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.
There is no time like fall to appreciate the magnificent generosity of God. The fields that a few weeks ago were filled with plants reaching for the sky—full of grain and corn and beans and all sorts of other crops—have yielded their bounty.
In orchards’ tidy rows, the branches of trees that were dipping toward the ground as they tried to support the burden of their heavy fruits, have done the same.
In so many ways, the earth lets us know once again that its promise has been fulfilled as God intended. With fields harvested and those orchards picked, their abundance is now available to us, whether in farm markets or roadside stands or at your local supermarket. This is the time of year when we can see and smell and taste how good God is to us. There is no doubt. But when we think of the fruits of the harvest, let us not limit ourselves to this familiar yearly cycle. There are many seeds that are planted which do not bear their fruit according to that calendar. Some take years to mature.
As our children go back to school this month, it’s a good time to educate ourselves about a world in need.
Everywhere, people are crying out for help. Together we show them God’s care and grace. As children open their new textbooks, I urge you to read and learn about how you can build solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters overseas. The Gospel asks us to hear their cries, and to respond to them, because no matter where people live, they are our neighbors. When we help them, we become God’s helping hands.
In Iraq, adherents to minority religions—including Christian faiths that have been there since Christianity began—have been uprooted by militant fighters. People are fleeing their homes to escape persecution, violence and death. Their future, and that of the entire region, is precarious.
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.