Carolyn Woo

I wouldn’t realize it for years, but a knock on my door almost a decade ago was going to change my life in fundamental ways. The knock came from Ken Hackett. The door was to my office as dean of the Mendoza College of Business of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Ken was president of Catholic Relief Services, which was about to put lay members on its board for the first time. He was recruiting me.

I had always believed in the organization’s mission to serve the poor and most vulnerable. Since I grew up in Hong Kong and was influenced by Catholics from the United States — the Maryknoll Sisters who educated me intellectually and spiritually — I felt it was a mission I should be part of. I didn’t know that a decade later, I would be president of CRS.

We often don’t understand how God has been at work in our lives until we look back and see the path we have taken.

I’ve witnessed tsunami relief in Indonesia and India and have come to understand the tremendous work the Catholic community in the United States is doing for the poor of the world.

I had a wonderful position at Notre Dame, the culmination of a career in business education that began when I left Hong Kong for Purdue University as a teenager. I was happy to help CRS search for a new leader when Ken decided to retire after 17 years at the helm. But I was uncertain what I would say when I was asked to apply for his job. After prayerful deliberation, I said I would be open to the possibility.

I miss Notre Dame. I miss the students and many wonderful friends and colleagues. But I have no regrets. I know this is the path God has chosen for me.

Some might be surprised to see the dean of business school move into the humanitarian field. Many think of aid work only as responding to emergencies, handing out needed items — food, water, medicine, shelter supplies — to those devastated by an earthquake, a flood, a drought. That work is important, but we do so much more.

So much of development work is harnessing the power of business to help the poor. It is crucial to link the poor to markets, but also to equip them for success with access to knowledge, appropriate technology and capital as well as good education, health and nutrition. We understand this is the kind of development that will generate sustainable improvements.

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” that potential and responsibility exist but that these can only be brought forth through the moral energies of leaders.

As I begin the first of what I hope will be many monthly columns, there are many global issues we can explore, from fighting poverty to building peace to being bearers or heralds of the new evangelization.

Along the way, there is one thing I would like to change: that CRS will no longer be, as so many call it, “the best kept secret” of the Catholic Church in America.


Carolyn Y. Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.