Caritas Internationalis marked its 60th anniversary in 2011. With offices in over 160 countries providing humanitarian relief, integral human development and peacebuilding, Caritas is at the heart of the Church’s mission, a sign of God’s love for humanity in Jesus Christ.
Over the past six decades the world has seen incredible changes. Communism has fallen and computers have transformed the way we work and live. Desperate poverty has, in many countries, been turned into affluence. Hunger and poverty are much diminished.
Yet this affluence has not been distributed equally. Children are still dying of hunger in a world where there is enough food. There are 1,210 billionaires today. But, the world’s bottom billion people live without access to adequate healthcare and education.
Many countries still struggle with poverty and injustice. But Caritas is a steady force, investing its time and resources in creating “one human family, zero poverty”.
The first national Caritas organisation was launched in Germany in 1897, quickly followed by ones in Switzerland and Austria. The First World War showed that Catholic agencies needed to cooperate more at an international level and the further impact of World War II sowed the seeds that would become Caritas Internationalis. Cities had been destroyed, countries torn apart and refugees were wandering the world looking for a home. The Church’s answer to this was Caritas Internationalis, “Love without borders”.
The Caritas confederation brought national Caritas organisations together so they could share knowledge and experience and support each other in times of disasters and in the response to poverty.
Msgr Georg Hüssler, twice president of Caritas Internationalis in the 1970s and 80s, said, “The idea was to structure the Church’s social activities in every country to then create a national Caritas and to have it join Caritas Internationalis. This way, Caritas Internationalis became a highly federal organisation covering the whole world.”
At its birth in 1951, the confederation had just 13 member organisations. They were inspired by the then substitute Secretary of State for the Holy See, Msgr Giovanni Battista Montini, who would become Pope Paul VI in 1963.
In his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (29), Pope Paul VI said, “We must make haste. Too many people are suffering. While some make progress, others stand still or move backwards and the gap between them is widening.”
Over 40 years later this is as true as ever. It means that Caritas cannot rest. The confederation must work harder and with more perseverance. Yet more challenges, such as climate change, are appearing on the horizon to reverse the gains we have made.
The heart of our “love without borders” is within the people all over the world who are trying to help their sisters and brothers. Caritas workers often belong to the communities in which they work. They understand their language, culture and needs. They help people regardless of faith, race or political allegiance.
In the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (28), Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support.”
This living force of love nourishes Caritas workers throughout the world. Every day they pass it on to the people they help. But love isn’t just given; it is also received. It is received many times over, in many forms, from the millions of people helped by Caritas, in the smallest gestures of generosity.
Caritas workers are strengthened and inspired by the confederation’s deep roots. Caritas lives with the gospels as its guiding light: “ For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me” Matthew 25:35-37.
When hundreds of thousands of people were dying in Ethiopia’s famine in 1984, Sr Maura O’Donohue was there supporting a Caritas member organisation. She visited families where emaciated children were at death’s door and where anguished parents could do nothing but watch. One afternoon, a man whose house she had visited in the morning to do a food assessment came looking for her. “When you visited our house we had nothing to offer you. But since you left, our hen has laid this egg,” he said. “We want you to have it. Thank you for staying with us this morning.”
Caritas now has over a million staff members and volunteers who are engaged in answering the call to enable the poor to transform their own lives.
Our work may take the humblest form, such as a community worker giving beans and porridge to a woman in Africa who does not know how she will feed her children. Or, we may use the power of our confederation to take the poor’s message onto the global stage, to the UN, or to the world’s most influential leaders.
Heroes and heroines live on for generations in the stories that are part of the living memories of societies. The vision of the founders of Caritas Internationalis is still present in the living memories of those who have followed in their footsteps. Here are some stories from the lives of Caritas staff members, volunteers and beneficiaries around the world.