One of the most hope filled moments of the year for our poor and vulnerable came at the Easter Vigil last Saturday night when we welcomed our catechumens into the church. These new Catholic faithful are cause for celebration for so many reasons, but the greatest may be what they mean for charity. As Pope Paul VI writes in “Divinae Consortium Naturae”: “By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity.” These newly initiated men, women, and children are reinforcements in the battle against the colossal specter of poverty in our community.
Despite many efforts and considerable successes, our fight against poverty and homelessness often appears fruitless. The numbers of those struggling without a place to live seem to be growing before our eyes as camps spring up amidst wooded areas and street corners fill with people asking for money. While difficult to truly measure, a street outreach group called Coalition for Compassionate Action announced last week that they estimate the number of unsheltered in Colorado Springs to be more than twice the size of the most recent official counts of a little over 300 individuals. The need and the numbers are indeed growing.
Now more than ever we have to approach the work with our poor differently. We are fighting societal factors that are larger than our good intentions. The breakdown of families, the abuse and neglect of children, the increased availability of addictive drugs, and the absence of treatment options for mental illness are just a few of the structural forces that seem to be taking over our communities. Many well-intentioned policies and programs not only fail to achieve their stated results but, in some cases, actually produce the opposite effect amidst this landscape. We need systems and institutions that are as big as those root causes: that hope lies in our Christian churches.
In this light, evangelization becomes a foundational component of charity. We need more people of faith engaged in this fight, nourished by Jesus’ message of love. This is not to say that there are not good deeds performed by individuals who are not members of a church. Yet I worry that, without a foundation in the community that harnesses the power of God, this type of work is unsustainable. We need something big and beautiful to match the magnitude and ugliness of poverty. Otherwise the scope of the human suffering eats us up. Disappointment, frustration, and heartbreak are everywhere in this work: without faith, our benevolent energy fails. We need the regular example and reminder of God’s love and the sacrifice of Jesus to recharge our spirit.
Pope Benedict speaks beautifully to this notion in his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love). He writes: “(W)e can be tempted to give in to inertia, since it would seem that in any event nothing can be accomplished. At such times, a living relationship with Christ is decisive if we are to keep on the right path, without falling into an arrogant contempt for man.”
Sometimes, we can be sensitive about inviting others to join our church. Perhaps we associate evangelization with something like the pushy salesman, a role few of us are comfortable filling.
But as Easter reminds us, sharing our beautiful faith with others, as was Jesus’ mission, is one of the most profound gifts that we can give. If that is not enough, we might consider evangelization as the most profound response to the heartbreak (or frustration) we feel for our poor. Our church needs more faithful, armed with their charity and love, to meet our society’s growing challenges.