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What are Catholic Charities for?

Veteran Catholic charity worker John Dornan asks if Catholic charities are still fit for purpose.

Having worked in the voluntary sector for nearly 30 years the challenge was always to justify what we were doing.

Was it worthwhile, or a waste of time and money? Today ‘charity’ has become big business, with massive organisations able to spend big money on massive campaigns. The question remains are Catholic charities worthwhile?

For Catholic charities, it should never be about the money or even the intended beneficiaries. Any act of charity has to be considered for its impact on the giver as well as the receiver.

As the intermediary in this, a charity, particularly if it is faith-based, has to be mindful of this two-way relationship. To quote an old friend, “We have to see supporters as more than pockets to be raided”.

In other words, the human dignity of the supporter has to be respected as much as that of the recipient. Now I have to confess that at all the charities I worked for I was never employed as a fundraiser, but primarily an educator. I didn’t have any difficulty in encouraging anyone to support our work financially but I was always reluctant to let people off so easily.

Why do we give?

Think about it, what are we doing when we donate to any charity?

Whether it’s spare change dropped into a collecting can or a regular monthly amount from your bank account our actions suggest that we recognise something is wrong and we want to help change it.

It should never be a quick conscience-salving scrabble for loose change. As St John Paul II put it, solidarity isn’t ‘a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress’ but ‘a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good’.

At their best, our charities are a valuable means for laypeople to live out our faith. Their work allows us to practise that solidarity knowing that it will be consistent with Church teaching.

As expressed by St James, “A body dies when it is separated from the spirit, and in the same way faith is dead if it is separated from good works.” (James 2:26)

Our personal involvement and commitment is as important to our spiritual well-being as our support for Catholic charities can be to the many worthwhile causes they address.

One question has always puzzled me. Why have our various Catholic charities not worked more closely together to share expertise and resources? Smaller organisations could learn and benefit from the experience and communication systems of larger counterparts.

Need for cooperation

Think of the witness given to the whole country by showing the impact we could have on poverty, disadvantage and discrimination by working together. It might even lead to involving our fellow Christians and other faith communities, for the common good and the health of the planet. As a former teacher, words have special significance for me, which is why I would be

happy to lose the word charity, devalued by over-use, in favour of solidarity. With the best projects the people who benefit take control of their own situation and whatever support we can offer is helpful but limited without their involvement.

My final request would be for all our various organisations to take seriously their educational remit. Our faith demands that we stand beside the poor and hungry, the outcast, the refugee.

The role of Faith

Our agencies have a role to play in fostering that awareness not just in our schools but in our parishes too, standing alongside one another, not in competition.

An essential part of the mission of Catholic charities is to help educate the Catholic community in the social teaching of the Church: the principles of human dignity, solidarity, the common good and the preferential option for the poor are an integral component of our faith, part of the deal we are signed up to through baptism.

So what should we expect from our charitable agencies? Simply respect for the dignity of supporters and those who benefit. When asked by parish groups to help them decide on a project to support, I always encouraged them to consider what they might gain from their efforts.

Invariably they agreed that it provided opportunities to involve others, use their talents and creativity – and build community. In the same way, I’ve never forgotten what I learned from a community in Brazil where we supported a small library. They told a group of us visiting: “You were the first to show faith in us, and it gave us the confidence to do more”.

In turn, what should be expected of us? The firm and persevering commitment to the common good encouraged by St John Paul II, an active interest in the work of our agencies, and pray constantly for the people who carry out the work on our behalf. They are in the front line of putting faith into action.

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