Cor Unum’s Presentation of Pope’s Lenten Letter

“We Must Make Known the Concrete Charity of the Catholic Church”

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 22, 2011 ( Here is a Vatican translation of the address delivered today by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, at the public presentation of Benedict XVI’s message for Lent.

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“You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him” (cf. Col 2:12).

These words, addressed by Saint Paul to the Christian community at Colossae, indicate the theme of Baptism chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for His Lenten Message this year. The Holy Father returns to a citation from the Apostle to the Gentiles as a synthesis of the goal of this sacrament: that “I may come to know him and the power of his resurrection, and partake of his sufferings by being molded to the pattern of his death” (Phil 3:10-11).

Pope Benedict appointed me on October 7th of last year as President of Cor Unum, the Dicastery of the Holy See entrusted with the presentation of His Lenten Message. As you know, our Pontifical Council’s main task is to diffuse the Church’s catechesis on charity and the concrete charitable initiatives of our Holy Father. To help us understand this year’s Lenten Message and the evident link that Pope Benedict wishes to underline between Baptism and charity, please allow me to share three events in these last months that provide some insight into this connection.

The first concerns the “formation of the heart” that the Pope asked for in His first Encyclical, “Deus Caritas est” (n. 31a). Last November at the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, Poland, our Dicastery organized Spiritual Exercises for the responsibles of Caritas and other Catholic charitable organizations throughout Europe, just as we have already done for America and Asia, so that they may be led, as the Holy Father exhorts “to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others”.

The Pope goes on to indicate that this encounter with Christ, “to know him”, as Saint Paul points to as a goal of Baptism – through intimacy in prayer, the sacraments, the Word of God – nurtures faith, which, in turn, gives birth to good works. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta used to say: “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love.”

Whereas this first event, we might say, concerns a fundamental ad intra and formative aspect of charitable activity, the other two events focused very much on its ad extra nature. On January 12th this year, our Holy Father asked that I go in His name to Haiti, one year after the devastating earthquake that struck that nation. Who has not been cut deep in the heart by the relentless suffering of our brothers and sisters in that nation? Hundreds of thousands killed in an instant – children, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, as well as priests, religious, seminarians – all who lost their lives, which they held dear just as we do, full of fear and in great pain. Countless thousands robbed of their possessions, still wondering how to build a future. Homes, monuments and buildings, including great religious edifices, reduced to rubble.

Sickness and disease that continue to devastate the lives of the already most afflicted.
And just one week ago, I returned from a meeting in Africa of the “John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel”, one of two foundations that Cor Unumoversees to attend to our suffering brethren, the other being the Foundation “Populorum Progressio” to assist indigenous peoples in Latin Americaand the Caribbean. The Sahel is the poorest region of our entire planet. It includes countries, such as Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Senegal and Mali, whose populations struggle daily to combat starvation, deadly diseases and dire poverty, in the face of the rapidly advancing encroachment of the Sahara desert. As we have witnessed in so many other places of the world, intense misery leads to economic and political instability, creating a vacuum for conflict and unrest that produce a vicious circle of deepening hardship, especially for the most vulnerable.

For Haiti, the Sahel, Latin America and the Caribbean, as for every corner of the world where concrete help is needed, the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of relief efforts. How often we hear our Holy Father appeal to the international and Church community for material aid when disasters strike, irrespective of creed or race or political persuasion! In Haiti alone, Pope Benedict has given over two million dollars in aid. Perhaps we may think that this is a “drop in the ocean” when confronted with the enormity of the reconstruction needed in that troubled nation. But how important it is for our suffering brothers and sisters to know that the Pope is close to them. Nor should we overlook the truly massive response of hundreds of years to caring for the needy of the Church’s charitable agencies, religious congregations, the movements, and so many individuals. In a media environment that wishes to speak only of errors committed by Church members, we must make known the concrete charity of the Catholic Church. Today, I launch an appeal to you to take up this initiative.

But, however important it is to provide for material necessities, these alone can never guarantee our lasting happiness and peace. In the face of the very real suffering that we encounter on a global level – natural disasters, disease, famine, war – of course, we are obliged to seek out concrete solutions to alleviate misery. Governments and supra-national organizations have a role to play, corruption and unjust structures need to be challenged, the scandal of the massive differences between the “have’s” and the “have not’s” must be addressed. But Christ founded the Church to give much more. Suffering, both global and personal – sickness, loneliness, financial distress, family problems, and ultimately, the greatest enemy of all, death – requires an answer that only the possession of eternal life can give: to know “the power of Christ’s resurrection, and partake of his sufferings by being molded to the pattern of his death, striving towards the goal of resurrection from the dead”.

Is this not what was promised to us in our Baptism? The Greek word for baptism (báptisma) signifies an immersion or plunging in the baptismal waters of what the Apostle Paul refers to as the “old man” or the man who lives according to the flesh (cf. Col 3:9). This is the man who lives only for himself, arrogantly cutting himself loose from his Creator and selfishly closing his eyes to the needs of his neighbor. It is not merely a theological description: every one of can readily understand this “old man” because we experience the direct effects of this nature within us, summed up in the seven capital sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. And, like Saint Augustine, who knew all too well these negative impulses, defining them as “twisted and tangled knottiness” (Confessions, II, 10.18), deep down we want to be rid of them: “I do long for you, O Righteousness and Innocence, so beautiful and comely to all virtuous eyes – I long for you with an insatiable satiety. With you is perfect rest” (Saint Augustine, ibid).

Baptism is the “encounter with Christ”, writes Pope Benedict in His Message. It washes away the original sin that we have inherited from our first parents and imparts a new nature, allowing us to put on “the mind of Jesus Christ”. This “new man” lives according to the sentiments of Jesus through the supernatural life that he receives in the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul lists the fruits of God’s spirit dwelling within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). In the very depths of our being, do we not all desire these fruits in our lives? Only they provide the lasting remedy to every human suffering, both personal and universal.

The consequence of this new nature received in Baptism is the source of specific deeds of charity on behalf of our brothers and sisters. “In Christ, God revealed himself as Love,” the Pope writes. Fasting, almsgiving and prayer are aids to assist us to die to our old nature and open our heart to receive this new nature of love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel (cf.Mt 22:34-40). I am grateful for the presence here today of Myriam García Abrisqueta, who will speak of how this is lived concretely through one of the largest of the Church’s charitable organizations in Spain, Manos Unidas.

Allow me to conclude by singling out three elements of the great gift that Pope Benedict offers the Church this Lent – as individuals or in communities – a “road map” to rekindle the supernatural life that was given to us in Baptism:

1. First, the Holy Father fixes for us concrete appointments with specific persons and events on the five Sundays of Lent. He puts before us the Word of God proclaimed on those Sundays. By doing so, he wishes for us to experience a personal encounter with Christ, the answer to the deepest longings of the human person and the world. How necessary it would be, personally or with others, to spend time with these Scripture passages, allowing ourselves in these forty days to hear, contemplate and act on God’s Word!

2. Second, the encounter with Christ in His Word and the sacraments manifests itself in concrete works of mercy. Here, too, our parishes, communities, educational and other institutions and each of us personally have an opportunity in this favorable time, with the help of God’s grace, to move our hearts from living for ourselves to loving our neighbor in need. This is the impetus, too, for the Lenten Campaigns, which Episcopal Conferences worldwide are called to organize.

3. Third, the Pope puts the season of Lent before us as a “path” or “journey”, a span of time to bring to fruition the seed planted at Baptism. This, he indicates, mirrors the entire existence of every human being, lived in between Christ’s resurrection and our own; this ultimate offer of communion with God in eternity shapes life, both social and individual, today. Its foretaste is found in the night of Easter, when we shall hear proclaimed “darkness vanishes for ever” (Paschal Prćconium).

Dear friends: God has created us for love! For this, the power of the gift of God’s life within us, bestowed upon us at Baptism, needs to be nurtured. It is there for the taking! This is the adventure Pope Benedict invites us to this Lent. At Easter, when we shall reap what we sow, the “old man” within us can be drowned and we can arise, through God’s grace, a new creation. The Holy Father’s invitation is not a utopia. Allow me to conclude with some moving words from a fellow countryman of mine, Saint Cyprian of Carthage, the first African Bishop to obtain the crown of martyrdom, the ultimate and irrevocable gift of life out of love for the enemy. He often told of his own spiritual journey of transformation:

“When I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night”, he wrote a few months after his Baptism, “I used to regard it as extremely difficult and demanding to do what God’s mercy was suggesting to me. I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe I could possibly be delivered, so I was disposed to acquiesce in my clinging vices and to indulge my sins … But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of my former life was washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart … a second birth restored me to a new man. Then, in a wondrous manner every doubt began to fade … I clearly understood that what had first lived within me, enslaved by the vices of the flesh, was earthly and that what, instead, the Holy Spirit had wrought within me was divine and heavenly” (Ad Donatum, 3-4).

Thank you very much.

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