is that she doesn’t see a dying person: She sees Christ. And in giving comfort, however briefly, to a suffering person, she becomes the face of Christ herself.
Our challenge these days is to remember why we do good. It is not for the tax deduction. It is not to feel good about ourselves. It is to be the hands and feet and face of Christ to our suffering fellow souls. And when we look where Christ wants us to go, we should make sure to find the most ignored who are in our midst:
In our own communities, we have the poor, the homeless, the unwanted immigrant.
But there are others: Not just the special-needs children, but their parents and family members are often under great stress and isolation. We know that everywhere around us are those who have suffered divorce or spousal abandonment and their children. Sexual abuse victims need support and love, and not just those abused within the context of the Church.
Renewing a true and deep sense of what social justice is and what our Church and our God asks of us is a needed task of evangelization.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor