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SAINT MOTHER TERESA – Works of Mercy or Social Charity? (2)

August 4, 2017
Fausto Gomez OP

We live in a world where poverty, injustice, violence and lack of sensibility towards the poor abound. Facing this world, our world, the Christian cannot turn his back to it, nor can he or she stand indifferent as mere spectator. Christians are obliged by their humanity and faith to transform societies through the practice of their faith, a faith that finds its expression in love (St Paul).

We all know to satiety that charity is the Christian virtue, the Christian value — the only word with eternal value! And that charity is, inseparably, love of God and love of neighbor. And that love of neighbor is concretized primarily in love of the poor, or merciful compassion. Hence, all Christians must love the poor. How?

Some modern theologians make a distinction regarding charity. They speak of charity as compassion and of charity as social charity. Merciful compassion, a quality of charity, refers mainly to the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (love the poor, comfort the sick, give alms, teach the ignorant, forgive sinners, fraternal correction, etc.). Social charity, on the other hand, addresses social action by fighting together injustice, oppression and exploitation, and promoting human dignity and rights, justice, truth, freedom and equality. Thus, while charity as compassion is directed mainly to individual persons in need, charity as social action is ordered principally to fight peacefully the unjust socio-economic, political and cultural structures in our world.

Christian charity is, no doubt, more than alms-giving to poor people and to charitable organizations. It is also more than the works of mercy. Christian charity entails also promotion of justice, defense of human dignity and rights, structural change. Charity is both compassion and social charity. Among the people of God, there are different charisms and different paths to follow the only Way, Christ. In any path, the Christian must be able to link justice and forgive­ness, love for the poor and love for the enemies, personal and structural change.

Mother Teresa has been criticized in some quarters, because her work – so they aver – is charity without justice, pity without mercy. Obviously, this is not and cannot be so: “Charity is to do everything for love of Jesus…Love and tenderness are the best and more real kinds of justice. Justice without love is not justice, and love without justice is neither authentic love” (Mother Teresa).

Some others have criticized Mother Teresa for her apparent disregard for structural change, for collective social action. She comments: “Fortunately, there are in the world persons who try to change the structures. Our mission is facing each individual problem; caring for one person, not a multitude … What matters to us is the person. I believe in the encounter of person to person.” When Mother Teresa opened the first house for her Missionary Sisters of Charity in Madrid, a journalist asked her: “Why don’t you leave your social work, a drop in the ocean, to social institutions and political associations?” She answered: “I have no time to discuss institutions and politics; these discussions tend to become awfully long, while people die of hunger.” She admitted that indeed her work is really a drop in the ocean, and added:

“But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. I do not agree with the big way of doing things. To us, what matters is the individual. To love the person, we must come in close contact with him. If we wait till we get the numbers, then we will be lost in the numbers . . . I believe in person to person; every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment.”

Is Mother Teresa opposed to “social charity,” that is, to that justice/love which attempts to change the unjust and oppressive structures of society? Of course, she is not. She said on another occasion:

“If there are people who feel that God wants them to change the structures of society; that is something between them and their God. We must serve Him in whatever way we are called. I am called to help the individual; to love each poor person. Not to deal with institutions. I am in no position to judge. . . Government agencies accomplish many things in the field of assistance. We must offer something else: Christ’s love.”

Mother Teresa’s path of merciful love is the Christian path for all seasons! Why is it so? Radically it is so because Jesus walked that path and told his followers to walk on that path which leads to liberation and salvation. Jesus said that he or she who believes in Him, in his merciful Father, must love his neighbor, every neighbor. How? Like the Good Samaritan, who helped the man wounded on the road of life (Lk 10:30-37); like the men and women who will be saved because — and mainly because — they practiced love as mercy and compassion, because they practiced the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. No wonder that Mother Teresa’s preferred biblical text is chapter 25 of St Mathew’s Gospel, verses 34-40, from the well-known Parable of the Last Judgment.

The Christian is asked by his faith to be “poor in spirit,” that is, to practice poverty in spirit, or be detached, to live a simple life-style, and to share something with the poor. Every Christian who wants to live his faith in Jesus must genuinely love the neighbor in God: all men and women and children. No one can be excluded from his charity — not the “rich” or the “powerful,” or the “oppressors”: charity is not selective but universal. Nevertheless, this universal charity is directed principally to the poor, because, as Mother Teresa has said, “God has identified himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, and the homeless.” Mother Teresa was a staunch defender and promoter of human life – of human life of all, especially of children – unborn and born children -, and the abandoned and discarded of all ages. In a particular way, Mother Teresa cried out to heaven in defense of the unborn child who is – as she put it – “the weakest, the smallest and the poorest.”

Mother Teresa lived and promoted a simple life style and strongly condemned wasting, squandering and consumerism. She writes: “It cannot be nor should there be wasting, squandering things when there are human beings who long even for the kind sound of a human voice.” She condemned and fought kindly sin and sins – evil -, but not persons: “Nobody, neither you nor I, have a right to condemn any human being.”

Loving the poor by the path of Mother Teresa implies giving alms “till it hurts,” that is, knowing the poor, serving the poor and working with the poor. This appears to be a general experience: those who work authentically with and for the poor are grateful to them for helping them be better and happier. “Only in heaven,” Mother Teresa writes, “will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.” She adds: “From the poor I have learned how poor I am. They give me infinitely more than what I give to them.” She liked to call the poor not poor but her “guests.”

Once, a beggar approached Mother Teresa and said to her: “Everyone comes to ask something of you; some people have something to give; I have nothing. But, today I earned ten pence. Here, take it.” Mother Teresa took it. She commented afterwards: “This gift to me was much more valuable than the Nobel Prize.” (Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979).

Works of mercy or social charity? Both: mercy to needy individual persons and justice/merciful love with and for all. Each one of us needs to do both: to aid some individual needy persons and to work for a just and fraternal society.

Saint Mother Teresa invites us all to be happy and therefore to love and share something with the poor and abandoned of the world. Let us give to the poor according to our possibilities. We can be sure of this: we will always receive more than what we give, for God is infinitely generous. Let us share, if possible, till it hurts. You and I will never regret it!