Starting 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
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
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
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
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 www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/two-feet-of-love-in-action.cfm.
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
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.
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.