Caritas National Council

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Caritas National Council
5 March 2012

There is a story told about St. Vincent de Paul, the person who founded the religious congregation known as the Vincentians, and who gave inspiration to others, such as the founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Frederic Ozanam. He said:
“When the demands of life seem unfair to you, when you are exhausted and have to pull yourself out of bed yet another time to do some act of service, do it gladly, without counting the cost and without self-pity, for if you persevere in serving others, in giving yourself to the poor, if you persevere to the point of completely spending yourself, perhaps someday the poor will find it in their hearts to forgive you. For it is more blessed to give than to receive and it is a lot easier.”
That might sound a curious statement. Why do the poor need to forgive us? For what do we need to be forgiven? Shouldn’t we feel good about serving others?
I think we do have some idea of the answer. There is a certain humiliation in needing to receive, just as there is a certain pride in being able to give. The things we complain about are often our greatest blessing. What is worse than being too busy? Having nothing to do. What is more painful than giving away something that we own? Not having anything to give away in the first place. What is harder than dragging ourselves out of bed to begin another day?  Being someone who simply cannot get out of bed by themselves. It is certainly more blessed to be able to give than to receive, and it is easier as well.

In the gospel reading for today, Jesus speaks about the need to be compassionate, compassionate in the same way as the Father is compassionate. The word compassion is part of our Caritas language, and rightly so. At this very moment, we are living through one of our most important times of the year as we encourage people to express their Lenten spirit in the support of Project Compassion.
There are a number of instances in the Gospel parables where  reference is made to compassion. There was the master who was moved with compassion with the servant who was unable to pay what was owing; there was the Father, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who was “moved with compassion” when he saw his son appear over the horizon; and then there was the Good Samaritan who was “moved with compassion” when he saw the injured man lying helpless on the road. In all these instances, there is a movement that truly comes from deep within, from the heart.

Jesus, we are told was “moved with compassion” on a number of occasions which are recorded in the Gospels – he was moved with compassion for the people who were like a sheep without a shepherd; he was moved by the plight of the leper, the blind man and the widow of Nain. What seemed to be at the heart of this movement of  Jesus was an awareness of a kind of spiritual lostness on the part of the people, and an awareness of the plight of people who were suffering hunger and pain.

What is worthy of note is that apparently at the time of Jesus, in the thinking of the pagan philosophers, there was no understanding of a God who showed compassion. So in the gospel passage we are learning that God indeed was, and is compassionate, and then there is the further charge on all of us to be the same, to be compassionate as the Father is compassionate.

For us who are deeply involved in works of compassion, it is important that we do take notice of the manner in which Jesus was compassionate – and that will allow us to take seriously the directives of the Gospel. By seeing how Jesus is compassionate, and is moved with compassion, we have it all before us.

That is not to say that it is all very easy, especially when one is tired and frustrated by lack of support. We can all lose heart, and begin to feel sorry for ourselves, and eventually we feel that we are being unfairly used by others, that we are being asked to give more than our share.
So the counsel of St. Vincent de Paul should be told and retold:  “If we do not continue to serve the poor, despite our tiredness and self-pity, the poor will never find it in their hearts to forgive us.” We need to remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive. It is also easier.