The Church we believe in is catholic

Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, describes how the Church embraces so many diverse cultures in 'the sharing in the celebration of the Mass.


Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, describes how the Church embraces so many diverse cultures in 'the sharing in the celebration of the Mass.

March 7, 2011

Exactly one year ago this week, I was in Port au Prince in Haiti, and it was just a month after the catastrophic earthquake that destroyed much of that city. I was with Pere Chadik, the director of Caritas Haiti, and after taking me around the ruins of the cathedral, where Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot had been killed, we went to the Catholic seminary.

As you may recall in Port au Prince, in our seminary there, all the young seminarians were killed. And as I walked around with Pere Chadik, in the ruins of the shoes and the socks and the mattresses, there was a dusty old seminarian's book, and the title of the book was What is Faith? It was by Eugene Joly.

That is a question that many of us who work in humanitarian aid, in development, in social justice issues, those of us who in the day to day see death and destruction and conflict right at hand, we ask ourselves: What is faith?

Joly, in that book that I found in the seminary, said like this: "Faith is an encounter in which God takes, and keeps, the initiative."

Following the Haiti earthquake, there were clear signs of such encounters, where God had taken the initiative.


When disasters like this occur - and you remember how many there were just last year, not only earthquakes in Haiti but in Chile too, in China, devastating floods in Pakistan, and so many others - what happens in those situations is that there is an enormous outpouring of solidarity. Within a very short time after Haiti, we had well over 60 organizations around the world had brought together many, many millions of dollars.

But the striking thing was that this solidarity, this aid, did not just come from Caritas organizations like Development and Peace or Catholic Relief Services in the U.S.A.; no, it came from some of the very smallest members, Caritas Togo, Caritas Iraq, Caritas Mongolia, Caritas Nepal. This is precisely what Caritas Internationalis means. Those Latin words mean "Love across the nations."


While we are thinking of the meaning of words: If you look up the word 'catholic,' there is another definition too, to the one we've been hearing. What you will also find is the word "all-embracing." This is perhaps the sense in which I have most frequently experienced the catholic nature of our Church and working for the Church that I love.

As a part of that Church, Caritas seeks to be a sign of God's all-embracing love for humanity. One of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, states: "The Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race" (LG, 1).

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (DCE), probably one written for us as Caritas, Pope Benedict XVI recognizes too that charitable activities play an essential role in this sacramental essence of our Church.

The all-embracing nature of our Church is manifested in many ways, but I would like to focus on is how just in three particular ways I experience that, and notably in our work across the world as Caritas:


One of the huge privileges of my job as secretary-general of Caritas, of a world-wide confederation, is to be able to visit our member organizations around the world. Over the last nine months I have been in Japan, in Singapore, in Indonesia, in Cambodia, in Mozambique, in Ethiopia, Argentina, Chile and the Middle East. One of the biggest and perhaps most profound experiences for me of the Church embracing so many diverse cultures is the sharing in the celebration of the Mass, and that in so many of the most far flung regions of our planet:


But whatever local expressions of devotion form part of the celebration, I know that the heart of the Mass remains the same wherever we are. Wherever I may be in the world, through the Eucharist, I know that I share in communion with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

But "I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians" (Benedict XVI).

The Eucharist makes me think of a wider symbolism, and that is of course, the sharing of bread, the sharing of food and drink with others. Even when we encounter language difficulties and unfamiliar customs, there is something about sitting down to share a meal or a drink with people that makes us realise we are indeed part of one human family.

Any of you who have been to very poor parts of our world will know too that the first thing a poor person does is to share a drink with you, to share a piece of their precious food with you. I have experienced this many times. When that food and drink is offered by people living precisely in the poorest of conditions, in a refugee camp in Darfur; or a flooded village in India; it is always a most humbling experience.


It is Pope Benedict who says, "Eucharistic communion includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn." But he adds: "A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented."

If and when we see our world as one human family, how can we bear to see our brothers and sisters suffering? How can we tolerate the fact that one billion of them live in extreme poverty? That 30,000 people die every single day because they are hungry or have a preventable disease?

Caritas workers around the world are united in our "catholic" Church. Wherever they may be, through the Eucharist they experience that communion and are called to this "concrete practice of love."

I am sometimes asked why, as a Catholic organization, we deliver aid to people of other faiths, Muslims and Buddhists. My answer always is that we help people not because they are Catholics, but because we are Catholics. The Church that I believe in is catholic. Our "concrete practice of love," which we also know as caritas or charity, must therefore be "all-embracing."

It is easy enough to make a theological or moral case against discrimination in the delivery of aid, but when we are confronted face-to-face with human suffering, when you really feel it in your own skin, all intellectual argument is transcended by what you feel in your heart.

This was what the Good Samaritan experienced when he saw the injured man lying in the ditch. He was "moved with compassion when he saw him" (Luke 10.33-34).

When you have been to places like Darfur and spoken to Muslim women who have seen their husbands killed and then themselves been repeatedly raped by militiamen; when you have seen and met the survivors of devastating earthquakes and hurricanes; when you have talked to the Buddhists in Sri Lanka who have lost their loved ones either in the tsunami or in the war; then there can be no question of ignoring the suffering of all peoples. The "heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly" (Pope Benedict).


As you will have heard from my accent perhaps, I grew up amidst the evil that is racism. I was born and brought up in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, and as a little girl I used to wonder why there were no black children at my school. We used to pass them in the car as they walked to their school and I used to wonder why their school was so scruffy and run down. I used to wonder why they didn't have school uniforms. I used to ask myself why they had no shoes on.

Later, when I went to university in Cape Town, I encountered racism in the extreme form of South African apartheid. Everything labelled - entrances, park benches - for either Blacks or Whites. From the impeccably kept grounds of Cape Town University I used to look across the bay to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. I was lucky enough to be able to leave the oppressive atmosphere of apartheid South Africa, but when I did leave, Nelson Mandela still had another 15 years to serve in prison.


So experiences like these left a profound impression on me and convinced me that there can be no place for prejudice, for discrimination, for stigmatization, for marginalization, for misogyny, in the catholic Church that I believe in.

When I went to Pakistan after the earthquake in 2005, I was working as the international director in London for Caritas England and Wales. I was accompanied on the visit by the chairman of our board, Bishop John Rawsthorne.

After a most terrifying journey in the back of an old military jeep, which took us five hours going up into the mountains of Muzaffarabad, the local imam was totally perplexed as to why a Catholic bishop from England would be coming to visit him. On that occasion, all I saw was solidarity, empathy and compassion as they took each other's hands and wept because of the moment that it meant for them.

These sorts of encounters are repeated over and over during the course of our work, and I am convinced that each one sows a little seed of peace and understanding in a world that often appears to be under the threat of religious fundamentalism and extremism.

Our work in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Burma and Sri Lanka has to be conducted with great discretion and sensitivity. We can only work in these countries by maintaining the strictest standards of integrity. And let's remind ourselves that it's Pope Benedict himself who explicitly states that "charity should never be used as means of proselytism" (DCE, 31). "Those who practise real charity in the Church's name will never seek to impose the faith upon others."

Women carry water drawn from a Darfur well funded by CARITAS and other faith groups.


Women carry water drawn from a Darfur well funded by CARITAS and other faith groups.

But that does not mean that through our actions we do not witness to God's love for all humanity. The Church's humanitarian workers "realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak" (ibid).

It is relatively easy to understand why Caritas, as part of our Catholic Church, reaches out to all of humanity in times of disaster and humanitarian crisis. But we must also embrace and engage other faiths and the secular world on a daily basis, for other reasons: the need to speak out on justice issues, to challenge the structures that keep people in poverty and deny them a life of fulfilment and dignity; the need too to ensure the highest standards in our humanitarian aid; the need to collaborate and cooperate with other organizations to make our work more effective.

It is the pope again who acknowledges that there have been many forms of cooperation between state and Church agencies that have "borne fruit" (DCE, 31). He says: "Church agencies, with their transparent operation and their faithfulness to the duty of witnessing to love, are able to give a Christian quality to the civil agencies too, favouring a mutual coordination that can only redound to the effectiveness of charitable service" (DCE, 34).

In the course of my work, I engage with governments, with international institutions, with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, as well as various organizations of the United Nations. We also interact with ecumenical and other faith-based organizations, notably in peace-building and conflict-resolution initiatives.


In all of these activities we are conscious of, and remain true to, being Catholic, rooting ourselves in the Church identity and we are proud to do so. But at the same time, we participate with a sense of humility, open to what we can learn from others, and respectful of the fact that our colleagues from other religious traditions, as well as non-believers, when they love and serve the least of their brothers and sisters, when they love our brothers and sisters, are also signs of God's presence among us.

Because, as Mark says to us, Jesus has always gone before us (Mark 16.7) and is present even among those who do not yet know his name.

At a time when the actions of our Church are subject to rigorous scrutiny, it is all too easy to feel persecuted and to want to withdraw into ourselves. But this is precisely the time when we need to embrace the wider world and humbly seek to work towards greater harmony and understanding.

We remember how St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, summoned the Church to open herself to all people, their histories and their cultures. We ask how we can become a better image of our Lord, in whom "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor free, there can be neither male nor female - for you are all one in Christ" (Galatians 3.28).


The Church I believe in is catholic; and if we are to play our part in building the kingdom of God, we must reach out to all our brothers and sisters - above all to the least and most marginalized - wherever they may be.

This imperative is illustrated by one of my favourite stories, told to me when I was on one of my visits in Thailand. It's again about that theme of sharing food. The story originates from the Buddhists' vision of heaven and hell. The vision of hell is of a beautiful banqueting hall with marble tables. The tables are laden with extremely delicious food in hell.

The inhabitants of hell are seated on both sides of the table and are given chopsticks with which to eat the food. But the chopsticks are one-metre long, extremely long chopsticks and they are unable to get the food into their mouths.

In the vision of heaven we see exactly the same scene - except that in heaven each person is using their very long chopsticks to feed the person on the other side of the table.

The story obviously illustrates the virtue and benefit of cooperation and of helping one another. But it also contains a deeper truth for me: With their long chopsticks, the inhabitants of heaven are not even able to feed the person next to them - they have to reach out and feed the person furthest away, on the other side, across the symbolic divide of the table.


I'd like to end by sharing with you one of my little treasures, which is called The Magnificat. It is a little book which many of you too use. It has the Morning Prayer in it, the Evening Prayer; it has a daily meditation, and it has the readings for the Mass. It fits very nicely into your pocket or into your handbag.

You can read it on airplanes conveniently. But if I turn to today, Thursday the 17th, there is a meditation for today written by a Swiss mystic and poet, the philosopher and author, Father Maurice Zundel. What he says is:

"Jesus is catholic, because he embraces all of humanity. And if we become his disciples, if we want to be what he is, we can go to him only by embracing all of humanity, the whole history and the whole universe along with him. We can reach the true Christ, open to all of humanity, who bears all of our history, only if we open our hearts to all humanity, if we remove all barriers and all limitations. Amen.