Why Catholics serve

In the three weeks since Pope Francis' historic visit to the United States, I still feel the Holy Spirit at work in my own heart. Though it is common to experience immediate joy and energy in the presence of a pontiff, oftentimes other spiritual fruits and consolations take time to be made present. I anticipate that many of us will not fully know the ways in which his visit impacted us as a country and as a Church for quite some time.

One outstanding fruit of this visit, for which I am particularly grateful, was that the Church's charitable and merciful work - which often goes unsung and remains hidden from the public eye - was made known to many. To be sure, we do not serve our brothers and sisters for recognition. The Lord Jesus is very clear about this point in the Gospel! But in our culture, one which often derides the Church for having "strange notions" about marriage, family and the value of life in all of its stages, it was refreshing to hear people express appreciation for the Church's charitable ministries. It was evident from television commentary and media coverage that our work with low-income students, prisoners, the elderly, immigrants, refugees and the homeless is a very real involvement, up to now largely unknown or dismissed, to which many people are drawn.

While many have responded positively to the Church's care for the poor, Pope Francis took great care to explain in both word and deed that Christian service has three distinctive elements and attributes: 1) we serve people, not causes; 2) we have a preferential option for the very least - the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable; and 3) our service is borne out of a living, dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ.

At the start of the Holy Father's apostolic journey, while preaching at Sunday Mass in Havana, Cuba, he clarified that Christians do not serve causes; rather, we serve real people in whom we see the face of Jesus Christ:

"This caring for others out of love is not about being servile. Rather it means putting the question of our brothers and sisters at the center. Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, 'suffering' that closeness and tries to help them. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people" (Pope Francis, Homily, Plaza de Revolución, Sept. 20, 2015).

The Church's commitment to charitable work is not service for service's sake or a commitment to social justice divorced from the Gospel. Its origin comes from a deeply held conviction that this person in front of me, who is in need of food, education, clothing - and most importantly, a loving gaze - is infinitely loved by Jesus Christ. To love our neighbor in whatever concrete way he or she needs is to love the Lord himself: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (cf. Mt 25:40). Each person whom we serve has a different story, a unique need. Our response to them must be attentive to this.

Secondly, the Holy Father also taught all of those watching his visit, most often through his gestures, that no one is to be excluded from the Church's mercy, especially not those whom the world discards and disregards. There might be a need to prioritize processes, but never people. In Cuba he shared, "There is a way to go about serving which is interested in only in helping 'my people,' 'our people.' This service always leaves 'your people' outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion" (Ibid.).

The Holy Father revealed that a Christian does not pick and choose whom to serve - the Heart of Jesus is expansive enough to include everyone. I saw this each time the Holy Father went out of his way to embrace a person with disabilities. What a tremendous lesson for our country, where unborn children with disabilities are increasingly killed in the womb and where adults with disabilities have to speak up against a momentum for euthanasia and assisted suicide, particularly for those who are dependent upon others.

Lastly, without reservation, Pope Francis showed us that a Christian's service is grounded in and sustained by a deeply personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Though Pope Francis' visits to the "least" were televised and recorded, what was not recorded was his personal prayer in front of the tabernacle in every basilica, cathedral, church and chapel to which he went during his visit. Like Pope Francis, and many holy men and women before him, we can love the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable only by being nourished first in our own weakness, poverty, and vulnerability in the Eucharist. Last year, in a General Audience, Pope Francis asked,

"But the Eucharist which I celebrate, does it lead me to truly feel they are all like brothers and sisters? Does it increase my capacity to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and cry with those who are crying? Does it urge me to go out to the poor, the sick, the marginalized? Does it help me to recognize in theirs the face of Jesus?" (cf. Pope Francis, General Audience, Feb. 12, 2014).

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, let us continue to contemplate the fruits of the Holy Father's visit in prayer before the Eucharist, and let us bring that fruit, the love of Jesus Christ, to our brothers and sisters in need. Let us live to serve, not for service's own sake, but for Our Lord whom we find in the least of the "little ones."

Follow Bishop Loverde on Twitter @Bishop_Loverde.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015