ROME, October 28, 2013 ( – Building on a theme that has become a favourite of his, Pope Francis, in an address last week, said that the Catholic Church “is not a shop, a humanitarian agency, an NGO” and that missionary efforts must primarily be concerned with bringing people the message of Jesus.
The Pope compared the Church to Mary, whom he described as the “model of charity.” When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, he said, she “brought not only material help — she brought this too — but she also brought Jesus, who was already alive in her womb. Bringing Jesus into that house meant bringing joy, the fullness of joy. ”
“In this, the Church is like Mary,” he continued. “The Church is not a shop, she is not a humanitarian agency, the Church is not an NGO. The Church is sent to bring Christ and his Gospel to all. She does not bring herself — whether small or great, strong or weak, the Church carries Jesus and should be like Mary when she went to visit Elizabeth.
“What did Mary take to her? Jesus. The Church brings Jesus: this is the centre of the Church, to carry Jesus! If, as a hypothesis, the Church were not to bring Jesus, she would be a dead Church. The Church must bring Jesus, the love of Jesus, the charity of Jesus.”
The pope was addressing between 85,000 and 100,000 pilgrims who had come to Rome for the weekly general audience on Wednesday last week.
The comments came as no surprise to those who have followed Francis’ speeches since his election. As early in his papacy as March 14th, Francis warned against the Church becoming a “compassionate NGO.”
At his first Mass as pope in the Sistine Chapel, Francis said, “If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.”
Again, in off the cuff remarks in April in the sermon of his daily homilies, Pope Francis said the Church must avoid becoming “bureaucratic”. “It’s a love story,” he said. “…Offices are required, OK! but they are necessary up to a certain point: as an aid to this love story. But when organization takes first place, love falls down and the Church, poor thing, becomes an NGO. And this is not the way forward."
In June, Pope Francis again said at a morning Mass that the Church must avoid becoming an NGO. “The proclamation of the Gospel must follow the path of poverty. The testimony of this poverty: I have no wealth, my wealth is the gift I received, God: this gratuity is our wealth! And this poverty saves us from becoming managers, entrepreneurs,” he said.
“And when we find the apostles who want to build a rich Church and a Church without the gratuitousness of praise, the Church becomes old, the Church becomes an NGO, the Church becomes lifeless.”
Following this theme, Terrence Prendergast, the archbishop of Ottawa and the pontiff’s fellow member of the Jesuit order, in a speech on October 16th to charitable donors, quoted the pope at his first homily after the papal election saying, “We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord.”
“When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: ‘Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.
Archbishop Prendergast continued, “That is a strong challenge to all of us! Especially to those entrusted with the Catholic mission in education, health care, social justice, development, and the various corporal works of mercy. No matter how well we do that work with professional competence, if we do not profess Jesus Christ, we run the risk of a ‘demonic worldliness,’ to use the blunt language of Pope Francis.”
Efforts from the Vatican to reform Catholic aid agencies, to orient them more towards their original purpose of spreading the religious message of the Church as well as providing practical material and medical aid, started under Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Recently a large number of Catholic international aid agencies - Development and Peace in Canada, Catholic Relief Services in the US and CAFOD in Britain - have come under close scrutiny for their work with secular organisations that promote values opposed to Catholic moral and social teaching. In January this year, Pope Benedict called on aid agencies to refuse partnerships with such groups. Benedict said January 19th, in an address to the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and its president, Cardinal Robert Sarah, “We must exercise a critical vigilance and at times refuse funding and collaborations that, directly or indirectly, favour actions or projects that are at odds with Christian anthropology.”
Benedict’s address followed the release of a juridical document, called a Motu Proprio, ordering the reform of Catholic charitable agencies, particularly of the Vatican-sponsored international umbrella group, Caritas International.
“The Church’s charitable activity at all levels must avoid the risk of becoming just another form of organized social assistance,” Pope Benedict wrote. “The collective charitable initiatives to which this Motu Proprio refers, are required to follow Catholic principles in their activity.”