Mission and Charity in the Church's Magisterium

From Vincentian Encyclopedia


by: Bishop Francisco Pérez González (Archbishop of Pampolona-Tudela, Director of OMP in Spain)

(This article was published in Anales, Volume 118, No. #3, May-June 2010).

1] The mission of the Church

In Saint Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ last words are: Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20). These words sum up the Church’s mission: to make all people Christ’s disciples and to help them live the Master’s teachings. In this regard John Paul II said: In my first encyclical, in which I set forth the program of my Pontificate, I said that "the Church's fundamental function in every age, and particularly in ours, is to direct man's gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity toward the mystery of Christ" (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #4)

2] Charity is mission

John Paul II concretized the tasks of the Church’s mission: a] to proclaim Jesus Christ and his gospel (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #12, 20); b] to foster the formation and the growth of Christian communities: The Church, then, serves the kingdom by establishing communities and founding new particular churches, and by guiding them to mature faith and charity in openness toward others, in service to individuals and society, and in understanding and esteem for human institutions (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #20); c] to foster human promotion and the incarnation of gospel values: The Church is the sacrament of salvation for all mankind, and her activity is not limited only to those who accept her message. She is a dynamic force in mankind's journey toward the eschatological kingdom, and is the sign and promoter of gospel values. The Church contributes to mankind's pilgrimage of conversion to God's plan through her witness and through such activities as dialogue, human promotion, commitment to justice and peace, education and the care of the sick, and aid to the poor and to children. In carrying on these activities, however, she never loses sight of the priority of the transcendent and spiritual realities which are premises of eschatological salvation (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #20).

In this sense the opening words of the Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et spes, are very clear: the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds (Gaudium et Spes, #1).

The text presents us with two aspects. On the one hand, it points out a way of being present in the world, a way of relating to the world. On the other hand, it synthesizes our being, our identity.

We said that in the first place the text speaks to us about a way of being present in the world: the joys and hopes … nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. We are related to the world as a result of the movement of our hearts, our interior movement. Our way of being present in the world is through feeling and taking ownership of our feelings. In the language of Zubrina , being present in the world is to be exposed to the elements allowing them to temper us. Our task is not to objectify the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of humankind. Rather our task is to makes these joys and hopes, these griefs and anxieties our own. Deeper still, the joy of another gives me joy and the sadness of another makes me sad. Thus we relate to one another with and through our heart, with and through the very depths of our being.

Second, the text speaks to us about our being, our identity. The being of the Church consists of being a community gathered together in Christ, a community guided by the Spirit who leads us to the kingdom, a community that offers the gospel to all people and that is in solidarity with humankind and their history.

This being of the Church that the Council presents to us is rooted in the mystery of Christ: the incarnation, death and resurrection; Christ who emptied himself and embraced the cross; Christ who emptied himself to the extreme that he embraced the depths of inhumanity thus making it feasible for the Father to lift up all of creation in his (Christ’s) resurrection.

The mystery of Christ is the center, the culmination and the horizon of salvation history. Christ is the Word who sums up and illuminates every word spoken by the Father throughout history. Christ is the Word of the God of mercy: the God who creates and places all of creation in the hands of all people (Genesis 1-2); the God who listens to the cries of his people and frees them from Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10); the God who, through the prophets, asks for mercy and not sacrifices (Hosea 6:6); the God who focuses his gaze and tenderness on the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner (Deuteronomy 10:18, 14:29, 24:17-21).

Jesus the Christ is sent by the Father to proclaim Good News to the poor (Luke 4:16-21). He proclaims the will of the Father in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12; Luke 6:20-23) and proclaims that the Father’s judgment will be a judgment about love (Matthew 25:31-46).

We who are gathered together in Christ, who follow Christ; we, like the disciples of John, are sent to announce the realities that the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Matthew 11:5).

The community of believers, the Church, is sent to proclaim the Good News to all people, is sent to evangelize. This is the mission of the Church and its most profound reason for existing.

The Church accomplishes this task of evangelization by living the three great dimension of her being: kerigmatic (proclamation), liturgical (celebration) and diakonia (service). No one of these three has a monopoly on evangelization and if any one of these dimensions is lacking then evangelization does not occur. Diakonia, service, is not an accompaniment of evangelization, it is evangelization: Go and tell John what you see and hear (Matthew 11:4).

Benedict XVI, in his encyclical, Deus caritas est, stated: The Church's deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #25).

We evangelize when we explicitly proclaim the faith; we evangelize when we celebrate the faith and we evangelize when we serve. Negatively, we do not evangelize if we do not explicitly proclaim the faith; we do not evangelize if we do not celebrate and we do not evangelize if we do not serve. These three dimensions are constitutive elements of our mission and our being.

The universal Church, the local church, and the whole Christian community need to live these elements of proclamation, celebration and service. Thus none of these dimensions can become the privilege or the exclusive “property” of any one particular group. Proclamation does not belong to catechists. The responsibility to proclaim belongs to the whole community, to the whole Church, who entrusts the development of the mission to certain individuals. Service is not the “property” of Cáritas. Service is the responsibility of the whole community and Cáritas engages in service in the name of the community.

3] Diakonia

Here we deal with the question of diakonia and how we can exercise diaknoia in a manner that is in harmony with our roots, that is, giving continuity to Christ’s mission. Here also we will show that the two aspects that were pointed out by Gaudium et spes are two aspects that are intimately related to one another.

We read in the first letter to the Corinthians: Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing … So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1Corinthians 13:8, 13).

Charity will never pass away. A time will come in the fullness of time when faith and hope are no longer necessary … their objective will have been achieved and lived … but charity will remain. Charity is theological life.

John Paul II states in his encyclical Dives in misericordia: In the eschatological fulfillment mercy will be revealed as love, while in the temporal phase, in human history, which is at the same time the history of sin and death, love must be revealed above all as mercy and must also be actualized as mercy (John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, #8).

In light of this understanding we approach the question of diakonia. Our service has an horizon, mercy which as we have pointed out is theological life. Charity is the horizon of fullness and charity will also be the revelation of eschatological fulfillment. But charity, love, ought to be manifested in time, ought to be manifested in this temporal phase of history. Mercy is the revelation of charity in history.

Our diakonia ought to be essentially mercy. This is the key that unites our being and our being present in the world. It unites our being because this consists in actualizing the mystery of Christ who is the revelation of the Father’s mercy. It unites our being present in the world which arises from our heart, our interior, and which enables us to feel with others because it sensitizes our hearts to human misery.

Mercy is the actualization of the saving action of God (Exodus 3:7ff). This actualization is the actualization of Jesus (2): Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7).

4] The need for discernment

In order to live this perspective of service and mercy we need to discernment. We need to discern in the midst of the historical situations and events in which we find ourselves. This discernment must be done in light of the gospel. In his Apostolic Letter, Octogesima Adveniens, Paul VI stated: In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel's unalterable words and for action from the social teaching of the Church. This social teaching has been worked out in the course of history and notably, in this industrial era, since the historic date of the message of Pope Leo XIII on "the condition of the workers", and it is an honor and joy for us to celebrate today the anniversary of that message. It is up to these Christian communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops who hold responsibility and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all men of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments which are called for in order to bring about the social, political and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed. In this search for the changes which should be promoted, Christians must first of all renew their confidence in the forcefulness and special character of the demands made by the Gospel. The Gospel is not out-of-date because it was proclaimed, written and lived in a different sociocultural context. Its inspiration, enriched by the living experience of Christian tradition over the centuries, remains ever new for converting men: end for advancing the life of society. It is not however to be utilized for the profit of particular temporal options, to the neglect of its universal and eternal message (Pope Paul VI, Octogesima adveniens, #4).

In this same line of thought, the Episcopal Conference of Spain, in their 2004 document, La Caridad de Cristo nos apremia (The charity of Christ urges us), reminded us of the following: In the present situation … we are called to discern, to strengthen and to organize the ecclesial dynamism of our service to the poor (#3)

Discernment is always necessary, but today because of the complexity of the problems and the fact that all of these problems are global, because many people have taken their place on the world stage, because the growth and expansion of social politics has affected all public officials, such discernment is more needed and most urgent in order to discover what should be our position and priorities and also how we should carry out our mission of charity today.

5] The present crisis

We are living in a globalized world, but it appears that the disadvantages have been globalized more than the advantages. We could say that there are two aspects or two dimensions to this global crisis. There exists a global crisis to the degree that the crisis affects the whole planet. There also exists a global crisis to the degree that the crisis affects every dimension of the human persona and society.

No one denies that this present situation has various nuances. First of all, it has to be said that this crisis did not begin when they say it did, that is, one and a half or two years ago. Rather the crisis had begun long before that. Poverty and exploitation of the Third World countries did not begin two years ago. The poverty in Haiti and a large part of Central America and South America and Africa and Southeast Asia existed before this so called crisis. Are not these realities a crisis?

We do not have to travel very far. In our country, in Spain, according to the Foesa Report published at the end of 2008, there are eight million people or 17.2 percent of the families in Spain are poor. At the same time 10 percent of the working class population in Spain live under the shadows of poverty.

Does not all of this data tell us that we have immersed in this crisis long before the “official” beginning of this “crisis”.

But let us not forget another dimension. The crisis in which we have been submerged for some time is not only an economic crisis; it is also a moral crisis, a cultural crisis, a crisis of values, a political crisis (including a crisis with regard to the concept of democracy).

You understand that in a presentation like this it is impossible to consider all the different dimensions of the crisis which I insist existed long before the so called official beginning of the crisis. Therefore, at this time, I am going to focus on some aspects of the economic-social crisis which we are experiencing and which also demand our charitable response.

Without losing sight of the fact that for some time we have been in a crisis and without entering into very technical considerations about the crisis, we can say that the crisis which we are experiencing has its origin in speculative capitalism and in the over-valuation of things. When I speak about speculative capitalism I am referring to the phenomena that we have seen in recent years, namely, that of becoming wealthy simply by the movement of capital (with no reference to production). When I speak of the over-valuation of goods I refer to the rising price of goods that ultimately places the financial markets in crisis. We simply have to call to mind the housing crisis which we have all experienced in recent years. These phenomenon and others have brought the economy to a point of crisis, and in line with what we have said, these phenomenon have aggravated the crisis. This crisis is bringing to light new faces of poverty and new poor people in our society.

Let us not forget that in poor countries, the poor people who were there before the present crisis began continue to be poor and in wealthy societies the poor who our diocesan and parish Cáritas call “our permanent clients” also continue to exist.

But new poor are arising and we can present a profile of some of these faces of the new poor.

6] The new faces of poverty

On the one hand many immigrants have lost their jobs. In general they are the first ones to become unemployed. Together with this consideration we have to examine the new legislation which has made it difficult for these immigrants to remain in our country and the maneuvers with the census figures which attempts to make the immigrants invisible.

Another face of the new poor is that of the young couple with children whose father has lost his job. They cannot pay the mortgage and have given up all hope or are on the verge of doing so. They are without home and owe the bank a large sum of money. Their future is many years of poverty.

Another face of poverty is the elderly person living on a very low pension. There are thousands of elderly men and women collecting a monthly pension of 350 euros. Who today can live on this amount of money?

7] Why should we act?

We could continue to speak about other faces of poverty, but we have enough with the ones we have mentioned. The poor, those who are poor here in Spain and the poor in other impoverished lands question us: what should we do? Why should we do something? What does our charitable mission ask of us?

The reason why we ought to do something in the present situation, the reason why we ought to do something on behalf of our sisters and brothers who are poor is clear from what we have said before. But we add here two theological arguments, two simple arguments of faith.

When the Old Testament calls us to practice justice, to care for the poor, orphans, widows and foreigners, we are given one simple reason: remember you were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God ransomed you from there (Deuteronomy 24:18). In other words, God has played a liberating role on our behalf. Therefore, we should do the same on behalf of our sisters and brothers.

If we have recourse to the New Testament, we immediately find an interesting argument, a Christological argument: he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Charity is love received and given. It is “grace” (cháris). Its source is the wellspring of the Father's love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Love comes down to us from the Son. It is creative love, through which we have our being; it is redemptive love, through which we are recreated. Love is revealed and made present by Christ (cf. John 13:1) and “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). As the objects of God's love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God's charity and to weave networks of charity (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #5). We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction … Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas est, #1).

We ought to practice charity because we have been freed, saved, loved, and made children of God on the cross of Jesus.

8] Some fundamental principles

8.1.] The person

Our charity ought to be centered on the person, the whole person. In caritas in veritate Benedict XVI wisely states: the social question has become a radically anthropological question (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #75). This affirmation which is the leitmotif of Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, ought to be the guiding principle for our mission of charity.

8.2.] Justice

Our charity must also be based on justice which comes before any social, economic or political organization. As such it allows us to question any system that does not take this principle of justice or the human persons into consideration. As Benedict XVI tell us: First of all, justice. Ubi societas, ibi ius […] Charity goes beyond justice […] but it never lacks justice […] justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI's words, “the minimum measure” of it[…] On the one hand, charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. It strives to build the earthly city according to law and justice. On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving. The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion. Charity always manifests God's love in human relationships as well, it gives theological and salvific value to all commitment for justice in the world (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #6).

8.3.] The common good

Together with justice is the common good. In a globalized world such as ours, the common good has to be highlighted. As we read in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which makes reference to Gaudium et spes: According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #164). In a globalized word it is indispensible that we work together to establish the possible condition for the integral development of every human person. In this regard Benedict XVI stated: Another important consideration is the common good. To love someone is to desire that person's good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good […] To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity […] The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis. When animated by charity, commitment to the common good has greater worth than a merely secular and political stand would have […] In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #7).

8.4.] The universal destination of created goods

Among the numerous implications of the common good, immediate significance is given to the principle of the universal destination of goods: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity”. This principle is based on the fact that “the original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Genesis 1:28-29). God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance for all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #171).

9] Some characteristics of our action

These principles have to lead us to act and so I point out some aspects of our action that seem to me to be important today.

9.1.] Ecclesial

Today it is fundamental that our charity be revealed as the charity of the Church. We are only half way there if our charity is an expression of “me” or “my group”. More than ever before we need to have our charity organized in a way that is truly ecclesial. Following this line of thought, Benedict XVI stated in Deus caritas est: The Spirit, in fact, is that interior power which harmonizes their hearts with Christ's heart and moves them to love their brethren as Christ loved them, when he bent down to wash the feet of the disciples (cf. John 13:1-13) and above all when he gave his life for us (cf. John 13:1, 15:13) […] The Spirit is also the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son. The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man: it seeks his evangelization through Word and Sacrament, an undertaking that is often heroic in the way it is acted out in history; and it seeks to promote man in the various arenas of life and human activity. Love is therefore the service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man's sufferings and his needs, including material needs (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #19).

9.2.] Denunciation

Today we need to bring the injustices of the world into the light. We need to proclaim the fact that poverty is the fruit of injustice, the fruit of the actions of other human beings. Benedict XVI in his last encyclical stated: This freedom concerns the type of development we are considering, but it also affects situations of underdevelopment which are not due to chance or historical necessity, but are attributable to human responsibility (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate #17).

It is necessary that we pressure authorities and public officials to guarantee the well-being of every citizen (cf. Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #28) and I refer to those persons here in this country and to those persons there in underdeveloped countries. We must remember that governments have the responsibility of guaranteeing, at the very least, the minimum essentials for every citizen.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the poor are not only the concern of Christian charity but all people are responsible for one another.

9.3.] The most poor

If we must be charitable toward someone it is toward those who are most poor, especially those who are outside the systems of social protection of our society. This implies that our charity ought to be sustained by the Christian community.

In 2004 the Episcopal Conference of Spain stated: Ecclesiality requires the commitment of our social-charitable institutions to impose a ceiling reception of subsidies. It also commits us to demand the proper functioning of the public administration with regard to their social responsibilities and their moral obligation to contribute to these. Ecclesiality also involves a process which insures dedication to its priority to provide for the most needy and the forgotten who often lack the possibility of gaining access to such subsidies due to their condition.

9.4.] Universality

We are called not only to love those who are near to us but we are called to love all people. At this time when the financial crisis is affecting a large part of the Spanish society we cannot forget the poor countries of the world. Even in the midst of this crisis we have an obligation to share our goods with people living in impoverished countries: Beginning with intra-ecclesial communion, charity by its nature opens out into a service that is universal; it inspires in us a commitment to practical and concrete love for every human being […] Certainly we need to remember that no one can be excluded from our love, since through his Incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every person. Yet, as the unequivocal words of the Gospel remind us, there is a special presence of Christ in the poor, and this requires the Church to make a preferential option for them. This option is a testimony to the nature of God's love, to his providence and mercy; and in some way history is still filled with the seeds of the Kingdom of God which Jesus himself sowed during his earthly life whenever he responded to those who came to him with their spiritual and material needs (John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte (#49).

10] Charity urges us

The mission of charity is urgent. Benedict XVI states: It is Christ's charity that drives us on: “caritas Christi urget nos” (2 Corinthians 5:14). The urgency is inscribed not only in things, it is not derived solely from the rapid succession of events and problems, but also from the very matter that is at stake: the establishment of authentic fraternity. The importance of this goal is such as to demand our openness to understand it in depth and to mobilize ourselves at the level of the “heart”, so as to ensure that current economic and social processes evolve towards fully human outcomes (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #20).

The Episcopal Conference of Spain states: The charity of Christ urges us (2 Corinthians 5:14)to live for him and with him, serving the men and women of our time. The Church, the mystery of communion, has the mission of giving meaning to and actualizing the love of God in the world. The proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom of God and action on behalf of the poor are inseparable in the mission of the Lord and therefore inseparable in the mission of the ecclesial community (The Episcopal Conference of Spain, La caridad de Cristo nos apremia [The charity of Christ urges us], #1).


(1) Amaia Zubrina (born 1947) has a long and prolific career in the Basque song panorama.

(2) The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) is paradigmatic. The key to understand this text in found in the words: he was moved with compassion.

(3) The Church's charitable organizations, on the other hand, constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally, but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. The Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organized activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 29).

Translated by charles T. Plock, CM