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.
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!