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"Don't forget the poor"

When it became apparent who would be elected pope during the March conclave a brother cardinal whispered into the ear of Cardinal Bergoglio, “Don’t forget the poor.”  Six months into his papacy it has become very clear that Pope Francis has no intention of overlooking these least of our brothers and sisters.  His special concern for the poor and marginalized has already become the hallmark of his pontificate. 

Each of us must take to heart the same admonition.  The previous issue of the “Sooner Catholic” highlighted the many works of Catholic Charities as it launches its 2013 Annual Appeal with the theme, “Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.”  Though there are many ways we may choose to respond to the cries of the poor, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is the official agency of the Catholic Church that acts on our behalf to alleviate suffering and poverty in central and western Oklahoma.  As Oklahoma Catholics we can be very proud of its outstanding service in the name of Christ and his church.

As Catholic Charities works to extend the mercy of Christ to those who suffer in Oklahoma, Catholic Relief Services acts on our behalf to bring Christ’s compassion to those who suffer around the world.  CRS is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic Church in the United States.  It carries out the commitment of the bishops of the United States as shepherds of the church to assist the poor and vulnerable in more than 91 countries around the world.  Last year CRS served more than 100 million persons.  I am privileged to serve on its board of directors. 

Earlier this month I made my first site visit as a member of a CRS delegation when we travelled to Rwanda.  All I knew of Rwanda had been the horrors of the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of nearly 1 million people in the brief span of four months.  Like many of you I had seen the film “Hotel Rwanda.”  Though that is a very important part of that country’s painful history it does not tell the whole story.  I have been deeply affected by all that we saw and witnessed during that visit. 

CRS has been in Rwanda for 50 years.  Its activities have changed with the changing needs of a nation afflicted by poverty, disease and violence.  Early in CRS’ involvement there the focus had been on large-scale school feeding programs.  Later the focus shifted to small enterprise development and agricultural production to help people develop the skills and capacities to feed themselves.  When HIV/AIDS swept over the African continent CRS increased its activities by supporting antiretroviral therapy services in rural areas and helping communities to care for orphans and vulnerable children from families living with AIDS.   AIDS prevention efforts continue through effective abstinence and “Be Faithful” programs in schools and communities. 

In the aftermath of the war and genocide of 1994 CRS began an immediate response to the emergency needs of a population that suffered the unimaginable violence and trauma that has left such terrible wounds in the social fabric of the country. 

Today CRS in Rwanda is supporting impressive nutrition and agricultural programs, developing creative savings and internal lending communities and micro-finance programs that foster small-scale business initiatives and enable people to lift themselves out of poverty. These are just a few of the creative and effective initiatives that are ongoing.

The majority of Rwandans are Catholic.  We witnessed a vibrant church but one still struggling in the aftermath of the genocide. Church/state relationships are delicate.  We celebrated Mass daily in various parishes and were deeply moved by the hospitality and joy of these communities.  During our visit we met with Rwandan church leaders and the papal nuncio to Rwanda.  CRS is working very closely with the local church to assist the church in Rwanda in developing its own capacity to support its pastoral needs and initiatives.  Through its partnerships with the local Catholic Church, as well as its collaboration with various humanitarian organizations and government agencies, CRS is extending the love and compassion of Christ to thousands of Rwandans in the name of Catholics in the United States.

Rwanda is a small country, about the size of Maryland.  It has a population of more than 12 million people, and its population is very young!  There is great poverty, but there is great hope.  The scale of the challenges facing the country is almost unimaginable.  But CRS is saving lives every day.  It is affirming human dignity and fostering real hope in people who live amid great hardship and suffering.  Though CRS has recently had its vocal critics, I am very proud to serve this Catholic organization and to ensure that it remains what it has been for 70 years, a standard-bearer for the Catholic Church’s commitment to serving the poor with integrity and fidelity to our Catholic teachings, principles and values.