As we come to the close of another year and prepare our resolutions for the next one, it might be good for us to take stock of our Catholic heritage in this country, particularly the work of our many Catholic institutions, of which we have good reason to be proud. These include schools, hospitals, nursing and retirement homes, and other institutions for various charitable works.
We’re living through a time of tension and deep division in our country, so it’s easy to become cynical. Yet, the official data from the records of Catholic Charities and Catholic Social Agencies of the Church throughout our diocese and our world remind us that a lot of good is also being done every day. It’s being done by ordinary people who don’t make the headlines, but who do make a big difference in the lives of so many thousands of people who are in need.
As various data show, the positive economic impact of Catholic ministries includes the various education and social welfare efforts directly linked to the Diocese of Palm Beach and its 50+ parishes and missions. It also includes our region’s many independent Catholic non-profits: hospitals, schools and similar institutions. Even more importantly, the positive human impact of all these ministries – in terms of the formation of moral character, the creation of opportunities and the transmission of hope – is beyond measuring. The lesson is this: Faith matters.
Religious conviction always has consequences. If we really believe that God exists, then nothing is more important than that fact! The more deeply we encounter God, the more profoundly He reorders our thinking, our actions and our entire lives. As a consequence, real faith is always personal and never private. It naturally seeks public expression. This is why organized works of mercy and charity in every religious tradition – Jewish, Christian or Muslim – have such a disproportionately fruitful effect. The evidence is in the data.
Doing good things in the name of the government isn’t quite the same as doing good things in the name of God. The two paths aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. Plenty of very good people work in secular service organizations. But I think that explicitly religious forms of social service, at their best, have God as a kind of “force multiplier,” and also as an on-going judge of their honesty and stewardship. Some social scientists tend to regard religion as an invention or projection of the human need for meaning. But what that says to the sincere Christian believer is that some social scientists haven’t yet met God!
Catholic men and women living their Christian faith by using their talents in service to the wider public means that the cultural and intellectual life of our hospitals, schools and similar institutions clearly has an impact well beyond the diocese. Every form of Catholic ministry in our diocese begins with the same impulse: to put into practice the words of Jesus Christ and the demands of the Gospel.
Catholic social service is fruitful precisely because it’s never simply “humanitarian.” Rather, it’s a very concrete and particular expression of our faith. We offer our help to persons in need without strings attached, but always with a deeper religious purpose. Our ministries don’t exist to proselytize, because that kind of approach to social service is simply a form of coercion. It would demean the people we’re trying to serve. Proselytism dressed up as charity and service robs vulnerable people of their freedom.
But our educational and social outreach ministries do very much exist to witness to the mercy of Jesus Christ and to demonstrate our love for God. They’re statements of what we believe, incarnated through our actions. As a result, no “Catholic” social service or education effort is effectively pursued or sustained without a strong Catholic identity and religious sense of mission.
Obviously, many aspects of Catholic social work can be shared by all people of good will. Catholic outreach ministries should and do welcome opportunities to work with other individuals, groups and social agencies. The challenge, of course, is that cooperation can sometimes run the risk of turning Catholic organizations into sub-contractors for donors, foundations and public agencies with very different outlooks and thus very different notions of authentic human development. Sadly, that can compromise both the purpose and the effectiveness of Catholic social work.
So, in our diocese, our focus is very much on protecting and deepening the Catholic identity of our schools, institutions and ministries, not only for our own sake, but to ensure the continuing value of our work for the common good. I’m proud that the Catholic Church has played that role so well in our common life for so many people throughout the centuries, despite the prejudices against our faith shown by so many ignorant of all the good we do.
So, on Christmas Day, we will take up a 2nd Collection in a final attempt to reach our parish goal in the annual DSA (Diocesan Services Appeal). I’m grateful for the kind support of so many of our parishioners and friends who have brought us close to our goal. I hope that you will help us reach that goal by December 31st.