The recent death of Pope John Paul II was a great loss for the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul was an inspiration to anyone who yearns for a world of justice and peace.
His guidance renewed in us our need to come together as one human family and challenged us to reach out to the poorest of the poor not just to alleviate their suffering but to help them fulfill their potential and maintain their dignity as human persons.
In the pope's love for the poor, advocacy for social justice and support for the mission of Catholic Relief Services, we could not have had a greater friend.
In his many speeches, exhortations and encyclicals, Pope John Paul left us with a multitude of admonitions to inspire and guide CRS in its work as the international relief and development agency of the US Catholic community. He addressed us and challenged us directly during his 1995 pastoral visit to Baltimore, home of CRS world headquarters. He acknowledged the importance that CRS places not just on emergency relief, but also on development programs that help the poor attain self-sufficiency. “The best kind of assistance,” the pope said, “is that which encourages the needy to become the primary artisans of their own social and cultural development.”
Pope John Paul was also an inspiration to CRS as we went through a period of self-examination a decade ago and resolved to make the work of justice and peace central to our mission.
By the early '90s, like many Catholic institutions, we were beginning to search for a deeper sense of our Catholic identity.
Then came the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that claimed a million lives. For CRS, everything changed.
We had been working in Rwanda, a Catholic country, since before independence in the 1960s. We were a part of the fabric of that country. We knew there were ethnic tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis and we had seen flare-ups over the years. But we attributed them to poor governance and concluded that addressing them was not a part of our mandate.
The genocide deeply affected us. Our CRS staff lost friends, colleagues and family members. And we learned that all the good work we had been doing the silos and schools we built, the children we fed, the farms we planted was not enough.
We realized that although we had successfully completed many development projects, we had not addressed the justice issues relating to the structures that perpetuated societal imbalances in Rwanda. We did not support programs that fostered right relations among people, social institutions and the Church. After much reflection and prayer, we resolved to address not just the symptoms of crises, but their causes the systems and structures that underlie the continued oppression and poverty so many in the developing world face. We began incorporating a justice-centered focus in all our programming. And we rediscovered a jewel in our religious tradition that has enabled us to effectively do this: Catholic social teaching.
Catholic social teaching calls people to solidarity, to balance relationships in society and among ourselves. It places the dignity of the human person at the center of all we do.
It is why peacebuilding is now an important facet of the work of CRS. Some examples of peacebuilding include the following: In Kenya, CRS is working on an interfaith program to reduce tensions between Christians and Muslims; In El Salvador, CRS has started a project to train youth in conflict transformation and leadership in an effort to keep them out of violent gangs; and in Sri Lanka, CRS has helped the local church establish a National Peace Program that aims to bolster the fragile truce between government and rebel forces.
Throughout this difficult process, we had the words and example of Pope John Paul urging us on.
During his visit to Baltimore, Pope John Paul reminded us in his message to CRS that “there is a need for innovative strategies and creative approaches to resolving the structural problems of underdevelopment which themselves are often the result of insensitivity and injustice. Responding to this challenge, then, represents an important facet of Catholic Relief Services’ work, which should always be carried out in strict observance of the Church’s social teaching.”
As a legacy to the memory of Pope John Paul, let us all strive to live up to the Holy Father's charge.
Kenneth F. Hackett is the president of Catholic Relief Services.