By Cardinal Justin Rigali
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we reflect on the works of charity which continue to manifest His love.
Cardinal’s Christmas party
Last week, I had the pleasure of continuing a long-standing practice of the Archbishops of Philadelphia: the annual Christmas Party for Children who are served in various ways through our Catholic Social Services agencies. This is the 54th year that this celebration has taken place. Approximately 400 children, who received services from community or residential agencies of Catholic Social Services this year, joined me at this celebration. The party began with a colorful parade, then there was the giving of presents, entertainment and a presentation of the scene of the Nativity by some of our Catholic high school students.
The Cardinal’s Christmas Party for Children not only provides entertainment and presents for the children, it also raises funds to support programs of Catholic Social Services throughout the year. Catholic Social Services assists more than 137,000 children, adults and families throughout the five-county area of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, Chester and Montgomery Counties).
While there is much joy for me and, hopefully, for the children as well in this celebration, its reality and the reason for its existence are much deeper than momentary joy. In the second Letter of Saint John, we read: “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.” We know that this love was made manifest by the Word made Flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, born for us in Bethlehem and born again at Christmas. John’s epistle continues: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we must love one another” (1 John 4:9 -11).
This command to love our neighbor as a way of showing our love for the God we see as an Infant, has been expressed from the earliest days of Christianity by means of the care which the Christian community displays towards the poor and those in need. This is why the faithful third century deacon, Saint Lawrence, was able to say to the Roman authorities who demanded to see the Church’s wealth: “Here is the wealth of the Church,” pointing to the sick and the needy whom the Church was serving in their need.
I know that in our many parishes throughout the Archdiocese, so many of you continue this charity in our day by the many acts of kindness and generosity you show towards those in need. Sometimes these take the form of organized programs and at other times, the faithful fulfill this Christian duty in quiet ways, seen by God alone. The Archdiocese also carries out a tremendous program of charity, organized under our Secretariat for Catholic Human Services and the many agencies of charity that come under their umbrella. Some of these are: Catholic Health Care Services; Catholic Social Services; Nutritional Development Services, and the Office for Community Development.
Operation Santa Claus
I would like to draw particular attention to Operation Santa Claus, which was initiated by, and continues to be carried out by, the high school students of our Archdiocese. This year, for the 42nd year in a row, teens from across the Archdiocese gathered every day for two straight weeks to collect, sort, wrap and tag toys that were delivered to over 650 families in need. Twenty-five community groups also received toys from Operation Santa Claus for children served by their agencies.
The student volunteers are members of either the Community Service Corps in their Catholic high school or their parish youth ministry program. Operation Santa Claus started in 1967 when 12 Archdiocesan teenagers wanted to help 10 families in need in their area. They dressed up like Santa and his elves and delivered toys to the families. This Archdiocesan tradition grew from that selfless act to its current size. I am so pleased that this splendid manifestation of the charity of Christ has continued and, this year, over 20,000 toys will be distributed or delivered to 5,000 children throughout the greater Delaware Valley.
Pope Benedict’s first Encyclical
Pope Benedict XVI chose to write his first Encyclical Letter on the charity of Christ. In unfolding this theme, after writing about the charity of God expressed in the Incarnate Word whom we celebrate in a special way at Christmas, he continues by writing about the central role of charity in the Church.
He writes: “As the years went by and the Church spread further afield, the exercise of charity became established as one of her essential activities, along with the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word: love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.
A few references will suffice to demonstrate this: Justin Martyr (died c. 155) in speaking of the Christians’ celebration of Sunday, also mentions their charitable activity, linked with the Eucharist as such. Those who are able make offerings in accordance with their means, each as he or she wishes; the Bishop in turn makes use of these to support orphans, widows, the sick and those who for other reasons find themselves in need, such as prisoners and foreigners. The great Christian writer Tertullian (died c. 220) relates how the pagans were struck by the Christians’ concern for the needy” (Deus Caritas Est, 22).
I know that there are many expressions of generosity in this Christmas season. Sometimes, it is referred to as the “Christmas spirit.” However, as I wrote a few weeks ago, for us who have received the gift of faith, this is not just a vague impulse of generosity at a sentimental time of the year. In fact, in the Encyclical I just referenced, our Holy Father speaks of the danger of reducing Christian charity to a mere passing sentiment.
He writes: “Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvelous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man’s potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. Contact with the visible manifestations of God’s love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved. But this encounter also engages our will and our intellect. Acknowledgment of the living God is one path towards love, and the ‘yes’ of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all-embracing act of love. But this process is always open-ended; love is never ‘finished’ and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself. To want the same thing, and to reject the same thing was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought. The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide” (Deus Caritas Est, 18).
The works of charity which we perform during this Christmas season, whether they be the organized works of our own Catholic Social Services, those in your own parishes or those among our young people and so many other groups must never arise out of a mere sentiment. It is the love of Jesus which we show forth in our charity towards our neighbor. As Mother Teresa so often remarked about her own work, we do not do what we do because we are humanitarians but because we are Christians, who see Jesus in the “least” of our brothers and sisters.
May this Christian spirit, which has a name and a face, the name and face of Jesus, impel us to mirror Him in the virtue of the lives we lead and in the charity which we show forth to the neighbor through whom we can often see His face.
24 December 2009