"If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour.'
Deuteronomy 15: 7
I read a funny story recently about a teenager who brought her new boyfriend home to meet her parents. They were appalled when they saw him: he was covered in tattoos, piercings, and more leather than a herd of cattle.
They quickly drew her aside and said: "He doesn't seem very nice," to which the indignant young lady replied: "If he's not that nice then why has he done more than 5,000 hours of community service?"
Community service, of course, like stereotypes about how a person looks, can be understood in many different ways. Judges use this option because it focuses on an offender's accountability to community: on the transformative rather than the punitive.
Likewise, philanthropy needs to be understood in a wider context. The
word itself comes from the Greek philanthropos meaning "to love humanity." And it is here that these concepts come together - around the idea of service. We give back to the community because of our love of humanity.
These sentiments caused me to reflect on the great quality of heart that characterizes our society – and indeed that sets Alberta apart as a place of especial philanthropic generosity. We saw this recently with the heroic efforts of the community to assist their fellow citizens with flood relief, and we see it every day in thousands of individual and group efforts to assist those in need.
Our university, in particular, exists because of such support. We receive little assistance from the state, and so we rely on the fundamental goodness of people who value the importance of a small, liberal arts and sciences university with a unique Bachelor of Education program that prepares teachers for the Catholic school system.
I thought of this recently as St. Mary's celebrated our awards night, where 1 in 6 of our students received a scholarship or bursary. I was certainly struck by the high caliber of the students we had attracted. However, what also resonated for me were the scores of donors who made the awards possible.
As one of our students wrote to her donor: "As a single parent this makes the next few months much easier for my daughter and me, making my dream of providing for my family a reality!" Another wrote, simply, "I will never forget this generous gift."
At times it feels as though the news that reaches us is resoundingly negative. And so it is critically important that we remember to celebrate this extraordinary human quality – our capacity for giving – that far outshines the negative. The Venerable and Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen, in The Life of Christ, made the point that Jesus' words "imply that philanthropy has deeper depths than is generally realized.
"The great emotions of compassion and mercy are traced to him; there is more to human deeds than the doers are aware." For this reason we should all be devoted to providing as much community service as our lives allow.
(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)