As you know, Catholic Relief Services is part of Caritas Internationalis, the worldwide network of the Catholic Church’s charitable organizations. We work in 93 countries around the world, and in many of these countries the local Caritas is our partner. Our Caritas colleagues are people from different cultures who have taken up the universal challenge of the Gospels: to care for their neighbors.
“Caritas” is an interesting Latin word. It is usually translated into English as “charity,” but there is more to it than that. Thomas Aquinas said that “caritas” is that which unites us to God and called it “the most excellent of virtues.” To him, “the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbor.” This raises another meaning of the word. Pope Benedict XVI titled his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The accepted translation: God is Love.
That speaks volumes about how essential charity is to our faith. But it also speaks volumes about what kind of charity we should engage in. Our acts of charity are acts of love. And we know that love puts demands on us. Love cannot come from an attitude of superiority, something we give to someone inferior to us. It is an act of humility in that it attempts to comprehend the ultimate love that is our Lord: Deus Caritas Est.
When many hear the word “charity,” they conjure up a traditional view—transferring money or goods from the wealthy to the poor. They think alms, handouts. Certainly, there are times when love demands that of us: When people are hungry, we must give them food.
But love demands more.
Consider your children; what if the only way you expressed love to them was by feeding them and giving them money? Would that be an expression of love? Of course not. Love demands that you teach them to stand on their own two feet so they can walk freely.
And so it is in the work you do through CRS. Love demands that we not only feed the hungry, but also work to ensure that they are never hungry again. And that we do it with humility, with an understanding that before God, all of his children are equal. The charitable transaction is between equals. Indeed, as Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount, it is often the poor who are our teachers. We have so much to learn.
Love demands that we work to see that everyone has access to meaningful work, that everyone can realize the lives of dignity and authenticity that God intends for us.
So, certainly we feed the hungry, but we also give them seeds and training. Certainly, we aid farmers trying to grow enough to feed their families—but we also link them with markets so they can reap additional benefits from their harvests.
Even in the aftermath of horrific disasters—of earthquakes, tsunamis and floods—we seek to remove the identity of “victim” as soon as possible. We provide cash for work, such as clearing rubble, unblocking streams or repairing houses. This cash goes into the local economy, helping to provide work for many, many more.
For example, right now in the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan brought devastation 6 months ago, we are working with farmers who depended on coconut trees, now decimated by the storm, for their livelihoods. It will take up to 8 years for their trees to be productive again, so we are helping them grow other crops. If the market is there, farmers can continue to profit from these crops after they return to harvesting coconuts. We could simply hand out money during the time it takes the coconut trees to return. Many would see that as an act of charity. But it would not be an act of love.
We have similar programs around the world that provide financial resources for small businesses to grow, for orphans to get an education, for land to be renewed, for communities to galvanize around a new well. Our ultimate goal is to help poor and vulnerable communities through the power of knowledge, local input and ownership, shared goals and collective action.
That is what true charity looks like. That is what is demanded by love, by “caritas.”
May blessings overflow,
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO