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ROME – Nearly six months after Pope Francis ousted its entire leadership over what the Vatican said were lapses in management, the Caritas International charitable organization is meeting in Rome this week to regroup and to elect a new governing team.
From May 11-16, Caritas International is holding its 22nd general assembly in Rome, gathering some 400 delegates who represent the 162 Caritas branches around the world, which operate in some 200 territories and countries globally, making Caritas one of the largest and most visible aid groups in the world.
Every four years Caritas holds a general assembly to discuss priorities and to elect new leadership, including a new president, secretary general, treasurer, executive board, and representative council.
This year’s assembly is unique, as it comes in the wake of a stunning display of papal authority in November. Francis essentially placed Caritas’s entire leadership into receivership, sacking its secretary general, a Frenchman of Indian descent named Aloysius John, as well as its president, Filipino Cardinal Antonio Tagle, the organization’s vice presidents, its treasurer and its ecclesiastic assistant.
In a Nov. 22 announcement, the Vatican said an external investigation had been conducted which, while finding no evidence of sexual or financial impropriety, had identified “real deficiencies” in management that had seriously affected “team spirit and staff morale.”
Pope Francis at the time appointed an interim administrator – 59-year-old Italian layman Pier Francesco Pinelli, who’s been involved in efforts at organizational change in sectors ranging from oil and gas to the theatre – to lead an overhaul of Caritas’s statutes and its management.
Francis recently approved of the new statutes, which will be presented to delegates during the assembly that started this week.
The unusually stern move on the part of the pope was carried out by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, overseen by Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, and was seen among other things as a setback for Tagle, once considered a close papal aide and top contender for the papacy.
Though no details were ever provided, it is believed that the majority of concerns surrounded John and his leadership style, with some former employees telling media outlets that Caritas employees were often harassed, bullied, and humiliated, and that their complaints went unaddressed.
As part of the pope’s sweeping reform of the Roman Curia last year, Czerny’s department was given responsibility for Caritas, meaning it’s overseen the entire process. Czerny is among several top-level officials set to address the gathering.
During this week’s meeting, with the theme, “Building New Paths of Fraternity,” leadership for 2023-2027 will be elected. Whoever gets the job will have a tall order to fill, as they will be under close scrutiny, both from Pope Francis and Czerny.
Pope Francis opened the assembly with a lengthy speech May 11 in which he appeared to indicate his vision for the organization in terms of its internal dynamic and its relationship with the Vatican and local entities.
Speaking to the delegates, Francis said that what makes Caritas unique is its close ties to bishops, as there are Caritas offices in most dioceses, and its ties to the Vatican the Church’s magisterium.
He noted that delegates are currently working on “partnership and fraternal cooperation as fundamental pillars of the Catholic identity of Caritas,” and urged them to continue the discussion on these points.
Francis also said he wanted Caritas representatives to read chapter four of his 2016 post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. While it is dedicated to family life, he said the chapter is useful for them in terms of “orienting the work that awaits you in the future and in giving new impetus to your mission.”
Drawing on the fact that the organization’s name, Caritas, means “charity,” the pope said a lack of charity in their work “empties every activity of its substance, leaving only the outward form, but not the inward reality.”
He said that a signpost to tell whether a Christian is living in charity or not is if they are willing “to help freely, with a smile on their face, without grumbling or getting annoyed.”
“As we learn to relate to ourselves, interpersonal maturity also develops, and we come to realize that other people too have a right to live in this world, just as they are,” he said.
He insisted that “breaking free from self-referentiality, from considering what we want for ourselves as the core around which everything revolves, even to the point of bending others to our desires, requires not only restraining the tyranny of our self-centeredness, but also cultivating a creative and dynamic ability to let the charisms and qualities of others come to the fore.”
Truly living in charity, then, entails being both “magnanimous and benevolent,” and recognizing that to work together constructively “first requires ‘making space’ for others,” he said, saying this is done through openness “to listening and dialogue, ready to consider opinions that differ from our own, not insisting on our own positions, but seeking instead a meeting point, a path of mediation.”
“The Christian who lives immersed in the love of God does not nurture envy, for love has no room for discomfiture at another person’s good fortune,” he said, saying true charity is not “boastful or arrogant,” but has a sense of proportion and allows a person to approach others with respect, kindness, and tenderness, while being sensitive to their frailties.”
As Caritas representatives, then, Pope Francis told delegates that their first task is to cooperate with the universal church not only in developing projects and strategies, but in the process of missionary conversion.
“It is paramount to mention the intimate connection between growth in personal holiness and ecclesial missionary conversion. All those who work for Caritas are called to bear witness to that love before the world. Be missionary disciples! Follow in the footsteps of Christ!” he said.
The second task of Caritas representatives, he said, is to work with local churches to meet the needs of the poor in their area.
To this end, he stressed the importance of offering proper training to laypeople capable of engaging political and social life, saying, “the challenge of a mature and conscious laity is as timely as ever, since their presence reaches all those spheres that directly touch the lives of the poor.”
He urged delegates to foster greater unity, saying, “Your confederation embraces many different identities. Experience your diversity as a treasure, pluralism as a resource.”
“Compete in showing esteem for one another, and allow conflicts to lead, not to division, but to encounter and growth,” he said, closing his speech with a request for prayer.
Other keynote speakers at the assembly include Czerny, British Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States; Ambassador Gabriel Ferrero y de Loma-Osorio, Chairperson of the UN Committee on World Food Security; and Caritas representatives from Ghana, Myanmar and Ireland.
Working sessions will be led and addressed by Caritas representatives from all over the world and other external speakers, including Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of General Secretary of the Synod, and Italian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, Secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen