ROME – Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, the papal representative in Syria for the past decade, has more than one reason to feel overwhelmed. In fact, one could argue, he has “colossal” reasons, as he serves a people with what he described as “colossal needs.”
Yet he is not one to fall in despair.
“For 11 years now, without having imagined it beforehand and almost without realizing it, I have found myself following in the footsteps of St. Paul, with my feet firmly on the ground, as I find myself facing the most serious humanitarian catastrophe caused by man since the end of World War II, with which we are all familiar,” said Zenari on Monday. “More than half a million dead, half the population forced to leave their homes and villages; 90 percent forced to live below the poverty line; more than 12 million, or about 60 percent, facing food insecurity.”
“And when I feel tired in carrying out this humanitarian/Caritas service in the midst of colossal needs, I am comforted by the thought that, according to St. Paul, I have been granted an ineffable gift from God,” he said, speaking via video link from Damascus at a conference celebrating the 70 years of Caritas Internationalis.
Zenari was one of the many high-level guests speaking at the conference. Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 162 member organizations working at the grassroots in 200 countries. Though the first Caritas opened in Germany in 1897, the umbrella group wasn’t established until 1951.
Inspired by Catholic faith, Caritas is the helping hand of the Church – reaching out to the poor, vulnerable and excluded, regardless of race or religion, to build a world based on justice and fraternal love.
Caritas Internationalis is headquartered in Rome, from where it coordinates emergency operations, formulates development policy, and advocates for a better world. It’s often defined as the “charitable arm of the Catholic Church.”
The celebrations culminated with the conference – titled “Caritas Internationalis: 70 years of fighting poverty” – at Rome’s Pontifical Urban University
Among the speakers were Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and President of Caritas Internationalis; Francesca Di Giovanni, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs in the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State; Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, Bishop of Tonga and Niue and President of Caritas Oceania; and Sister Nathalie Becquart, Under-secretary of the Synod of Bishop.
Zenari and Becquart took part in a roundtable titled “How to continue Caritas journey in synodality.”
As Becquart pointed out, the two-year synodal process culminating in 2023 with a Synod of Bishops under the header of “For a synodal Church, communion, participation and mission,” is “truly a call, we’ve understood the need for a missionary synodality.”
“The aim is to become more and more a synodal Church to better serve the world, our common home, the common good of our society,” she said. “The key word of Caritas, journeying together, is also a key word for synodality. I think we can feel there’s a deep connection between synodality and the identity of Caritas.”
The theologian was referring to a recent international campaign by Caritas titled “Journeying Together,” and the fact that synodality is often explained as “walking together.”
Caritas, she said, has chosen to answer the mission to serve the poorest, to give voice to the voiceless, and to fight against injustice, including that “against our common home.”
Speaking about the regional ecclesial synodality in the Middle East and North Africa, Zenari said that “after more than 10 years of war and generous humanitarian assistance, and considering the serious and continuing humanitarian situation,” the Eastern and Latin churches present in Syria will hold a March 2022 conference on “Synodal Church and the Diakonia of Charity.”
“All those who are engaged in the exercise of charity in Syria are invited to participate in this event,” the cardinal said. “Syrian and international ecclesial charitable institutions. It will be a particularly strong testimony of the Church’s synodal path in the exercise of charity.”
A voice from the ends of the world
Tonga is 11,000 miles and at least four plane connections from Rome, so between the distance and the COVID-19 restrictions Mafi joined the conference via video link. Speaking about the role communities have in the care for the environment, he argued that the Catholic Church and Caritas have a key role in nurturing communities that care for creation.
“It is also vital that we highlight whose voices are not heard – and champion these voices in spaces where we ourselves have influence,” he said. “This is becoming increasingly important as the dual crises of climate change and COVID-19 are multiplying existing vulnerabilities and inequality.”
Tonga is a small Pacific island nation of 106,000 people, and Mafi is its first ever cardinal. Few nations in the world, however, are as impacted by climate change.
“For example, Caritas Oceania sees women and girls playing vital roles in building resilience; and leading communities in adapting to a changing climate, and promoting the restoration,” he said. “Yet women’s voices in decision-making at the community and government level are not always heard. The same is true for young people, people with disability and many other marginalized groups.”
A global campaign
Monday also saw the launching of Caritas Internationalis “Together We” campaign on Integral Ecology, “the fact that we are all connected to each other and to our Common Home, the earth,” says the website for the project.
“Inspired by Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti, our campaign aims at bringing people together to carry out new actions and initiatives, especially at the grassroots level, which combat poverty, restore dignity to the excluded and protect nature, in the spirit of integral ecology,” says the website. “This will be our way of responding to Pope Francis’ invitation to create a new kind of solidarity.”