Caring for the poor part of church history

ST. LOUIS - Catholic Charities USA "has helped shape the service of God's love into an essential part of American culture," the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum said in an address in St. Louis.

Since the beginnings of the Catholic Church in the U.S., Cardinal Robert Sarah said, Catholics in this country have always been inspired by Christ's love to serve the poor.

But now "the church in America and Catholic Charities face challenges that threaten this heritage" from "an aggressive secularism ... (which) seeks to set up a culture without God," he said.

The cardinal, who was making his first trip to the U.S. as head of the Vatican's charity promotion agency, spoke during the recent national convention of Catholic Charities USA in St. Louis, which was attended by more than 500 members of Catholic Charities agencies nationwide.

"Gateway to Opportunities and Justice" was the theme of the gathering, drawing on the agency's mission and the city's nickname, "Gateway to the West." It also marked the centennial of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Cardinal Sarah brought greetings from the Vatican and during his talk discussed "caritas" or charity worldwide, drawing heavily from Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love").

He cited current attacks on freedom of religion in the U.S., pointing to pressure put on Catholic Charities' adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples or withdraw from adoption care.

Catholic Charities must continue to be a charity that not only serves the poor, "but listens" to them and never compromises its principles. Quoting Pope Benedict, he told the assembly, "Faith without charity bears no fruit."

In an interview with the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, Father Larry Snyder, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said a weakened economy and the looming presidential election presents two challenges to the Catholic Charities agencies' service to the poor.

"The economy has had a double-negative effect for us," he said. "It's forcing more people to come to us for help, especially more people seeking basic needs -- food and housing -- as well as mental health help to cope with the situation. And, at the same time, we are getting less money to do our work."

While corporate and foundation support is down in the poor economy, "the level of personal giving has been dropping only slightly. That's very comforting," Father Snyder said.

The other challenge is to serve people in need in a way that "doesn't just allow them to survive, but to thrive," he said. "How do we help people get out of poverty?" Programs and goals need to be redesigned to achieve more permanent help, he said.

The combative election climate has not dampened Father Snyder's enthusiasm. "I am very optimistic. I think all the people are truly trying to find solutions."

No matter who wins the election, "we feel comfortable," said Candy Hill, senior vice president of social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA. "We have spent a lot of time building friendships on both sides of the aisle. I think we have been well received by both sides."

Hill said Catholic Charities USA is an organization that represents the people who actually serve people living in poverty, as opposed to think tanks and discussion groups.

"People know we have 'boots on the ground.' Our policy platform is built on the issues and needs of our local agencies, from programs our people are actually doing."

She pointed to a new initiative, the Laboratory for Economic Opportunity, or LEO Project, a collaboration between Catholic Charities USA and the University of Notre Dame that will focus on domestic poverty.

During a special youth day celebration held in advance of the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 convention, Catholic Charities of St. Louis introduced students at Catholic high schools to various agencies in the Catholic Charities federation, so they could learn about their mission of service. "A Way of Life, A Passion With Action, Simply Compassion" was the theme for the event, sponsored by the Vatterott Foundation.

About 1,200 juniors from many of the 28 Catholic high schools in the 11-county archdiocese attended, expressing interest and enthusiasm for what speaker Father Jeff Vomund, pastor of St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Parish, called the importance of "finding your passion."

"Do not live a life without meaning," Father Vomund told the youths. "Find what matters to you and live it. It will make a difference in our world."

Catholic Charities of St. Louis has eight federation agencies: Catholic Family Services; Cardinal Ritter Senior Services; Catholic Charities Community Services; Good Shepherd Children and Family Services; MaryGrove; Queen of Peace Center; St. Patrick Center; and St. Martha's Hall.

The agencies had information tables, with volunteer sign-up sheets available, as did the Catholic Charities central office.

Catholic high school students in the archdiocese all participate in service projects, explained Brian O'Malley, president of Catholic Charities of St. Louis. "The goal of this day was to connect the students with Catholic social teaching, connect them to the needs of the poor and to the work of Catholic Charities."

O'Malley added, "This day was organized by the students themselves, a steering committee of students called Disciples of Christ Serving, from the different high schools."

Committee member Marie Gardner, a junior at Incarnate Word Academy, said: "This is a great way to get people involved in service, not just as a school requirement. ... Being on the committee really opened my eyes to the different aspects of life that Catholic Charities helps with."

Watkins is a staff writer at the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970