Family Resource - Sullivan

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedStarting Small: Sowing Seeds of Charity and Human Dignity

by Susan Stevenot Sullivan
Director, Education and Outreach, Secretariat of Justice, Peace and Human Development
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

When was the first time you knew you were loved?

For me, it was visits from my grandmother. She lived on the West Coast as we moved around east of the Mississippi, but she visited for a week or two most years when I was growing up. She was calm and gentle. She listened to me intently, encouraging me and appreciating my observations.

She shared stories of her life and insights that were significant and fascinating, things I remembered until I was old enough to understand them better. My grandmother was a pivotal presence in my childhood and the development of my faith.

She was one of six surviving children of an Irish Catholic family. Her parents lost five of their first six children to disease one winter in Colorado. My grandmother was from the "second set" of five born in the years that followed.

My great-grandfather kept moving the family to find work—usually dangerous, poorly paid jobs, like mining—to survive. When my grandmother was young in Minnesota, she carried a baked potato in each pocket to warm her hands on the frigid journey to the one-room schoolhouse. The potatoes were placed on the potbellied stove and became lunch. The family eventually moved to a farming town in California. Against daunting odds, my grandmother earned a college degree in nursing.

My grandmother had many joys and sorrows in her life, including tragedies with two of her own six children, but she was sure of God's care and guidance, and because of her, so was I. I looked forward to going to church with her and praying together.

The love my grandmother and I shared is the love Pope Benedict XVI describes when he writes of God's love: "In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. . . . He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has 'loved us first,' love can also blossom as a response within us." (Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Deus Caritas Est [DCE] [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)], no.17).

My grandmother was expressing the love and faith of her lifetime, as mine was beginning. Pope Benedict reminds us that the fullness of God's love is not a temporary feeling; it engages the whole person, including will and intellect. It involves a lifelong process. "This process is always open-ended; love is never 'finished' and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself" (DCE, no.17).

My grandmother wanted me grow in every way, including my faith. Her love became the foundation for my relationship with God and my experience of the Eucharist.

"'Worship' itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn," Pope Benedict says. "A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented" (DCE, no. 14).

I made my First Communion in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1960s as a second-grader. At the same time I was receiving the Real Presence, I was becoming aware of others in the community.

At age seven, I saw poverty in panorama from the window of the family car as I rode to and from school in the South. I understood money had a lot to do with poverty. At the time, I considered throwing my birthday dollars out the car window; now, I have other options. They all involve encounter with Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 2000], no. 1397).

Pope Benedict also says, "The church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word" (DCE, no. 22). All three, sacrament, Word, and charity, are about the presence of God and the transformation of lives, ours and others.

My grandmother gave me love and affirmation, but she didn't give me my human dignity—no relative, leader, or government does that—because human dignity is given to each person by God. My grandmother recognized my human dignity and acted in my best interest, in a respectful, mutual encounter.

Loving others, acting on their human dignity, means taking concrete steps to see that they thrive. This includes both short-term assistance with immediate needs and longer-term efforts to address barriers and injustice. Pope Benedict says, "Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it" (Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Caritas in Veritate [CV] [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 2009], no. 6).

Justice and charity are two distinct but complementary ways we can respond to the call to put love into action, to act on our faith as receivers of and witnesses to God's love. The two ways can be called "the two feet of love in action."

We "step" with the first foot, "social justice," when we work to address the root causes of problems facing our communities. We begin by educating ourselves about the "whys" of poverty, such as stolen wages and lack of access to resources, and by advocating for just public policies. We address, together, social structures that support injustice at home and around the world.

The second foot, "charitable works," "steps" with the works of mercy. We care for those who are hungry, homeless, sick, or in prison. When we participate in direct service for our friends and neighbors in need, locally or globally, we are stepping with this foot.

We use both of our "two feet of love in action" when we advocate for affordable housing and volunteer at the homeless shelter, donate to the food pantry and participate in a living wage campaign, promote world peace and assist refugee families, extend legal protection to unborn children and assist families with crisis pregnancy.

This path of love in action is about discipleship and encounter with Jesus Christ, especially when it includes relationships with those who are living in poverty or marginalized.

"Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by encounter with Christ," Pope Benedict says. "I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift" (DCE, no. 34).

When we are personally present with a gift that includes ourselves, we usually find that we are gifted in return. "Charity is love received and given. It is 'grace' (cháris)" (CV, no. 5).

I think of the smiling young man in the mud and straw neighborhood in the capital of Ethiopia, somehow playing an American blues recording for me as I waited at the end of a long line of U.S. visitors learning about a program to assist and educate children orphaned by AIDS.

I think of the startled clasp of my hand by a prisoner on death row in Mississippi; the patience of undocumented immigrants in Georgia including me in a meeting when I did not speak their language; savoring a slice of cake baked by hands injured in an exploitative workplace in North Carolina.

These experiences gave me new insights into who we are together and how God loves. Important, but more difficult, insights can sometimes come in recovery from betrayal, violence, exclusion, deception, and loss.

"The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts" (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1996], no. 1).

Where does love for God and neighbor grow? It often starts at home, in school, in the parish, in the local community, and in countries on other continents—wherever our family, friends, and neighbors, near or far, are without basic necessities, justice, or peace, where there are encounters that change hearts.

My grandmother spent her life loving her neighbor as herself. Difficult times opened her heart further to the love of God and neighbor, and she shared that legacy of faith with me.

"Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me" (DCE, no. 18).

For more information about the "Two Feet of Love in Action" handout and its presentation guide to support discipleship and witness, visit

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from documents of the Second Vatican Council are from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, OP, © 1996. Used with permission of Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, copyright © 2005, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Caritas in Veritate, copyright © 2009, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.