Fortieth Anniversary of Caritas India
Perhaps the 40th anniversary of Caritas India will get the press it deserves. Perhaps it will not. At another time its outstanding service to the country during calamities would have been spotlighted, for example, the massive Bangladesh Refugee Relief work, the rehabilitation of the victims of the Latur earthquake, and more recently the Gujarat disaster.
Today the spotlight, however, is on Ground Zero in New York, El, Queda, Godhra. Very little attention and significance was given by the media even to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. But celebrate this jubilee we will, with or without media coverage, public fanfare.
Some biblical scholars maintain that Jesus began his public life after a Jewish Jubilee Year. Coincidentally, Caritas is celebrating its 40th anniversary after the grand Millennium celebrations. There is perhaps a message in this for Caritas. Jesus proclaimed his mission statement making an incisive reflection that even after the Jubilee there were no visible effects with regard to the redistribution of the land and liquidation of debts which that year should have involved. Therefore, Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4, 18-19)
We need, of course to read this Lukan text with the observation of Jesus in John’s gospel, that “The poor you will always have with you.” (John 12, 8) Jesus did NOT say that poverty is an inevitable human state. He did want to recognise the presence of the poor in our midst as a sign that we are not living out the covenant. For this reason he strongly affirms that his mission was to “bring the good news to the poor.” And this would take place when inhuman situations would be overturned by setting prisoners free, including prisoners of conscience, like John the Baptist. This would be accomplished by opening the eyes of the blind, including political and religious leaders. This would be accomplished by lifting up the oppressed and proclaiming the jubilee rule of freeing slaves, redistributing land and canceling debts, much like today’s debt crises all over the world.
The Holy Father using a modern idiom encapsulates all of this effort when he call for an “ecological conversion”, that is, an invitation to all people of good will to make an about face from selfishness and indifference and to focus on the common good. “It is the good of all and the good of each individual to which we must be firmly committed.”
The horrific pictures of the crumbling of the twin towers of the World Trade Center pulverized into dust are etched into our memories. But, so too, is the exemplary friendly, solicitous and generous concern of the citizens of New York. Think of the fire fighters who lost so many of their colleagues but still had time to ask individuals how they were faring. Think of the police and soldiers who were patient and polite at the road blocks. Think of the store owners who rushed food and water to the site. It was as if everyone were working for the common good.
Do we need a gigantic disaster such as this to bring home to us the self-evident truth that the common good is the underlying reason for ending our selfishness, for making us strive to live and work together for the good of all? The common good and solidarity says the Holy Father are the key actions that lead to integral human development. We are challenged to combine development with solidarity in order to prevent, on the one hand, the dehumanising under-development of nations and, on the other, to end the reducing of people to mere economic units in a consumer society.
This needs clarification. Allow me a parable. A story is told of a king who wished to destroy his people’s superstitious belief in God. He summoned his three wise counselors and said to them, “Tell me where I can hide this people’s God so that they will never find him.”
The first wise man said, “Hide their God behind the furthest star. There they will not find him.” “Not so,” said the second wise man. “One day they will learn to fly and then they will find their God, Hide God, I say, on the floor of the sea and they will never find him.”
“Not so,” said the third wise man. “One day the people will learn to swim and they will swim to the bottom of the ocean and then they will find their God. Rather, hide their God in the everyday lives of the people. No one will ever find him there.”
God did precisely this. He hid himself among the people. He identified himself with the people and made them his own. This is the cornerstone of our faith. We believe that Jesus is God enfleshed, the human face of God, the truth of God. Jesus dwelt amongst us to reveal God-with-us, God-for-us, God-in-us in our ordinary everyday lives. But, as in the story, very often we don’t find God. The clue is to find the people -- then we find God and God’s Christ who told us “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”
The Church is Jesus Christ prolonged in history. As the disciples of Jesus we are called to work, to heal and to bring to fulfillment all of creation. In a world of poverty, injustice and oppression, how do we make this happen? Action for justice and the transformation of life and society IS evangelisation. It is the mission of the church. This is not a luxury, not opportunism, not something peripheral. Commitment to justice is the first step in any act of charity. It is the recognition of the dignity of our neighbour, the good that s/he is entitled to and the service from those responsible for his and her well-being. This is the heart of the Jesus way of life.
It has been the joy of Caritas in their forty year pilgrimage for the Church in India to discover that the poor are not without resources. The poor have an amazing capacity to survive. We would be doing a gross injustice if we rubbish the poor, condemn them as good-for-nothing and beyond redemption. This is not only an offense against Jesus who shed his blood for them and for the world but an insult to their God-given and constitutional human dignity. For this reason, after some painful experiences, Caritas discovered, rather than re-discovered, the process we call animation or empowerment or capacity building.
The poor need just a spark to get the fire of enterprise going. That spark is the recognition that they are given when they are seen as someone, somebody. This identification restores their self-worth, self-respect, and self-confidence. This is what Jesus did. He made people believe that they can make changes in their lives, that they are not fated or destined to lives of misery and deprivation but are invited to look forward with eagerness to lives where abundance has immeasurable potentiality.
I applaud the efforts of Caritas India to empower people through its Human and Institutional Development Service. You mean to use all the instruments that are available for capacity building of grass roots leaders. You aim to enhance their participation in the economic, social, and political spheres. At the same time you plan not to by-pass our growing and powerful institutions that we set up inevitably in the name of the poor and for the poor. You plan to make them accountable for doing precisely what they were founded for, namely, to give power to the people rather than to lord power over them. We know too well from our vast experience that relief measures can create new dependencies and perpetuate poverty. Once again the example of Jesus comes to mind. Jesus offered to the reformed prostitute a better way of life. He provoked Zacchaeus to redistribute his ill-gotten wealth in meaningful ways.
What am I urging? Yes, we must be prudent, yes, we must be patient, yes, we must be persistent. But there are times when we need the rage of Jesus when he drove the money-lenders out of the temple. We need to take to the streets with our causes and speak out in the name of those who are without voices. We must teach them to speak for themselves. We must do this without fear of the powerful. We must not, out of prudence become non-committal to curry the favour of the establishment.
Anger is a gift of God to help us to grow, to come up with new visions and new horizons. When resources are mismanaged and embezzled, we are robbing the helpless poor. Like Jesus we must speak the truth in love and stand up for the truth as Jesus did who went to his death rather than back down on this issue.
My dream for Caritas is captured in the following prayer:
I bow to the sacred in all creation.
May my spirit fill the world with beauty and wonder.
May my mind seek truth with humility and openness.
May my heart forgive without limit.
May my love for friend and foe and outcast be without measure.
May my needs be few and my living simple.
May my actions bear witness to the suffering of others.
May my hands never harm a living being.
May my steps stay on the journey of justice.
May my tongue speak for those who are poor.
May I speak without fear of the powerful.
May my prayers rise with patient discontent until no one is hungry in body, mind, or spirit.
May my life’s work be a passion for peace and nonviolence.
May my soul rejoice in the present moment.
May my imagination overcome death and despair with new possibil- ity.
May I risk reputation, comfort, and security to bring this hope to the world. Amen.