THE HOLY FATHER AND EUROPEAN VOLUNTEERS
Vatican City, 10-11 November 2011
Address to European Volunteers by Cardinal Robert Sarah
President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum
I have looked forward to this meeting with you and finally, I am happy that this day has arrived. It is uplifting to meet you who through your dedication to volunteer work, serve the charitable mission of the Church. We have come together to be confirmed in our faith, hope and love through the sharing of our experiences and listening to the teaching of our Holy Father.
In the last few years, we have witnessed so many social changes, and while the global attention is fixed on the volatile state of the world’s economy, the phenomenon of volunteerism in Europe has remained a constant factor and has been embedded firmly in European culture. It is a stable reality that truly vitalizes our old continent called Europe. It is reported that 3 in every 10 European adults have freely offered their volunteer service each year. Imagine Europe without at least 140 million of these volunteers… the common good and society would not endure, the economy would lose around 400 billion dollars, but most importantly, God’s love would not be witnessed, since Catholic volunteerism offers us a unique opportunity to proclaim God’s love through charitable work.
I give thanks to God that many people consider it an honor to be involved in volunteer work to serve individuals, organizations and community. This is precisely why you deserve the Church’s appreciation and gratitude, because through volunteerism, you participate in spreading the message of Christ’s love to all people. On behalf of the whole Church, thank you for this testimony of love!
CHRIST’S LOVE AS THE MODEL FOR ALL CATHOLIC VOLUNTEERS
You have gathered here from all over Europe, from different countries, languages and cultures. What is this inner motivation that unites so many people with such a plurality of backgrounds?
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the “Leviathan” explained that “fear” is the driving motivation that inclines man towards peace and moves him to live and cooperate in society. This pessimistic view of human nature affirms that human beings are in a constant state of conflict and competition with one another to attain certain ends. Therefore, the fruit of this “fear” gives rise to a social contract where man’s selfishness is curved. This Hobbes’ explanation about the origin of society opposes the Aristotle’s thinking, complemented later also by St. Thomas Aquinas’ theory, where man’s nature defines him as a social being whose common good consists of the good of every human being and society as a whole. In his nature, man is created good but because of original sin, he is also inclined to evil and selfishness. In spite of this imperfect nature, redemption offers us a positive outlook in which grace can triumph and restore this goodness in us. Therefore, it is not fear but love that is at the foundation of human society.
Your presence as volunteers certainly confirms that in the heart of every human being, belonging to whatever time, place or ethnic group, God has placed this innate desire to help others. This is the unifying force that moves volunteers to give generously of their time, talents and gifts at the service of the poor. As president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”, I am witnessing this first hand particularly when the world is hit with a natural disaster or a humanitarian crisis like the one that we are now experiencing in Somalia. I am moved by the compassionate solicitude and aid of so many people from the four corners of the earth, even from poor countries, who gave abundantly for emergency relief. We react in this way because we are made in the image and likeness of God, a triune God whose very nature is love. For this reason, only when we love and offer our brothers and sisters the gift of self can we discover the true meaning of life, and therefore, find true happiness.
Indeed, when the spark of this natural longing to do good for others is touched by the flame of Christ’s love for us, He will enkindle and awaken within us “a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved” by God (Deus Caritas Est n. 17). Since it is He who has suffered for us, it is He who “died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor 5,15).
At the Last Supper, Jesus left us this great Commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13,34-35). How has Jesus loved us? It is sufficient for us to contemplate Jesus on the Cross in order to find an eloquent expression of His love: a love that gives freely, a love that does not count the cost, a love that gives totally; in short, a love that is divine.
Since God is love and He is the source of all human love, it is necessary that we reconnect with our Catholic roots where we will find that Christ’s love will inspire and strengthen us in our self-giving to others. “They will look on Him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19,37). Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in Deus Caritas Est (n. 12), “by contemplating the pierced side of Christ”, we can discover the path along which our life and love must move. When we put Christ as the model of our love for others, we can draw from this spring of virtues so many lessons of how our volunteer work to our brothers and sisters ought to be. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself” (Jn 12,32). Jesus wants us to come to Him because only in Him will we find all that our hearts long for, and at the same time we will find the motivation to offer ourselves in the service to others.
SERVANTS OF THE DIGNITY OF EVERY HUMAN PERSON
Jesus’ sacrifice of His life is a gift freely given. “No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will (Jn 10,18). These words of Jesus remind us that the gifts of life, redemption and the many talents are all free gifts given to us by the good Lord. From this we understand better that gratuitousness is one of the most fundamental characters of Catholic volunteerism, which consists of giving freely to others what we have received from God.
Yet, there are also an increasing number of volunteer works that have taken on a character of professionalism for a common good without financial gain but nevertheless received recompense for their activities.
Efficiency and professionalism are qualities of volunteer work, favored by big organizations. Yet, they do not portray effectively the essential aspects of volunteerism. The fundamental dimension at the core of volunteerism is the “personal” approach with which the volunteer gives freely of himself. We should leave aside the mentality of instrumental efficiency and focus more on the personal aspect of our contribution. Since through this gracious personal self-giving, a person discovers his true self in charity and at the same time he serves the needs of the individual that he meets.
While this “professional” aspect of volunteerism is a great help for the growth and development of talents; nevertheless, Catholic volunteers should be more focused on the dignity of the human person rather than on profit and results. Nevertheless, putting first the dignity of the human person does not mean that we must substitute quality with improvisation. On the contrary, gratuitousness demands perfection in the service given since a lack of it would lessen the value of the given contribution.
Thus, this evaluation of efficiency and professionalism brings us to ask this question: Does this mean then that we ought to renounce public funding? Here we touch upon a theme that is evidently sensitive to the life of many institutions. Obviously, the Church is not against public funding of Catholic organizations. In fact, according to the principle of subsidiarity, it is the duty of the State by means of economic and legal initiatives to provide the conditions and opportunities that would foster a favorable environment for citizens to contribute by volunteering.
We should not view in a conflicting and opposing way our action in the world and our sense of belonging to the Church. The fact that we live in the world should not make us refer less to our being members of the Church, as if what the Church offers us may not be at the height of this world’s expectations. On the contrary, in as much as we are rooted in our Catholic identity, in as much as we are in a deep relationship with Christ and with the Church, the more we will be able to respond with greater dedication, spirit of service and discernment to the challenges that the world presents to us. The testimony of the saints teaches us that adoration to God did not distract them from the world, but rather it gave them a greater zeal and a special insight in order to respond to the demands of their times. Moreover, this testimony has its origin in Christ since it is He, who first served man in obedience to the Father.
WITNESSES OF GOD’S LOVE
“No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15,13). When we listen to these words of Jesus, we are reminded always of His immense love for us, a love that entailed the sacrifice of His very life, a precious gift that no man gives up easily. As Catholic volunteers, we are called to imitate His love by giving of ourselves totally without holding anything back.
In a secularized Europe, filled with so many human and spiritual challenges, it is necessary that we make known God’s compassionate love through our charitable works. Catholic volunteerism offers us the perfect arena, where in the act of offering ourselves to the service of our brothers and sisters, we can bear witness to our faith and love of God in a Europe that is in desperate need of Him.
In the history of the Church, Christians have always practiced volunteerism, moved by charity under the names of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The Church offers a timeless message of hope that is needed in every generation and that cannot be stifled but must be proclaimed through volunteerism.
Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical reminds all Christians of the importance of this testimony of charity for the Church in our time. Through our testimony, the people that we serve would perceive the love of God that is always near to every person in need. For us Christians, God Himself is the fountain of charity, and charity as a whole is not just philanthropy, but a gift of self, even to the point of sacrificing one’s own life for the sake of others, in this way imitating the example of Jesus Christ. Therefore, charity is a witness, a God-given opportunity to minister to all those that are far from the faith; not because we want to direct our charitable work towards this end but rather because we want to help people to grow deeper in the knowledge of themselves and meet their profound needs. Otherwise, our contribution would not be an authentic help if we do not appeal the heart of the people, where there is a deep longing for God.
IMPORTANCE OF BEING UNITED TO CHRIST THE VINE
How can we safeguard all these Christian values that make up authentic Catholic volunteerism, especially in a secularized world that no longer believes in them? We can only do so when we are united to Jesus the Vine. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15,5).
These words of Jesus remind us of the importance of the power of prayer for all who are involved in charitable work. Jesus is central to Catholic volunteerism. In the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II states that for volunteers, their call becomes a “living sign of Jesus Christ in showing love toward the sick and suffering” (No. 53). It is important for us to always be united with Jesus in prayer and especially the Eucharist, since prayer is the meeting place where Jesus motivates us to a greater self-giving, where He frees us from any ideologies, selfishness or even a sense of hopelessness in the face of so much need and where He opens our eyes of faith to see Him in the poor.
FRUITS OF CATHOLIC VOLUNTEERING
According to a statistic of SCI (Service Civil International), 65% of European volunteers are students. Young people especially long to discover their abilities and talents. They want to feel that they are needed, that their contribution and their effort make a positive difference in society. Volunteer work offers them this possibility: developing of social values and acquiring experiences and skills that other educational sectors do not offer. Through the initiatives of self-giving, they can be educated in their own responsibility and learn again to appreciate the values in things. If it is true that the first charity is education, it is also true for all of us that the first education is charity.
Indeed, volunteerism not only helps them to develop their talents and gifts, it also enriches them in their Christian life since it is connected to the First Commandment of loving God and neighbor. The tiredness, burdens, worries and even the diverse difficulties that they experience, the Lord of the harvest will bring forth fruits of patience, compassion, trust and a greater self-giving love. Through these experiences, the Lord will touch and transform their hearts into hearts like His. If the goal of our life is seen from the perspective of mirroring our love to be like Christ’s love, then without any doubt, this transformation of the heart is the greatest fruit of volunteer work.
For this reason, in the field of Catholic volunteerism, we have a rich and nutrient soil to cultivate in young people the seed of a vocation to greater self-giving in the priesthood or consecrated life. Young people live in a demanding culture of work and profit, where having a job and making money become almost their sole occupation; consequently, leaving no time for volunteer work. May young people find in volunteer work that true happiness is found in self-giving and may it open their hearts to discover the call of Jesus.
Please be assured that the Church is sincerely grateful to you and fully supports you in the volunteer service that you generously offer. In our encounter with the Holy Father tomorrow, I encourage you to study, pray over and apply his teaching in your life so that it may bring abundant fruits for you and those you serve. May this encounter in Rome, bring you a renewal of faith and love in your service to others.