Responding to emergencies is one of the most important jobs we have at Catholic Relief Services. Many are high-profile events covered extensively in the media, like the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the earthquake in Haiti or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. But many are events you’ve likely never heard of—local flooding or storms or violence just as devastating as the ones that draw widespread attention.
Working with our local partners around the world—often Caritas and other Church organizations—CRS spreads the bounty of your generosity to those forced from their homes or in need of food, water and other necessities through no fault of their own.
The spotlight usually falls on disasters that happen suddenly—like an earthquake or a typhoon. The suddenness is part of the story, part of the drama, part of what makes it so compelling to news organizations and to viewers and readers.
What often receives far less attention, though, are what we call slow-onset emergencies. They don’t strike all at once like disasters that make the ground shake or the waters rise or the wind blow. But they are just as devastating.
I want to call your attention to two coming disasters. Both are man-made—caused by escalating conflict.
What a wonderful paradox is contained in this ideal, which we celebrate this month.
When you think back to what the signers of the Declaration of Independence wanted, it was the freedom of the people of the United States to make their own decisions and determine their future. Many of those decisions would lead to mutual dependence, first of the states on one another—as set forth in the Constitution 11 years later—and eventually with many other countries. Independence meant, in part, the right to decide how to be dependent.
The Declaration of Independence speaks of the rights bestowed on us by our Creator: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those are not possible without independence. It is what God granted mankind when He gave us free will, making us independent of Him.
Independence allows us to make mistakes. It allows us to sin. But it also allows us to find our redemption in the dependence that comes in the love we feel for one another and, most important, for our Creator. Dependence would have no meaning without the free will that comes with independence.
As you know, Catholic Relief Services is part of Caritas Internationalis, the worldwide network of the Catholic Church’s charitable organizations. We work in 93 countries around the world, and in many of these countries the local Caritas is our partner. Our Caritas colleagues are people from different cultures who have taken up the universal challenge of the Gospels: to care for their neighbors.
“Caritas” is an interesting Latin word. It is usually translated into English as “charity,” but there is more to it than that. Thomas Aquinas said that “caritas” is that which unites us to God and called it “the most excellent of virtues.” To him, “the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbor.” This raises another meaning of the word. Pope Benedict XVI titled his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The accepted translation: God is Love.
That speaks volumes about how essential charity is to our faith. But it also speaks volumes about what kind of charity we should engage in. Our acts of charity are acts of love. And we know that love puts demands on us. Love cannot come from an attitude of superiority, something we give to someone inferior to us. It is an act of humility in that it attempts to comprehend the ultimate love that is our Lord: Deus Caritas Est.
When many hear the word “charity,” they conjure up a traditional view—transferring money or goods from the wealthy to the poor. They think alms, handouts. Certainly, there are times when love demands that of us: When people are hungry, we must give them food.
But love demands more.
May is the month of hope realized.
It is the hope promised by the Passion of Easter, turned into a full realization of redemption for mankind.
It is the hope promised by the minutes of daylight beginning to outnumber those of darkness, and the leaves and flowers and shoots of grass that emerge into the returning warmth.
It is in this month that we honor our mothers, thanking them for their faith when they began the journey of motherhood.
For many of us, Lent is in our bones. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is as expected this time of year as “What do you want for Christmas?” is in December.
There is, of course, a big difference. The giving and getting part of Christmas can—and has been—exploited by commercial interests. That certainly happens to Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. But you don’t see it once Lent begins. No one takes out an advertisement on TV saying, “Give Up Our Product for Lent!”
So, Lent remains untainted, its religious roots unsullied by secular considerations. Because of that, the question about what we are giving is always provocative. It causes us to think—about sacrifice, about what’s important in our lives, about our priorities—in a way that other seasons do not.
These thoughts are what’s behind our annual CRS Rice Bowl campaign. In asking people to give up something specific and to put the money they saved into their Rice Bowl, we’re asking them to think, to feel, to understand the solidarity that a simple act of sacrifice makes real.
In my work with Catholic Relief Services, I am involved in so many different countries, in so many different aspects of helping the poor. Every day we work with people who are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But they are not insurmountable when you help carve steps into them. At CRS, we know that, together, we can surmount these obstacles one step at a time.
While we often respond to immediate needs—shelter and water after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for example—our focus is always on the future, on turning relief into recovery and rebuilding.
When I focus on the future, my thoughts naturally turn to children. Because no matter the country or the culture or the economy, aren’t children always the future?
I think of this in this season of Lent, the season of sacrifice. A theme that runs throughout God’s family is the sacrifice that parents everywhere make for their children.
In December, Catholic Relief Services joined people across the globe in Pope Francis’ wave of prayer. In many of the 91 countries we serve, and here at our headquarters in Baltimore, CRS answered the pope’s call by praying for the almost 850 million people who face each day wondering if they will have enough to eat.
It was an inspirational day of prayer, one whose power we must not allow to dissipate.
Ending world hunger is not something we can accomplish in 1 day, 1 month or even 1 year. And it’s not just a matter of giving hungry people food to eat. Ending world hunger is a long-term commitment that requires sustained dedication.
All of us must understand that God will answer that wave of prayer through our hands, through our actions and through his Church. We, the Body of Christ, must commit to following the Gospel command to help those in need, to answer the call of Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food.”
In the 2 years since I was honored and humbled to become president of Catholic Relief Services, we have conducted a thorough self-examination to see how we can best serve the poor in the coming decades.
In all of this work, there was probably nothing more difficult than coming up with a new tagline for CRS. How do you boil down all that we do in a few words?
I would like to take this opportunity to meditate on the words we chose.
Faith. This is fundamental. CRS does not exist without faith. It is why we do what we do—because we believe that we have been given life in order to be of service.
Everything CRS does links back to our faith, to our Church. When we make difficult decisions, we do so in an atmosphere of prayerful reflection. We seek to understand how we can best embody and exemplify our faith in the Gospels, our belief in the message of redemption that the son of God brought to us.
Faith is our cornerstone. Faith is our foundation.
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.