By Ben Shedlock
A central paradox of the Catholic faith holds that the quality of our spiritual lives entwines with the physical and emotional welfare of others. Our salvation may be through Jesus Christ, but our relationships to our fellow humans texture our faith.
In his New Testament epistle, James puts it starkly: “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Js 2:17). The Catholic Church reiterates James’ exhortation for modern times through its second theme of Catholic Social Teaching: the call to family, community and participation.
We Must Seek the Common Good
In this second theme, the Church teaches that “how we organize our society…directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.”
In addition to James’ letter, there is broad biblical support for this teaching, especially in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rm 12:4).
St. John Paul II reinforced this notion, writing that families should “[support] in various ways the associations specifically devoted to international issues,” and the Second Vatican Council wrote that “for by his innermost nature, man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others, he can neither live nor develop his potential” (Familiaris Consortio no. 48; Gaudium et Spes, no. 12).
In response to the Church’s call to family and civic participation, Catholic Charities Eastern Washington operates programs that strengthen families and equip parishes to engage with their communities.
Service Begins with Family
Service starts at home because families teach us how to cherish and prioritize others. According to Catholic author Lisa Hendey, “Family is really the first school of communications, where we learn to love, to be loved.”But at Catholic Charities, we see that poverty, mental illness and substance use disorders cause some families to pass along trauma and anxiety instead of security and love.
Our CAPA program interrupts that cycle. CAPA offers groups and classes where parents learn strategies to bond with their children. Circle of Security – Parenting teaches parents to respond to the emotional needs children express through their behavior. If a child cries, he most likely needs an affirming hug rather than a scolding.
CAPA’s parent support groups, like Prepared Moms and the Fatherhood Project, help parents connect over the shared experiences of childrearing. The participatory groups help parents model for their own kids how to reach outside their families and build strong relationships in their communities.
Service Continues in the Community
Families train us to serve our communities, especially through our parishes. According to Msgr. Ray East from the Archdiocese of Washington, “As parishes…we’re supposed to get in there and live, and listen and love the people God has placed around us.” Catholic Charities’ PREPARES program helps parishes answer this call to serve their communities.
PREPARES grew out of the success of CAPA. While CAPA gives moms and dads in Spokane the tools to succeed as parents, PREPARES takes that work to a primarily rural mission field. At St. Anthony’s Parish in Newport, Wash., “we had been talking about how to give back to the community, as well as being part of the pro-life movement,” said the parish volunteer coordinator.
Catholic Charities pitched the PREPARES program to the parish, and five volunteers now provide over 1,000 diapers per month and other supplies to pregnant and parenting families.
“We have one gal that has four children in diapers,” said the volunteer coordinator. “That’s huge for them.” It’s also huge for the parishioners, who enrich their faith lives by taking responsibility for the welfare of struggling parents in their town.
Using a similar model, the Parish Social Ministry (PSM) program empowers parishes to address broader community needs. Sometimes these needs are material, like in Ferry County where the program supports the only local food bank. Sometimes, the needs are educational, like in Spokane where PSM empowers parishes to engage with vulnerable communities, like the homeless and immigrants.
Sometimes, PSM offers both, like in Garfield County, where the program offers grant writing and funding assistance to the Holy Rosary parish in Pomeroy. The parish noticed that kids who eat free breakfast and lunch went hungry on the weekends. So parishioners began buying food throughout the year to distribute to the students on Fridays. The cost grew with the need, so the parish turned to Catholic Charities.
Using funds from an annual Lenten collection, PSM operates a grant program to support local projects. The program provided technical assistance to help the parish apply for a grant, and awarded them funding to defray the cost of feeding 55 children per week throughout the year.
Service in the Catholic Tradition
The desire to reach out in help is human, but what marks these programs as Catholic is the organized, institutional response to the Letter of James, vivifying the faith through good works.
What is Catholic is the reaching of people of faith toward each other. Impelled by their faith, parishioners reach out to their communities. Instructed by scripture and tradition, the structures of the Church reach down with resources.
What is Catholic is cooperation by members of the body of Christ, at all levels, in dignity-affirming works.