We are now entering Advent, the four Sundays of preparation before we celebrate the birth of Our Savior. For most of us, December is a busy month of shopping, cooking and baking, entertaining, traveling, and savoring time with our families.
I ask to you to take a moment in the midst of it all to ponder what “advent” means. The word’s origins are in the Latin word for “coming.” It means the arrival of something notable or important, such as the advent of the printing press, television or the internet. You get the idea.
In the Catholic Church, Advent points toward the arrival of the most notable and important event—the coming of Christ. It is a time of preparation, expectation and waiting, which are reflected in the liturgies and rituals.
So in the hustle and bustle of the season, slow down for a few minutes. Let your mind and your soul contemplate the expectation. Let them wait.
In our contemplation we can glimpse fleetingly the experience of people 2 millennia ago—the fear and despair of a world that God seemed to have abandoned and the hope that something was about to happen that would change everything.
Thanksgiving is a time to take stock of our many blessings: our families, friends, health, freedom—and the remarkable bounty that provides for our needs.
Certainly there are needs, wants and injustices in this country that prompt our concern and action, but consider that at the very least our well-developed food supply chain ensures that there will be plenty to eat.
Even if there is a drought that disrupts the harvest we celebrate every autumn, we won’t go hungry. Millions of small-scale farmers and poor urban dwellers wish that they could enjoy that kind of resilience. Catholic Relief Services works alongside them every day to make their resilience a reality.
But as we contemplate a table groaning under the weight of the food we will soon put on it—and the friends and family we will share it with—I want to draw your attention to an even more fundamental gift from our generous God.
There is no time like fall to appreciate the magnificent generosity of God. The fields that a few weeks ago were filled with plants reaching for the sky—full of grain and corn and beans and all sorts of other crops—have yielded their bounty.
In orchards’ tidy rows, the branches of trees that were dipping toward the ground as they tried to support the burden of their heavy fruits, have done the same.
In so many ways, the earth lets us know once again that its promise has been fulfilled as God intended. With fields harvested and those orchards picked, their abundance is now available to us, whether in farm markets or roadside stands or at your local supermarket. This is the time of year when we can see and smell and taste how good God is to us. There is no doubt. But when we think of the fruits of the harvest, let us not limit ourselves to this familiar yearly cycle. There are many seeds that are planted which do not bear their fruit according to that calendar. Some take years to mature.
As our children go back to school this month, it’s a good time to educate ourselves about a world in need.
Everywhere, people are crying out for help. Together we show them God’s care and grace. As children open their new textbooks, I urge you to read and learn about how you can build solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters overseas. The Gospel asks us to hear their cries, and to respond to them, because no matter where people live, they are our neighbors. When we help them, we become God’s helping hands.
In Iraq, adherents to minority religions—including Christian faiths that have been there since Christianity began—have been uprooted by militant fighters. People are fleeing their homes to escape persecution, violence and death. Their future, and that of the entire region, is precarious.
Responding to emergencies is one of the most important jobs we have at Catholic Relief Services. Many are high-profile events covered extensively in the media, like the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the earthquake in Haiti or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. But many are events you’ve likely never heard of—local flooding or storms or violence just as devastating as the ones that draw widespread attention.
Working with our local partners around the world—often Caritas and other Church organizations—CRS spreads the bounty of your generosity to those forced from their homes or in need of food, water and other necessities through no fault of their own.
The spotlight usually falls on disasters that happen suddenly—like an earthquake or a typhoon. The suddenness is part of the story, part of the drama, part of what makes it so compelling to news organizations and to viewers and readers.
What often receives far less attention, though, are what we call slow-onset emergencies. They don’t strike all at once like disasters that make the ground shake or the waters rise or the wind blow. But they are just as devastating.
I want to call your attention to two coming disasters. Both are man-made—caused by escalating conflict.
What a wonderful paradox is contained in this ideal, which we celebrate this month.
When you think back to what the signers of the Declaration of Independence wanted, it was the freedom of the people of the United States to make their own decisions and determine their future. Many of those decisions would lead to mutual dependence, first of the states on one another—as set forth in the Constitution 11 years later—and eventually with many other countries. Independence meant, in part, the right to decide how to be dependent.
The Declaration of Independence speaks of the rights bestowed on us by our Creator: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those are not possible without independence. It is what God granted mankind when He gave us free will, making us independent of Him.
Independence allows us to make mistakes. It allows us to sin. But it also allows us to find our redemption in the dependence that comes in the love we feel for one another and, most important, for our Creator. Dependence would have no meaning without the free will that comes with independence.
As you know, Catholic Relief Services is part of Caritas Internationalis, the worldwide network of the Catholic Church’s charitable organizations. We work in 93 countries around the world, and in many of these countries the local Caritas is our partner. Our Caritas colleagues are people from different cultures who have taken up the universal challenge of the Gospels: to care for their neighbors.
“Caritas” is an interesting Latin word. It is usually translated into English as “charity,” but there is more to it than that. Thomas Aquinas said that “caritas” is that which unites us to God and called it “the most excellent of virtues.” To him, “the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbor.” This raises another meaning of the word. Pope Benedict XVI titled his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The accepted translation: God is Love.
That speaks volumes about how essential charity is to our faith. But it also speaks volumes about what kind of charity we should engage in. Our acts of charity are acts of love. And we know that love puts demands on us. Love cannot come from an attitude of superiority, something we give to someone inferior to us. It is an act of humility in that it attempts to comprehend the ultimate love that is our Lord: Deus Caritas Est.
When many hear the word “charity,” they conjure up a traditional view—transferring money or goods from the wealthy to the poor. They think alms, handouts. Certainly, there are times when love demands that of us: When people are hungry, we must give them food.
But love demands more.
May is the month of hope realized.
It is the hope promised by the Passion of Easter, turned into a full realization of redemption for mankind.
It is the hope promised by the minutes of daylight beginning to outnumber those of darkness, and the leaves and flowers and shoots of grass that emerge into the returning warmth.
It is in this month that we honor our mothers, thanking them for their faith when they began the journey of motherhood.
For many of us, Lent is in our bones. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is as expected this time of year as “What do you want for Christmas?” is in December.
There is, of course, a big difference. The giving and getting part of Christmas can—and has been—exploited by commercial interests. That certainly happens to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. But you don’t see it once Lent begins. No one takes out an advertisement on TV saying, “Give Up Our Product for Lent!”
So, Lent remains untainted, its religious roots unsullied by secular considerations. Because of that, the question about what we are giving is always provocative. It causes us to think—about sacrifice, about what’s important in our lives, about our priorities—in a way that other seasons do not.
These thoughts are what’s behind our annual CRS Rice Bowl campaign. In asking people to give up something specific and to put the money they saved into their Rice Bowl, we’re asking them to think, to feel, to understand the solidarity that a simple act of sacrifice makes real.
In my work with Catholic Relief Services, I am involved in so many different countries, in so many different aspects of helping the poor. Every day we work with people who are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But they are not insurmountable when you help carve steps into them. At CRS, we know that, together, we can surmount these obstacles one step at a time.
While we often respond to immediate needs—shelter and water after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for example—our focus is always on the future, on turning relief into recovery and rebuilding.
When I focus on the future, my thoughts naturally turn to children. Because no matter the country or the culture or the economy, aren’t children always the future?
I think of this in this season of Lent, the season of sacrifice. A theme that runs throughout God’s family is the sacrifice that parents everywhere make for their children.