If there’s a place in the world where anyone, rich or poor, can feel welcomed without restrictions, it’s in a Catholic church. In it, material splendor is at the service of the glory of God and at everyone’s reach – one may calmly enjoy the splendor of the church better than anyone could at palaces or museums. In it, the Father’s arms reach out toward all, so that through artistic beauty and the magnificence of the liturgy, all might have the opportunity to elevate their hearts toward Him, with the holy liberty of the children of God. This is true alms for the poor, for, more important than anything else, they receive the words of eternal life without suffering discrimination.
Obviously, as a loving mother, the Holy Church is also available to help in their material necessities. One dimension is inseparable from the other, and segregating either dimension would deform its deepest pastoral significance, as has been demonstrated in the history of the Church during the last two thousand years.
It’s a good idea to remember what the Magisterium teaches us, so that we don’t allow ourselves to be deceived by persuasive speech that may appear poetic and even well intentioned, but which, in the end, is no more than cheap demagogy.
Enter in the various parts of our study
I –Love of Christ is the Cause of Love for the Poor
II – Works of Charity according to the Church
III- Ecclesiastical Goods are Administered for the Glory of God
I – Love of Christ is the Cause of Love for the Poor
Now when Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, ‘Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor.’ Since Jesus knew this, he said to them, ‘Why do you make trouble for the woman? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.’ (Mt 26:6-11)
Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then Judas the Iscariot, one (of) his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, ‘Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?’ He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. So Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.’ (Jn 12:1-8)
Mary’s gesture is the expression of great faith and love for the Lord; it is not enough for her to wash the Teacher’s feet with water; she sprinkles on them a great quantity of the precious perfume which as Judas protested it would have been possible to sell for 300 denarii. She did not anoint his head, as was the custom, but his feet: Mary offers Jesus the most precious thing she has and with a gesture of deep devotion. Love does not calculate, does not measure, does not worry about expense, does not set up barriers but can give joyfully; it seeks only the good of the other, surmounts meanness, pettiness, resentment and the narrow-mindedness that human beings sometimes harbour in their hearts. Mary stood at the feet of Jesus in a humble attitude of service, the same attitude that the Teacher himself was to assume at the Last Supper, when, the fourth Gospel tells us, he ‘rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet’ (Jn 13: 4-5), so that, he said, ‘you also should do as I have done to you’ (v. 15): the rule of the community of Jesus is that of love which knows how to serve to the point of offering one’s life. And the scent spread: ‘the house’ the Evangelist remarks, ‘was filled with the fragrance of the ointment’ (Jn 12: 3). The meaning of Mary’s action, which is a response to God’s infinite Love, spreads among all the guests; no gesture of charity and authentic devotion to Christ remains a personal event or concerns solely the relationship between the individual and the Lord. Rather, it concerns the whole Body of the Church, it is contagious: it instills love, joy and light. (Benedict XVI. Eucharistic Celebration on the fifth anniversary of the death of John Paul II, March 29, 2010)
A woman, whom John identifies as Mary the sister of Lazarus, pours a flask of costly ointment over Jesus’ head, which provokes from the disciples – and from Judas in particular (cf. Mt 26:8; Mk 14:4; Jn 12:4) – an indignant response, as if this act, in light of the needs of the poor, represented an intolerable ‘waste’. But Jesus’ own reaction is completely different. While in no way detracting from the duty of charity towards the needy, for whom the disciples must always show special care – ‘the poor you will always have with you’ (Mt 26, 11; Mk 14:7; cf. Jn 12:8) – he looks towards his imminent death and burial, and sees this act of anointing as an anticipation of the honour which his body will continue to merit even after his death, indissolubly bound as it is to the mystery of his person. (John Paul II. Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 47, April 17, 2003)
‘He came to his own home, and his own people received him not’ (Jn 1: 11) Mary’s action is in contrast to the attitude and words of Judas who, under the pretext of the aid to be given to the poor, conceals the selfishness and falsehood of a person closed into himself, shackled by the greed for possession and who does not let the good fragrance of divine love envelop him. Judas calculates what one cannot calculate, he enters with a mean mindset the space which is one of love, of giving, of total dedication. And Jesus, who had remained silent until that moment, intervenes defending Mary’s gesture: ‘Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial (Jn 12: 7). Jesus understands that Mary has intuited God’s love and points out that his ‘hour’ is now approaching, the ‘hour’ in which Love will find its supreme expression on the wood of the Cross: the Son of God gives himself so that many may have life. (Benedict XVI. Eucharistic Celebration on the fifth anniversary of the death of John Paul II, March 29, 2010)
In effect, the possibilities to pervert the human heart are truly many. The only way to prevent it consists in not cultivating an individualistic, autonomous vision of things, but on the contrary, by putting oneself always on the side of Jesus, assuming his point of view. We must daily seek to build full communion with him. (Benedict XVI. General Audience, October 18, 2006)
II – Works of Charity according to the Church
What ensures your works of charity their true worth, gives so much glory to God, and merits predilections on earth and in heaven, is the supernatural spirit. This is the characteristic that distinguishes it from all other charitable and philanthropic institutions, to which we are pleased to pay a tribute of respect and congratulations. We would like to believe that the soul of these institutions aspires to be in perfect harmony with the doctrine of the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.However, while for civil institutions, assistance itself is the goal to be reached, for the Christian, it is a means, precious yes, but only a means to fulfill the double commandment of charity: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart ,and with all your soul and with all your heart. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mt 22: 37-39). Through charity, the Christian comes closer to God, and intensely sanctifies his own soul. While commenting the Gospel of the Wedding at Cana, on occasion of the station in Santo Spirito in Sassia, on the first Sunday after the Octave of the Epiphany in 1208, Our former, glorious predecessor Innocent III, using an agreeably allegorical form, affirmed: ‘Certainly, if a work of mercy is not accompanied by a sentiment of charity, it helps, it is true, the one who receives it, but it is not of profit to the one who practices it. And so then it is only water and not wine; because, as the Apostle says ‘If I give away all I have, but have not love, I gain nothing.’ (1Cor 13:3). On the contrary, if mercy proceeds from charity, then the water turns into wine, because the action of charity transforms into warmth the heart which was cold, makes delectable that which was insipid, and luminous that which was dark; In this way, the water is transformed morally into wine; and that which is naturally good, becomes even better, to the point of meriting the eternal reward.’ (John XXIII. Address to the delegates of the Works of Mercy of Rome, February 21, 1960)
The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Deus caritas est, no. 25, December 25, 2005)
Charity and justice are not only social but also spiritual actions, accomplished in the light of the Holy Spirit. We can thus say that the Apostles confronted this situation with great responsibility. They took the following decision: seven men were chosen; the Apostles prayed the Holy Spirit to grant them strength and then laid their hands on the seven so that they might dedicate themselves in a special way to this ministry of charity. Thus in the life of the Church, the first steps she took, in a certain way, reflected what had happened in Jesus’ public life at Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany. Martha was completely taken up with the service of hospitality to offer to Jesus and his disciples; Mary, on the contrary, devoted herself to listening to the Lord’s word (cf. Lk 10:38-42). In neither case were the moments of prayer and of listening to God, and daily activity, the exercise of charity in opposition. Jesus’ reminder, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her’ (Lk 10:41-42) and, likewise, the Apostles’ reflection: ‘We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4), show the priority we must give to God. […] In any case activity undertaken to help one’s neighbor, ‘the other’, is not to be condemned, but it is essential to stress the need for it to be imbued also with the spirit of contemplation. (Benedict XVI. General Audience, April 25, 2012)
We are here touching the heart of the problem. In Holy Scripture and according to the evangelical categories, ‘alms’ means in the first place an interior gift. It means the attitude of opening ‘to the other’. Precisely this attitude is an indispensable factor of ‘metanoia’, that is, conversion, just as prayer and fasting are also indispensable. St Augustine, in fact, expresses himself well: ‘how quickly the prayers of those who do good are granted! And this is man’s justice in the present life: fasting, alms, prayer’ (Enarrat. in Ps. 42:8): prayer, as an opening to God; fasting, as an expression of self-mastery also in depriving oneself of something, in saying ‘no’ to oneself; and finally alms, as opening ‘towards others’. The Gospel draws this picture clearly when it speaks to us of repentance, of ‘metanoia’. Only with a total attitude—in his relationship with God, with himself and with his neighbour—does man reach conversion and remain in the state of conversion. ‘Alms’ understood in this way has a meaning which is in a certain sense decisive for this conversion. […] It is very easy, in fact, to falsify the idea, as we noted at the beginning. Jesus also gave a warning about the superficial, ‘exterior’ attitude of almsdeeds (cf. Mt 6:4; Lk 11:41). This problem is still a living one. If we realize the essential significance that ‘alms’ has for our conversion to God for the whole of Christian life, we must avoid, at all costs, all that falsifies the meaning of alms, mercy, works of charity, all that may distort their image in ourselves. In this field, it is very important to cultivate interior sensitivity as regards the real needs of our neighbour, in order to know in what we must help him, how to act in order not to wound him, and how to behave in order that what we give, what we bring to his life, may be a real gift, a gift not dimmed by the ordinary negative meaning of the word ‘alms’. (John Paul II. General Audience, March 28, 1979)
Why then do you mourn, being in a state of poverty? Why do you wail keeping a feast, for indeed it is an occasion of feasting. Why do you weep, for poverty is a festival, if you be wise. Why do you lament, thou little child; for such a one we should call a little child. Did such a person strike you? What is this, he made you more able to endure? But did he take away your money? He has removed the greater part of your burden. But has he cut off your honor? Again you tell me of another kind of freedom. Hear even those without teaching wisdom touching these things, and saying, You have suffered no ill, if you show no regard to it. But has he taken away that great house of yours, which has enclosures about it? But behold the whole earth is before you, the public buildings, whether you would have them for delight, or for use. And what is more pleasing or more beautiful than the firmament of Heaven. How long are you poor and needy? It is not possible for him to be rich, who is not wealthy in his soul; like as it is not possible for him to be poor, who has not the poverty in his mind. For if the soul is a nobler thing than the body, the less noble parts have not power to affect it after themselves; but the noble part draws over unto herself, and changes those that are not so noble. For so the heart, when it has received any hurt, affects the whole body accordingly; if its temperament be disordered, it mars all, if it be rightly tempered, it profits all. And if any of the remaining parts should have become corrupt, while this remains sound, it easily shakes off what is evil in them also. And that I may further make what I say more plain, what is the use, I pray you, of verdant branches, when the root is withering? And what is the harm of the leaves being withered above, while this is sound? So also here there is no use of money, while the soul is poor; neither harm from poverty, when the soul is rich. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homily 80 on the Gospel of Saint Matthew)
Human misery is a clear sign of man’s natural condition of frailty and of his need for salvation. Christ the Saviour showed compassion in this regard, identifying himself with the ‘least’ among men (cf. Mt 25:40, 45). ‘It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones. When ‘the poor have the good news preached to them’ (Mt 11:5), it is a sign of Christ’s presence’.
Jesus says: ‘You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me’ (Mt 26:11; cf. Mk 14:7; Jn 12:8). He makes this statement not to contrast the attention due to him with service of the poor. Christian realism, while appreciating on the one hand the praiseworthy efforts being made to defeat poverty, is cautious on the other hand regarding ideological positions and Messianistic beliefs that sustain the illusion that it is possible to eliminate the problem of poverty completely from this world. This will happen only upon Christ’s return, when he will be with us once more, for ever. In the meantime, the poor remain entrusted to us and it is this responsibility upon which we shall be judged at the end of time (cf. Mt 25:31-46). (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 183)
III- Ecclesiastical Goods are Administered for the Glory of God
I entreat you more than if it were a question of myself that, when it is becoming and it may seem to be expedient, you humbly beseech the clerics to venerate above all the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Name and written words which sanctify the body. They ought to hold as precious the chalices, corporals, ornaments of the altar, and all that pertain to the Sacrifice. And if the most holy Body of the Lord be lodged very poorly in any place, let It according to the command of the Church be placed by them and left in a precious place, and let It be carried with great veneration and administered to others with discretion. The Names also and written words of the Lord, wherever they may be found in unclean places, let them be collected, and they ought to be put in a proper place. (Saint Francis of Assisi. Letter to all the Custodes)
Let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, especially those who do so indifferently, consider among themselves how poor the chalices, corporals, and linens may be where the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is sacrificed. And by many It is left in wretched places and carried by the way disrespectfully, received unworthily and administered to others indiscriminately. Again His Names and written words are sometimes trampled under foot, for the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of God (1 Cor 2:14). Shall we not by all these things be moved with a sense of duty when the good Lord Himself places Himself in our hands and we handle Him and receive Him daily? Are we unmindful that we must needs fall into His hands? (Saint Francis of Assisi, Letter to Clerics – English)
Let us then at once and resolutely correct these faults and others; and wheresoever the most holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ may be improperly reserved and abandoned, let It be removed thence and let It be put and enclosed in a precious place. (Saint Francis of Assisi, Letter to Clerics – English)
Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance”, devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room”, she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. (John Paul II. Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 48, April 17, 2003)
On the subject of evangelical poverty, the synod fathers gave a concise yet important description, presenting it as the subjection of all goods to the supreme good of God and his kingdom. In reality, only the person who contemplates and lives the mystery of God as the one and supreme good, as the true and definitive treasure, can understand and practice poverty, which is certainly not a matter of despising or rejecting material goods but of a loving and responsible use of these goods and at the same time an ability to renounce them with great interior freedom – that is, with reference to God and his plan. […] Being personally involved in the life of the community and being responsible for it, the priest should also offer the witness of a total ‘honesty’ in the administration of the goods of the community, which he will never treat as if they were his own property, but rather something for which he will be held accountable by God and his brothers and sisters, especially the poor. Moreover, his awareness of belonging to the one presbyterate will be an incentive for the priest to commit himself to promoting both a more equitable distribution of goods among his fellow priests and a certain common use of goods (cf. Acts 2:42-47). (John Paul II. Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, no. 30, March 25, 1992)
Moreover ecclesiastical goods are to be applied not only to the good of the poor, but also to the divine worship and the needs of its ministers. Hence it is said (XII, qu.2, can. de reditibus): ‘Of the Church’s revenues or the offerings of the faithful only one part is to be assigned to the bishop, two parts are to be used by the priest, under pain of suspension, for the ecclesiastical fabric, and for the benefit of the poor; the remaining part is to be divided among the clergy according to their respective merits.’ (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 184. a. 7)
Let the bishop have the care of all ecclesiastical business, and let him dispense these things as in the sight of God. (Denzinger-Hünermann 712. Lateran Council I (Ecumenical IX), Canons, March 27, 1123)
[Art. 4, concl. 3:] This blessed, indeed most blessed and sweetest law, namely, the law of love, takes away all propriety and power
I retract on this as false, erroneous, heretical, since Christ and the Apostles observed that ley most perfectly, and also many others of different conditions observed that law, and these had property and dominions […] This corollary, if it includes this law of love till the exclusion of all property and right of possession, as the conclusion affirms, I consider false, erroneous and heretical, and contrary to the will of the Church. (Denzinger-Hünermann, 1087. Constitution Ex supernae clementiae, December 23, 1368 – English parts)
The Church has always claimed the right to possess and administer temporal goods. However, she does not ask for privileges in that area, but rather the possibility to use the means at her disposal for a threefold purpose: ‘to order divine worship; to provide decent support for the clergy and other ministers; to perform the works of the sacred apostolate and of charity, especially towards the needy’ (can. 1254, §2 of the Code of Canon Law). (John Paul II. Address to a delegation from the Croatian Episcopal Conference and the Government of Croatia, December 15, 1988)