The Church's Charities: Providing for the Whole Person

Interview With Cardinal Robert Sarah, President of Cor Unum

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By Jesús Colina

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 21, 2011 ( The focus of the charity work of the Church is not simply to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical care, but also to assist with spiritual needs, according to the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, 65, who has led the charity arm of the Vatican since October, says that one of the most important challenges he sees ahead for the charitable organizations of the Church is precisely the reestablishment of the “link between evangelization and charity.”

“The Church’s charity is not directed solely at social progress,” he states, “but wants to draw man toward God, the source of all good.”

The Pontifical Council Cor Unum is charged with the coordination of the extensive works of charity of the Church throughout the world, including Caritas Internationalis, the international confederation of national Caritas organizations.

A native of the West African country of Guinea, Robert Sarah was named archbishop of Conakry in 1979, at the age of 34 (John Paul II gave him the nickname “the boy bishop”). He was named secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 2001, and was created cardinal in the November consistory.

In this interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Sarah, speaks of the first months of his new position at the head of Cor Unum, the challenges facing the Church’s charitable organizations, and the Pope’s message for Lent, which Cor Unum will publish and present to the public Tuesday.

ZENIT: Eminence, tomorrow you are presenting the Lenten message of Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Sarah: Yes, as is the custom every year, Cor Unum presents and diffuses the message for Lent, which the Pope addresses to the entire Church. This year, I do so for the first time as president of the dicastery, together with my closest collaborators and Ms. Miriam Garcia Abrisqueta, the responsible of the large organization of charity in Spain, called Manos Unidas.

I would like to say from the outset that the message takes up again a very ancient theme of Lent that perhaps today has been somewhat forgotten. In fact, in the primitive Church, Lent was also a moment of immediate preparation for baptism, hence a baptismal period. For this reason, the Pope in his message reminds us that baptism is at the origin of all Christian life and good works; the Holy Father offers us through the Word of God proclaimed each Sunday of Lent, an itinerary to relive the sacrament by which we became Christians. I believe that this message can be a very concrete and useful pastoral instrument, especially in the parishes, to renew the sacrament of our rebirth in Christ.

ZENIT: You have been president of Cor Unum for just four months. What are your first impressions?

Cardinal Sarah: I must tell you that these have been four very intense months. In this period, the Holy Father also wished to create me cardinal; to underline, I believe, his interest in the dicastery of the Holy See entrusted with keeping alive the witness of charity in the Church.

In this short timeframe, first of all, I have seen with my own eyes the enormous commitment of Christians in charitable work: for example, I recall the wonderful lay people, religious, priests and bishops, whom I met in Czestochowa during the retreat for the directors of the pastoral of charity in Europe; also the many volunteers active in Haiti to assist that country after the devastating earthquake of last year. Then, just two weeks ago, I was present for the meeting of the Administrative Council of our Foundation “John Paul II for the Sahel”; this is a foundation that works in favor of the peoples of the Sahel, one of the poorest zones of Africa and next to my home country of Guinea-Conakry.

ZENIT: Eminence, you spoke of Haiti and last year’s earthquake. What did you learn from your visit?

Cardinal Sarah: The visit took place exactly one year after the earthquake, in the middle of January. I was truly struck by the massive consequences. Our brothers and sisters are still suffering there terribly. The Church wants to help Haiti and has encouraged greatly the many Catholic organizations present in their outreach. I met with them at the nunciature and there were representatives from more than 60 organizations. But there is so much more to be done!

The entire world must help Haiti get back on its feet. And it’s not only a question of material reconstruction, but also moral and spiritual. That’s why Cor Unum, in the Holy Father’s name, has desired to contribute to rebuilding also schools and churches. We are speaking of long-term commitment, but we cannot lose enthusiasm — we need to support the beloved nation of Haiti.

ZENIT: This, too, is an important year for Caritas Internationalis, the large organism that Cor Unum has been given the competence to follow closely.

Cardinal Sarah: Yes, Caritas Internationalis is the confederation of national Caritas for the coordination of their activity at the international level. The Popes have supported and promoted Caritas Internationalis. This means that it is a precious institution of the Church. Caritas Internationalis is an organism that operates especially when there are humanitarian emergencies; it is also recognized greatly for its work in the civil sphere. This May, the general assembly will be held, gathering representatives from the 165 member organizations. The most important organs of the Confederation shall be elected.

In particular, after four years, the mandate of the present Secretary General, Lesley Anne Knight, will end. In this time, Knight has done much to make the confederation more agile and professional. Now Caritas Internationalis is dealing with new internal challenges, including the revision of its statutes. These challenges also involve internal collaboration, the Catholic identity of the Confederation, cooperation with the Holy See, greater participation of the various continents, a proper understanding of the autonomy of each Caritas member of the confederation.

ZENIT: Of course, Caritas Internationalis is not the only Catholic organism with which you collaborate.

Cardinal Sarah: Not at all. Indeed, there exist hundreds of Catholic charitable organizations, with whom we have contacts, on the diocesan, national and international levels. Last year alone, we financed some 497 projects. Just imagine how many people and organizations this involves! On the other hand, this is exactly our task: to orient and coordinate the many charitable organizations of the Church, as Benedict XVI states in “Deus Caritas Est,” seeking to enliven them to operate in communion with the Church’s universal mission.

ZENIT: Eminence, a final word on what awaits you in the near future.

Cardinal Sarah: In terms of my schedule, next week I shall travel to Burundi to inaugurate a school, dedicated to our Holy Father and financed by Cor Unum, to emphasize the importance of education for future generations. However, more important than the projects themselves, the great challenge I see is the one our dicastery wishes to focus on in a special way: to reestablish the link between evangelization and charity.

To remind all of us who are engaged in charitable activity that the Church acts in God’s name for the good of the whole person. This, I say, also as an African: the Church’s charity is not directed solely at social progress, but wants to draw man toward God, the source of all good.

Benedict XVI bequeathed this wonderful message once again in his first encyclical, dedicated to charity, and I regard it as my duty to follow his lead. Indeed, the most urgent need of every woman and man today is not bread, nor medicine for healing, nor clothing — but God. Without God, man remains in darkness without any direction for life, without knowing where the truth lies. For us, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life!

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