An advocate for social justice

WASHINGTON - With a background as a history professor, college administrator and head of a Catholic Charities agency, Jonathan Reyes sees that combination meshing well with the job of promoting the church's social teaching as the new head of the U.S. bishops' conference's Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

In an interview with Catholic News Service in late March, Reyes again and again voiced enthusiasm for the dual nature of his new position, as a way to educate Catholics and the larger world about Catholic social teaching, and to put that teaching into effect through advocacy.

Reyes stepped into the role in December, filling a post vacated by John Carr, who stepped down after almost 25 years at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to accept a visiting fellow position at Harvard University.

Quoting Dorothy Day, Reyes observed that Catholic social teaching "has the potential to be the dynamite of the church. It's a great tool, especially for introducing the church to people who only think of it in terms of negative publicity."

He noted that church charitable agencies serve hundreds of millions of people around the world through entities including Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

"That's the face of the church," Reyes said. "I think Pope Francis has captured this. There's a dynamic excitement about Francis, in choosing that name, in leading with concern about the poor."

Reyes came to the USCCB from the Archdiocese of Denver, where he had been president and CEO of Catholic Charities and Community Services. Prior to that, he co-founded and served as first president of the Augustine Institute, a Catholic graduate school in Denver; was vice president for campus ministry and leadership formation for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students; and was an assistant professor of history and vice president of academic affairs at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.

His academic background includes a doctorate in European history from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor's in history from the University of Michigan.

In his various roles, Reyes founded Christ in the City, a national volunteer and formation program for college students; oversaw the creation of Regina Caeli Catholic Counseling Services and Lighthouse Women's Care Center, and completed the Guadalupe Community Assistance Center in Greeley, Colo.

Reyes is a native of Michigan who spent his middle school years in Caracas, Venezuela, brought there by his father's work with General Motors.

That experience continues to define him, he said. "It changed my view of the world, completely changed my life."

Living in a developing country gave him an appreciation for the values of another culture. "You see things you wouldn't see otherwise."

The slower pace of life and different cultural dynamics taught him to value a society where "relationship dominates over function. You are in a relationship with others first, getting stuff done comes second," he said.

Decades later, his experience in Latin America helped persuade him to leave academia for his job with Catholic Charities.

"Part of the reason I stepped down as president of Augustine is the conviction that I wanted to serve" more directly, Reyes said.

Reyes acknowledged that following Carr is formidable, and that he has little background in some of the functions of his department, notably legislative advocacy. But he said the "superb advocacy team" that he inherited means the areas where he has to learn are well handled.

"No one's going to walk into this with all the skill sets involved," Reyes said, "because this office combines so many things. It's not just an advocacy job. One of the things I bring that's a little out of the ordinary is this front-lines experience, so I actually know the effects of these programs."

He said he's happily learning the advocacy role, and settling into the Washington-centric parts of it.

"I've loved the Washington side of it," Reyes said, describing the multiple aspects of the department's work as giving him "the freedom to think about Catholic social teaching on a whole lot of levels."

By comparison, at Catholic Charities, he said, "it's a very practical kind of experience. You worry about how to make your services better. Do we expand? You're making all kinds of service decisions."

At the USCCB, his job allows him "to be able to think through policy with really smart people. That appeals to the academic side of me. It has just been very stimulating.

"I'm just loving thinking through how teaching affects applied policy and then how it plays out in reality," Reyes said.

He thinks his work with young adults and in apostolates that focused on teaching, catechesis and evangelization gives him a useful perspective on how to bring the church's social teaching alive for the rising generation.

"In particular, how do we get the next generation engaged," he said. "Given the economic and political realities right now we need a very engaged generation with a pretty sophisticated understanding of the Catholic social tradition."

He sees opportunity in the fact that at this time much of the USCCB's advocacy work is directed at protecting programs for the poor in budget deliberations on the Hill.

"The times actually allow us to combine our educational message with the advocacy message and it strengthens both," he said. "It gives more people the opportunity to see that life just isn't easy for everyone. I think it's raised the issue of poverty. It's raised the issue that even in a country like ours ... there are serious problems we need to address."

Through advocacy with other groups similarly devoted to protecting the poor, "it gives us a tremendous opportunity to be heard ... by those we are talking to and also to be heard by those we are calling on to help us do the protecting," he said. "I think it's a great moment to build energy and strength, a broader voice, a more effective voice on these issues. And I think it's made, frankly, made certain politicians themselves more aware of the conversation."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970