Posts Tagged ‘Africa’


Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Half the fun of writing blogs is to discover a title that arouses interest, gives little away, but inspires me to share some thoughts with you, my readers. I have mentioned to other bloggers that sometimes I begin with a title and work from there rather than write and then search for a title. That is the case now. Here in Florida during this season, nothing arouses interest more than “the National Hurricane Center in Miami is monitoring a tropical disturbance moving westward over the Atlantic for potential development.” We don’t rush out to buy plywood, but we become attuned to listening during weather reports to the “Invest Number ” and then to the Tropical Depression, Tropical Storm, Hurricane, etc., if and as it develops. The vast majority of our threats begin over the Sahara in northern Africa and then move across the increasingly warm waters of the mid-Atlantic. Occasionally, a system develops in the Caribbean and there is less time to prepare but tropical weather problems for us almost always move westward.

Unfortunately, a storm of a different kind developed in the United States recently and was headed toward Africa. It began with a group called the “Population Research Institute” which is an allegedly pro-life group and spread to a few other notoriously and consistently wrong entities who “thrive” on attacking the Church or its entities. While it was meant to inflict harm on a highly respected US Catholic charity, it took dead aim this time at Africa. From time to time, I suspect when these organizations need money, they try to stir up a hornet’s nest or storm by attacking a Catholic organization, usually falsely accusing them of being anti-life, pro-contraception, either pro or soft on abortion, etc., etc., etc. The storms start small enough and then occasionally grow in size. It’s simply a money raising scheme with little regard for the human lives which they allege they seek to protect – well maybe it is only pre-born human life in which they are interested. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has felt the buffeting torrents of accusations in the past as has Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA). This time it was Catholic Relief Services (CRS) which was to be the significant “whipping boy/girl” for these groups. For twelve years of my priestly life I have been on the Board of Catholic Relief Services and six of those I served as President and Chairman of the Board. During my engagement we were mostly spared any of these storms, but from the time Cardinal Timothy Dolan succeeded me as Chairman, these storms have developed off the East Coast of the U.S. and moved eastward toward Africa where CRS does an amazing job of supporting and sustaining human life, even with programs of pre-natal maternal/child health care,  which has helped lower the infant (in and out of the womb) death rate.

These attacks never grow beyond a tropical depression but too much time and energy is spent by CRS and CCHD and CCUSA in responding to them. The latest components of  this “Tropical Depression” were the allegation that in the nation of Madagascar CRS was actively promoting contraception, that the bishops of that country and elsewhere were displeased with CRS, and that you dear reader should not give to Catholic Relief Services because they do not adhere to Catholic teaching but send your money to them so they can develop this into a Tropical Storm and rid the Church of this organization. We’ve heard it all before, responded to it in the past, know its sources, and spend way too much energy in defense of the agency.

So let me take each of the current seeds of the latest storm and tell you the truth. Does CRS staff or the agency in general promote contraceptives in Madagascar or anywhere else in Africa or the globe? The storm originators never identify their sources but just throw mud up into the air. CRS policy is consistent and supportive of the Church’s teaching and we have been excluded from many U.S. government programs over the years because we will not sign on to the U.S. program of condom distribution in other countries. The storm sources have yet, yet in all these years to produce a credible witness to the contrary.

Now, how about the hierarchy of Madagascar? Do they think CRS is acting contrary to Church teaching? Are they unhappy with the presence and work of CRS in their country? Archbishop Desire Tsarahazana, President of the bishops’ conference of Madagascar expressed “strong support” for CRS and said that the agency is “acting in accord with Catholic teaching and does not provide or facilitate access to contraception or abortion.” So who do you wish to believe, an organization that will not identify either its sources of the allegations or name its own members of its Board of Directors or the arm of the Catholic church that saves lives daily throughout the world?

Catholic Relief Services readily admits that it is not always perfect. When one has 5000 employees worldwide, is it even remotely possible that one or two of those same employees might incorrectly represent the agency’s position? Yes, it is. If one searches far enough can one find a bishop who is unhappy with CRS in their country? Yes, one can. The primary complaint I heard throughout my dozen years from bishops where we are present and serving, was, “can’t you just send us the money and let us spend it?” or “why can’t you give us money to build a headquarters building for our episcopal conference?” Patiently I would explain how we are different from the European Catholic Aid agencies because our scope is limited to disaster relief and human development through programs of microfinance, food maintenance, pre-natal medicine and HIV/AIDS interventions, etc. They also often complained about the demands of reporting required by the government of the United States if federal program monies were involved and I would quickly respond, we don’t like it either but it is the cost of doing business. When I queried would they be better off without CRS in their diocese of country they were quick, unanimous and emphatic in saying “no, stay.”

I am convinced that many so called Pro-Life groups are not really pro-life but merely anti-abortion. We heard nothing from the heavy hitters in the prolife movement in the last week when Florida last night executed a man on death row for 34 years having been diagnosed as a severe schizophrenic. Which personality did the state execute? Many priests grow weary of continual calls to action for legislative support for abortion and contraception related issues but nothing for immigration reform, food aid, and capital punishment. And, this is a big one, priests don’t like unfair attacks on things they highly value and esteem, like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.

So this little storm which was headed in a way to harm CRS’s work in Africa has run into a ridge of dry air and will stall. But when the Population Research Institute or others need money from Catholics who want to believe the worst about their church, its leadership and their service agencies, then it will suck up the mud-filled moisture and try to stoke up another storm. I suspect that if he ever got this blog, Pope Francis would agree with its content. Keep on doing the good work of Christ and be an instrument of mercy to the world.



Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Christopher Mertens with Dr. Abdulai and his wife at the Shekhinah Clinic in Tamale, Ghana

Christopher Mertens is a junior at Notre Dame University in pre-med. [In the interest of full disclosure, his older sister Maria is our new WebMaster at the Diocese of St. Petersburg and assists with the mounting and presentation of these blog entries after I have finished writing them.] The Mertens family attends Light of Christ Catholic Church in Clearwater. Christopher, through the kindness and support of Catholic Relief Services, had an opportunity this past summer to work at a clinic in Tamale, Ghana (northern section of the country) with a man whom, if I were on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize, would be my nominee and remain such until he received it.

Doctor David Abdulai has now founded two clinics in Tamale which treat the indigent, the mentally challenged, and lepers. The last is little wonder since the doctor’s own parents had Hanson’s disease (leprosy). After medical school, Dr. Abdulai practiced medicine in the government hospitals of Ghana and created a comfortable living for himself and his family. Born a Muslim, the doctor became a Roman Catholic as an adult, but his practice of medicine is open to and extremely sensitive to all the major religions of his area.  At some point, feeling that his family had enough to live on, he left the more lucrative practice of medicine (understanding that in Ghana “lucrative” probably means a lot less than in the United States) and decided to devote his life to treating the poor.

His first clinic he named the Shekhinah Clinic and opened its doors to those so poor they were refused treatment in the government hospitals of the Tamale region. Using ground he procured for the purpose, he opened examining rooms and an operating theatre. Then he built small huts since most of his patients came long distances and needed a place to stay before and after seeing the doctor and following surgery. He charges them nothing, either for his medical services or room and board while at the clinic. Because he treats the mentally ill, he is sometimes referred to as “the crazy doctor,” but to his nation and to his region, he is the male Mother Theresa of Calcutta who sees the face of God in every poor person in need of his help.

The whole operation is run on the principle of Deus Providebit or “God will provide.” He now has two of these clinics in different parts of Tamale among which he splits his time and receives sufficient food gifts and medicine to care for the indigent yet hope-filled people he sees. There are obvious human and professional limitations on how many he can see. At the Shekhinah Clinic where Christopher spent the summer, three days a week, sixty people are scheduled for examination. Dr. Abdulai readily admits that he could take more, but they would not then receive the careful, personal attention from him which they need. Patient beyond belief with his patients, there is no more concerned person in Ghana than this doctor sitting opposite his patient.

Not fully satisfied that the two clinics were doing enough for the region’s poor, Dr. Abdulai also started a nutrition and feeding program for the mentally ill on the streets who are completely alone and have no one else to care for them. For many years, Catholic Relief Services was able to assist in providing food from US-AID and the UN World Food Program to the clinics and to the poor but our government in its wisdom has largely dried up that source. It matters not to Dr. Abdulai because God will provide and God still does. God even now provides doctors from Germany, Canada, Scotland and England and occasionally from the United States who come to the clinics and assist the doctor for a few weeks each year precisely because they admire him, his mission and his work. God help the visiting doctors if they do not give each poor patient in front of them the same time, care and attention as does the clinic’s founder but word is spreading through the world medical community that this man is for real, a genuine article interested only in helping humanity. Very shy by nature, the doctor does not seek the limelight and will only attend things which will benefit the clinics and the food outreach program, not to glorify himself.

Recently the doctor was singled out in his own country and given an award which was followed up by a piece on his work on the national television network of Ghana. If you have taken the time to read this blog entry to this point, then I ask you to take fifteen more minutes and watch this television footage of the doctor and his mission. You may watch the two parts below. Please listen carefully, because although in English, you need a good ear for the accents.

(If the videos are not appearing, please try refreshing your Internet browser.)

Part One:

Part Two:

Christopher Mertens himself became a patient of Dr. Abdulai and the Shekhinah Clinic when one Sunday morning he became violently ill. The doctor rushed from his home, took a quick blood test and confirmed that he had malaria. It was short-lived and Chris continued his work of assisting the volunteers at the Clinic in many ways, feeding the patients, dispensing medicine as prescribed, occasionally going into the operating theatre to watch the doctor in surgery. He went out of the city into the countryside to deliver food to the leper colonies and in ten weeks lost thirty-five pounds due to the malaria and the change in diet. On the morning he left on the six a.m. bus for Accra and his return to the United States, his colleagues and co-workers came to the bus station to see him off. There are reported to have been many tears for this young white man from the United States quickly known for his smile, kindness, and witness to faith. Dr. Abdulai wrote to me about Christopher and I quote him here: “Yes, Chris has told us that he hopes to become a medical doctor. He will surely make a fine physician of both body and soul, seeing his spiritual approach to everything in the clinic. He does not talk much. He teaches by example, and I am personally touched by his love for God and neighbor. It will certainly be well demonstrated in his medical practice. And through this he may draw many of his patients to a closer relationship with Christ.” This quote tells you and I more about the good doctor than about Christopher.

I hope to meet Dr. David Abdulai before I meet the Lord to thank him for the witness of his life, faith and medical profession. Having spent a number of occasions with Blessed Mother Theresa, I see many of the same qualities of love for the poor and forgotten and while the doctor, as I too would  personally claim to be no saint, he would easily like her in 1979 deserve the Nobel Peace Prize precisely for the witness of his life.


The website for the clinic is: The website is run and monitored by a group of Germans who previously volunteered at the clinic.


Friday, August 26th, 2011

Rachel Gillman from St. Timothy parish, Lutz, with seminarian Dan Angel taken in Bomi, Liberia this summer

Up until this summer, I have not been aware of any of our brothers and sisters from the diocese working overseas doing mission work. Rachel Gillman is from St.Timothy parish in Lutz and hers is an interesting story which with  her permission I would like to share with you. By pure chance, one of our seminarians, Dan Angel, wound up at a remote mission in Liberia where Rachel has been working as a teacher for a year and a half. That obviously is how I learned of her existence and missionary commitment. She comes from a family quite well known in the parish of St. Timothy and her father, a member of one of the youngest parish mens’ clubs in the diocese has worked long, hard and diligently on the vocation to the priesthood promotion campaign known as “Fishers of Men.” Rachel attended Furman University in South Carolina where she majored in both sociology and biology. The latter major required that she spend the summer between her junior and senior year somewhere working as a volunteer and gaining knowledge both learned and practical. She spent that summer in Ghana and worked with those with HIV-AIDS. Returning to Furman for her senior year found her wrestling in a way with a desire to do more for the poor. Immediately after graduation she spent a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working in Brooklyn, among some of the most wretchedly poor right here in our own country. With a wonderful sense of social justice and still yearning to do more, she wound up going to Bomi and St. Dominic’s school in the war ravaged nation of Liberia where she has been teaching for what will be two years in December. Rachel intends to remain there for one more semester or until mid-June, 2012 helping her students learn through a whole school year, teaching biology and chemistry. The assignment came through an organization which I have not heard of called the SMA or Society of Missionaries to Africa. Rachel is joined in Bomi by a religious sister and another lay woman, all working under the most challenging conditions. Believe me, using a bucket to shower every day in incredible heat and humidity sans air conditioning is no delight and that is just the tip of the iceburg of hardship which one has to endure working in most places save the large urban areas of Africa. In Bomi even electricity is a luxury.

Upon learning of her presence, I wrote to  her to tell her how proud I was of her commitment and devotion to serving the poor, especially in a country which is just now finally coming out of years of armed conflict and civil war which saw Bomi as a major theatre of activity. I also asked if there was anything which I or the diocese could do to sustain and support she and the other two women at St. Dominics. Rachel wrote the following to me: I think I will probably be here for one more year. My contract is finished in January, bit I have asked for an extension to finish the school year, which will probably go till June, depending on the election [Liberia will have important presidential elections this Fall). I would be happy to receive any donations. The school is trying its best but really struggles. School fees are always a problem for local people to be able to pay. But the school fees alone (if they are paid) are not sufficient to run the school, much less implement much needed improvements and renovations. There are also very few opportunities for girls and young women. Teenage pregnancy is staggeringly high and it is a struggle to keep girls engaged and active in school. We started a soap making project last year which has been a big success. But it is only benefitting a few girls. There has been a lot of interest to try some more projects to keep the girls engaged, busy, feeling proud of something. . . .But while donations would be wonderful, if there is one thing I have learned since being here, as cliche as I used to think it sounded, I would most appreciate your prayers for my students, the school, Bomi and Liberia. They are approaching a difficult time and it can be so discouraging. I thank God every day for letting me know these people. Sometimes I wish I could be the one to change their worlds, to be able to do more, but I know that it will be God. I’m just grateful for being able to witness it.

Rachel’s beloved St. Dominics will be getting a donation from our diocese and she and her students have been in my prayers ever since I received her email. She is one special person to be sure and one of our own about whom I would have known nothing were it not for our seminarian being assigned by CRS to St. Dominics. I began to think that some other people whom we know are also working in remote and challenging areas of Africa. My personal secretary Andrea McSorley and her husband Spence who worked as Youth Minister at Espiritu Santo parish are with the Comboni missionaries in Malawi and they just had their first child, who will be called Seth, while working abroad. If you know of others whose names and places could be listed here, share them with me and tell me a little about them which I can share with my readers. After all, as I said above, I am not omniscient, never was and never will be.



Monday, August 15th, 2011

One of the wonderful aspects of the privilege of serving as bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg has been how generously our people have responded to emergencies and disasters in our own country and throughout the world. I shall never forget that in one nine month span of time Catholics in this diocese contributed 1.7 million dollars to CRS for tsunami relief in the area of the Indian Ocean (that was in early January) and then turned around and contributed an additional 2.1 million for relief the the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Likewise your response to the Haitian earthquake has also been very admirable. One thing which has always helped when I appeal has been the attention the media, radio, television and the electronic media have shed on the human suffering. moving you beyond my words to want to help.

This week-end in conjunction with your pastors we will be appealing for your generosity once again for a disaster of gigantic proportions but which has not received the notice of the media that those I mentioned above received – the famine and drought in Somalia and East Africa. I am told by Catholic Relief Services that tens of thousands of people are on the move in search of sufficient food and water to sustain life. Without it, they know they will die. Thousands already have.

Catholic Relief Services has been on the ground and present in Somalia for some time now and their staff has been warning us of the growing scope of the disaster. They say that it will take about eighty million dollars of aid from our country and others to save the lives which are at risk as I write this. With all the arguing in Congress about debt ceiling and budget cutbacks, our governments normally generous response to prior emergencies like this is embarrassing. So someone has to stand up and feed the starving and give water to the thirsty. I ask your help once again and even in our own hard economic times, this challenge ranks up there with the famous Ethiopian famine in the mid-eighties of the last century as a killer of enormous proportions. What follows is the letter which I hope will be in every parish bulletin this week-end or read aloud in every Church. Think and pray about it and then join me in helping our sisters and brothers in the horn of Africa.

August 11, 2011

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

From time to time I have written to ask your generous response to a major disaster somewhere in the world or in our own country. Specifically I recall your incredible charity at the time of the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina later that same year and more recently the earthquake and consequent devastation in nearby Haiti.

Less well known but of disastrous consequence is the current famine and drought in Somalia and eastern Africa where millions of people have already been forced from their homes, migrating in search of food and water. I believe that this situation is at least as bad if not worse than the famine and drought which hit Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985 resulting in major loss of life. Even though we as a nation remain in the grips of a recession of our own, the pain, suffering and needless loss of life pales in comparison to the present situation in the horn of Africa.

Consequently, I am asking all pastors of parish churches and administrators of our institutions to appeal for special help through special collections to address the desperate needs of the Somalis and others. Catholic Relief Services is “on the ground in these areas/countries providing assistance with present but dwindling resources. They have an outstanding record of success in these situations.

Please be as generous as you can once again in responding to this appeal and be assured that once again we can make a difference. Then you and I can hear the words of Christ, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” [Mt. 25:35]

All collections will be sent immediately by the diocese to Catholic Relief Services with the specific intention to be used for famine and drought relief. Thank you once again in advance for your mercy and kindness.

 Sincerely yours in Christ,