The mission of Catholic Relief Services

When a 7.8 scale earthquake hit Nepal last week, many Catholics looking to help turned to Catholic Relief Services, or CRS. In fact, the special collections to aid earthquake victims at parishes throughout the Diocese of Camden last weekend and this weekend will go to CRS.

You’ve seen their rice bowls during Lent at your parish or school, but what is Catholic Relief Services exactly? And what is its relationship to the Diocese of Camden?

“Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States,” says the CRS website. It is an agency mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, engaging in development and aid overseas in the name of American Catholics. At home, the official social services agency of the U.S. bishops is Catholic Charities.

“Both service arms of the Catholic Church in the United States’ – Catholic Charities serving domestic needs, and Catholic Relief Services serving our brothers and sisters abroad – are necessary to fully realize the church’s mission in the world,” said Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden executive director Kevin Hickey.

“As Catholics, we are obligated to serve Christ in the poor and vulnerable, no matter their nationality or creed, wherever we find them. It’s how we work out our own salvation,” he said.

Started in 1943 to respond to the needs of war refugees during World War II, Catholic Relief Services now operates in 101 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean.

CRS’s model is to embed themselves in the communities they serve, employing members of the local community to carry out long-term development projects and build relationships with other local aid organizations. When disaster strikes, they are able to move quickly and effectively to respond because of this intimate knowledge of the community and its needs and the local partnerships they have formed.

CRS’ work overseas is supported by the church in the United States through an annual collection and the household-name “Rice Bowl” campaign during Lent. In return, CRS connects American Catholics to international social justice issues as a way of enriching their faith.

“As an aid agency, we are 100 percent international. In the U.S., our mission is to share those stories with the local faithful,” said Kathleen Kernich, CRS relationship manager for eight dioceses in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including the Diocese of Camden.

“The best way to do that is by diocese. We try to partner closely with parishes, schools, colleges, universities and other social service agencies to find the best points of collaboration in a local diocese. The goal is to uplift what’s already happening locally and make the links to what’s happening internationally; to show how we’re present as one the universal church standing in solidarity both at home and abroad.”

To facilitate this connection, Kernich works closely with each diocese’s CRS diocesan director – an employee or volunteer of the diocese, not of CRS, who is appointed by the local bishop. In the Diocese of Camden, that person is Michael Jordan Laskey, who holds positions within the diocese as director of Life & Justice Ministries and Vice Chancellor for the City of Camden.

“Catholic Relief Services’ goal through their domestic operations is to engage in the work of global solidarity,” Laskey said. “It’s that key piece of Catholic social ministry that goes beyond diocesan, state, even national borders inspired by the idea that we’re all brothers and sisters because we have the same Father. It’s a countercultural belief that we’re all part of one human family in spite of the artificial boundaries that exist between us. The love of Christ breaks down those barriers.”

Within the last 10 years, CRS has widely expanded their outreach within the U.S and their mission to connect U.S. Catholics to the church’s work abroad.

Their offerings include youth retreats focusing on hunger and food security, high school programs that promote global awareness, and CRS chapters in universities. They provide speakers on international issues, service project kits, and faith formation resources, including prayers, petitions, reflections, discussion questions and activities.

In the Diocese of Camden, several young adult and youth programs have taken advantage of these resources in recent years. Last year’s Diocesan Youth Congress included a CRS speaker from Africa, and 250 youth participants assembled 25,000 meals through CRS for Burkina Faso in Africa.

Several youth and young adult groups and the three Catholic Campus Ministry organizations in universities in the diocese take advantage of CRS catechetical materials and faith formation resources, according to Greg Coogan, director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Diocese of Camden.

Rice Bowl is CRS’ flagship U.S. outreach program, raising both funds and awareness for their work overseas. Prayers, reflections, even recipes are offered throughout Lent to help Catholics understand the meaning of the season and it’s connection to the almsgiving feature of Rice Bowl. This year, the campaign included a video reflection series on the meaning of Lent from leading Catholic figures.

Twenty-five percent of total rice bowl donations remain within the diocese each year and are put toward services and programs addressing hunger in the local community. During the Lenten Rice Bowl of 2014, the Diocese of Camden raised over $100,000.

Nine diocesan high schools engaged in the Rice Bowl last year, in addition to parishes and elementary schools. Paul VI High School alone raised $7,000, with teachers working the initiative into their religion curriculums. The school cafeteria prepared Lenten meals using CRS’ recipes on Fridays. Students donated the ingredients and the money saved was given to Rice Bowl.

Other aspects of CRS’ work in the U.S. include advocacy in Congress for the needs of the poor abroad, and a Fair Trade program. Fair Trade refers to products that are bought at a just, living wage from farmers and artisans in poor and developing countries and then sold in the U.S. Several dioceses, including the Diocese of Camden, have fair trade ambassadors, individuals who receive training by CRS to bring more awareness of fair trade to their home diocese.

“CRS works on behalf of the church in the United States. We should be proud of this,” Laskey said. “CRS’ work is something being done in our name to make the world closer to God’s dream for how it should be.”

To learn more about how to engage with CRS in your parish or community, contact Michael Jordan Laskey at 856-583-6119 or michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org.

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