Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Catholic Charities Spring Celebration

office of the chancellor

May 10, 2007

Remarks of

Thank you very much Fr. Hehir - Mr. Kaneb

In the warmth and color of this splendid setting, it is clear that the miracle of spring has once again broken through.

Most of the times that I have been privileged to speak at a ceremony such as this, it has been to address a university audience. Judging from all the familiar faces among you, it is now clear that friends of Catholic higher education, as I have long known, are also friends of Catholic Charities as well.

The moving video we saw earlier this evening provided a graphic picture of the extent and diversity of the types of assistance Catholic Charities extends throughout the Archdiocese. It conveyed, better than words can, how aptly the words “justice” and “compassion” in tonight’s award describe the work of Catholic Charities. As a onetime Ethics professor, I always regarded justice as at least a baseline of charity, because justice underlines the Christian realization that in the moral order, people in desperate need should never be alone – they exercise a genuine claim on the help of others in society. The foundation of that claim is the basic dignity all of us received from the creative hand of God and from the saving brotherhood of Christ.

But the spirit of Catholic Charities has never been simply to calculate rights and duties; it has always presented the face of the Church that is compassionate. And compassion really means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – feeling his or her need or pain as my own – so much so that I do something to alleviate it. I regard it then as a genuine honor to receive this Justice and Compassion Award, since it so perfectly expresses the ideals of Catholic Charities.

Perhaps the real creativity of our gathering this evening, however, is that Fr. Hehir has brought together representatives of two of the Church’s historic traditions, that of higher education and of Christian charity --- traditions that have so enriched the human family. 

 My adult life as a Jesuit and a priest has been almost totally devoted to the apostolate of higher education. Venerable as the 1,000 year-old tradition of university education is, it is barely out of childhood in comparison to the ancient tradition of charitable giving to the poor and the vulnerable at the inspiration of the Church. When the apostles gathered to select 7 men as the first deacons, it was in order to assure effective care of widows and of children. And when the great monasteries became the centers of Church life, they became, almost by definition, the centers of the Church’s institutional care of those in need.

But however great the contribution of universities to the advancement of culture (and the older I live, the more convinced I am of the critical importance of education in our lives), the role played by individual professors or administrative officers in meeting society’s pressing needs is almost always indirect. It is mediated over time through scholarship and technology and put into practice through the hands and lives of the students it educates.

Not so with Catholic Charities. The impact on society of Catholic Charities is immediate and direct. An abandoned infant, a newly-arrived immigrant, a confused elderly person and a family in crisis – all of these need immediate help; they need hands-on, professional assistance.

If the powerful roles of Catholic universities and organized Catholic charity differ in the way they contribute to the world around us, both trace their origin to the same root:  the realization in faith that the mission of the Church is not only to be the guide to salvation in the next world, but as the Second Vatican Council expressed so eloquently, to advance the well-being of the human family in our present life. (Lumen gentium)

Old as these two traditions are, it has been in our lifetimes – in the last fifty years that both Catholic universities and organized Catholic Charities have faced one of their greatest challenges and one of their proudest accomplishments. The challenge was not because it was harder for them to be Catholic, or because the numbers of vulnerable people expanded, or because there were fewer universities or fewer charitable agencies to help, but because the professional standards of quality in the world of higher education and the world of social service became so much more complex and exacting. Catholic colleges and universities are not the only players in the field of American higher education. And Catholic Charities is not the only channel through which our country addresses the needs of the poor and the vulnerable. A 1932 textbook in economics or chemistry is not going to educate a 2007 student to advance American culture – nor will 1950’s social science or community planning heal a brand-new century’s societal needs. If higher education and organized charity did not take professionalism as their partner and ally, it would have become their deadly enemy. Excellence became, and is, apostolic.

I believe it is largely an untold story that over the course of the past 50 years, Catholic colleges and universities and the social services provided through Catholic Charities met that challenge. They not only grew with their peers to meet standards of excellence; in many cases, they have become leaders among those peers.

The beneficiaries of those efforts, universities see in their graduates;  Catholic Charities sees in the vulnerable people it exists to serve.

Because these two traditions are living realities, the challenge of excellence will not go away. But the fact that it IS a challenge will remain an incentive, rather than a danger or a threat.

Meeting the critical challenge of quality in extending these two great traditions is one of the sources of pride not only for you, but for the American Church.

It is important because, too often perhaps, people identify the notion of Catholic with the beliefs that we hold through our gift of faith, and with our distinctive liturgy and sacraments that are celebrated wherever the Church exists. Too often as a result, they overlook or underplay the fundamental, all-pervasive role of Christian love or charity towards others that is the soul of the Church, without which the Church would not be itself.
“I give you a new commandment: love one another…This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In a very genuine sense, therefore, I look upon this evening as a celebration of the Church, the people of God, being itself in a public and visible way, putting into tangible form the urgency of charity that motivates so much of what you do through out the year.

In the final prayer St. Ignatius composed to conclude his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius says that love is proven to be real by actions, rather than by words. Though it is my name that will be marked recipient of the Award of Justice and Compassion, it is all of you whom I admire as proving yourselves compassionately just in your Christian charity.