Archbishop Cordes on Lenten Message 2004: Remember the Children

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II's Lenten message this year has a single theme with a powerful, twofold appeal.

Its emphasis is on children, calling for assistance for the millions in need while at the same time drawing attention to the unique example children can be to adults.

Taken from Matthew 18:5 — “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” — the message is one very close to the Holy Father, who is keen to reawaken consciences concerning the condition of children.

“In welcoming them and loving them, or in treating them with indifference and contempt, we show our attitude toward him, for it is in them that [Jesus] is particularly present,” the Pope writes.

And he draws attention to the countless “little ones” who suffer from the violence of adults, such as war, abuse, poverty, trafficking and marital breakup as well as the scourge of AIDS.

In an interview with the Register, Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Holy See's charitable arm traditionally charged with choosing the theme of the Pope's annual Lenten message, made clear the emphasis on children “is not a reaction to a special event.”

“The message takes up one of the many problems at the root of suffering that exists in today's society,” he explained.

Referring to the numerous examples of both children and adults who are unable to defend and protect themselves, he said this is why children were so especially favored by the Lord.

“This is the paradox of the Gospel: a nearly incomprehensible concept to a world in which the only thing that counts is power,” the German archbishop said.

Family First

In the Lenten message, the Holy Father noted those parents who put family and values before career and self-interest. John Paul expressed his “great admiration” for those who are already committed to helping under-privileged children, and he called for solidarity in caring for children in need.

“Such solidarity begins with the family,” Archbishop Cordes said. “Fathers and mothers must make time for their own children. They cannot substitute personal presence and dedication with the TV, treats and toys.”

And once children are properly cared for at home and in their neighborhoods, the next step is to develop “an interest in the needs of and dangers to children in other countries,” he explained.

But in today's licentious and amoral secular society, how can children be protected in their own localities and allowed to develop naturally?

Archbishop Cordes is particularly keen that children are helped within their neighborhood through organized Christian groups such as the Catholic charismatic renewal movement, which clearly impressed him on recent visits to the United States.

They have created “Christian islands” that help each other, he explained. They encourage families to resist “the secular, often pagan, spirit and influences around them and to live and proclaim the Gospel to their contemporaries,” Archbishop Cordes said.

Jim Richards, director of Britain's Catholic Children's Society, agrees about the value of faith communities as a means of resisting secularism.

“There's a concern for others; they set an example of good living,” he said. “They take values from the past and live them in the present so our futures can be better.”

Richards also pointed out that although emphasis is often placed on child poverty in developing countries, the situation is more serious in the United States and Britain than is usually supposed.

“A third of children in both the United States and the United Kingdom are living in poverty,” he said. “This means there's a large number of children who don't feel part of the wider society.”

And he highlighted psychiatric disorders and teen-age pregnancies as two negative consequences of these problems, noting that the United States and Britain have the highest proportions of both in the Western world.

“Girls are more likely to become pregnant to compensate for a life without hope,” Richards said.

Rising From Scandal

But can the Church be reasonably expected to bear witness to the needs of children when its own record of care has become such a scandal in recent years?

“These are truly humiliating and very sad moments,” Archbishop Cordes acknowledged, adding that “after all the decisions and expressions of sorrow should now come the time to accept the word of God: ‘Beloved, do not look for revenge … for it is written: ”Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.“’”

Were this not so, he maintains all the good that many members of the Church have done to “communicate faith and hope to children” would be overlooked.

“Besides,” he concluded, “the credibility of the Church's message is rooted in Christ himself and the Gospel he preached, not the human behavior of the individual members or groups within the Church.”

Two initiatives have been taken up to coincide with the Lenten message: production of a series of Vatican stamps and a development project for children orphaned by AIDS in Kenya, directed by U.S Jesuit Father Angelo d'Agostino.

“The stamps communicate compassion and very serious concern for AIDS orphans,” Archbishop Cordes said. “They are unusual because normally the focus is on culture.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.