New head of English Catholic charitable arm looks to post-COVID world

New head of English Catholic charitable arm looks to post-COVID world

A woman wears protective face coverings as she passes the shutters of a closed shop in West Ealing in London, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP.)

Taking on his new position as head of the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), Raymond Friel has been immediately faced with the challenge of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting’s the Church’s social ministry.

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Taking on his new position as head of the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), Raymond Friel has been immediately faced with the challenge of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting’s the Church’s social ministry.

CSAN is the charitable arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, focusing on the domestic Church.

“I think it will take some time to see how this pandemic has affected the Church. We’ll know soon enough what the picture looks like in terms of numbers returning to Mass but there are deeper issues of engagement that may take a lot longer to manifest,” Friel said.

“One of the things that would help, I’m sure, is a series of open and honest conversations about the social mission of the Church in a post-COVID society: The role of laity, women, the priority of adult formation,” he told Crux.

Friel worked for three decades in Catholic education and is bringing that background to his new position.

“I hope I can use my teaching skills, such as they are, to deepen people’s understanding of Catholic Social Teaching. My experience in leadership and in leadership at scale … I hope means I can bring an understanding of what good leadership looks like in a Catholic context and how a network can work effectively for the benefit of all those involved,” he said.

What follows are excerpts of his email conversation with Crux.

Crux: What brought you to the Caritas Social Action Network, and what do you hope to achieve in your new role?

After 30 years in education, including around 20 years in leadership, I was looking, as they say, for a new challenge, but it had to be in the Church. That’s where I feel at home and where my vocation has unfolded. I’d met Phil [McCarthy], my predecessor, previously and heard about the work of CSAN which struck a chord with me. So when the job came up I applied. I was in an interim role with a multi academy trust and was ready to start afresh. The trustees offered me the job after a series of Zoom interviews, which was a whole new experience, and I started in April 2021.

What do I hope to achieve? Well, we’re working through a strategic review at the moment, so that should become clear in due course. One of my passions in education, which has been a feature of CSAN over the years, was formation, and I very much hope that becomes a keynote for us: Formation of the heart, formation for advocacy, formation of leaders.

Your background is in education. What does that bring to the job?

I started my life in education as an English teacher, so I hope that means I can bring an ability to convey a message, in writing and in person. I hope I can use my teaching skills, such as they are, to deepen people’s understanding of Catholic Social Teaching. My experience in leadership and in leadership at scale – of two multi academy trusts – I hope means I can bring an understanding of what good leadership looks like in a Catholic context and how a network can work effectively for the benefit of all those involved.

You come to your new role as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you think the post-COVID world will affect the Church, and how Catholics engage with society?

This is the big question, isn’t it? I think it will take some time to see how this pandemic has affected the Church. We’ll know soon enough what the picture looks like in terms of numbers returning to Mass but there are deeper issues of engagement that may take a lot longer to manifest. One of the things that would help, I’m sure, is a series of open and honest conversations about the social mission of the Church in a post-COVID society: The role of laity, women, the priority of adult formation. I hope that the synod on synodality acts as an inspiration for that model of engagement to be widely implemented.

Pope Francis has brought new emphasis on the social dimension of Church teaching. How has his pontificate affected the mission of CSAN?

For me personally, and I know for many others, Pope Francis is an inspiration. You say that he has brought a new emphasis on the social dimension of Church teaching, and it might feel that way, but when you look at Chapter 4 of Evangelii Gaudium, for example, “The Social Dimension of Evangelization”, you’ll see how firmly rooted what he is saying is in the teaching of previous popes, in the fathers, in the Gospel. Perhaps it’s his more direct and colloquial style that has caught our imagination, and his new emphasis on the economy, or rather a new economy.

For CSAN, he’s a guiding light, but then so are all the other popes who have written encyclicals contributing to the rich body of Catholic Social Teaching, going all the way back to Leo XIII. Our mission is to make that teaching even more widely known, so that more people in the Church are inspired to see their activity for social justice as a natural consequence of their receptivity to grace, in faith.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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