CHARITY Reflection by Fr.

Herald Joseph Brock, CFR at the AVSI event, “Charity Is Freedom,” 4 October 2013, Holy Family Church, New York This evening I would like to attempt more of a provisional description (as opposed to a theological definition) of the experience of charity. Charity is that unique discovery of and affirmation of “the other” that dawned in human history in the person of Christ and that confirms, enhances and elevates the deepest impulses of the human heart toward another human being. Like truth (according to Pope Benedict, cf. Homily at the Concluding Mass with the Ratzinger Schülerkreis, 2 September 2012, Castel Gandolfo), charity is not something that we produce or possess. That’s the first thing: it involves a discovery. It’s something that happens to us, that overtakes us, that wells up inside of us, that we participate in. It’s both before us (prior to us) and bigger than us. Pope Francis says it’s a “primordial” love that precedes us, expands and enlarges us and transforms us from within (Lumen Fidei, n. 20). It’s a kind of ecstasy that leads to an exodus, a coming out of myself toward another. Charity recognizes and responds to the other as something good in themselves (It is good that you exist, that you’re alive, that you’re here. Your life is a gift!) and something good for me (It’s good for me that you exist, that you’re alive, that you’re here. Your life is a gift for me!). And because of that charity is always mutual, always interpersonal, and never one-sided, never unidirectional. It always involves an exchange, a sharing of the good that each person is and each person has. Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Lumen Fidei/The Light of Faith speaks about how faith leads to charity, and how charity gives us a whole new way of seeing and knowing. He says, “love is itself a kind of knowledge possessed of its own logic. It is a relational way of viewing the world, which then becomes a form of shared knowledge, vision through the eyes of another and a shared vision of all that exists,” (n. 27). A relational way of viewing the world, shared knowledge, seeing through the eyes of another. Even if both of us are looking at the same thing, what you see and the way you see it always enriches me, expands my vision and sharpens my perception. I think that’s why Pope Francis in his recent Jesuit interview (Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America, 30 September 2013,, insisted that “thinking with the Church” means thinking with the whole church; it involves this shared knowledge with all its members, because everyone has something to contribute. That’s why charity is crucial for the work of aid and development. First of all because only charity takes full account of the human person in all their dimensions. Everything else is fractional and fragmentary. As Pope Benedict reminded us in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi (cf. n 26), politics, economics and science are part of life and can help the human person, but they can’t save him. Only love can save him! Because only charity recognizes him or her for who they are and the value they have and why it’s worth helping them in the first place! Second, because only charity can overcome the gap between “giver” and “receiver,” between “helper” and “helped.” Charity becomes a bridge that puts everyone on equal footing with equal dignity, that

creates solidarity, communion and friendship, that transforms “aid and development” into a kind of companionship. That is very much the method of AVSI, especially in its efforts in the area of education. I have seen AVSI’s work first hand in extreme situations such as the Somali refugee camps in Dadaab, western Kenya, where AVSI is rehabilitating all of the existing school structures and building new ones (including libraries), and is training refugees to become teachers, which is to say protagonists. This collaborative approach based on friendship has helped everyone – and especially youth – to look ahead with hope and move forward with a sense of positivity. The same is true in South Sudan, where AVSI’s presence grew out of their presence in the Sudanese refugee camps in northern Uganda. In the mountain village of Isohe (which I visited many times), and in the town of Torit (where I lived), and in the capital city of Juba, AVSI helps support both Church and state provided healthcare, connects foreign sponsors with local students, and assists in water, sanitation and food security projects. In Nairobi, the recent target of a horrific terrorist attack [aside: the site of that attack was the location of the local bank I used for my missionary work in Africa; I visited there almost every time I was in Nairobi], AVSI has helped create spaces of hope and freedom in the schools they support: Little Prince on the outskirts of the Kibera slums, and the Cardinal Otunga School and St. Kizito Vocational Training Institute on the northeast side of the city. The same is true in so many other places: Haiti, Nigeria, Uganda… In his critique of the international financial system (cf., for example, Pentecost Vigil with the Movements, New Communities, Associations and Lay Groups, 18 May 2013, n. 3), Pope Francis has reminded us that the real wealth of the world and of nations does not consist in capital, or reserves or profit margins, but in its people. Investing in human potential, and allowing charity to break through into the lives of individuals in such extreme situations corresponds exactly to the Pope’s call to go to the outskirts, the fringe, the frontier, and to translate the Gospel into concrete gestures capable of communicating the reality of Christ in a comprehensible way. This is nothing other than imitating the “method” of Jesus who washed the feet of His friends at the Last Supper. Finally, charity is crucial in the work of development because it is creative and energizing. In his famous “ode” to charity in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul says that “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v 7). It is unwilling to settle for cold calculations and pessimistic analyses that sell the human person short and assert that the only solutions possible involve violence, coercion and severe austerity. Charity unleashes an amazingly positive and creative energy in us that can surmount seemingly impossible obstacles. I believe that it was ultimately the charity of Pope Francis that refused to accept military intervention as the only option for Syria, and moved him to ask all of us to pray - to beg! - that another way be found. What a dramatic, surprising and unexpected answer came almost immediately in the form of the proposal for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons. This is the “new creativity of charity” that Pope John Paul II called for in Novo Millennio Inuente (n 51), a document in which he also urged us to “stake everything on charity” (n 50). Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, and therefore the name day of Pope Francis. As a young man, St. Francis had a paralyzing repugnance toward, almost a phobia of lepers. He would help them and give them alms, but always from a distance and through an intermediary. This was a problem, a huge obstacle in his conversion, his response to Christ: a “cramped heart.” One day when he was all alone in a remote place he came face to face with a leper, who asked him for help. And somehow, charity broke through. Just like Pope Francis recently told us to do (cf. Pentecost Vigil, cited above), St.

Francis looked the leper in the eye, took him by the hand and even kissed him. It was Christ! These are his exact words: “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way; for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body,” (Testament of St. Francis, nn. 1-3 in Francis of Assisi Early Documents, Vol I: The Saint, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J.A. Wayne Hellman, William J. Short [New York: New City Press, 1999] p. 124). That day he made a quantum leap forward and his life took on a whole new direction, and caring for lepers became an essential characteristic for the Franciscan followers of Jesus. I’ve seen something similar happen with the medical teams that come to volunteer at our free surgical clinic in central Honduras. As they work, serving the very poor and humble people that come with serious health conditions to be treated, something happens to them, something happens in them, something awakens, something is unlocked. There’s a joy, a peace, a sense of gratitude, and yes - a freedom. The same thing happened to me – again – this past Sunday when I went for Mass and confessions to one of my favorite places in the whole world: a boys’ orphanage on the outskirts of Comayagua, Honduras. I’ve been there many times, and always have the same experience. As I gaze at those young men and interact with them and try to encourage them, something happens to me, something stirs inside of me. I become different, not a different person, but somehow more me, a new me, a better me, a new man – the new humanity of the Gospel. There is no greater experience of freedom than finally arriving at yourself, discovering and becoming who you really are. Charity is freedom. Monsignor Giussani says charity is our nature: something so original, so foundational and primordial in us that it is the “law of our existence.” He says that charity enables us to become who we are, that we become ourselves to the extent that we practice charity. To live in charity, “enables us to fulfill the supreme and, indeed, the only task in life: to become ourselves, to complete ourselves. We do charitable work so that we may learn to fulfill the task of becoming ourselves” (article: The Meaning of Charitable Work). Charity: discovering, recognizing and responding to another as a good in themselves and a good for me. Charity: the way in which I can finally, fully become who I am. How beautiful and amazing it is that for me to be really me, for me to be really free, I need you.