Formation of the heart takes an encounter with Christ


Bishop Robert Francis Vasa

  Catholic Sentinel - Diocese of Baker, OR

BEND - The Pro-Life Conference for the Diocese of Baker this year took an entirely different approach from that which one normally expects of a conference. Generally the conference focuses on legislative initiatives, concrete proposals, the latest life information, or successes and setbacks in the pro-life arena. This year, one could certainly have expected a strong focus on the various issues surrounding the widely debated National Health Care Plan. These are certainly all very important topics and each is worthy of a conference unto itself. Yet, this year the conference was structured much more as a day of recollection and renewal and rejuvenation than an informational Conference.

In preparing for the day I revisited Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:

a) Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc. The church’s charitable (and we could legitimately add pro-life) organizations, beginning with those of Caritas (at diocesan, national and international levels), ought to do everything in their power to provide the resources and above all the personnel needed for this work. Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent: they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it, and committed to continuing care. Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6).

b) Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs. (31)

I was particularly struck by the line: these charity workers need a “formation of the heart.” This in no way implies that those working in the area of pro-life are somehow lacking or defective in their devotion or dedication either to the cause of the pre-born or to God but it does raise a serious point for consideration. As the Holy Father pointed out: “Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.” (34) Thus, any charitable work is not only a question of competence and confidence but at root it is a question of one’s spiritual formation. The love expressed in charitable activity, and there is no greater charitable activity than working to save the lives of the pre-born, must be “nourished by an encounter with Christ.” This spiritual nourishment is certainly a daily necessity but there is also a need, periodically, to seek a deeper encounter with Christ. Unfortunately, in the ongoing efforts on behalf of the pre-born, or any charitable activity, it is very easy to allow the works of God to push the God of all works into the background.

It is very common for committed vowed Religious to set aside one day each month for a day of recollection and while this may be deemed impractical for active laity, the truth is that great spiritual value can be derived from the practice. Thus, when weighing what was needed most by our pro-life troops it occurred to me that we serve them best by setting apart one day to focus entirely on spiritual formation, “formation of the heart” and a deep, personal “encounter with Christ.”

We often do not recognize it but there is great spiritual danger in engaging in a charitable work without the proper spiritual foundation. Our Lord used the example of building a house on sand rather than on solid rock. A “pro-life house” built on human effort and human ability and human desire may serve the pro-life cause very well but it is still very much a house built on sand. If such a sand-based house achieves a degree of success then the stage is set for a further prideful distancing from the God who ought to be the Source of all loving action. St. Augustine in The City of God points out the danger of pride: “For pride is the beginning of all sin. And what is pride but an appetite for inordinate exaltation? Now, exaltation is inordinate when the soul cuts itself off from the very Source to which it should keep close and somehow makes itself and becomes an end to itself. This takes place when the soul becomes inordinately pleased with itself, and such self-pleasing occurs when the soul falls away from the unchangeable Good which ought to please the soul far more that the soul can please itself.” (Book XIV, Chapter 13) This points to a need for a very careful, and repeated, review of the purity of one’s intentions. “This custody of the heart means nothing else but the habitual, or at least frequent solicitude to preserve all our acts, as we perform them, from everything which might corrupt their motive or their accomplishment.” (Soul of the Apostolate)

This and much more was all part of the latest Pro-Life Conference. It may not appear to have much to do with pro-life advocacies but it has everything to do with pro-life advocates.