The Man Who Leads the World's Biggest Charity

Interview With Cor Unum President, Cardinal Cordes

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By Jesús Colina



VATICAN CITY, MARCH 10, 2008 (Zenit.org).- What is the difference between Christians and non-Christians who do charity work? Cardinal Paul Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, knows the answer: For a Christian, charity is to show the love of God for every man and woman.

Born in Germany in 1934, the prelate now presides over 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 his work with Cor Unum, but also about the story of his vocation to the priesthood and his friendship with two men who have become Pope.

Q: The Holy Father has entrusted you with the mission of being the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. What is the most important part of your work?

Cardinal Cordes: After Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," we see on one hand the necessity of thoroughly involving ourselves with doing good for people, to show the goodness of God, above all, when faced with misery; and to be sensitive to what people need. And on the other hand, we note also the need to combine this involvement with the Gospel.

Jesus Christ always did good in relation to the proclamation of the word, and the history of the writing of the encyclical shows that the Pope gives a lot of emphasis to this. The first part speaks extensively of the importance of God for man and I think that the Church, or Christians, has this specific task. There are a lot of aid initiatives: We have the Red Cross, we have the various institutions of the United Nations, the philanthropic agencies. And all of this is very good.

But if we analyze what is specifically Christian, we realize that it goes beyond human misery. Frequently, material aid is not enough, if people find themselves in a difficulty such that they can no longer be helped with bread to eat, or with a roof over their heads, or with medicine. What is there to offer a dying person? Or a woman who has lost her children in an earthquake? There still remains for us giving consolation, speaking of God who has prepared eternal life for us. This message is very important and we, the faithful, should safeguard it.

Q: Given the vastness of the Catholic Church, how can we succeed at transmitting this message? Do you have initiatives for including the dimension of faith in the aid offered by the various Catholic organizations in the world?

Cardinal Cordes: Right now we are doing a tour through the episcopal conferences. I have been in various countries: Russia, Poland, Austria, Spain, I went to India. It is about showing the bishops the Pope's will in this, and of highlighting the spiritual dimension of aid. We are taking advantage also of the "ad limina" visits that they make to the Pope and his collaborators. We organized an important congress when "Deus Caritas Est" was published and all of this helped us.

Now we have a new idea, something perhaps original, and that could cause a bit of surprise. We have scheduled a grand spiritual retreat for the leaders of charitable activities in dioceses, that is, the president and the directors. And we want to begin with North and South America.

It is a new step. One could ask what does this do, concretely? But in a world that is so pragmatic, often even superficial, tense and little sensitive, we should rediscover the roots, place our hearts in a posture of listening and perceive the strength of the word of God. We have invited Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who is the preacher of the Pontifical Household, and a great orator, gifted with a lot of experience. We have scheduled it for the beginning of June of this year, this spiritual retreat in Guadalajara, Mexico. We have chosen a spot that is in the center of the two Americas, though approaching a bit the south, we have chosen Mexico.

Q: You have been named a cardinal by Benedict XVI. After a life of fidelity to the Church, one asks himself how his vocation to follow Christ was born in his youth.

Cardinal Cordes: Yes, I have a long history, it's true. My parents had a movie theater, a restaurant and a hotel. I was born, therefore, in an environment that wasn't very protected, we could say, very normal. Perhaps my family was a bit surprised when I wanted to begin to study theology to be a priest. But behind all of this was the intense prayer of a woman religious in my little city, who always prayed that the Lord would make me a priest. But without ever speaking of this to me. She never asked me if I wanted that. And when I heard this for the first time, I was not at all happy about it. I went to see her and I scolded her a bit, because she had created a lot of problems for me, because the decision was not easy. And she smiled and she laughed at me. And from that moment, we made a deal, and every time that I have had something difficult to do, I have written her to ask for her prayers. I am convinced that it was the prayers of this woman religious who launched my vocation.

Q: Later, in your vocation you have been a priest and a bishop and you knew Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. How did you meet him the first time? What was your relationship like?

Cardinal Cordes: Already during the Second Vatican Council, there was an exchange of letters between the Polish and German episcopate, due to the war, to make peace, to favor reconciliation also between the two peoples. On the other hand, Catholics from Poland were impeded by their communist government to intensify these contacts with the German government that was free, others said capitalist, and the relations were difficult.

In 1978, for the first time an official delegation came from the Polish episcopate to Germany. But to tell the truth, it wasn't a commission of the episcopate; it was Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the great primate of Poland, and with him were a few bishops obviously less important, whose names were not even known.

Well, I had worked in the office of the episcopal conference and in the last moment, the secretary of the conference called me, saying, "We have forgotten something important. For this visit, someone will be needed to accompany this delegation everywhere." I was a young bishop and thus they asked me to accompany the group. Cardinal Wyszynski always went in the first car with the bishop of the area, and in the second car, with me, was Cardinal Wojtyla, known by hardly anyone. And thus we were together a few days. We talked. The cardinal was very discreet, very attentive.

In the meetings with the people, when things got complicated, Cardinal Wyszynski told his companion, Cardinal Wojtyla, "Now you talk, you speak German better." I was very impressed with this man and when I returned to my diocese, to Padernborn, I ran into a priest who told me, "Wyszynski is a great person; he has done things very well." I spontaneously replied, "Wyszynski is good, but Wojtyla is better." That was my comment.

Later, when he was elected Pope, John Paul II called me so that I would go to Rome, to take on a role in the Curia. I accepted with pleasure also because I wanted to help this authentic personality, a man of prayer, and kind. Without knowing a word of Italian, I came to Rome.

Q: And then in Rome you had the chance to know Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now our Holy Father Benedict XVI, though maybe you knew him beforehand?

Cardinal Cordes: I knew him when he was still a professor, at the beginning of Vatican II, maybe in 1963, I don't recall. He gave a conference and his answers to the students' questions surprised me, because they were always exhaustive. His answers seemed almost like a little conference on the theme. When one of us seminarians asked him something, he had seven or eight points. And I asked myself, "But this man already knew what was going to be asked? How could he come up with such an articulate answer?" That was my first impression. Later I found him here and there, on various occasions.

When he was the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, we saw each other frequently because I was a consultor. Later, I took an apartment in the building of the offices of the congregation, and when he left the office, often I was returning home. Thus, we ran into each other a lot, we spoke. When I had problems with something, I asked his advice. Our relationship was truly very friendly. He gave me many of his books with a dedication. It was certainly a very beautiful relationship. And of course, when they elected him Pope, I was very happy.

Q: But I imagine that in a certain sense, now the closeness of before is not possible. As Pope, he has a million commitments. And he is no longer your neighbor...

Cardinal Cordes: Often people tell me, "Say hi to the Pope for me." Saying hi to the Pope for me now is difficult, and therefore, I greet his guardian angel. On one level, the relationship is more difficult, I see that he has such a heavy burden, that initially he had rejected the idea of being Pope. Now he has to protect himself, use his time well. Because of this, his contacts are more difficult. But I often think of him too in prayer, because he is not ashamed to ask for prayer. Thus the relationship continues, though not with the human expressions that it had before.

Once he invited me to eat with him. It was a great joy. He is a very simple man, he doesn't make big ceremonies, he doesn't show that he is the Pope. One time when I took him a book of mine, I took off the wrapping there with him because I was afraid he wouldn't look at what was inside. I was befuddled because he got up from the chair and he, himself wanted to throw the paper in the trash can. He is a great man in simplicity, or rather in humility.