The enormous richness that is Caritas suddenly hit me when we were at Mass at the end of the first day of our General Assembly. People from the four corners of the earth gathered together under the roof of Palazzo Carpegna chapel in Rome. One thing united them all: Caritas and their dedication to working for the poor.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, celebrated the Mass. During his homily, he reminded us that Caritas isn’t just an aid agency and doesn’t just take care of the body, but also the spirit. He used the Gospel story of the healing of the paralytic at Capernaum to illustrate how we all have a transcendent dignity regardless of our physical and material state.
As I’d greeted those arriving from Caritas organisations throughout the day, I’d been reminded of the special qualities of Caritas people from many countries who are in many ways instruments of healing. These people who I’d worked with in the field, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few weeks, treated me like an old friend.
There was Sr Aine Hughes, who drove me the 400 kilometres from Johannesburg to Swaziland and who took me around the slums of Pretoria in 2009. She started working on peace in the Troubles of Northern Ireland and then spent years working hard for peace in South Africa and travelling the continent helping poor communities to recognise their resources and to build on them.
Then I bumped into Bishop Pierre Dumas, President of Caritas Haiti. His optimism and pure strength of faith kept us all going following the Haiti earthquake in 2010. He had lost family in the earthquake and yet still smiled and gave comfort to everyone. On a long car journey together around a crumbled Port-au-Prince he surprised me by showing he knew more about pop music than I did!
Then I saw Fr Ambroise Tine who welcomed us all to Senegal last year for the Caritas migration conference. He’s dedicated to helping the women of Senegal become financially independent so they don’t leave their families to migrate. He always has patient and very informed replies to my infinite questions when I interview him.
These are just a few, but there are many more people around the globe who bring their skills and humour and love to Caritas. They accompany people on whichever difficult road they might be travelling: earthquakes, hunger, war – or quite simply the everyday trials of lives lived in tough places.
As Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Mardiaga said when addressing the 300 Caritas representatives at the opening of the General Assembly, “When visiting your organisations and activities, we were overwhelmed by your will to serve the poor.
“We are here over the next week to face the challenges of our diversity in union and communion. I have experienced together with our Secretary General Mrs Lesley-Anne Knight the wealth of our different ways to be Caritas. As experts in humanity, you transformed disasters into ways out of poverty, you transformed powerless people into people believing in justice and freedom, you united people from different faiths and convictions into communions of action in order to build together His Reign. I am proud of your work and of your being Caritas. You are real witnesses of God’s love in the world.” said the Cardinal.
It’s not just the 60th anniversary of Caritas Internationalis, but also the three-year anniversary of my arrival in the confederation. As I mark this double celebration I think back on what I was and what I’ve become. I’ve grown so much and it hasn’t just been professional.
Thanks to all of the people I’ve worked with and all the people who Caritas helps in developing countries around the world, I’ve learned something fundamental about the single bond that binds humanity.