November 26, 2013 // Local

Conference illuminates encountering God in the person of the poor

By Ann Carey

NOTRE DAME — Charity as a sacramental action was the subject of a Nov. 14-15 conference at the University of Notre Dame entitled “Blessed are the Merciful: Charity as Sacramental Action.”

The conference was planned as a series of conversations on issues raised in a new book by Gary Anderson, Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology. The book is entitled “Charity: the Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition” (Yale University Press, 2013).

Anderson limited his own role in the conference to welcoming the five main speakers and making brief comments on the topic. He explained that the practice of charity by Jews and Christians has been a virtue noticed by all. However, the theological and biblical grounding of this virtue have not been given adequate recognition.

For the Christian, he explained, the motivation to charitable works should be not only to create a just and equitable social order, but also to encounter God in the person of the poor. Thus, charity has a deeply sacramental character, a character that emerged in Western society during the 16th and 17th centuries, a time of profound change as society became more urbanized.

Anderson added that Pope Francis, with his deep concern for the poor, may help the contemporary Church recover some of these Catholic traditions regarding the poor.

The keynote speaker, Carlos Eire, a Yale University professor of history and religious studies, traced this notion of charity’s sacramental character to the Catholic Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Eire said that the 16th century saw a great deal of corruption in religious orders and in the practice of charity.

At that time, society was becoming less agricultural, cities were beginning to grow and currency was coming into greater use, Eire said. Thus, the numbers of homeless and indigent people were increasing and governments had no master plan to care for them.

Monastic reformers began to infuse new life into religious orders, the Church and society. Many of them brought about these needed reforms by making a wholesale commitment to the poor and sick, Eire said. Lay confraternities also sprang up to perform charitable works.

Eire said that Protestants tended to see poor relief as more of a centralized, secular activity and a way to stabilize society so that the poor would not turn to criminal activity. A Catholic model developed that approached care of the poor more on a personal level rather than as a social problem, Eire said. This Catholic model recognized the integrity and dignity of the poor person, and it saw the poor person as an image of Jesus Christ. Thus, to encounter a poor person is to encounter Christ.

Embracing this model led to a blossoming of Catholic religious orders during the 16th and 17th centuries, some contemplative, but many apostolic orders with the specific mission of serving the poor, orphaned, dying, sick or uneducated, Eire said. In fact, more new religious orders were founded in the 16th and 17th centuries than in the first 15 centuries combined, with women religious playing an “immense” role, he said.

Eire gave the examples of just a few of the orders founded in these centuries to benefit the poor: Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, Vincentians, Suplicians, Daughters of Charity, Scolapians, Visitandines and Congregation of Jesus and Mary. These and other religious orders helped reform and benefit both society and the Church, and demonstrated the sacramental character of charity.

Also speaking at the conference was John Sehorn, a Notre Dame graduate student in theology, who discussed the teaching of Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) that a person demonstrates his faith by supporting the poor, because in that act, the person meets Christ and recognizes the Incarnation.

Sister Ann Astell, a Notre Dame theology professor and a member of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, spoke on the charitable practices of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She discussed how Catherine’s recognition of Christ both in the Eucharist and in her neighbor motivated her life of charity.

Dianne Phillips, an independent art scholar, gave an illustrated presentation of how late medieval art exemplifies the sacramental notion of charity by often depicting Christ as the source as well as the recipient of charity.

Cyril O’Regan, Huisking, professor of theology at Notre Dame, spoke on charity as justice in excess, saying that love provides the context, source and goal of justice, for if justice is separated from love, it does not recognize the dignity of the person. Love enables one to see the face of the other person and respond as if that were the face of God, he said.

The conference was co-sponsored by Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life and Center for Social Concerns.

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