CARITAS CORNER: Our Parishes as Field Hospitals
In a September 2013 interview with America magazine, Pope Francis shared his vision for the Catholic Church: “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.”
The vision of our church in proximity to its faithful and to the poor and vulnerable reminds me of Father Jason Keas, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Cheyenne Wells and St. Augustine in Kit Carson. The community Father Keas serves is not battle-scarred; on the contrary, it is beautiful and strong. Yet on a visit to Father Keas one morning in August, I was struck at the many ways in which that parish community “heals wounds and warms hearts.”
Father Keas showed me the parish’s new food pantry, which supports the town and county. We went to meet with the staff at Cheyenne County Human Services, who are close partners with the parish in providing services for the needy. On the third Thursday of the month, Father Keas joins county staff and volunteers in helping to distribute commodities — essential food items provided by Care & Share — to participants from across the region. In these and other ways, it is clear that the people of Cheyenne Wells and Kit Carson are in good hands.
Catholic charity (the work, not the agency) has been an integral part of the church since its early history. Yet it is easy to think of charity as a place — the soup kitchen, the shelter or even the food pantry. These places are important components of our charity but not a replacement for it. Neither should Catholic Charities (the agency) which formed relatively late in 1910, during the Progressive movement in the United States, presume to be the sole provider of charity for Catholics. The formalization of Catholic Charities was never intended to replace the work of charity at the parish level. The vision has been, and remains, one of the agency supporting the more challenging cases in a central location with professional staff while the parish community, guided by the pastors and deacons, provide their own, unique and neighborhood specific assistance to those in need.
It is a reminder and an affirmation that charity belongs to us all. It is both responsibility and an invitation, providing the opportunity to live the life that our faith calls us to: “Blessed the one concerned for the poor; on a day of misfortune, the Lord delivers him.” (Psalm 41:1) This does not mean giving money to the man or woman with a sign on the corner. As I wrote in this column last month, that response is too isolated to have much of a lasting effect. Nor is charity reserved for those who are battling homelessness, which is only one outcome of poverty. Our most vulnerable brothers and sisters may have homes while lacking so many other necessities. We rely on our parishioners to see these needs and respond with the hard work of being in relationship with those who suffer, whether it is the pregnant mother, the widow, the immigrant or the homeless man. When the work eclipses the resources at our parishes, Catholic Charities or other charitable agencies exist to take the handoff.
Catholic Social Teaching identifies the importance of working at the local level in the theme of subsidiarity. Sometimes oversimplified as a call for local government, subsidiarity is more broadly the recognition that we have an obligation to and effectiveness within our immediate communities. An agency like Catholic Charities with offices in Colorado Springs cannot be as effective in meeting the needs of people in Cheyenne Wells as the local parish community. We can provide resources when called upon — backpacks with school supplies, winter coats, and turkeys around Thanksgiving — but our staff and volunteers could not possibly know the unique characteristics of the town to make the same difference that Father Keas and his partners make every day. We will always be there to help, but we should never overstep the local experts.
If there were enough space here, I could list the many ways that each of our parishes and their pastors are serving as the field hospital that Pope Francis envisions. Yet this recognition is more than a pat on the back or motivational ploy. It is the core component of our community’s ability to make any real difference for our poor and vulnerable and it is encouragement to remain vigilant. Whether in El Paso, Cheyenne or any of the other ten counties in our diocese, the work of lifting people out of poverty and vulnerability is far too big for any of us to be attempting on our own.