August 19, 2004
Every Sunday at Mass we recite the Nicene Creed and unite ourselves with the faith of the Church handed down to us from the apostles. Every word of the creed is carefully chosen and echoes back to us the tested fidelity of those who refused to change the deposit of faith. Constantine’s defeat of the Emperor Licinius in 323 A.D ended the persecutions against the church. But almost immediately, trouble stirred from within. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, and one of his priests named Arius engaged in a debate that spilled over into the whole church and wrought havoc among the faithful. Today their disagreement may seem remote. But the point in question was vital to the very foundation of the Church. And the unity between a bishop and his priests in matters of faith and practice is always necessary to build up the church in love.
On the one hand, Arius taught that the Son was less than the Father. He argued that there was a time when the Son was not and then was made from nothing. On the other hand, Alexander taught that the Son of God existed with the Father from all eternity and that Jesus is the Son made man. To get a sense of how seriously people took the disagreement, we need only listen to St. Gregory of Nyssa who said, "Every corner of Constantinople was full of their discussions: the streets, the marketplace, the shops of the money changers ….Ask the price of bread today and the baker tells you: ‘The son is subordinate to the father.’ Ask your servant if the bath is ready and he makes an answer: ‘The Son arose out of nothing.’ "Great is the only Begotten," declared the Catholics.” To settle the dispute, nearly three hundred bishops met in the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea. Many of those bishops had suffered in the persecutions. They had faced the threat of death. They were strong, courageous and very careful to keep intact the doctrine of the Church.
Today when we recite the Nicene Creed and say the Son is one in being with the Father, our voices join with the bishops at Nicea in professing the true faith of the Church. Jesus is the Son of God. As the prologue of the fourth gospel proclaims, Jesus is the Word made flesh who dwells among us. He is the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Jesus has a divine and a human nature. But as the eternal Son of the Father, He is a divine person. The clarity of our faith is professed in language that was hammered out in the heat of the fourth century Arian controversy.
At the same time that the Church was dealing with the central dogma of who Jesus truly is, it was also dealing with core life issues of how we are to care for each other. What we believe always influences how we act. All life from conception to natural death is sacred. Every human person for whom the Son of God became man is worthy of our love and care. In fact, Jesus himself so identifies with us that what we do to others, we do to him; we lose or gain heaven by the way we care for the hungry, the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned (Mt. 25). Holding on to the true faith in Jesus, we see in the poor the face of God’s beloved Son. And so it is no surprise that the Council of Nicea established a way to help the needy. It set up
xenodochia, "houses for strangers," in every region.
The famous theologian bishop of Caesarea, St. Basil, set up one such house on the edge of town to welcome travelers in need. This simple shelter expanded and took in the sick, the aged, the crippled, the lepers, and the diseased. Anyone who wished to entrust a newborn to the care of the Church would simply put the baby in a crib located on the outside of the shelter. Under the active leadership of St. Basil, the church in Caesarea established what could easily be recognized as the first Catholic Charities. It was a shelter that was hospital, poorhouse, nursing home, orphanage, rehabilitation center, emergency crisis center and orphanage.
Today the Catholic Charities network—1,640 local agencies and institutions nationwide—provides vital services ranging from day care and counseling to food and housing. Last year, Catholic Charities across the country provided help and offered hope to over twelve million people in need. We remain one in faith and practice with the Church at the time of the Council of Nicea. As Catholics, we recognize that every man, woman and child, no matter what race, religion, or lifestyle, belong to our mission as Church. The magazine
Worth not long ago reported that Catholic Charities have made the biggest impact with donations people give them. In Passaic, Morris and Sussex Counties, there are 81 locations where Catholic Charities carries out that mission in our diocese. There are almost 1,000 employees and 1,000 volunteers who last year alone provided 129, 655 acts of Christian compassion services to 56, 583 persons in 20 different areas of need ranging from counseling to housing, from health care to food. We need only take two examples to realize something of the extent of this work of the church. The Father English Center in Paterson has provided over 250,000 meals. In addition, our Catholic Charities agencies served 303,758 meals in our many programs and delivered 315,405 home delivered meals throughout the diocese. Last year, Straight and Narrow opened a $6.2 million residential facility for homeless men and women with HIV/Aids. It is the largest such facility in the State of New Jersey.
I am slowly learning how truly committed this local church is to honoring Christ’s presence in the poor and the needy. After a meeting with Mr. Joseph Duffy, who heads our Secretariat for Catholic Charities, I was filled with a greater enthusiasm for God’s work among us. In a recent visit to one of our city parishes, a woman in her 70’s spoke to me after Mass. Her smile was disarming. She had such a joy in presenting her middle-age son who is a disabled adult. The love she has for her son moved her to seek some help. She was looking for the assurance that her son would have the loving care he deserves when the Lord calls her home. Her face revealed the same love that prompted the widow of Nain to turn to Jesus for help when her son was without all hope. The next morning, I called our Catholic Charities and I found we had a way to help her.
Our compassion as a church is not counted simply in numbers. Rather it is measured by the depth of love we show one on one to others. Every individual deserves our love. For in the mystery of the Incarnation, God revealed his love by loving us, redeeming us as though each of us alone existed.
Through the intercession of the Mother of the Lord, may we have the faith to see Jesus in everyone and the grace to care for those in need.