Quinquagesima Sunday: The Heart of Christian Life

February 10, 2024
Source: Priory Orlando

The most inspiring passage in today's Mass occurs in the Epistle, which is an excerpt from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. It is a passage that is often quoted, for it is a most beautiful description of Christian charity. However, it happens frequently that those who quote or read this passage have an inadequate notion of the charity to which St. Paul refers. They understand charity as merely kindness and benignity towards one's fellow men. The Apostle meant much more than this when he wrote to the early Christians: "So there abide faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity" (I Corinthians, xiii. 13).

Meaning of Charity

Charity is love for God and love for our fellowmen. It is the fulfillment of the two great commandments laid down by Jesus Christ: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and soul. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." It is not a mere sentimental emotion; it is a strong and constant disposition of the will, whereby we give God the first place in our affection, because He is the infinite good, and we manifest kindness and gentleness towards all our fellow men because in them we perceive a participation of the goodness of God. It is a most necessary virtue; without it, we cannot be saved.

For it is only when we have the virtue of charity in our soul that we can possess sanctifying grace, and without sanctifying grace we cannot attain eternal life. As St. Paul expresses it: "If I distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and I deliver my body to be burned, yet do not have charity, it profits me nothing."

Charity is a supernatural virtue that is, it must be based on the goodness of God as made known by revelation, not merely as it is made known by the light of reason. From revelation we know the divine goodness in a much more sublime manner and degree than from reason; for revelation informs us that infinite goodness is the prerogative of three distinct Divine Persons. When we conceive the goodness of God under this aspect and love Him above all things because of this goodness, we are making an act of divine charity, even though we experience no sensible fervor. And an act of charity of this nature is so effective that it will procure for a sinner the pardon of his mortal sins, provided he has the intention of going to confession.

Charity towards our neighbor-fraternal charity, as it is called is also supernatural, for it is based on the goodness which our neighbor possesses, either actually or potentially, by participating in the goodness of God through sanctifying grace. And every human being is our neighbor. Even those whom we do not care for naturally, or who are unkind and unjust towards us, must be the objects of our love if we would practise true Christian charity.

Lack of Charity in Our World

It is not difficult to perceive that charity is sadly lacking in the world of the present day. So many men and women have no place in their hearts for God, and in consequence, they are harsh and cruel towards their fellow men. Many of those who govern nations today have driven God and His laws out of their lives, and accordingly, they treat those who are subject to them as if they were merely cogs in a great machine.

This is the chief reason why there is so much political unrest in Europe today, and why there is cause to fear that another disastrous world war will break out soon.

One of the most deplorable features of modern life is the fact that many persons entertain little or no concern for the spiritual needs of their neighbors. Indeed, such persons do not infrequently speak or act in a manner that is positively harmful to their neighbor's spiritual welfare and do so without the least remorse of conscience. Even those who are generous in helping their fellowmen in their material needs are often quite indifferent towards their needs of the soul.

True Christian Charity

True Christian charity is not indifferent towards the bodily needs of our fellowman. Our Lord made it very clear that His true followers must be willing to give food, clothing, and shelter to their needy brethren. But the first act of Christian charity towards our neighbor is concern for the needs of his soul. When we have genuine love for another, we must desire in the first place that he led a good life and saved his soul. We practically manifest this when we perform the spiritual works of mercy, such as counseling one in difficulties, instructing one who is ignorant of God's law, and correcting a person who has done wrong, if there is reason to hope that a few words of friendly admonition will help him.

Another great act of charity in the spiritual order is to pray for others. Some persons pray very frequently for their own needs but seldom think of praying for others. There are countless persons in spiritual need, for whom we can and should pray from time to time. Thus, we can pray for those who are now dying that God may give them special graces in their final hour, for those who are in sin that they may perceive their deplorable condition and seek God's help to return to the state of grace, for those who are in danger of falling into mortal sin that they may receive strength in temptation, for those who are in sorrow that they may be comforted, for those who are suffering persecution that they may endure it courageously, for those who are persecuting the Church that they may be converted, for those who rule nations that they may fulfill their office following the laws of God. Above all, we should pray for the suffering souls in purgatory that they may soon be admitted to the joys of heaven. These and similar petitions for the spiritual needs of our fellow men should often rise from our hearts if we are sincerely earnest in our desire to practice Christian charity in full measure towards our neighbor.

The Avoidance of Scandal

The sin of scandal is one of the worst violations of Christian charity. A person commits this sin when he furnishes the occasion of sin to another. It must be very evident that this is wrong, for, if it is a transgression of charity to injure another person's body, it is surely against charity to injure his soul. The most common instance of the sin of scandal is a bad example. When a person realizes that he possesses influence over another and makes use of his influence to lead that other person astray, he is among those of whom Our Blessed Saviour said: "Woe to the man through whom scandal comes" (Matt., xviii. 7).

Strange to say, even Catholics are sometimes unaware that they fail against the virtue of charity when they give scandal. People who drink to excess, and by their example induce others to do the same, realize that they have been guilty of a sin of intemperance; but do they also realize that in addition, they have violated the virtue of charity? Parents who miss Mass habitually usually cause grave spiritual harm to their children. At present, they may be able to force their boys and girls to assist at the Holy Sacrifice, but when these young folks have come to maturity they will very probably imitate the bad example of those who were supposed to guide them aright in the way of virtue. Sometimes young men are led to commit mortal sins of impurity by the bad examples of older companions, and at times these companions are so degraded that they positively rejoice in bringing about the moral ruin of their younger friends. This is the worst kind of scandal, and is known as a diabolical scandal because it makes human beings resemble the devil, who rejoices when he can induce a person to break the laws of God.

The Sin of Envy

Another violation of charity is the sin of envy. The envious person is saddened by the good fortune of others, which he regards as detracting from his prestige or ambition. Even from a natural standpoint, it is one of the most despicable vices. But, for Christians, it is first and foremost a violation of charity. St. Paul tells us: "Charity does not envy." The true Christian rejoices in the good fortune of others. He believes that all men are bound to him in the ties of a common brotherhood, that all are either actually or potentially members of the Mystical Body of Christ so that whatever good comes to them should be a source of happiness to him.

It is a sad fact that sometimes persons who are otherwise pious are guilty of the sin of envy. They may go to Mass and receive the Sacraments frequently; yet,  they will not hesitate to speak unkindly of those who are more successful than they are, or who have been accorded some honor or distinction that they have failed to gain.

The Development of Charity

Since charity is so important in the Christian life and is indeed the very heart of the Christian life every Catholic has to foster this virtue in his soul. There are many means of doing this (such as prayer and the frequent reception of the Sacraments), but the most practical is the frequent repetition of acts of charity for God and our fellow man. It is not always easy to manifest goodwill and generosity towards all our fellow men, especially towards those who have been unkind to us. But God has commanded us to act in this way if we were His faithful children, and Jesus Christ has given us an example of kindness and forgiveness towards those who have injured us. As long as charity abides in our souls, we own a treasure more precious than all the riches of the world. For, as St. John tells us, "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him" (I John, iv. 16).