By Cardinal Justin Rigali
As so many respond to the recent tragic events in Haiti, we have an opportunity to reflect on the mission of Catholic Relief Services, which is responding to this disaster, as it has responded to so many others, in the course of its long existence.
Coordinating the works of charity
In a wonderful appeal and commentary on the recent events in Haiti, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and Chairman of the Board of Catholic Relief Services, pointed out some very beautiful realities concerning the presence of the charity of Christ through Catholic Relief Services. One of the observations that Archbishop Dolan made was that, through God’s grace, the building that houses the center of the charitable work of Catholic Relief Services in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is still standing. It seems that all the buildings around it were destroyed or heavily damaged in the earthquake, but this source of charity remained standing as a beacon of hope and source of organized relief in a country filled with suffering and death.
Archbishop Dolan also pointed out that Catholic Relief Services (CRS) does not have to “parachute into” a scene where it is needed, because it is so often already there as the arm of the charity of Christ. In this way, we see yet another reality that Archbishop Dolan pointed out and it is that the Catholic Church, with all the human imperfections of its members, seeks to be close to the people. This is especially true when those people are in particular need of Christ’s charity.
In organizing this work, the Bishops of the United States are the instruments of the charity and generosity of heart of Christ’s faithful. God has given us in the United States a remarkable amount of material blessings, even in times of financial struggle. In return, the American people have so often responded generously to the needs of their brothers and sisters throughout the world.
A priest once told me of an elderly pastor he had as a young priest, who would often say that God will never abandon the United States because the United States has always shown charity and generosity to those in need throughout the world. May it always truly be so!
The origins of Catholic Relief Services
In the midst of the devastation left by the effects of the Second World War, the Bishops of the United States founded what was called the War Relief Services in 1943. It sought to coordinate the works of charity of the Catholic Church by being present on the scenes of need and devastation caused by the war. With war’s end, the pressing need became one of caring for the many refugees, who had been forced to flee their homes as a result of the devastation of war and the “Iron Curtain” that fell over much of Eastern Europe because of the actions of Soviet Russia. The end of colonial rule in many parts of the world also brought its own confusion and poverty with it, and CRS also stepped in to fulfill those needs.
This is a good opportunity, in this Year of the Priest, for me to pay tribute to a priest of our own Archdiocese, who spent 40 years working for Catholic Relief Services in many parts of the world: Msgr. Joseph J. Harnett.
Msgr. Harnett was assigned to relief work with the-then War Relief Services in France in 1947. After completing that assignment, he was appointed director of the relief efforts for refugees from Eastern Europe in Trieste, Italy. In 1954, he went to Vietnam, where he established the first American voluntary aid program there. He later became director of all Far East programs of what had by then been renamed Catholic Relief Services.
In 1966, he was called to Rome, where he became director of all CRS activities in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. It was in Rome that we met and actually lived for a number of years in the same residence for American priests. In 1984 Msgr. Harnett returned to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
At his death in 1987, there was a departure from the usual prayer card printed on the occasion of the death of a priest:
Msgr. Harnett’s card merely had his name, years of birth and death and the words of Jesus, which we find in the Gospel: “I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me” (Matthew 25:35-36). Msgr. Harnett had lived out this message so well, through the charitable arm of Catholic Relief Services and the generosity of the Catholics of the United States.
What does Catholic Relief Services do today?
The efforts begun on behalf of those affected by war, and the needs of refugees have grown into a worldwide agency responding to immediate needs throughout the world and ongoing needs such as agricultural education in poor countries, emergency response, peace building, and educating and caring for those affected by HIV/AIDS.
As the international, humanitarian agency of the Bishops of the United States, CRS provides assistance to 80 million people in more than 100 countries and territories throughout the world. This assistance is based solely on need and not race, creed or nationality. A full 93 percent of the budget of Catholic Relief Services is used for programs and only 7 percent for fund raising and administration. Its excellent reputation, both for efficiency and fiscal responsibility, has caused CRS to be called upon by many governments and agencies in times of need.
Indeed, after the earthquake in Haiti, Archbishop Dolan reported than the United States government contacted CRS as a major coordinator of relief efforts and as an agency already on the scene at the time of the devastating earthquake. The generous offerings of our people given in their parishes and dioceses are being transmitted to Catholic Relief Services, to be used with their usual dedication and efficiency, in accord with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, so that the greatest number of people and their needs can be helped in the most efficient manner.
Christian love of neighbor and Christian love of self
It has certainly been encouraging to see the outpouring of generosity from so many different sources after the earthquake in Haiti. There has been a wonderful response to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Haiti from many sectors of American life. We know the words of the Scriptures: “Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Likewise: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” (James 2:14-16).
We seek to live out the message of Jesus in many ways “and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
However, it is also necessary for us to remember that this charity, which must be turned outwards towards our neighbor, especially our neighbor in need, must also be turned to ourselves. St. Paul teaches us: “No one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:29). One of the ways in which we live out charity is by leading a virtuous life. Just as faith without works is dead, good works without an effort to live a virtuous and godly life can also be dead. We “love ourselves” by treating our own bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit and by leading others into lives of virtue, not of sin.
Just as it is a mockery for one who calls himself a Christian not to exercise charity towards a neighbor, so it is incomplete and dishonest to claim to show charity for a needy neighbor, while not at least trying to love ourselves by leading a virtuous, pure and godly life. Just as the faith we claim in God must be manifested in the charity we show for neighbor, so the charity we show for neighbor must also be manifested by our fidelity to God and His commandments.
I know that you have already been given a great deal of information, through your parishes and through this newspaper, concerning how you may help the earthquake victims in Haiti through the ministry of Catholic Relief Services, so I will not repeat that information here. However, I hope that this overview of the work of CRS, which carries on the Christian work of charity, may be helpful during this time of great need for our brothers and sisters in Haiti.
4 February 2010