Catholic Relief Services was founded as War Relief Services in 1943 initially to help refugees from the cataclysm that was World War II. The unprecedented devastation of that war left tens of millions dead and even more homeless and seeking shelter and safety. The relief and recovery efforts supported by the Catholic community in the United States lasted for years.
World War II lived up to its name as its devastation was genuinely worldwide. It affected my parents who fled Japanese-occupied Hong Kong where I grew up. Perhaps it affected your family as well. When it ended with nuclear horror, there was a firm commitment to ensure that the world would never see anything like it again.
Out of that came the United Nations, a forum built on the hope that words would be an alternative to weapons. In recognition of the tens of millions who had become war refugees, this new body included the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to help protect the rights of people forced from their homelands, giving them aid and upholding their dignity. In the decades since World War II, CRS has often worked with UNHCR to help refugee populations.
And now the UNHCR has issued a report with a stunning statistic: Today some 60 million people have been forced from their homes by war and persecution. That is one in every 122 people in God’s family. It is the highest number since the end of World War II and may even be more than were displaced by that war. It includes both refugees—those who have crossed into another country—and those forced to flee their homes but who remain in their native land, known as internally displaced people, or IDPs.
This number is astonishing. We must pray for peace and justice to prevail so that refugees and displaced people can return to their homes. Moreover, we must be the hands of God in shaping a lasting peace.
But even as we do that, we must recognize our duty to help those who have fled. We take our inspiration from Pope Francis who, not long after becoming our Holy Father, journeyed to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the destination for so many refugees. He mourned the victims of a ship’s sinking and said Mass with the migrants. So many of those crossing the Mediterranean are trying to escape violent conflict—in the Middle East, in Africa and elsewhere.
Pope Francis’ message is the same one he will soon bring to the United States and to the World Meeting of Families: that refugees are also sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They are seeking to preserve their lives and their families, and to live in a way that respects their dignity.
Because of your generosity, CRS is able to help them. I saw this on a recent trip to Ukraine, where some 1.5 million IDPs are now living. Working with our partner Caritas Ukraine, we are providing tens of thousands of displaced people with emergency supplies.
In northern Iraq, where many who have fled the Islamic State have crowded into unfinished buildings, we put in windows and doors to keep out the cold, and put up walls to provide some privacy. We welcome children into child support centers, where they can play, learn and find some normalcy in their chaotic lives. We give grocery vouchers to families, whose breadwinners only months ago had good jobs to support their families but who now struggle daily to survive.
There are families like these in many other countries—from Somalia to South Sudan, Jordan to Central African Republic, Colombia to Burundi: people forced to flee their homes with only the clothes on their backs or the few possessions they can carry.
One thing we observe is how many people are welcomed by poorer countries, while wealthier ones turn them away. All of us must listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 25: that we should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and—most relevant to our understanding of the current refugee crises—welcome the stranger.
“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” Jesus says.
Sixty million “strangers,”—these “least” brothers, sisters and children, forced from their homes and seeking our help. Let us answer their pleas.
May blessings overflow.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
I was honored to be asked to the Vatican last month to be one of the speakers at the press conference announcing Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. It was an honor that really goes to Catholic Relief Services—including all of you who support CRS—because it was a recognition of the important work we do to help the poor around the world.
Because of my background in business education, I was asked to address the issues the encyclical raises with the business community. I have always felt that the true purpose of business is to contribute to the common good by harnessing its power and importance with appropriate ethics. The environmental issues that our world faces as we contemplate the fate of God’s creation give business just such an opportunity. (more…)
Many of us who live in Baltimore, where Catholic Relief Services is headquartered, heard from far-flung family and friends in April wondering if we were okay. Some of these inquiries came from the other side of the world.
The concern was understandable, after violence erupted in connection with protests over the death of an African-American man in police custody. Some buildings near our headquarters were damaged or destroyed. Following police advice, CRS closed early one day and remained closed the next. But overwhelmingly, our response to the inquiries about our safety was, “Yes, we’re fine.” The experience made me think about the challenges CRS faces in our peacebuilding work in countries around the world.
In the United States, we rarely appreciate the structures we have to maintain peace. If we have a dispute—whether it is over a business deal gone bad or a traffic accident—we consult the authorities. In general, we trust their objectivity and fairness, that the rule of law will be applied. Our peaceful electoral process is a wonderful example of nonviolent transition of power in our democracy.
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.
Easter is upon us, our day of redemption and joy as the grace of our Lord turns the despair of the crucifixion into the joy of the resurrection. This most important day of our faith is a celebration of life, both temporal and eternal, the fundamental gift that God has bestowed upon us. It is the Good News that we must proclaim.
Easter has been celebrated for over two millennia by Christianity. Its linkage to the life-affirming celebration of Passover gives it a heritage that goes back many more centuries, to the beginnings of humanity’s understanding of the one God who is the Lord of us all.
These are indeed venerable traditions and we should be rooted in the authenticity that comes with their age. Our faith is not subject to the winds of change or the whims of fashion. It is solidly anchored, the rock upon which our Church is built.
This month we observe Lent, when we contemplate the sacrifice our Lord made on our behalf, performing acts that are both symbolic and concrete, and which are designed to lead us to a better understanding of what it means to be selfless—to sacrifice for others.
CRS Rice Bowl is a Catholic Relief Services Lenten program focused on faith formation through helping the poorest of the poor around the world. Many think it is a fundraising program, but that is not why we do it. Certainly we are grateful for the generosity of millions of Catholics across the United States who fill their CRS Rice Bowls. The money helps tens of thousands of poor people in other parts of the world.
But we look at CRS Rice Bowl as primarily being about gaining a better understanding the Gospel message that Jesus brought us.
I know that many of you, like me, can remember a moment when it “clicked”—when the faith you were taught and which you accepted suddenly took on a deeper resonance, a meaning that touched your soul as it never had before.
The Lenten season approaches and, at Catholic Relief Services, that means the season of CRS Rice Bowl.
In 1975 a group of Catholics in Allentown, Pennsylvania, heard the cries of hungry people in the Sahel region of West Africa, which was suffering from famine. During Lent, they created Operation Rice Bowl to reach across the ocean with their prayers and donations.
Two years later, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the program as a recurring expression of their Lenten tradition. CRS Rice Bowl became a pillar of our work as the official international relief and development agency of the Catholic community in the United States. So this Lent, for the 40th time, Catholics will take part in fasting and almsgiving as we prayerfully consider the plight of the hundreds of millions in God’s family who hunger for food every day.
In the past 4 decades, much has changed. CRS Rice Bowl has spread from Allentown to the majority of parishes nationwide. You can now download the CRS Rice Bowl app—and I urge you do so. You can watch videos about the impact CRS Rice Bowl has in countries where hunger is endemic. You can also hear personal reflections on the meaning of Lent from prominent Catholics and learn how to prepare simple meals that are enjoyed by the people CRS serves. And you can get ideas for small sacrifices you and your family can make during the 40 days of Lent that will help our global brothers and sisters in need. (more…)
And so a New Year begins: a time to make resolutions and face the future with a clean slate, ready to write a better narrative. Maybe this is the year you will get that promotion or lose those 10 pounds or spend more time with your children. I encourage you to nurture such hope. From it can spring the flower of positive change.
At the same time, we realize that the New Year begins amid many problems around the world.
You are aware of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and how Catholic Relief Services—with your help—is responding to thousands of people affected by this deadly virus. Children who are now orphans need our support, and the virus has dealt a major blow to economies still recovering from years of war. These effects will be felt for a long time to come.
Beyond West Africa, we can point to crises in other countries, including Syria, Iraq and Central African Republic. Violence rooted in politics has taken on religious dimensions, forcing millions of people from their homes.
Then there’s South Sudan, the world’s newest nation. Fighting there is entering its second year and making it difficult to get support to those who need it the most.
Such tough challenges can make you wonder if New Year’s Day really marks the beginning of something new or just a recurrence of old problems.
But you are making a difference, and progress against malaria is one example of that. The World Malaria Report 2014 shows that the incidence of this disease dropped by 30% from 2000 to 2013. Mortality rates have declined by 47% worldwide and by 54% in Africa. Among children under age 5, the mortality rate declined by 53% worldwide and by 58% in Africa.
We are now entering Advent, the four Sundays of preparation before we celebrate the birth of Our Savior. For most of us, December is a busy month of shopping, cooking and baking, entertaining, traveling, and savoring time with our families.
I ask to you to take a moment in the midst of it all to ponder what “advent” means. The word’s origins are in the Latin word for “coming.” It means the arrival of something notable or important, such as the advent of the printing press, television or the internet. You get the idea.
In the Catholic Church, Advent points toward the arrival of the most notable and important event—the coming of Christ. It is a time of preparation, expectation and waiting, which are reflected in the liturgies and rituals.
So in the hustle and bustle of the season, slow down for a few minutes. Let your mind and your soul contemplate the expectation. Let them wait.
In our contemplation we can glimpse fleetingly the experience of people 2 millennia ago—the fear and despair of a world that God seemed to have abandoned and the hope that something was about to happen that would change everything.
Thanksgiving is a time to take stock of our many blessings: our families, friends, health, freedom—and the remarkable bounty that provides for our needs.
Certainly there are needs, wants and injustices in this country that prompt our concern and action, but consider that at the very least our well-developed food supply chain ensures that there will be plenty to eat.
Even if there is a drought that disrupts the harvest we celebrate every autumn, we won’t go hungry. Millions of small-scale farmers and poor urban dwellers wish that they could enjoy that kind of resilience. Catholic Relief Services works alongside them every day to make their resilience a reality.
But as we contemplate a table groaning under the weight of the food we will soon put on it—and the friends and family we will share it with—I want to draw your attention to an even more fundamental gift from our generous God.