Caritas Internationalis, one of the largest aid and development organizations in the world, is holding its 21st general assembly in Rome, May 23 to 28. It is focusing on the theme “One Human Family, One Common Home” and aims to issue a strong call to its member organizations to work together to face the unprecedented scale of difficulties facing humanity in the 21st century, including the threat of climate change.
At a press briefing before the opening of the assembly, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who was elected president at the last general assembly four years ago and will be reconfirmed president for another term at this one, recalled that the work of Caritas is based on the teachings of the Gospel and of recent popes, the social doctrine of the church and the teaching and spirituality of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” published four years ago. He noted that the pope has given the work of Catholic charitable institutions new inspiration by making the plight of the poor a priority of his pontificate.
Michel Roy, the French-born secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, will finish his two-term mandate this year. He said this general assembly will include a review of a strategic framework for Caritas as it faces the “urgent need for a change in the model of development” to ensure the survival of humanity in a time of climate change.
He recalled that Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of some 160 national Catholic agencies, has traditionally sought to provide aid to peoples in crisis situations, like natural disasters, and to promote development through projects in countries in difficulty across the globe. But today, he noted, Caritas is increasingly being called to help with challenges provoked by climate change. “Our food production is at stake” as a result of the impact of climate change, he said, and humanitarian needs are growing.
Cardinal Tagle said the negative impact of climate change is evident today in the Philippines, which no longer experiences dependable dry and rainy seasons. He spoke about the dramatic changes in climate and the “ruptures” from life as it was experienced in the past. He noted that wealth is being created, but at the same time many people are becoming poorer and the middle class is shrinking.
People are getting angry, he said, and populist politicians are presenting themselves as “messiahs” and offering solutions that in the end do not resolve the fundamental challenges of poverty, the climate crisis and mass migration.
He said, “The sheer number of displaced people, the spread of conflict and the environmental disaster which is becoming more and more evident, together threaten to overwhelm us unless we urgently act together against these problems as one family with one home.”
In Caritas, he said, “we are driven by our collective belief that we are part of the one family, sharing one common home.” He recalled how its members come together every four years and underlined how this year the 450 delegates will engage in a process that seeks to map the road ahead for the organization.
The Philippine cardinal drew attention to the fact that a record number of delegates are participating in this year’s general assembly. They had come from 150 member organizations in as many countries worldwide, including for the first time from China and the United Arab Emirates.
They will sit around 50 tables and discuss how they can work together and not just as individual organizations. He noted that a number of governments provide funding to Caritas but said that some want to exert more direct control over how that aid is used. This makes it more difficult for those Caritas organizations to “work together with other member organizations.”
Maria Josè Alexander, the Mexican-born director of Caritas in Somalia and the youngest director of a national Caritas organization, emphasized the importance of young people and women having a great share in the organization’s decision-making bodies.
This year’s general assembly will elect a new secretary general, and all of the delegates will have a private audience with Pope Francis at the end of their work.
At an opening Mass for the assembly, Pope Francis said the charity of the Catholic Church must be born from prayer before “the fixed tabernacle” of Jesus in the Eucharist and the “mobile tabernacles” of Christ in the poor and needy.
Gathered at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis told representatives from the very large aid and development agencies, like Catholic Relief Services from the United States, and the very small agencies, like Caritas Bangladesh, that they must follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and avoid the temptation of “efficiencyism” and of “worshipping ourselves and our goodness.”