As I sit down to write this, the season of Advent is almost upon us. Our attention here at Catholic Relief Services is on the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan has affected millions of our brothers and sisters.
CRS has been working in the Philippines since 1945 when, as War Relief Services, we helped the many survivors of World War II living in this nation of many islands. Established only 2 years after our founding, the Philippines program is our oldest.
Much of our current work is on the island of Mindanao in both peacebuilding and agricultural development. But we also respond to the many natural disasters that strike all over the country. Sometimes that means earthquakes, as we saw recently on the island of Bohol. More often, it means typhoons and other powerful storms that sweep across the Pacific Ocean into the Philippines, bringing winds and rain, flooding and landslides.
We have never seen anything like Typhoon Haiyan, which cut a swath of destruction 30 miles wide—with damage far beyond—as it barreled over the Philippines. Nearly 12 million people are affected by the storm, and hundreds of thousands are left homeless.
At a time like this, it can seem difficult to see God as the generous provider of bounty that we know him to be. You can look at the Philippines and see devastation, want, need. Or you can look at the Philippines and see help, aid, compassion. Amid the debris, you can see the hand of God.
A few weeks ago, the world witnessed a powerful storm approaching the coast of India. Cyclone Phailin packed winds well over 130 mph and torrential rain. That it was coming ashore in a country as densely populated as India, rife with poverty, seemed to portend a major disaster.
What happened? Well, it was bad. There was widespread destruction. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed or significantly damaged. Electrical lines were knocked down. Roads were destroyed. Food and water were in short supply. But Catholic Relief Services was there to help, as we always are, thanks to your generosity.
But it could have been so much worse. Relatively few people died from the storm. We mourn the loss of every person who perished and know the anguish their deaths caused loved ones. But we also know that not that long ago the death toll from a storm like Phailin would have been 10—or even 100—times greater.
As the conflict in Syria dominates the news, reports tend to focus on world leaders and statesmen seeking to reach international agreements. At Catholic Relief Services, we join with Pope Francis and others in the Church in praying for their success in avoiding further death and destruction.
CRS Board Chairman Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas and Bishop Richard Pates of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on International Justice and Peace have written a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling for a negotiated settlement.
But amid the high-level talks, we must not forget the reality for people on the ground—the millions caught in the middle of the violence.
As I sit down to write this, I am just coming back from vacation—rested and ready to face the coming autumn. Another summer is coming to an end.
I know these are rituals that many of us share. Whether your vacation is relaxing days at the beach or strenuous hikes in the mountains or stimulating trips to museums and cultural attractions, it is always welcome as a respite, a time to renew and recharge, to get some perspective on your day-to-day life before you return to its familiar rhythms.
When you work at Catholic Relief Services, it is often returning to work that grants you perspective. For many of our employees, getting back to work does not mean returning to a cubicle and a desk. It means a journey back to a faraway land to live with people in need.
For those of us who do face a desk on our return, its inevitable clutter is filled with reminders of the importance of the work that we are so privileged to do, that you have the grace to let us do. We are so grateful that you answer the Gospel’s call to help our poor brothers and sisters, wherever they may be.
The perspective comes when we see that so many of the parts of our lives that we accept as normal are actually far from that. When we return to work, we realize that, in fact, very, very, very few people on our planet are privileged enough to take vacations.
That is a luxury far out of the reach of a subsistence farmer in Burkina Faso who is trying to eke enough food out of the drought-parched ground. It will be a long time before the idea of a vacation crosses the minds of refugees from the war in Syria who are crowded into camps or sleeping on the couches of generous friends and relatives in neighboring countries. No vacations are awaiting thousands of Somalis in Dadaab, young girls rescued from sex trafficking in India, and many more who face poverty and want every day of their lives.
You may now be seeing frowns on the faces of your children as the school year begins, when they must return to days of early morning alarm clocks and late-night homework. But we can only think of the children in Ethiopia who would so like to go to school instead of spending their days fetching water from a far-off stream so their family can drink, eat and bathe. Or the girls in Afghanistan who would go to school if it were not so far away, farther than their parents would ever let a girl walk. Or the children in Zambia who would rather be in school instead of trying to find a way to feed and clothe their younger siblings—now that the epidemic of HIV and AIDS has left them as the heads of their households.
These are the people you help every day through CRS. Maybe they never will have a vacation as we know it: walk on the beach, swim in the ocean, climb mountains, see the sights. But with your help, their burden will be easier. They will have an opportunity to experience the kind of refreshment and nourishment that your vacation brings to you.
And because of your support, more and more of their children are able to go to school, to let their minds grow, their possibilities unfold, their lives become full and fulfilled.
This is what your faith and commitment and solidarity make possible. And all of us who work at CRS can only thank you for allowing us to have this privilege to serve.
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
Few images strike at the heart more than those of innocent people trying to cope with disaster.
A family loses its home to a forest fire. A tornado tears apart a woman’s business. A young daughter is orphaned when a building collapses in an earthquake. A parent mourns a son lost to a flood. An entire community watches, stunned, as a typhoon sweeps away their village. A farmer looks over a barren field, knowing that drought has robbed him of that season’s harvest.
We do not know why these disasters occur. We can only bow with humility before the mystery that is eternity. And we know with the certainty of our faith that God is in every one of them.
You find God in the helping hands that emerge from every corner. You find God in the sense of community once lost and now so suddenly found. You find God in the words of comfort and encouragement.
You find Catholic Relief Services at the scene of disasters around the world because you, the Catholic community in the United States, tell us that God is there. That is where we all must be—helping, comforting, encouraging.
As the month of July begins, we celebrate the birth of our nation thanks to the hands and minds of a group of men who, 237 years ago, wrote a profound document. Their words helped bend the course of history and continue to resonate throughout our world.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
This seems so clear now, but was not the case in 1776, when most people believed that the Creator endowed rights to a king, who exercised rule by “divine right” and decided the rights of individuals.
The Founding Fathers realized that rights were not given to the king but to each individual person by the Creator—and it was up to them to decide which and how many of those rights to cede to government.
At the root of this thinking is a concept central to our faith: upholding the dignity and sacredness of life. And the first unalienable right listed is life!
“Threescore years and ten” is the way the King James Version of the Bible translates the Hebrew of the 90th Psalm. That seems so much more appealing than the newer translations that simply say, “Seventy.” Would we remember the Gettysburg Address so fondly if Abraham Lincoln had said the United States was founded 87 years ago instead of “Four score and seven years ago”? I am sure he was inspired by this psalm.
I write of this because, at Catholic Relief Services, we are celebrating our Gospel service to the world’s poor and vulnerable people for threescore years and ten. We mark that anniversary here in Baltimore, an archdiocese that dates back to 1789.
When the Most Reverend John Carroll was named the first bishop of what was the first diocese in the United States, about 6,000 Catholics and one Church were in Baltimore just a few blocks from CRS headquarters. In 1806, Bishop Carroll laid the cornerstone a block away for the first cathedral built in this new country: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an architectural gem designed by William Henry Latrobe, who also designed the United States Capitol. By the time Bishop Carroll died in 1815, the Catholic population had risen to 10,000. Now, almost a half million Catholics are in the archdiocese.
Ethiopia is one of the many countries where Catholic Relief Services sponsors Savings and Internal Lending Communities. SILC groups are savings clubs: Members make regular deposits, then loan what they have accumulated among themselves and split the profits. Overall, three out of four members are women.
These groups often bring together people whose backgrounds might put them in conflict, but as they work together, they learn that they really have much in common.
One group in Ethiopia helps people with HIV and AIDS. Although the members save money and start businesses, they also talk about their problems without the stigmatization they might experience elsewhere. It’s a SILC group, as well as a health club and group therapy session.
We close the month of March by celebrating Easter, the cry “He is risen!” resonating through our churches, our lives and our souls.
April, the first full month of spring, launches us into the season of resurrection, when the promise that God made to the world is abundantly evident. We see the buds break, the flowers bloom, the seedlings erupt. We see life return to our blessed earth. “Hallelujah” is the appropriate response to this miracle, just as it was to the miracle that forms a foundation of our faith.
This spring, as Pope Francis begins his reign, we see the promise of rebirth in the Church. He reminds us that we are part of the universal Church, whose teachings and traditions transcend all boundaries, whether political or personal.
He is the first pope from Latin America, where God’s message of redemption was first heard six centuries ago. It fell on fertile land that continues to produce millions of the faithful, including this humble son of Italian immigrants, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Water is central to the imagery and reality of our religion.
From the earliest days of Christianity, water has cleansed both body and soul. Just as Jesus was baptized, we christen our infants with water, washing away the stains of original sin.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr., called on powerful imagery from the prophets when he said, “Yes, I have a dream this afternoon that one day in this land the words of Amos will become real and justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’’
Water is an important part of our work. Catholic Relief Services provides water to people in need by drilling wells and ensuring water is pure. We pipe it, maintain pumps and form local water committees that empower communities. The list goes on. I have seen the transformative effects our work has had on people who once walked miles to fetch clean water.