La Santa Sede



La Curia Romana





Robert Cardinale Sarah                      
Pontifical Councilo Cor Unum 

the ecclesial dimension of charity

Freiburg, Germany, April 23, 2013)

Your Excellencies, Dear Friends,

First of all, I am deeply grateful for the invitation to come to Freiburg to visit the Deutscher Caritasverband and for the opportunity to meet all of you and speak at this university. As a representative of the Holy See, I also wish to express my appreciation for the important work that the Deutscher Caritasverband carries out in this country and all over the world. Since 1925, a special characteristic of this university has been the dedication to the theological and systematic reflection of the Church’s charitable activity. It is impressive and a prophetic sign that a specific faculty in the university is committed to the systematic study of Caritas. In the fact that action must be accompanied by reflection, Germany has been in the forefront and the universal Church has received good results from this. Last month, Cor Unum invited German-speaking scholars, among whom were also present Prof. Pompey, Prof. Baumann and Prof. Nothelle-Wildfeuer of this university, to define forms of theological supplements for our charitable activity. I strongly encourage you not to abandon this good tradition, which makes it possible to facilitate a continuous dialogue within the universal Church and enable mutual enrichment and support in the field of Caritas. As the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Dicastery of the Holy See, according to Benedict XVI, responsible for providing orientation to the charitable work of the Church, I wish to reflect with you today on the foundations and significance of the Church’s Caritas - a Caritas which is embedded in the Church’s identity and which can provide the intellectual and spiritual input for the world, which it is asking from us.

1. As an organized form of charity, what does Caritas in regards to the Church’s nature and mission mean for our times and the world of today with its plurality?

When Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the Motu Proprio on the 11th of November 2012 to establish an ecclesial legislation for the sector of organized charity, he made it a point to begin this document with the words Intima Ecclesiae Natura: “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” (Deus Caritas Est, 25).” In the Motu Proprio, Pope Benedict explained this quotation from his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est in the following way: “The service of charity is also a constitutive element of the Church’s mission and an indispensable expression of her very being.”

In the measure that the Church exercises these three tasks, she fulfills her mission, making it possible the communion between men and God. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed that by reason of the ecclesial dimension of the service of charity, the Bishop is responsible for it. He is the point of reference where the Church’s communion is made visible. This is the reason why the role of the bishop in the service of charity is stressed and why Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the new Motu Proprio. The Church cannot realize her mission, she cannot achieve fulfillment if the service of charity is neglected. The service of charity of the Church’s organizations cannot be realized without relating to the Word and Sacraments. In this sense, how can we express in a better way that the Bishop is the pastor, guide and the one primarily responsible for the service of charity (IEN art. 4.1)? This is the meaning behind the new legislation given in the Motu Proprio. And, we can ascertain that the new Pope gives the testimony of this personal engagement of the Bishop in the service of the poor.

Therefore, Caritas is an intrinsic part of the Church’s nature – or rather and vice versa: in Caritas, the Church comes into contact with its innermost nature; without Caritas, the Church cannot express herself or her true nature (DCE n. 42). On the occasion of our General Assembly last year, I mentioned that Caritas is not a special sector within the Church. It is the sap of the vine, it is the life of the entire body, it is a universal commandment to live our faith and to enable our humanity to grow with the help of the Gospel.

2. How should this fundamental importance of Caritas for the Church and her ecclesial significance be understood?

First, let us take precautions against two easily emerging misunderstandings. In the Encyclical Caritas In Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that “for the Church, instructed by the Gospel, charity is everything”. However, he is not referring to the organized charitable service of the Church, which is legitimately called Caritas, but to its source: the love, which is God Himself. “Everything has its origin in God's love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God's greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope” (CIV n. 2). The love of God is the fountain of life of the Church and her charitable works.

This is expressed in a clearer way in the reflection of the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est, which deals with the charitable ministry of the Church. Since God is love, the Church with all its parts reflects this divine virtue. Organized Caritas is identified with the Church since it is part of the Church’s three-fold mission. Caritas requires a living inner connection with the celebration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Gospel just as these two elements require this inner connection with Caritas so that all three elements can mutually strengthen, support and if necessary correct each other.

During the Holy Mass Pro Ecclesia in the Sistine Chapel with the Cardinal Electors on March 14, 2013, Pope Francis warns us on the direction that the Church may take, that of becoming a mere NGO, if our witness of Jesus Christ is lacking. An NGO is not the same as the Church. And, is an organized Caritas an NGO? Yes, in many cases, Caritas is also a charitable NGO because of necessary and practical reasons. To fulfill its mission, Caritas needs the civil legal framework to meet the demands of the general well being of the whole society. However, Caritas is by far not merely a charitable NGO, an alternative replacement within the general welfare system. Many have often mistaken Caritas as a mere NGO dedicated to social work. It is often overlooked that Caritas is the organized charitable service of the Church and constitutes the Church itself. It is essential for Caritas that the Church acts through it. As Pope Benedict said, “The Church's charitable organizations, on the other hand, constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally, but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. The Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organized activity of believers” (DCE n. 29). Even if there are many other NGOs, the Church cannot withdraw from organized charity since even as NGO, Caritas is intrinsically the Church.

With both of these statements by Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, we find ourselves in the mist of a discussion on the theological identity of the Church and its Caritas. Both the Church and its Caritas find their identity as being witnesses to Jesus Christ and his saving act of God’s love in Jesus’ death on the cross. Therefore, it is appropriate and meaningful that Caritas expresses itself with the logo of a cross surrounded by flames of love, the so called flamed cross. The Caritas saints always burned with love for our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

3. In the times of the New Testament, Christian charity as a jointly organized activity of the faithful already existed. The first Christians made sure that “within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life” (DCE n. 20). Ensuring this essential core of practical and organized love for one another is – as Benedict XVI called - a “fundamental ecclesial principle”. Caritas is putting this “fundamental ecclesial principle” into practice (DCE n. 21). The Church strives to fulfill her specific responsibility that “within the ecclesial family no member should suffer through being in need” and at the same time, the Church reaches out beyond to the poor and miserable of all sorts (DCE n. 25b). With this outreach into the whole society, the Church in a concrete way acts as the leaven that permeates human cultures and societies with the love of God for the suffering (cf. Mt 13, 33). In this way, Caritas contributes essentially in the true sense of the word, to the comprehensive Catholic mission of the Church, as Cardinal Bergoglio highlighted it in his speech at the pre-conclave: “The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries: those of the mysteries of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery.” Through the Church’s care ad intra and ad extra and through her service in the midst of the world and for the world that God so loved with all its miseries, Caritas is the practiced Christian religion along with the liturgy and the proclamation of the Gospel. The right of the freedom of religion therefore, encompasses the service of the Church also through her Caritas. Her humanitarian commitment is at the same time a deeply religious commitment since the religious practice of the Church becomes a very concrete humanitarian practice of her Caritas. Both cannot be put in opposition to one another, but from a Christian point of view are linked with an inseparable inner connection, according to the Christological principle of vere homo et vere Deus.

4. In fact, all this is not new. It must, however, constantly be renewed. The novelty of our faith must be rediscovered, adhered to, lived by and passed on to every generation. This task of rediscovering and passing on the faith - evangelization or new evangelization - depends necessarily for support on two pillars: witness and love, confessio and caritas. In this sense, Pope Benedict XVI, in his meditation at the beginning of the Synod of Bishops for the New Evangelization on October 8, 2013, provided a clear profile: “‘Confessio’ is not an abstract thing, it is ‘caritas’, it is love. Only in this way is it really the reflection of divine truth, which as truth is also, inseparably, love.” In his interpretation of the hymn to the Holy Spirit, he points out the way of evangelization: Accendat ardor proximos, truth shall become love within me and love shall ignite as fire my neighbor. Only by igniting others through the flames of our love can evangelization and the presence of the Gospel actually grow, since it is not simply spoken word but indeed living reality.

Pope Benedict XVI consciously used the word caritas, which fortunately became the name of the Catholic Church’s organized charitable service when the Deutscher Caritasverband was founded. It also became the motto of all its activities with which it is to live by and profess in all its charitable activities. For this reason, caritas stands for the agape of the New Testament, a term which describes the extraordinary love that God has shown to us throughout the entire history of creation and salvation, and at the same time, it constitutes the adequate response of mankind and God’s people in the form of love for God and for others (cf. Mc 12:28-34), as it was lived by Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 15:12). Therefore, it is very appropriate to declare with the German Bishops that the Christian vocation as well as the divine vocation of all mankind is the vocation of caritas (cfr. Die deutschen Bishofe, Berufen zur caritas, Bonn 2009). It is love that seeks and finds resonance in the hearts of human beings, because we are made for love. This is the reason why love means everything to the Church and that without love; the Church with all her activity would be worthless and futile (cfr. 1 Cor 13). The same holds true for organized Caritas, where love must become concrete, perceptible, tangible and in this way, a gift for the interacting persons - both for the recipient as well as often amazingly for the bearer. Benedict XVI wanted to show that in this mysterious, quasi-sacramental way that “love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God”. I will shortly come back to this sacramental dimension. Here, it becomes clear how the living of Caritas is the basis for all transmission of the faith and bestows the creed with credibility, as Pope Paul VI mentioned in Evangelii nuntiandi.

5. I have mentioned that in principle, all of this is not new. It is rooted in the most important commandment (cfr. Mc 12:28-34), which Jesus has reminded his people and entrusted to the Church, strengthened by God’s love for us made perfect through Jesus’ death on the cross. From the very beginning, it was clear among the faithful that not only individually, but also as a community, the faithful are summoned by the Holy Spirit to practice loving and active care for the needy. As followers of Christ, called to the love of God and mankind, throughout Church history, the faithful have lived as vigilant contemporaries who was attentive to the needs of their time and sought to remedy them by uniting in joint effort to relief and abolish suffering. They were often supported in their work by their priests and bishops who themselves felt a deep concern for the needs of the faithful and all people. Indeed, the bishops and priests have a special responsibility to ensure that their local Churches on the diocesan and parish level never neglect this charitable service, but support lay initiatives and, with a subsidiary approach and also create their own (IEN n. 1,1). Every diocese needs to have its diocesan Caritas. The bishops have a guiding pastoral responsibility to ensure that the manifold initiatives motivated by faith, accomplish their services in an effective way and coordinate with the different realities of the Church. This is the vision of Pope Benedict in his Motu Proprio Intima Ecclesiae Natura. This is also the reason to create a place on the diocesan level for a common encounter and for providing orientation for the pastoral of Caritas and to create a Caritas in every parish. In addition to the normative requirements of ecclesiastical law or rather to enable their best possible fulfillment based on standards - for example, with regards to responsibilities and supervision on the administrative and budget level - the bishops and priests needs the competencies of the faithful, those who are experts in those fields. We are aware of the presence of many such experts under the vast umbrella of Caritas Internationalis and also under the umbrella of Deutscher Caritasverband. They provide in words and deeds good services to bishops in Germany and worldwide.

6. The Pontifical Council Cor Unum took its name from the testimony given by the first community in Jerusalem, which is reported in the Acts of the Apostles: “The community of believers was of one heart and soul” (cfr. Acts 4:32; 4:32-37; 2:43-47). Our Pontifical Council is dedicated to the service of promoting this unity of heart on all levels of the Church in her mission in this service of love, especially the unity of bishops, priests, deacons and all believers, as well as other people of good will who are actively engaged in charitable works. In our field of activity, we wish to guarantee the comunio, which belongs theologically to the nature of the Church and is an essential raison d’etre of the Petrine office. As an element to ensure the fulfillment of this unity and even more the life of this mission, Pope Benedict XVI in the Motu Proprio pointed out the importance of formation based on adequate curricula (IEN Art. 7.2).

As was done in the past, the Institute of Science of Caritas of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Freiburg could also provide in the future valuable assistance to achieve this goal in cooperation with the Deutscher Caritasverband. The first two presidents of Deutscher Caritasverband, Prelates Lorenz Werthmann and Benedickt Kreutz, clearly and strongly advocated in favor of such an independent Institute of the Science of Caritas, dealing with scientific research and teaching. They have rendered outstanding services to facilitate its establishment at the University of Freiburg. No later than the magisterium of Benedict XVI, but already from the Second Vatican Council, it is clear that more curricular elements are used within theological studies as a preparation for the ministry of charity of the Church.

7. I would like to focus more concretely on the Second Vatican Council, whose 50th anniversary we are celebrating. I would like to begin with a statistic on the use of terms. A statistical analysis of the terms used in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (LThK 2nd edition, Erg. Bd. III, Index Terminologicus, page 735-746) shows that the term caritas is used 154 times, whereas the term veritas only occurs 102 times. The term caritas is used most often in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, namely 42 times; even more than in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, where it occurs 23 times. It can further be found 11 times in the Decree on the Lay Apostolate Apostolicam Actuositatem. As a matter of fact, caritas in the sense of agape is a basic term of the Christian faith because it expresses the nature of God. The Caritas scholar Richard Völkl of Freiburg, who died in the year 2003, was correct in affirming that the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council teaches an ecclesia caritatis1.

What does Caritas mean for the Church throughout times, but particularly in our time and world of today? Let me begin with the perfect example of Lumen Gentium.

7.1 Caritas plays a decisive role in rendering visible what the Church actually is according to Lumen Gentium no. 1: “The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.” By providing daily services for people and not abandoning them in their situations of need, but seeking them out and supporting them with competence and spontaneity, organized Caritas creates and maintains bonds of “unity” among people. Through its charitable work, Caritas especially makes the poor and the suffering feel God’s love for them. This often is brought about without words, but this experience of love opens up this encounter with God, who is love. This “union with God” can also be felt by Caritas workers in uplifting moments as a fruit of their charitable activities. Indeed, God is present in their services, in those who need their help, in their loved ones who also suffer and bear the burden and share in their worries and sorrows, just as our Risen Lord who accompanied his disciples to Emmaus and strengthened them by the gift of His presence, with his word and sacrament (cfr. Lk 24). Thus, Caritas is a very concrete instrument, which acts in manifold ways as leaven, by penetrating down to the earth where it gets dirty, like Jesus who became a human being for our sake (cfr. LG 8). Above all, through Caritas, “the Church encompasses with love all who are afflicted with human suffering and in the poor and afflicted sees the image of its poor and suffering Founder. It does all it can to relieve their need and in them it strives to serve Christ” (LG 8.3). A few days from now, a diocesan assembly will begin here in Freiburg, which his Excellency, the Archbishop have convened under the motto “Close to Christ and to the People”. This motto as for the Church - as I see - is at the same time a daily reality especially for your Caritas.

7.2 This basic orientation is found again in the famous passage at the beginning of Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts” (GS 1). The institutions of Caritas, their services and personnel are the living realization of this statement, in particular by being close to the poor and afflicted of all kinds.

7.3 In the Decree on the Lay Apostolate Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Second Vatican Council summarizes in condensed form essential aspects for organizations and initiatives engaged in the ministry of charity. Being included in this Decree, it is clear that Caritas is best realized from the grassroots level of Christian life in the world and should not primarily depend on the initiatives of the shepherds of the Church, since the vocation to holiness of all believers is synonymous with the vocation for caritas. The lay Decree reflects the intimate connection between Caritas and the Eucharist from the beginnings of the Church. At the same time, it formulates the duty and the right of the Church to perform acts of charity. “While it rejoices in the undertakings of others, it claims works of charity as its own inalienable duty and right” (AA 8.3). In a globalized world, this right and duty even lose their boundaries: “These charitable enterprises can and should reach out to all persons and all needs. Wherever there are people in need of food and drink, clothing, housing, medicine, employment, education; wherever men lack the facilities necessary for living a truly human life or are afflicted with serious distress or illness or suffer exile or imprisonment, there Christian charity should seek them out and find them, console them with great solicitude, and help them with appropriate relief” (AA8.4). Here, what may easily appear as an excessive demand is actually part of a living practice, which simply intends to stand by people in need without any kind of discrimination with respect for the freedom and human dignity of all men, making an effort to address the causes of poverty and distress and provide aid for self-help where it is possible (AA 8.5).

8. At this point, almost in synthesis, it is very appropriate to highlight the three dimensions of service by which also the Deutscher Caritasverband defines its entire charitable action: first, as assistance and services close to people; second, as initiation of brotherhood and compassion with one another enabling many individuals to cooperate for the good of all; and third, as prophetic engagement to enlighten the consciences to obtain justice in the social-political field. “Since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically. The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church.” (DCE n. 28a). Also, in this sense, Deutscher Caritasverband is a service of the Church, namely by fruitfully applying the Catholic social teachings to issues raised in society, economy and politics, and by not only pinpointing deficits, but also by providing sound arguments and suggesting better alternatives for a more just social order. Especially, in regards to interrelationship with society, the question of quality and Christian witness of the manifold structures of the Church’s charitable ministry must be raised. As in the past, it remains important to be such model in the vast market of service offers, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, a model for the realization of “a true humanism, which acknowledges that man is made in the image of God and wants to help him to live in a way consonant with that dignity” (DCE 31b). Based on this criterion, our institutions should set quantitative and qualitative benchmarks and recognize their reason of being.

In all these dimensions, Caritas is an essential factor of the diaconia of the Church on all levels: as a sacrament for the most intimate union with God and for the unity of all mankind, in the process of realizing her mission at the service of God’s love (cfr. DCE 42). Especially in these important times of change in the Church and in society, Pope Francis can rely on the charitable work of the Church to implement what he strongly reminded the Cardinals during the pre-conclave and which I once again repeat: The Church “is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only in the geographical sense, but also to go to the existential peripheries: those of the mysteries of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery.” By daily contact with the peripheries, Caritas lives this mission of the Church, especially in this time of New Evangelization. Caritas also helps to overcome the evil of ecclesial self-centeredness and theological narcissism. In the best theological sense, this is the very practical and permanent importance of Caritas for the Church, so that the latter can remain faithful in her entirety to her mission and lives her mission in joyful commitment. In order to fulfill this task, we do not have to start all over from scratch. The history of the Church is also the history of the saints. Many saints have given their best witness of their relationship with God through their ministry of charity. The saints of the past are examples for us. However, even today we have such saints, mostly acting in a hidden and humble way. The fire of the flamed cross also stands for the burning hearts of countless such individuals working for the good of others. It stands for a mostly unrecorded but essential history, presence and future of the Church. It is a Church that practices love as a community and we as her members can even today live this mission and bear witness based on our intimate relationship with Christ. May the necessary hope and courage for this realization strongly burn in our hearts (cfr. Lk 12:49).

I thank you for your attention.

1 Vgl. Richard Völkl, Exkurs: Die “Kirche der Liebe (Ecclesia Caritatis)” nach den Dokumenten des Vaticanum II, in: LThK, 2. Aufl., erg.Bd. III, 1968, 580-586; ders., Dienende Kirche, Kirche der Liebe, Freiburg: Seelsorge-Verlag 1969.