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Monday, May 05, 2008

Charity

Jacques BLANCHARD 1600 - 1638
La Charité 1633
Oil on canvas: H. : 1,1 m. ; L. : 1,36 m.
Collection de Louis XIV
Musée du Louvre, Paris



On 4th April 2008, Cardinal Paul Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum spoke to the spring meeting in Leeds of the Bishops' Council of England and Wales. The theme of the talk was Pope Benedict's first Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).

The official text of the address has now been published by Zenit.

The full text can be accessed here.


One of the main themes of the talk is that the main burden of responsibility for its implementation in dioceses and parishes is placed squarely on the shoulders of the bishops.

He also talks about the origins of the Encyclical: how it came to be drafted and why the Encyclical marks a "shift in paradigm" in regard to the basic guidelines for a "spirituality" of those working in help-agencies.



"This rooting of the Church's engagement in God was undoubtedly one of the deepest motivations that led Benedict XVI to write as his first official doctrinal work the Encyclical Deus caritas est. I do not need to repeat the surprising commentaries all over the world that accompanied the text - the fact that the "Panzer Cardinal" would choose "love" as the subject of his first major teaching. Perhaps the history of the text's writing is less familiar to you.

It shows clearly what was of most importance to the Pope.

Since Cor Unum is directly concerned with the praxis of the Church's love for our fellow human beings, Pope John Paul II had asked that I prepare for him a preliminary draft of a papal writing on charity. My intention was to begin with an inductive presentation: reflections on the general willingness of people to provide help today, followed by a description of Christian initiatives that exist, moving in the end to the rooting of love of neighbour in God.

The former Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of my writings.

When he was elected Pope, he decided to publish an Encyclical on charity, but he totally reversed my intended order. His starting point is Revelation's central message: "God is love." He initiates the Encyclical with a drumbeat, proclaiming the absolute precedence of Him "Who has first loved us" (1 Jn 4:10), both in the order of time and in the scale of values.

In my conversations on Deus caritas est with other Episcopal Conferences, the Pastors and those responsible for Caritas have been predominantly or exclusively interested in the second part of the Encyclical, "The Practice of Love by the Church as a ‘Community of Love'." This section is important for offering structural and practical guidelines for the Church's charitable engagement, which are based on global experience and call for an observance of the papal teaching.

When one delves into the details of this section, however, one discovers an important change of perspective. Namely, the Encyclical seems to present in this section a new message. Until now, the Church's teaching on the struggle against misery - like the social encyclicals - dealt with public defects, goals and programs; they addressed factual problems and they insisted on concrete changes outside of oneself.

Besides all this, Deus caritas est turns now decisively to committed persons: the Pope wishes to shape the life of the actors through a "formation of the heart" (n. 31a). So, for the first time, he formulates basic guidelines for a "spirituality" of those working in help-agencies.

Clearly the first preoccupation of Caritas cannot intend to change society and unjust structures. It is the human heart that makes the structures. Therefore, the essential requirement for action - as the Pope says - is to "be persons moved by Christ's love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening them with a love of neighbour" (n. 33). This is the new "standard" that Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5-7).

It is the justice of love that surpasses the political and social dimensions without negating them. We cannot then reduce or collapse charity into "social justice"; to do so would be to rob charity of its specificity and splendour. God certainly requires the actualisation of justice in societal relationships, as the Old Testament prophets repeatedly remind us: "Make justice your aim," Isaiah affirms, "redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow" (Is 1:16ff).

But ultimately this comes through conversion in the heart of the human person, whose self-giving example and source is the charity of Christ. As St. Paul affirms: Caritas Christi urget nos (2 Cor 5:14)!

Service to our neighbours, therefore, has not only its universally recognized technical and practical side; it also makes demands of the heart, not primarily in the emotional sense, but in the very rational decision to desire the best for the other person, even at the price of self-abnegation. Whoever dedicates himself to diakonia thus takes on the opposite of reputation, power, and rank that leaders and political entities claim for themselves.

Benedict encourages us: "My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is not my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift" (n. 34). In the gift, the giver provides his material contribution; in loving service, his self-dedication. Diakonia is the antithesis of the egocentric society; Jesus with his self-oblation for the "ransom of many" is its model and prototype.

The source for this "spirituality of diakonia" is prayer. It is telling that, in this relatively short Encyclical, two quite detailed paragraphs are dedicated to prayer as the motor for charitable action. In a culture as frenetic as Britain or Germany, the Pope points to the need for prayer, not action alone: "People who pray are not wasting their time even though the situation seems desperate and calls for action alone." And he offers concrete advice for those countries and people with an excessively "economic" mindset: "It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work" (n. 37)."




Jacues Blanchard depicted several versions of Charity: all as a young woman with two or three children.

Contemporaneously, St Vincent de Paul and the Ladies of Charity were carrying out their heroic work for foundlings and deserted children.


This version is the final and finished version of several still extant studies and paintings.

Painting in 1630s Paris was dominated by Simon Vouet. The art scene, however, was extremely cosmopolitan, with contact between painters from the North, Italy and all over France resulting in an enormous range of stylistic input.

Blanchard reflects this variety of influences with the luminously personal approach