HAPPY ANNIVERSARY CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES
CRS is celebrating its seventieth anniversary this year, a child of World War II and a Church in one nation which had an unquenchable desire to help those outside its own borders as they coped with the horrors of war, famine, earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and floods to name but a few. Occasionally I am asked (and sometimes I prompt others to ask me the question) what three things have been the greatest blessing of your priesthood (now thirty-five years old) I respond, the episcopal conference of the United States of America, the church of St. Petersburg, and Catholic Relief Services. The first, now called the USCCB, has laid claim to fourteen years of my life as a staff member in the early part of my priesthood; the second has been my home and my joy for seventeen years, and the third has seen me intimately involved as a member of the Board of Directors for twelve years, including six as Chairman.
Catholic Relief Services has established over its seventy years a well-deserved reputation as among the very best of first-responders when disaster strikes. Secondly, among disaster relief and development agencies, it spends less on every dollar contributed on funding raised and advertising than almost any other agency (seven cents on the dollar). Third, it operates in ninety-six countries throughout the world and in one year helps millions of people in their struggles for daily life. The great tsunami of the day after Christmas in 2004 occurred on my watch as Board chair and within forty-eight hours we had a team on the ground in Banda Ache, Sumatra, Indonesia helping people live, cope, survive, revive and move on. I have witnessed women in India using microfinance tools (they get small CRS backed loans from banks in their towns and villages) band together for the first time, pool their loans and start small businesses which soon turn enough profit to feed and cloth and educate their children (and the loan failure rate among these women’s microfinance initiatives is close to zero). Proving they can do it, banks often on their own will then lend them more money and their businesses grow. It’s absolutely amazing in its empowerment. In famine stricken Africa I have been present for “Seed Fairs” where farmers gather on a Saturday in a village and bring their unused seeds from the prior year and trade them or sell them where as in the past they were simply thrown away. I have been present for pre-natal clinics for expectant mothers supported by CRS which have impressively and effectively lowered infant mortality rates. AND, I have never visited a country where having been invited by a local Church to be present have had that Church ask that we withdraw. It just does not happen. When CRS has to withdraw from a country, it most often happens because that country and the local Church have reached a level of self-sufficiency that our presence is no longer necessary. Do we occasionally disappoint a local Church? Yes, but often it happens when US-AID cuts back a program, usually and most often food support, as the US tries to balance its budget. Sometimes the local Church would like us to hire only Catholics. I remember during the height of the Ethiopian Famine in the mid-1980’s while visiting Addis Ababa the local Cardinal Archbishop was quite upset with me and with CRS because we hired Coptic Orthodox auditors and did not take well my response that we tried and failed to find Latin-Rite auditors who were capable of managing the US government reporting forms. Many African churches wish we would just send them a check and let them spend it as they would want like the Germans and Italians do (or used to do in the case of the former donor nation/Church) and don’t realize that CRS does not build seminaries, restore or build churches, buy trucks for diocesan CARITAS organizations (unless we are present to help manage and supervise the use of vehicles) – we help people.
American Catholic women should see the faces of gratitude and happiness on their African and Central American counterparts (women) when we teach the community how to build a well in the midst of their village and eliminate the long walk to the well or water source miles away with the water jar on top of the heads of the women of the village. Why is the Catholic Church so well suited around the world to act as a delivery agent for human relief and development? Partly, it is due to the fact that we have the parish structure which serves the whole community regardless of religion and our local partners, most often diocesan CARITAS or Catholic Charities agencies, serve as the primary instruments of outreach. It is a great Church, good readers, and CRS is a great organization.
The Board of Catholic Relief Services takes its responsibilities quite seriously. It can by statutes and by-laws consist of thirteen bishops elected by the USCCB and twelve non-bishops elected by the Board. They meet four times a year as a whole and more often as committee assignments requires. World headquarters is in an old department store in downtown Baltimore. The chair of the CRS board is a member of both the USCCB Administrative Committee as well as the USCCB Finance Committee. CRS makes its annual audit and finance statements publicly available. It is transparent, accountable to its owners (the bishops) and its donors (God’s generous people).
Last week the priests of the Diocese of St. Petersburg gathered for our annual priests’ convocation for three and a half days at the Bethany Center. Monsignor David Garcia from the Archdiocese of San Antonio and two other representatives of CRS spoke to us about the social justice responsibilities of the Gospel and pointed out ways in which CRS enfleshes the Gospel imperative in today’s Church in a unique and special way. We left that session “pumped up” to perhaps better do the work of justice and if any agency of the Church in the United States mirrors the Justice and Peace Gospel imperatives, it is Catholic Relief Services, now seventy years old and getting better all the time. Happy Anniversary, CRS!