Christian (vs. Secular) Service of Others

Several weeks ago I gave a retreat day for the local Ignatian Volunteer Corps and the question arose: What is the difference between what IVC volunteers do in their placements and what secular social workers or other providers of social services to? A similar question arises with respect to, for example, Catholic health care institutions. I’ve read several people suggest that maybe there is no longer a need for distinctively Catholic healthcare; that there is no real difference between what Catholic institutions do and what secular health care intitutions do.

It is an important question: What makes Christian service to the neighbor different? What is distinctive about it?

We speak in the Creed in our belief in an “apostolic” church. Some years ago, Brian McDermott, S.J, wrote a wonderful piece in America titled, What is Apostolic Spirituality? Although his primary interest was in contrasting an apostolic spirituality from a contemplative one, his remarks help elucidate the question I just raised. He writes

A spirituality is apostolic when it gives pride of place to the experience of being sent forth (Greek, apostello) by God to act and, at times, to suffer on behalf of the neighbor in witness to the Gospel and in imitation of the pattern of Jesus’ ministerial life…
In an apostolic spirituality…all the projects and practices of the apostolic person seek to unite the person to God’s project, the reign of God. This is the profound dream and desire God yerans to relize in the world and beyond it, but not without our creative cooperation.

That suggests an enormous difference between what Christians (and Catholic health care institutions) do to care for their neighbor and what secular social workers and providers of social services do. First, what we are about is God’s business, not ours. What we do, we do in cooperation with and in support of God’s desire for the world, not our own. Second, when we provide such care, we are concerned with more than meeting material needs. We are living out Christ’s healing mission by sharing God’s love with others. In the words of Pope Benedict in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, IVC volunteers, Catholic health care providers et al, “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.” These are important differences and it is good for all of us (since we are all engaged in an apostolic spirituality) to remind ourselves of them now and again, lest we forget what we are about in the world.

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