How Faith, St. Teresa Prepared CRS’ New President

An interview with Sean Callahan, incoming president of Catholic Relief Services


GOOD DRAWING. Sean Callahan speaks with young Syrian refugees at a school in Zarqa, Jordan. 2012 photo by Sam Tarling for Catholic Relief Services


BALTIMORE — For three decades, Sean Callahan has followed God’s call to help the Church serve “the least of these” in faraway places by sharing in their joys, sufferings and even dangers — surviving a terrorist assault on an airport — in the course of his duties at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Callahan will succeed Carolyn Woo as CRS’ president and CEO in January 2017, once she completes her five-year term at the helm of the U.S. bishops’ overseas humanitarian-aid agency. Callahan, CRS’ chief operating officer, has extensive experience of Latin America, Africa and Asia and membership on the board of Catholic Charities and Caritas Internationalis. He will build on the foundations laid by Woo’s leadership. He has a keen sense of the need for the Church’s various organizations to find ways to work more closely together as they face crises of increasing severity.

In this interview with Register staff reporter Peter Jesserer Smith, Callahan discusses his Catholic faith, as well as the lessons he learned working with St. Teresa of Calcutta and their impact on his vision for CRS, as he prepares for the challenge of steering the agency through the challenges of 2017 and the next five years.


Sean, you’ve spent nearly three decades at Catholic Relief Services. How would you say your Catholic faith has grown and guided you through your work at CRS?

When we work for CRS, it is a job, but it is also basically your faith in action, as we reach out to people all around the world. I’ve happened to have the benefit of meeting some of our great faith leaders throughout the world. I worked in Kolkata with Mother Teresa. I worked in Latin America with some wonderful sisters and fathers in religious communities there, when I first started with CRS. They really showed me the Church in action and exemplified the strength of our religion in working with local people in local communities.


Where did your passion for CRS’ work on behalf of the Church come from?

Both my aunt and uncle had been Maryknoll missionaries, so in my family it had been part of our blood to look out for people around the world. From my earliest days, I remember missionaries coming over to our house and showing slides of the work they did in Guatemala, or in Africa, or in Asia, where my uncle was positioned at one point. I see that as part of who I am, and as a Catholic, I feel lucky to have been in a position where I can act on my faith every day.


Over your career, have you faced any dangers carrying out the Church’s humanitarian work?

There have been a few situations around the world. One was in Nicaragua, where I was supposed to get into a vehicle, and I got a call and was told, “You can’t go on the trip” that I was supposed to go on. The vehicle ended up getting ambushed, and the religious sisters were killed. When we were traveling in Iraq, it turned out we were 10 miles from ISIS-held territory.

Probably the most dangerous one was when we were in Sri Lanka, and my daughter had a high fever in India. I was going to leave the trip early and go home. I got to the airport, and inside the airport, it turned out that the Tamil Tigers had an attack on the airport. So I told people, “Maybe we should go back out the windows to the front of the airport.” As we got out to the front of the airport, they started blowing up planes and shooting tracer bullets over our heads. For three hours, I was with a woman and her child, hiding behind an outdoor bathroom while tracer bullets ricocheted off the fence near us until, finally, the shooters moved to a certain location. We got into a drainage ditch and ran out. But that was probably the closest one: that type of terrorist attack in Sri Lanka.


You mentioned working with Mother Teresa — now St. Teresa of Calcutta — what was that like for you?

Well, I worked in Kolkata, spending almost two years there, with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, learning the culture of India. I will tell you pretty much the whole esprit de corps and the mission of the Missionaries of Charity, and the way they go about their work with love, joy and selflessness, really lifted my own experiences up to a different level.

To be honest with you, I have seen that in the work of many religious around the world, even when I started off in Nicaragua, working with the Capuchins in isolated areas, and the Jesuits and other religious communities. I was taken by their commitment to the “other,” and I think Mother Teresa took that to a different level.


How did she make an impression on you and your approach to CRS?

I was working in her center once and seeing the lives of the people that she would rescue from the street. She would just give them human dignity. She knew that they weren’t going to live, and sometimes our institutional donors would say, “Is this really the viable poor?” Because their “graduation” was going to be on to a new life; their graduation was not going to be more productive citizens. But Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity found that every individual had that value in their life. And that has assisted me in looking at every individual and seeing the contributions they might have made to themselves, to their families and to their communities — and then how we can, as an agency, assist those people in making those contributions.

While volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity, and being in the center with some of [the sick] before they died, I used to have this tremendous feeling of sadness when someone would go, as if we had failed them. I told Mother that at one point — that we couldn’t save this person — and she said, “You were lucky. You were with them when they went to see the face of God.” It took me a little while to see that, but just the fact that we are there, just the fact that we can put some love and caring into a particular individual — even though we couldn’t communicate across languages, but you could hold their hands as they left this earth to go to God — it was the type of thing that says, “This is valuable, this is who we are as a community, and we need to continue to do that.” So at CRS: No one is expendable, human life is sacred at every level, and we reach out to all those people. And that’s something we’ll continue to do.


When you become president of CRS, the United States will also have a new president. How will you navigate the challenge of a new administration?

CRS has worked with various presidential administrations. We have found tremendous generosity in the American public and the recognition of Congress — despite the fact that there can be divisions between political parties — that the type of assistance and work we do around the world crosses the aisle. Some of our strongest supporters are Republicans; some of our strongest supporters are Democrats; some of our strongest supporters are Independents or Libertarians. I think when people see the work that we do on the ground, they are converted. We talk a lot about reaching out to people and helping them see what we do, so that they then become supporters. Sometimes you have to be careful of the word “conversion,” because we’re not necessarily converting people to Catholicism, but we are converting them to the type of work that we’re doing and seeing the strength of the impact it has on the ground.


How do you plan to build on Carolyn Woo’s legacy of strengthening CRS’ Catholic identity?

Dr. Woo did a tremendous job with outreach in the United States, and she traveled tirelessly, meeting with different groups, dioceses and organizations, and I think that was terrific. We will continue to do that type of outreach. She set the foundation that is strong, and we will continue to look into ways to reinforce that and make it stronger.

With a combination of our board and moral theologians, we formed a Catholic-identity advisory committee, which deals with some of the more global issues with the Church. When we have had an issue we thought might be of concern, we would pass it to that group for a recommendation and then bring it to our chairman [currently Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City] and our board. We put in additional steps to make sure that everyone would be comfortable with the faithfulness that CRS was following. So not only do we have our normal orientation process for our staff, so that they know [Catholic identity], but we also have the staff review committee, an external review committee, as well as our board.


Where do you want to see CRS develop and grow over the next five years?

I would like to see how we can bring the efforts of the various Church actors closer together in a more systematic way. That’s working with the Catholic Health Association, the religious communities, the bishops’ conferences — and all around the world. Because I think what we’re seeing more and more is the realization that no one organization can do it alone. How can we link all these great [Church] actors together to respond to issues around the world and, frankly, learn how to do that so we can do it in our own countries?

The second area would be how we all work together to strengthen the local partners on the ground. There are certainly some areas of the world afflicted with a lot of violence, where there is great difficulty for the local partners to stand up, and we will need to be very actively present there. But there are other areas of the world where we can build local capacity, and we can take a subsidiary role, passing the leadership to the local partners and providing them just technical assistance in certain ways.

So I foresee that we will continue to remain a presence around the world, because we really want to be that light that the Holy Father talks about, that Mother Teresa talks about with her religious communities: a light to shine on people in need. And we can provide that tactical and at times essential assistance in lifting them up and out of poverty.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.