The Church’s Charity Crusader (Part 2)

Interview With Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes

ROME, DEC. 17, 2009 ( For the past 15 years, Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes has worked as the president of the dicastry that seeks “to orient and to inspire the charitable work of the Catholic Church.” One aspect of that work is to help the aid agencies maintain their Catholic faith and identity.

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 2 of this interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Cordes discusses what the Pontifical Council Cor Unum is doing to help aid organizations maintain their Catholic identity, and what Benedict XVI has done to articulate a clear teaching on the role of caritas in Catholic social doctrine.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Wednesday.

ZENIT: What is Cor Unum doing to ensure these agencies do not become ideological or veer toward adopting secular values in their practices?

Cardinal Cordes: There are at least three important elements:

First, alongside the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the liturgy, the bishop is the first responsible of the mission of charity in his diocese. In the course of the “ad limina” visits of the bishops to Cor Unum and my visits to the various episcopal conferences worldwide, I seek to remind the pastors of this responsibility.

“Deus Caritas Est” confirms this in a categorical way: “In conformity with the episcopal structure of the Church, the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, are charged with primary responsibility for carrying out in the particular Churches the programme set forth in the Acts of the Apostles” (#32). Since the bishops bear the burden for charity, they cannot simply delegate or abdicate this final accountability to others. This in no way means that he must do everything himself, as this would be impossible. But it does mean that those who assist in this necessary work do so in connection and under the supervision and guidance of the shepherd the Lord has provided for the diocese.

As a second area, Cor Unum has, as one of its principal duties, the proclamation of the “Catechesis of Charity.” The Holy Father’s encyclical makes this easier and ever more vivid, but, most importantly, it provides an opportunity for reflection, both for the dicastery and for all Catholic charitable organizations.

When I think about the several hundred people I have met, faith-filled and motivated by their love for Christ, who carry out the countless works of charity within the Church each day, a growing number of whom are volunteers, I actually encounter hardly anyone who wants to follow the wrong path.

We encourage them to put into practice the ordinary demands of the Christian life and urge their bishops to give them inspiring and proper guidance. We try to support a greater openness on the part of full-time employees of charitable organizations to the ever-increasing volunteers to be found in every parish and in so many new movements. We will also seek to make known the directives provided in the new encyclical to the leadership of the agencies. At our last two Plenary Assemblies, we reflected with our members and consultors about the need to establish guidelines in order to help the formation of workers in charitable agencies, both salaried and volunteer.

A third and recent initiative of the Pontifical Council is “Spiritual Exercises” for the directors of Caritas and other Catholic charitable organizations, organized for the different continents. In June 2008, these were held in Guadalajara, Mexico, for America (North and South), attended by some 500 persons, including 40 bishops. This past September, a similar gathering was held in Taipei, Taiwan, for the great continent of Asia. Over 450 directors welcomed our invitation of which five were cardinals and some 60 bishops.

The highly positive feedback that we have received from both events shows the thirst for spirituality in the field of charity. The participants appreciated particularly that Christian charity cannot be separated from its root, the Word, and that it must always be nourished by prayer. The Word of God and prayer: These nourish the roots of faith in charitable activity. The importance of this initiative may be gauged from the moving words of an archbishop of a large diocese in Vietnam: “After the spiritual exercises, I am convinced more than ever that charitable work means this: to reveal to others the love of God; to conform myself to Jesus always through an intimate relation with the Father; and to radiate this intimacy to my people without any distinction. I will try to share the experience of Taipei with the People of God in my archdiocese.”

At the Plenary Assembly of the Australian bishops, we expressed our desire to offer spiritual exercises for the directors of the Church’s charitable organizations in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania. The bishops were positive, and are now looking for the most suitable timeframe.

ZENIT: How much is it up to regional episcopal conferences to ensure the Catholic agencies carry out their work as the Church intends?

Cardinal Cordes: Some time ago — Sept. 9, 2002, to be exact — the former secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, sent a letter to all of the bishops’ conferences throughout the world on this very topic. He clarified that the ultimate responsibility for all of the charitable activity in his diocese, even though he may rely on others to help him, belongs to the bishop: “In fact,” the cardinal noted, “witnessing to charity in the name of Christ is explicitly mentioned in the liturgy of episcopal ordination with the question: ‘Are you willing to always be welcoming and merciful, in the name of the Lord, toward the poor and all those in need of comfort and help?'”

Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” confirms this responsibility in an even more categorical way.

ZENIT: How do you see the future of Catholic aid and development work?

Cardinal Cordes: We must not make the mistake of thinking that we can eradicate poverty by ourselves, since the Lord Himself assured us that the poor with always be with us. Paradise on earth is an illusion. As Benedict XVI states in “Deus Caritas Est”: “There will never be a situation where the charity of each individual is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love” (No. 29).

We come to a greater appreciation of the future of Catholic aid and development work by reflecting on the life of the early Church: “He (Jesus) went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (cf. Acts 10:38ff). It is of the very mission of the Church to “do good” and to proclaim the Good News to the poor as Christ did.

The credibility of our Gospel witness through charity will be found rather in doing our best to provide an experience of God’s goodness, thus allowing him to heal the wounds of humanity.

ZENIT: You also gave a lecture at the Australian Catholic University on the Holy Father’s latest encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate.” What was your main thought?

Cardinal Cordes: I have sought to understand the encyclical within the history of the Church’s social teaching. From the time of the Industrial Revolution, the Church’s fight for human dignity focused on social and political goals. It aimed at inner worldly efficiency. At the recent Special Synod for Africa at the Vatican (October 2009), the interventions of many bishops also centered on this. The work of Caritas or the encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” were hardly mentioned. Indeed, the preparatory paper — the “lineamenta” — spoke of the keyword “justice” no less than 160 times (the word “love” appeared just three times). Of course, these details are inspired by the current, varied needs of Africa.

The very theme of the synod — “Justice, Peace, Reconciliation” — encouraged such contents. It was regrettable, however, that the charitable work of the local Churches and the commitment of volunteers in communities, of which we at Cor Unum hear so much good during the “ad limina” visits of the African bishops, had no resonance.

Even more disturbing is the fact that almost exclusively engagement on behalf of humanity wishes to change social structures. In this way, the understanding of Caritas and its goals will be dominated by a merely political perspective. Obviously, the example of certain large Church charitable organizations, which accompany some U.N. events and world gatherings with political protests, encouraging the “protest culture,” has become a school. It is quite logical then that the description of goals for the work of Caritas Africa, which was presented to the bishops’ synod in a pamphlet, culminates in social change (“Advocacy for the Poor”).

In his new document, “Caritas in Veritate,” Benedict XVI is clearly aware of this secularizing trend. He takes up the faith perspective, and places the Church’s social directives in the light of Caritas, love. The Pope teaches: “Charity is at heart of the Church’s social doctrine” (No. 2). The love that is meant here is “received and given” by God (No. 5): It is the love of the Father as Creator God, the Son as Redeemer, and poured forth through the Holy Spirit that graces the communal life of men and women on the basis of certain principles.

For human development, the encyclical asserts the “central place of charity” (No. 19). The wisdom — it says later — that is capable of directing men “must be ‘seasoned’ with the ‘salt’ of charity” (No. 30). These simple and self-evident phrases that we find have important implications: cut off from Christian experience, social teaching would become like any other ideology, which Pope John Paul II rejected. Or it can even become a political manifesto without a soul. In reality, social instruction “incarnates” the faithful in society. It places a duty upon the Christian to give flesh to his or her faith. As the teaching document states: “Charity always manifests God’s love in human relationships as well, it gives theological and salvific value to all commitment for justice in the world” (No. 6).

Such features of social doctrine anchor it firmly in Revelation. Here we see direct continuity with the message of “Deus Caritas Est” and its faith orientation for all Church diakonia.

ZENIT: You have written two books, which will soon be released in English. What do these concern?

Cardinal Cordes: “Where are the Helpers: Caritas and Spirituality?” (Notre Dame University Press) addresses in an in-depth way Benedict XVI’s “Deus Caritas Est” (God Is Love), the first encyclical of his papacy. Since this represents the magna carta of our work — to orient and to inspire the charitable work of the Catholic Church — in this volume, I present my own studies and other reflections that inves­tigate the meaning of Christian help, comment on the theological, spiritual, and canonical guidelines of “Deus Caritas Est,” and illustrate concrete ways to help the needy and, in doing so, experience the goodness of God. The work shows the need of a “formation of the heart” for those engaged in charitable activity.

I look for an answer through a dialogue with the theologian Benedict XVI, whose foundational statements on the ministry of priests are presented at the start of each chapter. In this way, “various answers” are offered regarding the Catholic priesthood, which are useful for the priest and his parish, the seminarian and his ambience, as well as all those interested in the priestly ministry and the Church’s decision-making process.

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On ZENIT’s Web page:

Part 1 of the interview:

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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