OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City says he feels privileged to have been named chairman of the board for Catholic Relief Services and was surprised when he was asked last week to take the role.
“I’m humbled, and I’m honored, to have this opportunity to serve the Church and our mission to the least of our brothers and sisters around the world,” Archbishop Coakley told CNA Nov. 19.
“I’ve been on the board of CRS for over a year, going on two years, but I was very much surprised by the appointment.”
The archbishop recalled how the new U.S. bishops’ conference president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., approached him as the annual meeting concluded in Baltimore last week “and asked if I would be willing to serve.”
“So I had to ask him what chairing the organization would entail, and it certainly will require me to rearrange some priorities, but I’m very happy to serve in this way, very honored to be entrusted with this responsibility.”
Archbishop Coakley was announced Tuesday as chairman of Catholic Relief Services’ board of directors, succeeding Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., in the role. The charity is the international humanitarian agency of the U.S. bishops, providing assistance to those in need in 91 countries. It was founded in 1943 to aid World War II survivors in Europe.
In a public statement, Archbishop Coakley expressed his deep gratitude for Bishop Kicanas and his “sterling example and dedication as the previous chair.”
He added that, “even now, as I transition into this role, more than 100 CRS workers are on the ground in the Philippines, offering their expertise and assistance as our Filipino brothers and sisters face great and unexpected suffering in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. The work of CRS — its mission to extend the love and compassion of Christ to the poor wherever there is need — continues.”
Archbishop Coakley explained to CNA that “the work of CRS is so important and such a significant expression of the Catholic Church in the U.S. of our mission to serve the poor and those who are in distress, the least of our brothers and sisters.”
He visited CRS operations in Rwanda in September and was “deeply moved by that experience.”
“It was my first opportunity to witness on the ground how CRS is affecting lives and saving lives. I have a great esteem for the organization, for the staff members, supporters, for all who share in this mission, so I’m very excited about [my appointment].”
Archbishop Coakley added that the responsibility of board members who are bishops “certainly touches upon the importance of keeping the CRS focused according to the Church’s mission and identity.”
“We’re very concerned that CRS remains faithful to the Church’s moral and social teachings, and we’re confident that we’re able to provide that kind of careful oversight,” he added.
“We’re always reviewing our projects and partnerships, to ensure that we are not inadvertently drawn into or involved in illicit partnerships that could compromise our Catholic identity and mission. We take that very seriously.”
The archbishop reflected on the agency’s dedication to serve those in need, regardless of their religion, race or nationality.
“We serve the least of our brothers and sisters, regardless of who they are.”
“That’s always been my approach with Catholic social ministries; my refrain, working with our own Catholic Charities organization, is: 'We don't serve because our clients are Catholic; we serve because we are Catholic.’”
“Our faith demands that expression of practical charity,” he concluded.
Archbishop Coakley cited Pope Francis as sharing this view, explaining that, “certainly, the Holy Father is making that Gospel mandate very clear: to go out to the peripheries, to those who are not being reached, and serve them as an expression of our faith — faith working through charity.”
“The Church has never limited it outreach and its mission, to serve only its own; we can’t be in-looking ... the love of Christ impels us forward, and beyond, to serve everyone.”