Social Service During Advent:
Advent is the second busiest time for service in the liturgical year (Lent being the first). Our preparations to receive the Lord at his birth include serving at soup kitchens, hosting homeless families, and ensuring that parents living in poverty have gifts to offer their children. As we think about how to properly observe Advent in our parishes this year, we would do well to pause and reflect on whom we encounter when we serve poor and vulnerable people.
Recall the scene presented in Matthew 25:31–46. It is the last judgment, and Christ has come into his glory, with all the angels surrounding him. Christ the King judges people as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus addresses the righteous sheep: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." The righteous ask Christ when it was that they had fed, clothed, and visited him. Jesus replies, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Then he turns to the goats and says, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." The goats, echoing the sheep, ask when they ignored Jesus's needs. Jesus replies, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." The passage concludes, "And these will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Jesus is clear about two points in this parable. First, treating the poor with kindness and mercy is essential to our very salvation. Second, Jesus is taking the Jewish teaching of the time to a higher level. All of the major religions, including Judaism, teach, "Take care of the poor," but Jesus adds to the prescription by adding, "I am the poor." How you treat the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned is how you treat God.
Following this notion, when we encounter poor and vulnerable people, we encounter Jesus in disguise. We, like the apostle Thomas, put our hand in Jesus's side, and this experience is transformative. As we begin planning opportunities to offer service during Advent this year, let's remember who we are helping: not "the less fortunate" but Jesus Christ himself.
The worst service project ever
I didn't always "get" this. Back in the 1990s, I worked as a parish youth minister in Springfield, Mo. I inherited a three-year confirmation program for teens composed of numerous requirements and prerequisites, including 10 hours of community service. Most of the youth hated the service hours they were asked to perform, viewing them as punishment. At best, they saw community service as just one more hoop to jump through before "graduating" with the sacrament of confirmation. When the volunteer coordinator of the local homeless shelter called, the service project seemed like a good idea. He invited the youth of the parish to clean up the grounds of the shelter before the city's annual Memorial Day parade. In the past, parade-goers had complained of trash in the street, blaming it on the homeless. The shelter wanted to remove any question of its association with trash in the street and the implication (believed by many) that it dealt in human trash.
Twenty parish youth appeared at 9:00 a.m. for roll call and orientation. We quickly learned that cleaning up the grounds meant combing through what appeared to be an endless supply of cigarette butts. We set to work with leaf rakes and gloves, raking together giant piles of butts and bagging them. A passerby asked me what the teens were doing. I explained that the kids were cleaning up the grounds before the parade. She exclaimed, "They sure are giving out light sentences these days." I replied indignantly, "They're a church group, ma'am!" She apologized, but later I realized she had it right. It looked like punishment; it felt like punishment; it smelled like punishment; it was punishment.
The day grew hot and muggy, and we grew sweaty and cranky. One girl asked, "How come these people can't feed their kids, but they have money for cigarettes?" A bitter social analysis session ensued. This was not what I expected! Where did we go wrong?
I now believe that I let those teens down. I failed them as a catechist. I didn't prepare them for a proper experience of service, and as a result, they served merely as unpaid trash collectors for the shelter. I had not set up any opportunities to meet homeless families. I offered no reflection before or after the service experience about the cause and effect of homelessness (or how nicotine deadens hunger pangs). I hadn't shared Scripture readings or explorations of Catholic social teaching. We didn't even pray. I did little more than reinforce stereotypes about the poor.
Kneeling before the crib in Advent service
Reflecting on that Advent experience, I consider it a miracle that I lasted in ministry at all. But I have learned from my mistakes and by watching the successes of others. Over time, I noted that the most successful social ministries catechized and evangelized. They gave parishioners, young and old, experiences of Jesus Christ, catechetical opportunities to reflect on Scripture and the teaching of the church, and further vehicles for action to deepen their experience of Jesus.
Catholic social doctrine is essential to that catechesis, particularly at Advent, when the lectionary readings turn to justice. People used to say that "Catholic social teaching is the church's best-kept secret." I hope we left that kind of thinking behind with the publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in the mid-1990s. The major themes of Catholic social teaching outlined by our U.S. bishops are easily found in the catechism, which may be the best source for catechists working with Catholics new to the social doctrine. The following list notes each theme and the sections of the catechism in which to find more detailed teaching.
When people encounter Jesus Christ face to face, they are changed forever. They become remarkably open to and interested in the teaching of the church. This is the catechetical moment. At Advent we have a tremendous opportunity to create that moment and then respond to it. We can help Catholics kneel before the crib in Advent service and then rise as stronger disciples. But we will only succeed if we are mindful of the following dos and don'ts:
1. Do convene a pre-meeting with parishioners volunteering for service to reflect on Scriptures connected to service and charity.
2. Do pray before, during, and after service.
3. Do meet immediately after the service experience to discuss what happened, provide background on social issues connected to the experience, teach the social doctrine of the church, and help participants identify where Christ was present in the experience.
4. Don't engage in service that lacks interaction with people living in poverty. You will be missing Christ himself!
5. Don't take shortcuts such as skipping prayer or catechesis.
6. Don't view service as a "one-shot" event. Rather, look at service as an ongoing part of discipleship.
7. Do help parishioners discern the "next steps" of discipleship, providing further formation opportunities as well as additional vehicles for action.
These opportunities for Advent service are times for us to know Jesus Christ in a whole new way, even as we prepare to celebrate his birth. They are moments to catechize and invite parish leaders to deeper levels of discipleship. They are moments of grace. ML
Jeffry Odell Korgen is executive director of the department of diocesan planning in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J. For 10 years prior, he worked for the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City. He is the author of My Lord and My God: Engaging Catholics in Social Ministry (Paulist) and Solidarity Will Transform the World: Stories of Hope from Catholic Relief Services (Orbis), and he is the editor of Living God's Justice: Reflections and Prayers (St. Anthony Messenger).