BALTIMORE — For Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus, “the Light that shines in darkness,” this Christmas season seems challenged with the creeping gloom of violence, misery and upheaval.
But Bishop Gregory Mansour, the bishop of the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, New York, and new chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, tells the Register that most of the media has missed the bigger picture: that the darkness has not overcome the light, because the Church, through agencies like CRS, is bringing that light to millions in need around the world.
Bishop Mansour, a well-known advocate of Middle-East Christians, was tapped in November by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president, to oversee the charitable work of CRS, which is engaged in nearly $1-billion worth of relief projects taking place in more than 100 countries. In this interview with the Register, he explains how CRS carries out its mission as a faithful witness for the Church and how it makes the world a more hopeful place, particularly in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity.
Bishop Mansour, as CRS’ new board chairman, what vision and priorities do you have?
I would like to see [CRS] do some more of the creative work that they’re doing with the poor. They focus on health, emergency work, education, and they’re the best in the world of development agencies. They’re transparent, clear, focused and accountable. Some of the creative ways in which they have engaged the poor are impact investing, micro-credit, helping families stay on their farm to produce cocoa instead of a man having to work far away in the sugar or coffee plantation, working for someone else: He works for himself, his wife can grind cocoa, and his children can harvest it; he can plant it and sell it at market.
CRS also has some peace-building and peacemaking efforts between cultures and between religions that have been very effective. I saw some of this in Upper Egypt, in Luxor, in which they began with the youth, Muslim and Christian, and they found a good Coptic priest, a good imam, and it began small, and they work towards efforts of reconciliation.
Some of the other most amazing work they do is capacity-building. We’re now focusing on building up wherever called upon, the 165 different Caritas agencies in the world, and, of course, we’re the biggest and most helpful to all those groups. What we did for Caritas Jordan is we just guided them, helped them write grants, become accountable and efficient in their work — and now they’re 400 employees and 2,000 volunteers — Muslim and Christian alike — and they credit CRS for helping them get started. Some more very creative ways are a livelihood project in Gaza, a water project in El Salvador and Guatemala, and children’s programs in other places. So I would like to see them continue what they’re doing, but also to have the funds to be creative in the ways that they are serving.
So as you’re stepping into the role of CRS board chairman, Sean Callahan is stepping into the role of CRS president and CEO. How well do you know Sean, and how do you see yourselves working together?
I know Sean very well. I’ve traveled with him to El Salvador, to the Middle East. I see how well he’s respected, so much so that he’s the vice president of Caritas Internationalis. He brings a humble heart, but an astute mind and compassion towards the poor. I think he’ll fit very well after Carolyn. Carolyn Woo was a superb CEO. She brought a motherly heart and a demand for excellence to the agency. I think Sean will follow very, very well in her footsteps.
CRS is involved in so many countries all over the globe, particularly in the Middle East. What would you like Catholics to know about the work CRS is doing?
This is the Catholic Church in the United States’ effort to serve the poorest of the poor abroad, wherever we’re welcomed or invited.
I’d like Catholic America to realize that Operation Rice Bowl, and other efforts that CRS is known for, is actually a very effective and very beautiful way in which we assist the poorest of the poor, wherever we are welcomed in the world.
People throughout the world look to Catholic Relief Services. It’s one of the most beautiful American exports — I would say the most beautiful American export in the world.
Many Catholics are looking at the Middle East and the troubles going on there, particularly the suffering that fellow Christians face, which is an issue that you’ve been very involved with personally. What is CRS’ role in trying to address those conditions?
The vast majority of those who are refugees and who are uprooted in the Middle East and North Africa are non-Christians. But the vast majority of those serving them are Christian. And it’s a way — not the only way, but a way — of preaching the goodness of Jesus Christ and the beauty of those who follow in his footsteps. And Catholic Relief Services plays a leadership role in refugee assistance, with all the different Caritas efforts in northern Africa, in the Middle East and, now, in Europe. Throughout the troubled world, you can pretty much assume that CRS is involved, either directly with the poor, in capacity-building with the different organizations on the ground, or in advocacy work with the United States government and with Europeans and other governments around the world.
I think, without CRS, this world would be a much darker place, but with it, [the world’s] a more hopeful place — especially the Middle East.
Do you think the story about CRS’ work is being told as it should?
No, I really don’t think so, and it’s very upsetting to me. It seems like both sides of the political spectrum, the right and left in the United States, focus only on the political realities. I would love for them to see Caritas Syria, Caritas Lebanon, Caritas Jordan and Caritas Egypt, as well as CRS in all those places, and Northern Africa and Iraq. I would love for people to see Christians and Muslims working in a beautiful harmony for the good of the poor.
I would love the press to cover this friendly cooperation, because the press is always covering the negative or the political, as if the political is the only thing that exists. We blame one side, or the other, or we look at what is tweeted or commented on.
But back to Caritas and CRS: This is the Catholic Church; this is the spreading of love in the world, the spreading of harmony. For those who are radical and have radical ideas, it is the antidote for the poison they are spilling into the world. For Boko Haram, for al-Nusra, al Qaida, for ISIS, to see Muslims and Christians working hand in hand in a beautiful way, it’s the antidote to their poison. And that never gets covered by any media; sometimes even Catholic media doesn’t even promote it.
Many Catholics first hear about CRS’ work in a negative context, from some groups that believe CRS has not been faithful to Catholic teaching in past projects, or that the bishops just “trust their staff” instead of verifying the facts and holding the organization accountable. How do you address that narrative?
As a bishop, I’ve learned that just criticism is helpful to us. And unjust criticism is also helpful. The just criticism can help us do our work better, because we ought to answer to our donors and our beneficiaries. They are the two constituencies to whom CRS must be faithful. Thus, any just criticism we’re very welcome to.
The unjust criticism is also helpful to us, but more painful: helpful, because it conforms us closer to Christ, who was unjustly criticized; but painful because it does not go beyond the name-calling, the labels, the accusations. People need to go deeper to see. CRS works with 1,100 different groups. At least more than half of them are Catholic — and we prefer working with our Catholic partners — but we also write grants to different groups, foundations, governments and international funds. We don’t agree with all of them [on their philosophies], but if we write a grant for a specific service to the poor, we will do it on our terms, not on theirs. We won’t write a grant if it’s against Church teaching. We will not promote artificial contraception; we will not promote abortion. We write a grant that fits our mission to do our work in good conscience. It’s good work; it’s clean work.
We have over 5,000 employees and, as I mentioned, 1,100 groups that we work with. We may get it wrong sometimes. When we get it wrong, we honestly say, “Sorry — we’ll do better.” But I’ve been on CRS for the last four years, and I find that they are the best of the best in Catholic mission, in Catholic identity. And I say that from inside. Anybody can criticize from the outside, but from inside, I say: CRS is the best.
How does CRS spread the Gospel as the U.S. Bishops’ humanitarian relief agency? In other words, how does CRS respond to the vision that Pope Benedict XVI had for charity in Caritas in Veritate and fulfill Pope Francis’ call for Catholic charities to be Catholic and not just “another NGO”?
Thank you for asking that. I’m very fond of Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) and Caritas in Veritate (Charity and Truth). That is why CRS does not promote abortion, does not promote contraception, does not promote any programs that would harm the family. All our poverty programs are looked at carefully, so we go to see what we do to build a better relationship between husband and wife. Not all developmental poverty programs have those moral principles to guide them. We do. We are also very careful about our palliative care for the sick and for the dying.
Do we preach? We preach like St. Francis: “Preach, and if necessary, use words.”
We begin with love, and by beginning with love, the beauty of it is that people can see that the small Christian community in their country does the lion’s share of humanitarian work. This is a beautiful reflection of the Gospel. When missionaries come — priests and bishops who are called to preach the Gospel and lead the Christian community — they realize they are supported by this amazing humanitarian work that is as Catholic as it can be. We live in very harsh conditions in some Muslim countries, some Asian countries, places that are very negative toward the Church, but still we’re there.
Does CRS go out to preach the Gospel with words? No. But by actions, by love, by support, by respect, by defense of marriage, by defense of the gift of life from conception to natural death — all these ways in which CRS completely fulfills the mandate of the bishops and our Catholic donors as a constitutive part of the mission of the Church, as Pope Benedict reminds us in Deus Caritas Est.
Thank you so much, Bishop Mansour. As we celebrate Christmas, how does CRS, with the support of U.S. Catholics, shed a light in the darkness in people’s lives at this time?
I’ll give you one beautiful example: I was in Lebanon two years ago, visiting a safe house for migrants. This, so often, is a sad story in so many countries, in which a migrant is kind of owned by [his or her] master, who has the legal right to take away [his or her] identity card and passport and sometimes abuse [the migrant]. But CRS, working with Caritas Lebanon, arranged for a safe house, and in this safe house were about 40 women. I was talking with the women, just hearing their stories — and they asked us why we were there. I told them, “Because hundreds of thousands of children in the United States put away nickels, dimes and quarters every Lent in a project called Operation Rice Bowl. That operation enables CRS to reach out to people in need. And so that’s why I’m here: to visit you, to see if you’re okay and to see if there’s anything more we can do.” This woman looked at me with tears in her eyes, and she said, “I don’t know what I would have done had I not found this place. And I found this place just by chance, because some other people told me that the people in this place help others, so I came here. Please tell the children in America thank you from me.”
So at Christmastime, when God became a little, vulnerable child — and he was a refugee, he was unwelcomed, and there was no room for him at the inn — may the army of Caritas agencies throughout the world, that army of love, shed a little bit of light in the darkness, so that every person knows they have a place and that God not only cares, but we care, as well.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.