Charity Workers Invest Time to Pray

Interview With Cardinal Paul Cordes of Cor Unum

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By Jesús Colina

VATICAN CITY, JULY 14, 2008 (Zenit.org).- A spiritual retreat for leaders of Catholic charities on the American continent was not a waste of time, but rather a way to make them more efficient, explained the cardinal who oversees the Church's charity work.

Cardinal Paul Cordes presides over the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican dicastery that coordinates the charitable activity of Catholic institutions around the world. It also distributes aid from the Pope, offered as a gesture of charity to populations struck by natural disasters or war.

In this interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Cordes talks about the first ever spiritual exercises organized by the pontifical council for directors of diocesan and national Caritas organizations and other Catholic charitable organizations. The exercises were held June 1-6 in Guadalajara, Mexico, and directed by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

Q: For the first time, directors of some of the Church's charitable institutions met in a continental retreat to meditate and pray. During those days there were global emergencies, such as the global food crisis, which leaves the peoples of developing countries going hungry. Wasn't a retreat a waste of time?

Cardinal Cordes: Indeed, it might seem that way, at least at the practical level. However, I think a better service can be offered the poor only when people who are dedicated to charitable activities are profoundly and solidly rooted in Christ and in ecclesial life.

This meeting was a strong investment: The efficacy of the Church's charitable action does not depend -- as Benedict XVI states in his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" -- only on professionalism and the amount of interventions. What characterizes charitable intervention is its insertion in the Church's life itself, the fact of taking to men a message of hope and love, the love of God, in fact, for those who suffer most. This transforms aid into an act of charity, as understood in sacred Scripture.

The Holy Father says that an activity of Christian aid must be, in the first place, professional and efficient, but that this is not enough in itself. We organized the spiritual exercises in Guadalajara precisely in response to this "not enough." We witnessed that, although the dioceses already take the spiritual aspect into account, people have a great thirst for meetings of this sort. At the end of the exercises, one of the participants said to me: "Your Eminence, I return to my diocese, to my work, as though recharged, and with a great and renewed desire to continue serving, helping my neighbor as the Church requests."

Q: Many describe the Catholic Church as "the largest nongovernmental organization of the world." Do you agree with this definition? What is the difference between the Church and any other nongovernmental organization?

Cardinal Cordes: Father Cantalamessa, who directed the retreat with his conferences, has often addressed this argument. The greatest charity consists in helping our neighbor by offering him, along with concrete aid, also the greatest, most ineffable good: Christ himself. Therefore, the Church is called to help the poor, the needy, people hit by calamities in their material needs; but along with this, one who acts as a Christian -- that is, from his faith -- is called to take the love that God has as Father to each man, especially to those who suffer.

Nongovernmental organization are used to reflecting on the problems of the world, such as disasters, hunger, drought, migrations and war, in order to be able to address these challenges, especially, politically and technically. In giving priority to these practical and organizational interventions, the profound spiritual aspect is easily lost. From the quantitative point of view and using purely sociological categories, we can certainly confirm that the Catholic Church is the world's largest Nongovernmental organization, but this "primacy" is of little interest to us. The Church hopes to be a sign, to make visible the fact that no person has ever been excluded from God's paternal concern even if he is stricken by destructive, terrible and dehumanizing poverty. And, no less important, is to proclaim that there is eternal life.

In addition to this, there is a second argument. The great strength of the Church is found in the fact that often those who act in her are "incarnated," rooted in the concrete realities, in their field: They are present, they come from the same situations of suffering, they know them personally. Moreover, we have an extraordinary resource: Most of the volunteers offer their help for free. They commit themselves even before the arrival of funds or means sent by others.

Q: The Pope sent a message to the participants inviting them to intensify their friendship with Christ. Addressing those in charge of large aid institutions, it would seem that this message did not address its specificity: aid, development. Do you share this judgment?

Cardinal Cordes: A pastoral impulse should not stress so much the qualities already practiced by those who are listening, but rather aspects sometimes taken for granted and which, instead, should be reinforced. The Pope thinks that, to address the real problems better, what is necessary as foundation and point of departure is friendship with Christ. This friendship makes the agent of charity a Good Samaritan, according to the model and example of Christ.

Q: Father Raniero Cantalamessa has said that the Church should not only work with the poor but should be poor. What does this mean and how do you see this invitation?

Cardinal Cordes: Father Cantalamessa, who has truly addressed the core of the problem, stressed the importance of the way the Church presents herself when helping the poor. In this connection, he gave the example of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The Church makes herself credible by the way she presents herself before the various forms of poverty. Significant is the anecdote often mentioned of the journalist who, on visiting the House of the Dying in Kalighat, and after seeing the work of the religious who cared for the patients, exclaimed: "I wouldn't do this for a million dollars!" To which Mother Teresa responded: "Nor would I!"

Mother Teresa had understood, in her charism of help for the unfortunate, that in each poor person we are serving Christ. If I do not appear poor before the poor man, before Christ himself, I will not be living true charity.

Q: What were the participants' reactions to this new experience of spiritual exercises?

Cardinal Cordes: Many testimonies of satisfaction and gratitude. We are now preparing a publication in various languages with some experiences, as a memento for the participants. Moreover, some of the participants have already included in their agendas the taking of these exercises to their dioceses, in agreement with the local bishop.

Q: It's the first time an organization of the Holy See organizes such a meeting. Will there be others?

Cardinal Cordes: We hope so, given the joy and enthusiasm experienced, lived and referred to by the participants. I sincerely hope, from my heart, that this experience might be repeated also in other continents.