On this Sunday before Lent, at the threshold of the Holy Forty Days of penance, Holy Mother Church, for the third Sunday in a row, presents us with an inimitable mosaic of texts designed to prepare us to enter the Lenten struggle with the proper intentions. Most noteworthy is the epistle, which is composed of one of the more well known of St Paul’s writings, the famous hymn to charity. The apostle’s praise of this virtue remains unequalled in literature, and anyone who has said anything of value since, goes back of necessity in some way to what he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Many commentaries have been written on it, including an abundant exegesis of all the Greek terms used to describe this virtue.
For us this morning, let us limit ourselves to asking what is the fundamental reason for which the Church speaks to us of charity as we enter Lent. No doubt, it is to remind us that in our penitential practices, it is less about exploits of asceticism than about offering sacrifice for the love of God and neighbour. Whatever we do during Lent will have value only inasmuch as it is the expression of true and authentic love. Otherwise it could very well be done out of love for self, an egotistic performance that makes us feel good about ourselves, but neglects the greatest commandment of love. That is one of the reasons for which, along with prayer and fasting, the entire tradition of Israel and the Church adds the duty of almsgiving – what is subtracted from our diet is offered to the poor or someone else in need. It’s not primarily about us, but about going out of ourselves.
The hymn to charity also affords us the opportunity to pursue our reflections, commenced on Septuagesima Sunday, on the ills that affect the Church today, paralysing her efforts to evangelise and save souls. Who does not see that the virtue of charity has lost much of its lustre and vigour in the last several decades? It does not seem exaggerated to say that we have assisted at a change in the very meaning of the word, as with so many other concepts in our faith. But then again, was that not one of the tactics of the modernists to begin with, namely, to keep the language and vocabulary, but to utterly transform its meaning, replacing it with one that is no longer Catholic?
This can certainly be see with the virtue of charity, and the process was given great impetus during and after the Vatican II. What did we see then? Under cover of pretending to be the Good Samaritan who stops to attend to the poor wounded man on the street, we seem to have forgotten one very important detail in that well-known parable, namely that the Good Samaritan, after tending the poor wounded man, takes him to the inn, that is to say, to the Church. We could talk forever about the real meaning of such conciliar document as Unitatis redintegratio (on ecumenism) or Nostra Aetate (on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions), but the fact remains that the prevailing sentiment is that these texts so profoundly modified the Church’s attitude towards those who are outside her bosom that she is now more concerned with helping them remain “good” Protestants, Jews, Muslims or Buddhists, than with bringing them into the unique Ark of Salvation. Such is assuredly a grave distortion of the virtue charity.
There can be no charity without truth. If our concern for others is based on a falsehood, then it is not charity, but misguided philanthropy. In every age, brave souls have had to stand up against errors and lies, precisely out of love for their fellow man. It is never fun being the party spoiler or having to point out the elephant in the room or to say that the emperor has no clothes. But those who have the courage to do so are the ones who truly love.
Charity is based on truth, it is based on faith. It seeks to help all men by teaching them the saving doctrine, the only saving doctrine that was brought to this earth by the Son of God incarnate. Pope Paul VI, who more than anyone was responsible for this state of things, did have a moment of clarity when in 1968 he courageously published the encyclical Humane Vitae in which one can read these enlightening words: “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls”. We can take that teaching a step further and add that, if this is so, then it is not charity at all to deprive a soul of that saving teaching. It would be like the doctor who, knowing the disease a man is afflicted with and having the means to heal him, refrains from telling him the truth, lest he hurt his feelings.
Allow me a personal memory that will illustrate this point. During my father’s final illness, he was cared for by a nurse who was not a Catholic. My father could never refrain from trying to convert someone he knew to be outside the true fold of Christ, and so, even though his strength was failing as the brain tumour gradually deprived him of life, he still attempted to explain to this young woman the Catholic faith. After his death, I got a card of condolences from her on which she wrote these words: “I will never forget that your father cared enough about me to try to convert me”. He cared enough. He really cared. For him, a soul outside the Church is a soul in grave danger of being lost forever, and if I love that soul, then I will make every effort I can to bring them in. If I fail, at least I will have done my duty. But as far as it depends on me, I will strive not to fail.
Of course, we should add that, as St Paul tells us today, love is patient. One author comments upon this phrase in these words: “Love waits patiently not only because it deals patiently with the loved one but also because it recognises that the right timing plays a huge part in securing the welfare of the other. Love does not blunder in”. Waiting for the right time and the right place is often of the essence, but this must not be an excuse for not speaking out when required, or much less, out of human respect or fear of what others might think of me. The question we all have to ask ourselves is: Do we love? Do we really love? Do we believe? Do we really believe? As St John of the Cross says: “Faith and love will lead you along a path unknown to you, to the place where God is hidden.”
If we do truly believe and if we do truly love, then what will we not do to bring souls to Christ and to the fullness of His truth in the Holy Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation? What effort could we possibly spare to reach those who are in danger? When one looks out over the landscape of our world, one cannot help but notice that love has grown cold, as our Lord had prophesied that it would: Because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold (Mt 24:12). It would appear that this time has come. Many of our choices to ‘do the loving thing’ are tainted with self-love, as St Paul warned his disciple Timothy: Know also this, that in the last days shall come dangerous times. Men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty,… lovers of pleasure more than of God (2 Tm 3:1-4).
Let us return to the source of true love and remember that one act of true love is worth more than the whole world. Let us, this Lent, draw closer to the fire, the burning furnace of the Sacred Heart of Our Lord. This coming Friday is both the first Friday of Lent and the first Friday of March, the month of St Joseph. Our monthly triduum of prayer and fasting will take place this week Wednesday to Friday for the usual intentions, to which we will add that of peace for those poor people in the Ukraine, helpless victims of political intrigue and thirst for power.
Perhaps these thoughts will lead us to see that we have been led astray. If that is the case then let us muster up the courage to do as Abraham did when called by God, as we read this morning at Matins. He was to told to leave his country, his homeland, his father’s house, all that he held dear, a forlorn land of spiritual barrenness. Let us imitate him and go into the land that the Lord is showing us, the land of truth, the land of true love, the love that does not turn away from sacrifice.
Perhaps too we will realise that we have been walking in the dark, led astray by falsehoods that are all too prevalent in our day. Then let us, like the blind man in today’s Gospel, cry out with renewed vigour: Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me. That I may see. Open my eyes to the truth, open my eyes to the demands of true love, and let me walk with Thee to Jerusalem to suffer there with Thee.
Finally, let us go to the Mater pulchrae dilectionis, the Mother of Fair Love (cf. Eccli. 24:24), and ask her to obtain for us the grace to love the truth, to love in truth, and to do the truth in love (cf. Eph 4:15). Even though the hour is late, it is never too late to love. Charity beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things (1 Cor 13:5-7). So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1Co 13:13).