By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we remind ourselves of some of the works of charity that take place within the Archdiocese on Christmas Day, and throughout the year.
The love of our God has appeared
In St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, we read: “The kindness and generous love of God our Savior appeared” (Titus 3:4). In a similar vein, in the first Letter of John, we read: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). It is the appearance of this love that we relive and celebrate at Christmas. While we find great joy and peace in contemplating the image of the infant Jesus in the various manger scenes we look upon, the message of Jesus is never meant to end there.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council reminds us that “the promised restoration has begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit, and through Him continues in the Church. There we also learn through faith, the meaning of our temporal lives, as we perform with hope of good things to come, the task committed to us in this world by the Father, and work out our salvation” (Lumen Gentium, 48).
Pope Benedict XVI wanted his first Encyclical Letter to be on this theme of love and he entitled it Deus Caritas Est, “God is love.” After describing the various ways in which God has manifested His love, culminating, of course, in the coming of Jesus, the Holy Father points out the next step in acknowledging this love, which must be the showing forth of that love to our neighbor. We know that if we say that we love God but do not love our neighbor, the Scriptures tell us that we are “liars.” On the other hand, assisting one’s neighbor, as praiseworthy as this may be, is not a Christian act if it is not done in union with the love and example of Jesus. This is why Blessed Teresa of Calcutta always insisted that she was not a humanitarian, but a Christian, because it was Jesus she saw in all those she helped.
Charity can be a work of the inspanidual and a work of the community
In the Encyclical on charity that I just referenced, Pope Benedict spoke of the communal nature of charity. He wrote: “Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each inspanidual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community, to the particular Church, and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community” (Deus Caritas Est, 20).
In a large archdiocese such as ours, we are called to fulfill this responsibility in so many ways. One example would be the many apostolates and works of charity that are administered by the Housing and Homeless Services spanision of Catholic Human Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which are made possible by the generosity of the faithful. In this way, each inspanidual who assists in this work is fulfilling the personal call to charity by also participating in its communal fulfillment. All of us participate in this work not because we are humanitarians or bureaucrats, but because we are Christians seeking to show forth the love of Jesus that has been made manifest to us.
On Christmas Day, many of our faithful throughout the Archdiocese will be enjoying loving homes and families and, indeed, this is how we would like it to be. However, we all know that there are those who do not experience that kind of Christmas. This is a good time for us to remind ourselves of some of the works of charity that are carried out in our Archdiocese on a daily basis, but especially so on Christmas Day. We are so grateful to those who make all of this possible, because they help us to fulfill the mission given to us by Jesus, to show forth our love for Him by the love and service we manifest to others. Reflecting on these works of charity also enables those of us who have food and warm homes on Christmas to express humble gratitude for our blessings.
Some examples of communal charity
Many of you are familiar with St. John’s Hospice, located at 12th and Race Streets for so many years now. We will always be grateful to the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd who founded this facility and who staffed it for many years. On Christmas Day, this marvelous place of charity will do what it does every day, but to a larger extent because of the increased needs of the day. In a card that St. John’s recently sent out for Christmas, they have summarized their mission, and have given some information about what goes on there every day. They define themselves as: “A community grounded in faith and service where homeless persons find dignity, respect, nourishment and opportunities for new beginnings, where the Spirit of Jesus is born every day at their table of vulnerability and love.”
They also give some interesting statistics: among their day services are a noon meal for 300-350 men, showers, clothing, toiletries and casework services. St. John’s is also the mailing address for over 3,000 men. In addition, St. John’s is a residence offering a drug-free program for 40 men, and inspanidual and group meetings with case managers and other members of the community. Overnight shelter is also provided for 25 men with beverages, snacks, restroom and staff support. The goal is to build trust and encourage and help the men to seek residential support in trying to break their cycle of homelessness.
In many ways, a number of the services provided for men at St. John’s Hospice are also offered for women at Mercy Hospice, another well-known resource in our community. Mercy Hospice, located at 334 South 13th Street in Philadelphia, provides recovery housing and comprehensive services to28 homeless women at a time, and their children. They also provide counseling, encouragement and transitional aid to those who want to move from an emergency situation in life to a more stable existence. Here too, meals are provided and a supportive atmosphere is created for those who are most vulnerable. We think also of Women of Hope, located at Lombard and Vine streets, which also provides shelter and food to the most vulnerable.
I would just like to point out one facility outside the city of Philadelphia where this charity of Jesus will be shown forth on Christmas Day, as it is every other day of the year: Gift of Mary, founded and conducted by the Missionaries of Charity in the city of Chester. This is a hospice for women and children with HIV/AIDS. It also sponsors family visits, hospital visits, a summer camp, Bible classes, C.C.D. classes, food and clothing distribution and an after-school program.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the facilities, sponsored by our Archdiocesan Catholic Human Services, but it does give us an idea of some of the places where the charity of Jesus will be shared on Christmas Day, as it is on so many other days of the year.
Example of Mary
In the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, we read of the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. Many beautiful lessons can be taken from this event and the words surrounding it but, above all, it is a wonderful example of charity and humility. In the very midst of the unfolding of the mysteries of the Incarnation and Birth of Jesus, Mary turns in charity to the needs of her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting a child. That journey would have required sacrifice, especially for a pregnant woman, and it would have taken about four days of travel through a hilly area to reach Elizabeth’s home. The sacrifice and example of Mary, who is always our model in responding to her Son, reminds us that the faith we profess with our lips, and embrace in our hearts must also be made manifest in acts of love. In the Letter of James, we read: “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
At Christmas, we manifest our faith in the Savior born for us. Through our own works of charity, and those performed through our generosity by others, that faith is manifested to others. I am so grateful for all the wonderful manifestations of that faith made throughout the Archdiocese by service to the poor, the homeless and the hungry: it is a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas!
23 December 2010