In expanding upon the principle that “no work of charity is foreign to the Society,” the Rule goes on to say that these works include “any form of help that alleviates suffering or deprivation and promotes human dignity…” [Rule, Part I, 1.3] Human dignity is at the heart of what we do, as it should be. After all, the first of the four permanent principles of Catholic Social Doctrine is “the dignity of the human person.” [CSDC, 160]
What do we mean by dignity, though? What does dignity call us to do, exactly? In all of her writing, St. Louise used the word dignity most often in speaking of the Blessed Mother, whose “dignity … unites her to her Son.” [SWLM, 785] Yet she also speaks of the “dignity of suffering” [SWLM, 775] and the dignity of the Eucharist, which, she says, “should make us realize our powerlessness to prepare adequately to receive Him.” [SWLM, 822] In each case, dignity represents a worthiness, or a nobility.
How often are the poor expected to demonstrate their “worthiness?” How often are they called to shuffle into an assistance office, fill out a form, take a number, or many other indignities. As Vincentians, our respect for the dignity of all persons demands of us that we “never adopt the attitude that the money is [ours], or that the recipients have to prove that they deserve it.” [Manual, 23]
The greatest commandment reminds us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and not just the victim on the side of the road, not just the homeless, not just the single mother, not just the most sympathetic, but rather “everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self… a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path.” [Gaudium et Spes, 27]
In an essay on Christian charity, Frédéric Ozanam compared the ancient paganism to Christianity. They had, he conceded, better understood how to enjoy themselves, and had constructed vast stadiums to do so. We, on the other hand, “understand what constitutes human dignity, what lasts as long as life endures.” [Baunard, 322]
Each person is created fully in God’s image, the imago Dei, unique and unrepeatable, the “sacred images of that God whom we do not see”.[Letter 137, to Janmot, 1837] They are already worthy, and already deserving. As with the Body of Christ, received in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, as Louise teaches, it is we who must prepare to receive them, to serve them, and to honor them.
Do I sometimes feel the neighbor must “prove himself” to me??