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Our hearts were made for the gift of self

At the end of last year, I was invited to spend an afternoon with sixth graders from the St. Joseph Cathedral school, on-site at Catholic Charities for a day of service and reflection. It was truly a joy to be with these students – and what we talked about that day has called me to reflect on Charity in a deeper way.

When I look back on our time together, the theme that the students left me with was this: Charity in the face of fear is a courageous act.

The students spent their day rotating through small service projects in stations and participating in reflections on poverty and need. They spent time in the food pantry, the pantry warehouse, writing notes to accompany care packages for neighbors, and then with me.

We began our time together talking about their day, and somehow changed course to talking about Charity – love in action, gift of self. They shared examples of what they’d been working on that day and I asked them who, in each of those stations, they were serving. Then we talked about how that made each of them feel.

For most people, acts of charity leave us with a feeling that resonates deeply in our hearts. When we are serving others – maybe those in our own family or those in our neighborhood – we experience peace, joy, and fulfillment. Many of the students nodded along – they were getting it. So I posed this question to them: why?

Why do our hearts find peace and joy in giving? Because we were made in the image and likeness of a God who is love. It makes sense then, for the students and for us, that our gift of charity is love in action ­– and our hearts respond to that in kind. The students nodded again.

But then, if that’s the case, why not be charitable all the time? Why not live a life of complete gift, as we’re made to? What keeps me from answering that call to give?

I asked, and again, hands went up.

“What if I give something of my own, and then I don’t have enough for myself.”

“What if someone makes fun of me?”

“What if I don’t have enough to give and it doesn’t really help anyone?”

“What if I try to help someone and it actually messes something up for them?”

I was moved by their answers. And moved that these students were able to so clearly identify what sometimes keeps them, and us, from giving freely: fear. Fears of what others might think, fears that God’s providence wouldn’t be enough if they gave too much, fear of failure, of harm; fear that whatever we have to offer wouldn’t be enough.

Aren’t the fears named by these classmates the same fears so many of us share?

So we went deeper. I couldn’t ask these students to share their own fears, but I did ask them to guess some of my fears. Their guesses were pretty good – but none of them expected me to say speaking in public. After all, I was speaking to their entire class in that very moment. But I let them know, yes, even now my leg is shaking a bit, and here I am still speaking.

So, then, how do we act in the face of fear? We hold what we know to be true up to the lie that we are not enough, that we are isolated, that we are alone in our anxiety. Every time I go to speak in public I know the Spirit will provide for me, and every time I survive it. God has shown me that I can be afraid and still act – and the gift of peace and joy that comes with that far surpasses the fear that was holding me back.

Our God is speaking to the greatest depths of our hearts when He says in his Word, “be not afraid.”

In my own life, I’ve seen this play out time and time again. I have an opportunity to serve, I wonder if what I have to offer is enough, I have faced that fear and answered the call. I’ve participated in mission trips, service projects, and have had encounters one-on-one with people in need. And each time, it wasn’t what I gave, but that I gave.

Those experiences have had a profound impact on my decision to continually give myself to God in the vocation of priesthood. It was no longer a question of “do I have what it takes?” but a true gift of self, charity in the face of fear, that accompanied me in my discernment of identity and vocation.

Maybe the pattern feels familiar to you, too. You’ve been asked to help, volunteer, or give of your gifts before. You, like me, have felt the weight of that request and wondered if what you have to give is enough, if it will help, if you will be provided for after you give it. And maybe you’ve said yes before – and then have encountered a loving God in the face of those you’ve served.

Is it surprising? If it is, it is only because we forget, sometimes, that we are made in the image of God, and that image is one of love and charity. Our lives are comfortable, and we sometimes get in the habit of making choices that are rooted in that comfort, or even in fear. But when we answer that call to serve, we encounter His image and receive so much more than we give.

That truth of that has the power to change us. And so, as we prepare to enter into Lent, a season of prayer, fasting and giving, I invite you to examine your own heart:

What truth do I need spoken to my heart to allow a free response of gift?

Can I name the fears that are keeping me from giving of myself to others

How does the assurance, “be not afraid,” change my response?

I had come to Catholic Charities to share some thoughts on service and need and found myself moved by the wisdom of these students who prompted me to dig deeper into the reservations I have for myself that keep me from charity.

I admire that these students could articulate within themselves the movements of their hearts. It gave me great hope to know that the church, a church full of young people, who are already looking for ways to give the gift of themselves in service to the needs of others. I hope that your own Lenten journey reveals to you the way that God calls you to do the same, and gifts you the grace to courageously give.

“Every vocation is a gift of the heart back to God in service of another”

Fr. Paul Clark serves the Diocese of Jefferson City as the moderator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, Chaplain for Helias Catholic High School, and the Director of Vocations and Seminarians. Ordained in 2017, he has spent much of his priestly ministry among young people, encouraging them to share their hearts with the Lord and their community in true Charity.

Fr. Paul Clark speaks to the sixth-grade class of St. Joseph Cathedral School on-site at Catholic Charities’ central offices in Jefferson City for a day of service and reflection.