Homily for the 50th Anniversary of SCIAF

Is SCIAF in the Bible? The first answer is ‘Of course not.’ The second is, ‘Of course it is.’ The inspiration is. After all, we have just heard three readings. We have just heard that Gospel which has inspired centuries of caritas, of works of mercy. We heard that lyrical passage from 1 Corinthians, ‘the magna carta of all ecclesial service’ (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 34). We’ve heard that outline of a prophet’s mission from Isaiah, which our Lord made his own in the synagogue in Nazareth: ‘He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken.’ It isn’t so much 1965 that was the beginning of SCIAF. It’s the word of God. And it always will be, and it always must be. And giving thanks for SCIAF means giving thanks that in and through SCIAF the word of God inspiring practical love has been ‘alive and active’ among us, has ‘sped on and triumphed’ (2 Thess 3:1). It’s a case of ‘Bible alive’.

But I’d like to be more specific. It’s clear that one of the preoccupations of the Apostle Paul was collecting money or its equivalents for the relief of the poor. We find references to this in the letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians. More precisely, he was asking the largely Gentile communities he was involved with to come to the practical aid of the poor members of the mother Church in Jerusalem, largely Jewish. This may be historically linked to a period in the mid-1st Christian century when the Eastern Mediterranean experienced some serious famines (cf. Acts 11:28). Be that as it may, here surely is proto-SCIAF, here is biblical Caritas. Here is emergency aid, disaster relief. It’s true that the sharing here is simply from Christian to Christian. Under the influence of the Gospel we heard and that of the Gospel of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity has expanded beyond strictly Christian frontiers. The Church makes her own ‘the joy and hope, the grief and anguish’ of everyone. Her Word is for all, her Love is for all. She wants the ‘progress of peoples’ (Paul VI). She wants to ‘care for our common home’ (Francis). But still it’s good to remember, to connect with this first corporate act of practical solidarity from the ministry and life of St Paul. Could SCIAF perhaps organise a study-day, a mini-symposium on this Pauline initiative, and the deep things he says around it?


But today is for thanking. So let’s do that, keeping Paul in mind as we do.

First, what has SCIAF meant to Catholics in Scotland over the last 50 years? It has been a channel – better, a bridge – by which desire can become a reality. I mean the desire in our hearts as ordinary human beings, ordinary believers; the desire to meet the needs of our fellows. To do so in times of disaster, but not only then. Humanity is the wounded man by the side of the road, half-dead or half-alive. There are these great cavities of need. There are cries for help that fill the night of human history. But what can I do? I can’t do everything. And therefore there’s the danger I do nothing. There are those painful lines of T.S.Eliot in his poem, ‘The Hollow Men’:

Between the idea / And the reality, / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow… Between the conception / And the creation,/ Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the Shadow.

We know this only too well from personal experience. ‘The way to hell is paved with good intentions.’ SCIAF has replaced the shadow with a bridge – between the emotion and the response, between the idea and the reality. It has enabled us to do something, indeed a great deal. It has enabled us to do it as Christians, as Catholics, free of the anxiety that we might be involved in agendas and enterprises that sit uncomfortably with our faith. In 2 Corinthians 8:11, Paul has a simple, striking phrase. He talks of the Corinthian’s ‘eagerness of wanting’: their ‘eager desire’ to help their suffering brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. The words he use suggest something eager, spontaneous, prompt and generous. And then, he says, let this be ‘completed’: consummated, accomplished, realised. Let there be this passage from the motion to the act, from the heart to the hand, from you to the others. Thanks be to God that SCIAF has made that passage possible, has made it possible for us not to be hollow men and women, but feed the hungry Christ.

Secondly, today’s thanksgiving is surely made with all those living and dead whose lives have been touched, changed, improved by the work of SCIAF. We are giving thanks on behalf of them. We’re thinking of those on the other side of the bridge, as it were. We won’t always know who they are. We don’t have to. They are, after all, simply Christ. The women and men who live in contemplative communities pray for the world, for wounded humanity. Psalm after psalm goes up to God. But we don’t always know how it comes down, how it turns into the life-giving rain or sunshine of grace and comfort. Perhaps it has often done so through SCIAF. But as with the Church’s ministry of prayer, so with her ministry of charity: its most precious effects are hidden in God. They will be revealed at the Last Judgment. This is a beautiful thing, the comforting darkness of faith. There’s another twist to this in St Paul again, this time in 2 Corinthians 9:12: ‘The rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints [your brothers and sisters] but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.’ What he literally says is: ‘the deaconing / diakonia, of this liturgy not only fills up the needs’ of these fellow-Christians, but ‘overflows in many thanksgivings / eucharists to God.’ What suggestive vocabulary! Here is what we can be most deeply grateful for today: SCIAF has enabled our hearts to open. It has enabled us who give to live the liturgy of charity, to live the Eucharist. And at the other end, as it were, has done the same. It has become many, perhaps unknown, unheard, only half-articulated ‘eucharists’ to God. It has become lives that can expand and flourish. So, we keep coming back to humanity, to the heart. Heart speaks to heart. Love creates love. Generosity breeds generosity. Be it hidden and unrecorded or visible and publicised, it’s a blessed riposte to the spirals of hate that are forever spring up in the world.

And then we give thanks for all those in the middle, who criss-cross the bridge again and again. I mean all who have done and keep doing the hard work, the employees and volunteers, the people in the parishes and schools, in 19 Park Circus, on the ground. SCIAF is an agency of the Bishops Conference of Scotland. As bishops, successors of the apostles, we are grateful for all those who help the Church, help us fulfil this diakonia of charity. Paul again was onto this. He mentions Titus, Barnabas, and an anonymous ‘brother famous throughout the churches for his preaching of the gospel’, perhaps Luke, helpers with his collection. One thinks too of the folk Paul likes to name at the end of some of his letters. ‘Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa’ (Rom 16:12), for example. SCIAF has had many Tryphaenas and Tryphosas these last 50 years! Thanks be for them and to them! Here too the heart is the thing. ‘Thanks be to God, says Paul again, who has put the same eager concern…into the heart of Titus’ (2 Cor 8:16). Pope Benedict said this: ‘Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent; they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it… Yet while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern…Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers needs a ‘formation of the heart’; they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others’ (DCE 31). ‘The love of Christ drives us’. Thanks be to God for the love of Christ in the hearts of all who work with and for SCIAF!


And what’s a possible prayer, hope, aspiration for the next 50 years? ‘Remember the poor’ (Gal 2:10) was the word that came from James, Peter and John to Paul, that he took to heart and passed on to Romans, Corinthians, Galatians and Thessalonians. It’s a word we keep hearing from Pope Francis. And it means, don’t stray from the heart. Keep close to the heart of Catholics here, catch their imaginations. We simply want to help people in need. Frankly, agendas and ideas or even campaigns touch us less. We want, through your hearts and hands, to touch hearts and lives in need. We want ‘to bind up hearts that are broken’, broken by poverty and war and corruption, broken by the cruelty of nature and man. Please remain in the heart. Keep things simple, human, Christian. And so, thanks to you, we can all keep close to the heart of Christ – the one thing that matters. Thank you!


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122