President, Catholic Charities USA
Catholic Social Ministry Gathering
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
As many of you know, I have been in this position of President for all of three weeks now. It has been quite a transition to move from Minnesota to Virginia. A couple of changes are noteworthy. In Minnesota there would be weeks where every day began with a 7:30 meeting. Washington, on the other hand, is a city where nothing happens before 9:00. I think this is the only 7:30 meeting that I have scheduled all year-I can get used to this! Also, the week I started here people were talking about how cold the winter was. Why, yesterday the temperature was 28 degrees! That same day, the high in Minneapolis was 2 above. I like the concept of winter here. I am told, however, that summer might be a different story; but I'll worry about that when it gets here!
On a more serious vein, people have asked me what I think the greatest challenges are that this position will hold. Let me quote one of my predecessors: For those who are engaged in social work the present is very real. Scores of problems crowd into every day demanding an immediate solution... Such problems as the relationship of wages to poverty, workmen's compensation, minimum wage legislation, regulation of child labor, social insurance, prevention and relief of unemployment...
Those are not the words of Fr. Bryan Hehir or Fr. Fred Kammer. Those are the words of Msgr. John O'Grady who headed up this office for forty years. He wrote them in 1930 as the Church formulated its response to the Great Depression. While acknowledging all of that, he said that the greatest challenge facing the National Conference of Catholic Charities was that they remember who they are called to be. I think that is the greatest challenge of today as well. We can never lose sight of the fact that our starting point must be MISSION. As a faith-based organization we must be rooted in Sacred Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching. We must take our inspiration from Old Testament prophets and New Testament Samaritans. We are a vital part of the mission of the Church to transform society by the values of the Kingdom of God. We do so by focusing on the social mandate of the Gospel.
Usually we trace the official beginning of Catholic social ministry on this continent to the year 1727 when twelve Ursuline nuns left Paris to minister to those who had immigrated to New France. In the city of New Orleans they began what would be the first Catholic hospital, school and orphanage. Those endeavors along with the beginnings in other dioceses grew into our country's largest private health care system, largest private education system, and largest social service network. But it would be far more accurate to say that social ministry began in this country with the founding of the first parish. (And my understanding from Mark in Pensacola is that that would have been Florida.) For much of our nation's history these 278 years since the Ursuline sisters arrive, Catholics in America were primarily immigrants, and therefore primarily poor. We were a church for the poor, and it was understood that people co uld look to the parish for help, especially when so many other doors were closed to them. They went to parishes looking for emergency assistance, guidance in assimilating into a new culture, networking for employment and help in finding a way out of poverty.
Today, most Catholics are middle and upper class. And yet, we maintain our commitment to those who are still working their way out of poverty regardless of their religion. As Cardinal Hickey is quoted as saying, "We do it not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic." In fact he said: "If we don't care for the sick, educate the young, care for the homeless, and then we cannot call ourselves the church of Christ." (And the people of God said: Amen!)
Parishes should still be the fundamental locus of this social ministry. It is to them that people will first turn when facing a crisis. Within this context, how then can Catholic Charities strengthen relationships with parishes in this ministry? First, I think, we must help broaden people's understanding of what it means to be church, which in turn will broaden people's understanding of what it means to be parish.
When I was appointed by the Archbishop to work at Catholic Charities in St. Paul & Minneapolis some fifteen years ago, a few people wrote to the local Catholic newspaper, asking, "Why, when we need them so badly, are we taking priests out of the parish and putting them in administrative positions?" When it was announced that I would assume the presidency of Catholic Charities USA, the same kinds of letters appeared.
Now, we could spend a lot of time reflecting on presbyteral personnel needs and policies, but there is a more fundamental question at play here. As I pondered this strong reaction, it became obvious to me how different our definitions of parish can be. Some may understand parish solely in terms of what happens within the four walls of a church building. Others might see beyond those walls to involvement in the surrounding neighborhood. And still others may see the parish as integrally connected to all parts of our community and world.
We must understand parish within that broader context of what it means to be church. And that understanding must involve the gospel mandates of charity and justice. Scripture calls us to live out charity and justice-not in a narrow way, but in the most comprehensive way as taught by Old Testament prophets and in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Anyone in need is our neighbor, and they have a claim on our compassion and the resources we have been given.
The second thing Catholic Charities can do to strengthen these relationships is to convene. People need to see the bigger picture, the picture that transcends parish boundaries and empowers parishes and community groups to work together toward a greater end, the common good.
Third, we can offer parishes our expertise. We do this first by listening to what they need and then by offering training, case management, counseling, or any other kind of professional assistance that is needed.
By strengthening our relationships with parishes, we keep active and vibrant the work of social ministry and its tremendous legacy in our country.
Interestingly enough, when I first went to work at Catholic Charities, Msgr. Jerome Boxleitner, who was the agency director, said to me, "Your parish is now the streets." I learned that my concept of parish had to broaden and it had to include those left out of the traditional definition of parish.
Social ministry includes the incredible work being done at the parish level and also the work of organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Charities among many others. We do this because we have heard the gospel mandate and know that we have no choice if we are to truly call ourselves Christian. But it is work that we must do together. There are many models as to how this gets played out throughout the dioceses of this country.
I thank you for your involvement and commitment in this sacred work. I thank the members of the Advisory Committee for Parish Social Ministry for their time and expertise. I also pledge that Catholic Charities will continue its efforts at coordination and collaboration with parishes.
Why? Because however it is done, social ministry must be done, for we cannot lose that part of our identity without losing what we as the people of God are called to be. May God who has begun this good work in us, bring it to completion. And the people of God said: Amen!