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A journey of faith and solidarity

By Archbishop Paul S. Coakley                   March 6, 2016

As I sit to compose this column, my mind and memory are flooded with thoughts and images of the past 11 days when I traveled with Catholic Relief Services to two very different parts of the world.

The first leg of the journey was to the Middle East where we visited the work CRS is engaged in with its various partners in Lebanon and Jordan. Next, we traveled to Ghana at the invitation of the bishops of West Africa to participate in the plenary assembly of the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa. CRS and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have been engaged in humanitarian and pastoral projects for many years in solidarity with the Church in Africa. What follows are somewhat random accounts of what I was privileged to witness and now feel compelled to share.

Against the backdrop of the striking landscapes, varied cultures and rich history of Lebanon and Jordan, my attention was drawn to the tremendous human suffering that is sweeping across that region of the world. Because of political unrest and violent extremism in Iraq and Syria, neighboring countries have been flooded with literally millions of refugees and displaced persons fleeing persecution. CRS and its Caritas partners have stepped in to support amazing projects that bring hope and save lives every day.

In Beirut, we visited a retention center where undocumented persons are being held in squalid conditions in a makeshift government facility underneath an urban overpass. CRS and our partners are providing comfort and relief, and even assisting with the construction of a new facility where these vulnerable persons will be able to explore the legal recourse available to them in dignity.

We visited a shelter for dozens of women who have been trafficked by unscrupulous employers who lured them as domestic workers only to withhold from them their wages and passports, thus reducing them to a modern form of slavery that has become all too common around the world.

Not surprisingly, many of these women, mostly from Africa, also have been victims of sexual and physical abuse. They are being lovingly cared for in a secret location above a Catholic school in Beirut by a team of religious and lay women with the support of CRS.

We met over lunch with a remarkable Good Shepherd Sister, Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, who described the work she is able to do with CRS support in serving refugees in Lebanon and Syria. Her joy and indomitable spirit reminded me of a 21st century Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

One of the truly hopeful places we visited was an interfaith center called in Arabic, “Adyan,” which means “religions.” This institute led by a Maronite priest and a Muslim woman scholar is working to build bridges and understanding through education and inter-cultural initiatives. It is one of the truly effective peacebuilding efforts in the region.

In Jordan, CRS has worked in partnership with Caritas Jordan on many projects. One of the sites we visited was located at the modern Italian Hospital in Amman. There, refugees, primarily from Syria, are able to register for assistance, ranging from health services to psycho-social counseling to basic food and shelter.

Undoubtedly, one of the projects that I was most proud of was the fruit of a new partnership between CRS, the Knights of Columbus and Caritas Jordan. The Knights have provided funding to support an education project for displaced Syrian refugee children housed in a local Catholic parochial school. Children who have been out of school for as many as three years due to the disruption of war and having to flee their homeland are able to attend classes that help them catch up to their normal grade level.

At the same parish, we also celebrated Mass with a group of Iraqi Catholic refugees who had fled to Amman from Mosul after their ancient Christian city was overrun by ISIS. Their stories are heartbreaking, but their hope is intact.

In Ghana, we were welcomed by the bishops of the 12 or so West African nations that comprise their regional episcopal conference, RECOWA. In addition to participating in the general sessions of the gathering, it afforded an opportunity for Dr. Carolyn Woo, CRS president and chief executive, the CRS country and regional staff as well as staff of the USCCB, and me to interact with the bishops about matters of mutual interest in our ongoing collaborations.

One of the CRS projects that I was able to visit in Accra, the capital of Ghana where the meeting was held, was a program housed in a local parish and supported by the Archdiocesan Marriage and Family Life Office. CRS has helped develop a program called Faithful House. It arose in response the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa as a way to slow the spread of that terrible disease by promoting fidelity in marriage. It has become an enormously successful marriage enrichment program.

An element that was subsequently added to Faithful House has been a robust Natural Family Planning component that teaches and supports couples who wish to achieve or plan pregnancies, and remain faithful to the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood.

Every time I have been privileged to travel to one of the countries where CRS works on behalf of U.S. Catholics, I have been enriched in unimaginable ways. This trip did not disappoint. Catholic Relief Services gives American Catholics an opportunity to practice global solidarity as an expression of our Catholic faith through the works of justice and mercy.