Charity means meeting the needy

“Father, it’s Andrea. There’s no more time. Noemi is dying,” he said in the early morning phone call to the pope’s almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the man who brings the Holy Father’s charity to the needy.

Later that morning 1-year-old Noemi traveled with her father and mother—Andrea and Tahereh Sciarretta—to Vatican City from her hometown in the province of Chieti, a little over two hours away by car. Archbishop Krajewski had told them, “Come, come now. … The pope will certainly receive you.”

By 9 a.m., Pope Francis was holding little Noemi, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that causes a loss of specialized nerve cells in the spinal cord and brainstem. The loss of the nerve cells results in weakness and atrophy of the muscles used for crawling, walking, sitting up and controlling head movement.

Pope Francis was deeply moved by little Noemi. He caressed her, kissed her and blessed her, as she looked back at him with joy in her bright eyes.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano explained that in early October Andrea Sciarretta wrote to Pope Francis to tell him about his daughter. On Oct. 14, the Holy Father responded by asking Archbishop Krajewski to keep in close touch with them, which he did, including a trip to see them on All Saints’ Day, to pray with them.

We are just over two weeks away from Advent, which starts on Dec. 1 this year. During Advent we anticipate the birth of Jesus, the time when God performed the ultimate act of charity and became a man like us.

Advent is a time in which we should expand our hearts through acts of charity, in imitation of God’s gift of Jesus to us. And we should allow Jesus’ incarnation to be a model for how we carry out those acts of charity.

God, in his infinite power could have saved us from afar, but he did not. He chose to be with us, to walk the earth, to touch the eyes of the blind, the feet of the lame, the sores of lepers, and the sin-wounded hearts of all humanity.

Pope Francis put it well when he spoke to his fellow Argentineans in an Aug. 7 video message for the feast of St. Gaetano. Speaking about giving to the poor, he said: “But the important thing is not looking at them from afar, or helping from afar. No, no! It is going to encounter them. This is the Christian! This is what Jesus taught: to go meet the most needy.”

Many of us saw this type of encounter with Blessed Mother Teresa and the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta. Her sisters continue that encounter throughout the world and we are blessed to have them in Denver.
We will encounter Jesus, grow in holiness and have a joyful experience of Christmas if we are able to encounter those in need this Advent.

A little more than an hour after visiting with Noemi and her parents, the Holy Father held his weekly Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square. He began it by telling the crowd about his meeting with Noemi.
“Her father and mother are praying, and asking the Lord to heal this beautiful little girl. … The poor little dear was smiling!” he said.

Then he called on the throng in St. Peter’s Square to perform an act of love.

“We do not know her, but she is a baptized child, she is one of us, she is a Christian. Let us perform an act of love for her and in silence ask the Lord for his help in this moment and that he give her health. In silence one moment, and then we will pray the ‘Hail Mary.’”

I pray that everyone in the archdiocese will begin to prepare now for an Advent filled with the type of genuine charity that does not hesitate to look in the eyes of the needy, to touch their hand, to listen attentively and in doing so meet Jesus. Then you will be able to see him and welcome him all the more joyfully at Christmas.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.