Conference: Blessed are the Merciful: Charity as Sacramental Action
Greco-Roman writers of the ancient world remarked on the striking manner in which the Christian church assumed responsibility for the poor and suffering. An often unexplored question is what motivated the church to become such a distinctive and prominent actor in this fundamental obligation of any civil society. Part of the answer to that question was certainly the desire to create a social order that was more just and equitable. But just as important was the theological conviction that in assisting the poor, one encountered God. The relief of poverty, in the Bible and in the works of early Christian thinkers, was, to be sure, an act of social justice; but it also had a deeply sacramental character.
The fourth century theologian, John Chrysostom, captured this sense quite well. In one homily he commended his congregation for the reverence they show toward the altar in his church. That altar is worthy of such veneration, he explains, “Because it receives Christ’s body.” But this is not the only altar to be found in Antioch. Chrysostom exhorted his congregation that whenever they encountered the poor in the streets outside of Mass, “Imagine that you behold an altar. Whenever you meet a beggar,” he continued, “don’t insult him, but reverence him.” This image was not an idiosyncratic rhetorical flourish. The correlation of the Mass and works of mercy towards the poor was fundamental to Gospel catechesis.
The aim of this conference is to recover the deep sacramental sense that charity once held in the pre-modern church, to explore why it has been minimized in modernity, and to consider how the church might reclaim such a sacramental vision of charity for our own time.
This conference is sponsored by the Institute for Church Life and the Center for Social Concerns, and is co-organized by Professor John C. Cavadini, McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life, and Professor Gary Anderson, Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology, both of the University of Notre Dame. The conference draws its theme from Professor Anderson's forthcoming book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale, 2013).