The Church's Charity Crusader (Part 1)

Interview With Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes

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ROME, DEC. 16, 2009 ( When Paul Josef Cordes was a boy in his native Germany, he found out that a nun had been praying for his vocation, and he wasn’t happy. Now a cardinal, and head of the Vatican council that oversees the Church’s charitable organizations, he credits much of where he is today to the prayers of that religious sister.

Cordes was born in Kirchhundem, Archdiocese of Paderborn (Germany) in 1934. His parents owned a movie theater, restaurant and hotel.

Growing up, he recalled, a woman religious prayed intensely and constantly that God would make him a priest. She never spoke to Cordes about this, nor did she ever ask him if he wanted this. When he heard about it the first time, he was not at all happy, and told her so. She smiled and laughed.

From that moment, they made a «deal,» the cardinal recounted, adding that every time he has had something difficult to do, he has written to ask her for prayers. The cardinal is convinced that it was the prayers of this religious that fostered his vocation. 

Cardinal Cordes, 75, has been the president of Pontifical Council Cor Unum since 1995, when it separated from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He has recently published two books: «Where Are the Helpers: Caritas and Spirituality?» (Notre Dame University Press), and «Why Priests? Various Answers Guided by the Teachings of Benedict XVI» (Scepter Press).

In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Cordes reflects on the work that he has dedicated himself to for the past 15 years: Charity.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.

ZENIT: What is the mission of Cor Unum?

Cardinal Cordes: The Pontifical Council Cor Unum is the dicastery of the Holy See charged with the concrete realization of the charitable intentions of the Holy Father. In his first encyclical — «Deus Caritas Est» — Benedict XVI describes Cor Unum as «the agency of the Holy See responsible for orienting and coordinating the organizations and charitable activities promoted by the Catholic Church» (No. 32).

Established in 1971 by Pope Paul VI, Cor Unum — or «one heart» — recalls the oneness of heart and mind of the early Christians and identifies its unifying mission in terms of charity. An important part of this work is through the «catechesis» on charity, which implies the spirit of the Church’s charitable acting.

We must show the love we have for others and communicate it to others. We should be human, not technical and only administrative. The personal encounter is key, which is why so much depends on the heart and personal witness. We need to develop a spirit of zealous conviction in order not to develop a functional mentality.

While Cor Unum does assist agencies to foster faith conviction, most technical and practical aid efforts are handled by diocesan, national and international institutions. An example of the latter is Caritas Internationalis, a platform for various charity institutions all over the world. Cor Unum has the specific competence to «guide and accompany» Caritas Internationalis, both at the international and regional level (Pontifical Letter During the Last Supper, September 2004).

Cor Unum does also administer two foundations: «The Populorum Progressio Foundation,» which reaches out to the most abandoned and in need of protection among the indigenous people and campesinos of Latin America, and «The Pontifical Foundation John Paul II for the Sahel,» aimed at combating desertification in the southern part of the Sahara. In addition, the council has limited funding for emergency assistance, which, in the name of the Pope, goes directly to those in need.

ZENIT: What, in your opinion, should be the priority of Catholic aid and development agencies? How much should they be, first and foremost, instruments of evangelization?

Cardinal Cordes: The priority of any Catholic organization, including aid and development agencies, is to bear the face of Christ and his Gospel to the poor and needy. This is the desire of every Christian who intends to give his best: God’s love present in Jesus Christ. The notion that a Catholic organization can function or work without the dimension of evangelization undermines the essential foundation and purpose of the entity. Engaging with the world does not mean the incorporation of the world’s values and beliefs into the Church, but rather, the infusion of the Gospel into the world for its salvation.

We have the Red Cross and various other large philanthropic entities, and this is all very good. But if we analyze what is specifically Christian, we realize that it goes beyond human misery. Frequently, material aid is not enough, if people find themselves in a difficulty that they can no longer be helped with bread to eat, or a roof over their heads, or with medicine. What is there to offer a dying person? Or a woman who has lost children in an earthquake? We can give consolation, speak of God who has prepared eternal life for us. This message is essential, and we, the faithful, should safeguard it.

This conviction should not be identified with proselytism. As Benedict XVI says in his encyclical: «Charity […] cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practiced in as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. Those who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others.» («Deus Caritas Est,» No. 31c.)

ZENIT: In your travels to the various episcopal conferences throughout the world to make known the teaching of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical — «Deus Caritas Est» — you caution against the tendency of Catholic relief and development agencies toward secularism. What are your main, specific concerns in this area?

Cardinal Cordes: As per my recent visit to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference [Nov. 23-29], I have been invited to a number of plenary assemblies, including the United States, India, the Philippines, England and Wales, Russia, Poland, Austria and Spain. One of the first things I do is to affirm the great good being done by so many of our Catholic charitable organizations, that indeed bears witness to the presence of Christ in the world. Those who carry it out are often some of the most dedicated and faith-filled among believers. They are irreplaceable in terms of the Church’s mission and message.

Nevertheless, throughout the years I have spent at Cor Unum, the organizations themselves have shared with us their struggles to serve those in need and to maintain their Catholic faith and identity. Secularism is one of the many ideologies that seek to influence the way in which Catholic charity is undertaken. The area of funding, especially from sources outside the faith-based world, from governments, and from private donors, often place restrictions on the religious dimension of our charitable activity, and oblige abandonment of Christian elements as a prerequisite for grants.

Another secular influence comes from the promotion of the culture of death, in which faith-based groups are pressured to back away from clear moral teaching with regard to human life. A third area is the notion from secular society that compromise is the highest virtue, in the interest of harmony. This can seem very attractive, especially when it comes to the awkwardness that might arise from the Church’s moral and social teaching, but provides a merely superficial unity. It is important to remind ourselves frequently that, as believers, we are to engage with the world in order to bring Christ to it through the Church’s mission,
not to remake the Church and Christ in the image of the world.

ZENIT: How does «Deus Caritas Est» address these concerns and help strengthen the Catholic identity of these agencies?

Cardinal Cordes: The Holy Father seeks to reorient all of us to the reality of the Charity of Christ, reminding us of the true meaning and nature of what God has revealed about himself: a loving unity of Three Persons. Benedict XVI asks us to contemplate this Trinity and to conform ourselves to the loving Persons we behold. By seeking to reflect this reality of love, true charity and the full dignity of all women and men may be seen, because we are made in the image of God. By keeping this truest of loves before our eyes, shown to us most intensely in the Cross of Christ, the identity of the agencies and their mission becomes abundantly clear.

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On the Net:

«Where are the Helpers: Caritas and Spirituality?»:

«Why Priests? Various Answers Guided by the Teachings of Benedict XVI»:

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