Charity – life-blood of the Church

A sermon by a Dominican friar for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost

Dearly beloved, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, being lovers of the brotherhood. (1 Peter 3:8)

The Church which Christ founded is a visible society. He called it a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden. In this respect, it is like a state, such as the United Kingdom, which is also a visible society, since it has a monarch, and houses of parliament, and courts of law. But the Church which our Lord founded is unique, because that which unites it is something infinitely higher than that which unites any other society. A country is united by something merely human, for example by the ties of blood which the people of that country share, or by the common customs or memories which they have. The Church, which is the mystical body of Christ, is united by supernatural charity. Supernatural charity is the life blood of the Church, which keeps all the members healthy and united to each other in one Body.

Although supernatural charity is directed in the first place toward God, it is also directed, secondly, toward our neighbour. As St John says, our love for our brother whom we see is the proof that we have love for our God whom we do not yet see. This is surely part of the reason why God willed that the see of Rome, which was to be at the head of the Church on earth for all time, should be consecrated not just by the death of St Peter, but also by the death of St Paul. In the liturgy for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Church borrows some words that King David used of Saul and Jonathan, and adds some words of her own, saying: “Glorious princes of the earth! As they loved each other in their life, so even in their death they were not divided.” St Peter and St Paul have left to Christians an example of fraternal charity for all time to come.

This fraternal charity, which is the life-blood of the Church, exercises itself in many ways. The most obvious ways, which can certainly never be forgotten, are what we call the seven corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, and so on. These are exercised not just toward strangers, as people sometimes imagine, but also and first of all toward those of our own household.  When a mother cooks a meal for her children, or a religious does the same for her sisters, she is exercising a corporal work of mercy. 

The seven spiritual works of mercy, though less valued by the world in general, are certainly no less valuable in the eyes of God. St Peter in the epistle exhorts us to perform them, when he says, Being lovers of the brotherhood, merciful, modest, humble; not rendering evil for evil, nor railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing. Even to admonish a sinner, when that is appropriate, is a work of mercy. As St Augustine says, if we admonish a sinner because he has wronged or offended us, we have done nothing; but if we do it because he has harmed his own soul, we are showing him mercy.

Sometimes this fraternal charity exercises itself in very hidden ways. We can offer some suffering, or even some inconvenience, for the benefit of some brother or sister in Christ. The Lord assures us that not one sparrow falls to the ground except by the providence of His Father. In the same way, not one suffering or inconvenience befalls us which is without value for the mystical body of Christ, if we receive it with charity. Or again, we can tell our heavenly Father that if He sees any merit in our actions, that it belongs to His Son more than to us, and that we wish it to benefit some member of His Son who is in need of it.

This doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, and the continual exchange of supernatural goods which is going on within it, is well expressed by the Secret prayer of today’s Mass. It says: “May that which each one of us has offered to the glory of thy name profit all alike to salvation.” This prayer is not primarily referring to the money which the faithful may put in the collection-basket! (although even that is not excluded.) It means, may the devotion with which each of the faithful unites himself to the saving Victim offered upon the altar benefit everyone here present, and not just everyone here present, but all the faithful throughout the parish, and the diocese, and the whole world, not excluding the holy souls in purgatory who can now do nothing for themselves, and who rely on us if their journey toward the light is to become less slow.

I said that supernatural charity is the life-blood of the Church. Yet just as in the human body there can be an interruption of the proper flow of blood, often with damaging effects, so this can in some way happen also in the mystical body of Christ. Our Lord tells us today that the passion of anger is one common cause of such interruptions in the proper circulation of charity within this Body. He also tells us that this passion, anger, has three degrees. The first is purely internal. I become impatient with somebody, but manage not to show it. It is small fault, but it is still a slight interruption in my charity toward that person. Our Lord says that it makes a man liable to the judgement, that is, to the local court, not to the Sanhedrin. What does that mean – that Jews in first century Palestine could be put on trial for feeling impatient? No, not that, but rather, even these little faults are things to regret, when we place ourselves before God’s tribunal by making an examination of conscience, at the end of the day, or before confession.

The second degree of anger, which makes ones liable to the Sanhedrin, that is, to the highest court of the land, goes further; it shows itself outwardly. Here, someone shows his brother that he is impatient with him, using words or signs of frustration. Again, this does not in itself go beyond a venial fault, but it is more dangerous than the first stage. If people accustom themselves to do this, they can easily finish by become contemptuous of their brother. And so Christ wants His followers to be careful to avoid such outward displays of impatience, just as almost everyone is careful to avoid those crimes which would make them liable to the highest court of their land, such as murder or treason. 

The third stage happens when a person has allowed some initial feelings of impatience to grow and grow without restraint, until they finally turn into contempt or even hatred. And this is a mortal sin: Whoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. It is not that the word itself, “fool”,  is always a mortal sin, or even any kind of sin, since St Paul uses it in speaking to the person who mocks the idea of the future resurrection, and God Himself calls the rich man in the parable who thinks only of increasing the size of his barns, a fool; the sin is the contempt which expresses itself by this word, or similar ones.

How does the Christian avoid the beginnings of such interruptions to the flow of charity? St Peter tells us to sanctify the Lord, Christ, in your hearts. This means, “remember that He, the holy One, dwells within you.” If someone provokes us to anger, let our response to him or her not be a merely human or natural response, but rather a response that is worthy of the One who dwells within us. In this way, the health of the whole mystical Body will benefit.