How to live out the command to serve
Father Carmen Mele Comments Off on Priestly Charity
By the 1970s, when I began studies for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., Father Horace McKenna, SJ, had reached a saintly status in the area. He ministered to the poor, especially the homeless, from St. Aloysius Church on North Capitol Street where he served as vicar. Friends who worked with him said that every day men and women would line up outside the church and wait for Father McKenna to dispense whatever he had to give them (often dollar bills).
Father McKenna did what he could to see that his people — the poor — were treated with dignity. He spent nights in the city’s homeless shelter to be assured that it was clean and relatively comfortable. He founded organizations like SOME (So Others Might Eat), harnessing the resources of the city’s “haves” to serve its “have-nots.”
Known as an engaging preacher, Father McKenna was no slouch in theology either. At a lecture at The Catholic University of America by the famous moralist Father Richard McCormick, SJ, Father McKenna challenged the speaker on artificial contraception. Always respectful, Father McCormick recognized his venerable Jesuit confrere as he addressed his question. With other attendees, I went home thinking that Father McKenna, if he had been directed to academic life rather than pastoral ministry many years before, might have been the one lecturing that evening.
Horace McKenna is one of, no doubt, thousands of priests around the country and throughout the world who have specialized in ministry to the poor. Father Tony Rigoli, OMI, in New Orleans, in addition to administering the International Shrine of St. Jude, oversees the St. Jude Community Center. The center shelters homeless women and provides 5,000 people a month with hot meals, among other services.
Father Joe Carroll of the Diocese of San Diego has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to assist the bulging homeless population of that city. But he does more than rechannel money to the poor. His studies of poverty and homelessness have derived creative solutions to one of society’s knottiest problems.
Msgr. Michael Boland started organizing St. Vincent de Paul conferences at the parishes he served as a young priest in Chicago. In time, he became the spiritual adviser to the archdiocesan St. Vincent de Paul conference and then president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for over 25 years. Today, he serves as a consultant to Catholic Charities USA. Msgr. Boland claims that each day working at Catholic Charities is a privilege.
Probably every diocese has had a Father Rigoli, Father Carroll or Msgr. Boland. Are these priests models to be emulated or oddities to be duly admired and summarily dismissed? How are they fulfilling the priestly vocation? What are the theological foundations of their ministry?
Everyone knows that helping the poor epitomizes Christian service. As much as any verse in the Gospels, people recognize, “For I was hungry and you gave me food” (Mt 25:35) and “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). Of course, there are numerous other references to direct service in Scripture.
Some of these references take on a hierarchical air. When Jesus commissions Peter, “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15), he is speaking metaphorically. But it need not be thought so. Popes and bishops have an obligation as well to see that the temporal needs of the people are not neglected.
Msgr. Ray Kemp is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington with whom I spent part of my deacon year. He once told the story of how his mother reminded him to perform corporal works of mercy. When he informed her that he was selected to work at the chancery, he noticed a worried look on her face. He asked her why, and she responded with her own question. It went something like: “How are you going to get to heaven if you do not visit the sick and bury the dead?’’
Priests cannot do everything, and we must anoint the sick and bury the dead. But assuring that the homeless have food and shelter are works Jesus recommends for all his disciples and should never be considered antithetical to the priestly vocation.
The Acts of the Apostles tells of how seven Greek-speaking disciples were designated for charitable work, which has been associated with diaconal ministry. They were to ensure that the community’s Greek-speaking widows were not neglected in the daily distribution of bread at the table. The interpretation of this passage has created controversy. For several reasons, the chosen disciples might be seen as presbyters (or even bishops) rather than deacons.
First, the seven, on whom the apostles laid their hands, are never called “deacons.” Then, their work may have less to do with distributing bread than with keeping accounts of who received what. Is not this kind of oversight a primary duty of most pastors today?
Serving Poor to Be First
“Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself. Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. So when we visit the poor and needy, we try to be understanding where they are concerned. We sympathize with them so fully that we can echo Paul’s words: I have become all things to all men. Therefore, we must try to be stirred by our neighbors’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.
“It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God. Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. Since she is a noble mistress, we must do whatever she commands. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.” — Memorial of St. Vincent de Paul, Office of Readings, Second Reading
Finally, the two Greek-speaking disciples whom the text treats further are noted for a different kind of service. Rather than wait tables or oversee food distribution, they preach the word. Stephen is lionized for his debating Jewish critics about the need of the Temple. Philip is feted as Acts’ first great evangelizer outside Jerusalem.
Priests cannot claim that direct relief to the poor is beyond their purview. The first “deacons” did it. Today, all priests have been ordained deacons before being anointed priests. In this subsidiary way, then, it can be said that it is also becoming of a priest to assist the poor.
Certainly, St. Ambrose thought it a duty of his priests to look after the temporal needs of the poor. The bishop of Milan wrote “On the Duties of the Clergy” to instruct the men he ordained on how they should live (see sidebar). His intention was not only that they might edify the people they served, but also that they attain God’s heavenly kingdom. In the 11th chapter of the treatise, Ambrose treats mercy. He recommends that clergy view the poor “as sharers in common with you in the produce of nature.” Ambrose proceeds to tell priests that in showing such mercy, they receive more than they give. He writes, “If you support the needy, (God) procures for you the friendship of the saints and eternal habitations.”
In the Footsteps of Our Fathers
Father Carroll in San Diego and Msgr. Boland in Chicago find their model for ministry in St. Vincent de Paul. The 17th-century priest famously converted “from a seeker of benefices to a seeker of God.” The conversion entailed tending to both the spiritual and corporal needs of the poor. Besides helping the urban poor in Paris as well as peasants in the country, St. Vincent succored the needs of galley slaves. The male religious Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), which he established, was dedicated to the welfare of the poor. (See sidebar with St. Vincent’s advice on how to consider the needy.)
The Congregation of the Mission is hardly the only religious group founded to assist the poor. Father Rigoli in New Orleans attributes his solicitation of their needs to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate founding inspiration. He says that the congregation’s founder, St. Eugene de Mazenod, intentionally geared it to the poor. Father Rigoli remembers that as a scholastic he mused, “I wish someday I could open a shelter for the homeless.” Working with the homeless is often a struggle, he says today. But that fact has not stopped him from doing it.
The Church has designated “pastoral charity” as the general rubric for priests’ dedication to service. The term is found in most recent documents concerning clergy. Pope St. John Paul II defined it as “the total gift of self to the Church, following the example of Christ.” In commenting on the Good Shepherd passage in John’s Gospel, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “For no one can be a good shepherd unless he has become one with Christ and his members through charity.”
Of course, “charity” here is more capacious than generosity to the poor. Priests practice pastoral charity when they patiently listen to penitents in the confessional as well as when they make a sandwich for the beggar at the rectory door.
Wisdom of St. Eugene De Mazenod
“We are all children of God … servants, farmworkers, peasants, the poor, diseased, suffering … you are all co-heirs to the kingdom. In you is an immortal soul that was made in God’s image … you are more precious in God’s eyes than all the riches on earth. Know that dignity!”
— Blog post from unendingmercy.com, Father Mike Keucher, VF, May 21, 2009.
Nevertheless, Presyterorum Ordinis, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, recommends the kind of sharing associated with the Jerusalem community in the Acts of the Apostles. The conciliar fathers ordained, “A certain common use of goods, similar to the common possession of goods in the history of the primitive Church, furnishes an excellent means of pastoral charity.”
In Pastores Dabo Vobis, St. John Paul expands on this idea. He alludes to St. Paul’s description of Christ as he promotes both simplicities of life and generosity to the needy: “Priests, following the example of Christ, who, rich though he was, became poor for love of us (cf. 2 Cor 8:9) — should consider the poor and the weakest as people entrusted in a special way to them, and they should be capable of witnessing to poverty with a simple and austere lifestyle, having learned the generous renunciation of superfluous things” (No. 30).
The Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, published during John Paul’s papacy, again recognizes the importance of assisting the poor materially. It emphasizes at the same time, however, an even greater need of facilitating the forgiveness of their sins. It reads: “Friend of those most in need, he will reserve his most refined pastoral charity for these, with a preferential option for all poverty, old and new, tragically present in our world, always remembering that the first misery from which man must be liberated is that of sin, the root of all evil” (No. 67).
Pope Francis’ Take
Of course, Pope Francis has much to say about pastoral charity. In Evangelii Gaudium, he treats helping the poor as going hand in hand with preaching the Gospel. Echoing the controversial synodal document “Justice in the World,” Francis states forthrightly, “The service of charity is also a constituent element of the Church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being” (No. 179).
Further, Francis interprets Jesus’ directive to his disciples, “‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’” as a call to social solidarity. He writes, “It means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter” (No. 188).
Francis continually emphasizes two themes in his exhortations for pastoral charity. He says that priests must, like the good Samaritan (and contrary to the priest in the parable), show mercy. He notes how “small gestures” constitute this principal attribute of both God and humans. The good Samaritan, he said on Holy Thursday 2016, “drew near to the wounded man … bandaged his wounds, took him to the inn, stayed there that evening and promised to return and cover any future cost.” Priests who go through the trouble of listening to the needs of the people who come to them, note what they need, provide something to help them even if it is of only token value, and sincerely promise to pray for them likewise make “small gestures” of mercy.
Second, Pope Francis emphasizes closeness to the people in his vision of pastoral charity. He vividly expressed this virtue in telling priests that they have to smell like their sheep. Closeness, Francis believes, is achieved through encounter. In a video made for the Argentinian people as the feast of their beloved St. Cajetan was approaching in the year he became pope, he expressed the necessity of encountering the poor person. He told the people of his country that unless a benefactor looks a poor person in the eye and touches his/her hand when giving alms, the gift is not worthy of Jesus. For Msgr. Boland, Francis’ continual call for encounter has resulted in all priests being reminded “to go to the edges to help the poor.”
No Competition When Working in the Image of Christ
During my studies in Washington, I was part of a small group from our community that volunteered at a night shelter. We gave the men a meal and oversaw their finding a bedroll to sleep on. It was not hard work, but doing it meant the loss of sleep.
One night, Father J. Bryan Hehir, then working at the bishops’ conference, served as a volunteer. He did all that we did, including preparing breakfast and cleaning up in the morning. But there was a difference. We went home to sleep for a few hours while Father Hehir said he would return to his parish of residence, write his Sunday homily and then hear confessions!
Although Father Hehir’s charity that day eclipsed ours, there can be no real competition among priests as if one can say that he does more than others in serving the poor. If any of us gives of himself for the poor, he needs only to turn his head to find another who does more.
For Father Rigoli, it is Father Greg Boyle, SJ, who has been rehabilitating gang members in Los Angeles for 35 years. Father Boyle, no doubt, has his own exemplar of charity. One thing for sure, all priests ultimately find their model in Jesus. As he said of the poor widow in the Temple, from his poverty he gave his whole livelihood for poor sinners (cf. Lk 21:4).
Although many priests have given their lives in military service, a few have freely risked their health in giving to others. As a parish priest in Dallas, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, donated one of his kidneys to a parishioner. Medical ethicist Father Alfred Cioffi did the same when he was a pastor in Miami. An article in the Knights of Columbus’ Columbia magazine about his and others’ organ donations was aptly entitled “The Embodiment of Charity” (March 2014). Father Val Handwerker of Memphis, Tennessee, similarly donated a kidney, but in his case it was to someone he barely knew!
Priest-kidney donors like priest-homeless workers and priest-administrators of charities look to Jesus. They see him as their peerless model and eternal sustainer. Eating his body and drinking his blood daily, how can we not nourish those without food in our midst? Called to be an image of Christ, the head of the body, how can we ignore the necessities of people within that body? Yes, there are limits of time and other resources that may prevent us from opening a shelter or donating an organ. So we are grateful for priests like Father Joe Carroll and Father Val Handwerker, whose heroic sacrifices remind us that we can always do something for those in need.
FATHER CARMEN MELE, OP, is the rector of St. Martin de Porres National Shrine and Institute in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Further, (the poor person) bestows more on you than thou on him, since he is your debtor in regard to your salvation. If you clothe the naked, you clothe yourself with righteousness; if you bring the stranger under your roof, if you support the needy, he procures for you the friendship of the saints and eternal habitations. That is no small recompense. You sow earthly things and receive heavenly. Do you wonder at the judgment of God in the case of holy Job? Wonder rather at his virtue, in that he could say: ‘I was an eye to the blind, and a foot to the lame. I was a father to the poor. Their shoulders were made warm with the skins of my lambs. The stranger dwelt not at my gates, but my door was open to everyone that came’ [Jb 29:15-16]. Clearly blessed is he from whose house a poor man has never gone with empty hand. Nor again is any one more blessed than he who is sensible of the needs of the poor, and the hardships of the weak and helpless. In the day of judgment he will receive salvation from the Lord, whom he will have as his debtor for the mercy he has shown.” — St. Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, Book 1, chapter 11