Joy, generosity and Nicholas

Those who are poor, brokenhearted, imprisoned and all who are held captive should rejoice, we heard on Gaudete Sunday. When Jesus stood up and proclaimed the same message in the synagogue, he declared, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” In the person of Christ, the connection between joy, works of mercy and generosity becomes clear.

Last week I wrote about how feasts remind us that reaching heaven is what really matters in life and they connect us with the love of God, both in the past and in the present. This week I want to reflect on how experiencing the joy of God’s love should give birth to generosity and acts of mercy.

I am sure that family members come to mind as the first people you will give gifts to or be merciful towards, but as we prepare to celebrate the gift of salvation, I ask you to remember the poor and downtrodden, those who are on the margins of society.

In the 4th century, a young man named Nicholas lost his parents to one of the many plagues sweeping through Europe. After mourning his parents’ death, he committed himself to seeking God’s will for his life and doing acts of charity with the substantial inheritance he received.

St. Nicholas, or in Dutch, Santa Claus, heard that a father who used to be well-off was now poor and could not provide a dowry for his three daughters. Without dowries, the girls were ignored by suitors and their father was considering sending his daughters to a brothel as a way to solve the family’s financial crisis.

Remembering Jesus’ words about giving alms in secret and not seeking the praise of men, St. Nicholas resolved to stop the father from following through on his sinful plan. The saint’s biographer, Michael the Archimandrite, tells us that during the night, Nicholas wrapped the necessary number of gold coins in a cloth and tossed it through a window of the poor man’s house.

“As day broke, the man got up from bed, found the bundle of money in the middle of the house and, with tears that he could not hold back, taken with joy, amazed and stunned, gave thanks to God,” the biographer recounted.

St. Nicholas returned two more times with money for the other daughters. The father stayed up for nights, hoping to discover who was helping his family. On the final occasion, he saw St. Nicholas and realized he knew him. The poor man is said to have declared, “If it were not for your kindness, aroused by our common Lord Jesus Christ, I would have long since been consigned to a life of perdition and shame.”

As we heard in the readings from this past Sunday, Jesus’ birth brings glad tidings to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to captives and release to prisoners (cf. Is. 61: 1-2). Christ brings us the good news of salvation, and our joy at this gift should lead us to generously give of ourselves to those in need, just as St. Nicholas did.

There are many ways you can show your joy and gratitude for the birth of Christ. Plan acts of generosity, but do it quietly and not for praise; do it for love. Following St. Nicholas’ example, you could volunteer to help the poor through Catholic Charities, visit someone who is lonely, or extend forgiveness to someone who has hurt you.

If you are thinking about how to be financially generous, I ask that you consider Divine Mercy Supportive Care. This Catholic hospice ministry is carrying out a corporal work of mercy by caring for the sick and dying, showing the mercy of Christ to those who are at the end of their life. The need for their services has proven to be great. In fact, the physicians who work for Divine Mercy tell me that the demand has far exceeded both their expectations and their resources. Hence, they are in great need of resources at the end of this year to help them carry out works of mercy.

I pray that you will continue using this Advent to prepare a place for the birth of Christ in your heart and home. May we be willing to generously welcome him, even if he comes to us as someone who is poor, sick, dying or in need of friendship.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”