Papal encyclical tells us to 'Think!' and 'Love!'

By  Michael Czerny, SJ., Catholic Register Special
  • August 18, 2009

{mosimage}NAIROBI, Kenya - Pope Benedict XVI opened his new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, with these words: “To all people of good will, on integral human development in charity and truth ...” So what might Caritas in Veritate do for a poor African woman infected with HIV? And can she help a reader of The Catholic Register grasp what the Holy Father is saying?

I thought of Rosanna, an abandoned mother in her 20s, HIV-positive, struggling to get by in a Nairobi slum. “Six years down the line,” she says, “my family has not accepted me, not my mother or sisters or husband. I’ve lost jobs because I’m positive.”

She also lost an infant daughter to AIDS, but her 10-year-old son — conceived before Rosanna got infected — is negative. Jomo is a bright, healthy boy who loves drawing and soccer. His mom tries to keep healthy, too. “I want to see my son grow up.”

Rosanna does not take anti-retroviral drugs but when sickness strikes, the Jesuit AIDS office, AJAN, helps with hospital bills. From time to time, Catholic AIDS programs invite Rosanna to tell groups the story of her difficult life, explaining her HIV status and encouraging young people to live well and to avoid the mistakes which lead
to infection.

Rosanna is grateful for the assistance but seeks something more. “Myself, I am young, I want to have a future even if I didn’t finish elementary. I want my son to be someone.” Unable to do physically demanding work, she stands little chance of finding someone to hire her. But recently she had an enterprising idea. The landlords in her
slum refuse to provide water, telling abject tenants to find it for themselves. So, with AJAN’s help, she bought a storage tank and a pump and set up a water business. Things are going well, and she is paying back two per cent a month.

I was trying to imagine what Caritas in Veritate might mean for Rosanna and Jomo when, as Providence would have it, she dropped in. So I gave her a four-page summary and, after an hour’s careful reading, she came up with pretty clear ideas of its relevance for Jomo and herself.

1. Rosanna and Benedict XVI love life and see society much the same way. “I know the encyclical is about the whole world,” she said, “but when I read the Pope’s words, he is talking exactly about Kenya, even my slum. He says that the market must not become ‘the place where the strong subdue the weak’ but it is.”

Billions of us live as neighbours to one another in our global village (slum?), yet with too little fraternal relationship. “Kenyan authorities see the poor as a problem. If you do not have a job, they try to send you back up-country. Our politicians feel supported by foreign aid and just take advantage of the poor.”

Accordingly, aid is misdirected and badly distributed; it creates dependence, generates corruption, abuses the poor and solves nothing. “Without ethics, we are in a total mess.”

2. The Pope “is thinking in the right channel,” Rosanna said, but many of us have become discouraged and, frankly, lazy. Addicted to sound-bites and ideological slogans, the local-cum-global picture seems too complicated to understand any more. Ever more resigned to a fragmented world, we just let others (the market) decide.

By contrast, Benedict XVI seems tireless in wanting to find the way forward. Without preaching yet showing us how, the Pope invites us to think clearly about (our) society and (our) economy. He shows us how to put order into our thinking, keeping things in their proper places. Social science seeks the facts and the trends, social
policy implements governmental decisions about what to do, but only we (believing and thinking people) can weigh up the pros and the cons, only we can opt for the basic values and work for what is best under God for the whole human family.

For example, when Benedict XVI shows that respect for life and responsible sexuality are essential for development, Rosanna concurs. Honesty and true charity aren’t born of sentimental wishing; they hang on a complete picture of man which can only come from God.

“In promoting development, the Christian faith does not rely on privilege or positions of power,” the Pope affirms, “but only on Christ.” To which Rosanna adds: “So I urge the church to show us what being a Christian is all about. Isn’t it loving your neighbour?”

3. Do not think the encyclical is full of grand social schemes. Throughout, the Holy Father calls for practical solutions to real problems. “Solutions need to be carefully designed to correspond to people’s concrete lives, based on a prudential evaluation of each situation.” Rosanna is equally practical, coming up with the idea of selling
water to better the lot of her neighbours and her little family.

The heart of the encyclical is gift, gratitude, graciousness, gratuitousness. “Gift” and “gratuitousness” come up about three dozen times. To acknowledge the abundant gifts we receive is to be filled with gratitude. It is also the fundamental truth of our situation. So we are creatures before we are bosses or employees; responsible, but not
totally in charge; each our own person but radically related to one another. Instead of doing whatever we like, as global culture cajoles us to, without reference to humanity and God, things will get better only if we each graciously, gratuitously give our best: mind, heart, goods, time.

For Rosanna, forgiving her relatives, living for Jomo and his future, teaching youth to be responsible in the face of AIDS, leading a little support group for HIV-positive women, selling water to her neighbours — all helped prepare her to read and appreciate Caritas in Veritate very much.

Surely the best that she and I can offer is encouragement to read Caritas in Veritate. Yes, really read it and consider and pray over every sentence carefully. The message is in the title, THINK! LOVE! We must do both if Rosanna and Jomo and we are to have authentic human development.

(Czerny is director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network in Nairobi, Kenya.)

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location
Type the text presented in the image below

Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.