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CURIA-CORDES Mar-26-2007 (920 words) One in an occasional series. With photo. xxxi

When promoting church charities, Vatican official leads by example

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Like most archbishops today, Archbishop Paul Cordes' ministry includes teaching, preaching, administering the sacraments and lobbying.

But his hands-on experience takes place where people suffer most from war or natural disasters, and his lobbying often is with presidents and prime ministers of countries suffering massive death tolls and situations of serious injustice.

Archbishop Cordes, a 72-year-old German, is president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican agency that promotes and coordinates Catholic charitable giving. His job is to make sure Catholic teaching on charity becomes concrete, and that starts with his own example.

In the name of the pope and the entire Catholic community, Archbishop Cordes travels to disaster sites bearing not only a papal blessing for the victims, but often also a check.

"You cannot proclaim that God is good without showing it," the archbishop told Catholic News Service during a March interview.

"You announce the good things the Lord does, and then you have to show it," he said.

In addition to delivering papal donations -- more than $8 million in 2006 -- to victims of disasters, Cor Unum also administers two foundations started by Pope John Paul II: the Populorum Progressio Foundation for farmworkers and the indigenous of Latin America and the Caribbean and the Foundation for the Sahel, which funds projects to combat desertification in Africa.

Like many top Vatican officials, Archbishop Cordes' university studies and previous ministerial roles were not designed to prepare him for his current post, but they did.

Before being named president of Cor Unum in 1995, he was vice president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. His work there, especially with members of new lay movements and communities, gave him a firsthand experience of the fact that "all over the world there are a lot of new attempts to live Christianity sincerely."

Archbishop Cordes' work and his approach to Catholic charity got a big boost with the publication of Pope Benedict XVI's 2005 encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), particularly its section underlining the link between Christian faith and charitable activity.

The archbishop said, "Those we help need not be Catholic, but it must be clear that we love and care for them because we are Catholic."

His insistence that without an obvious link to faith "Christian charity is reduced to mere philanthropy," has led to some debate and even concern among Catholic relief and development agencies deeply motivated by faith, but often very discreet in sharing their faith with those they help.

But Archbishop Cordes said the link to faith is needed in the hearts, minds and attitudes of Catholic aid workers more than in aid projects that "preach" to recipients.

"Christians have to help wherever they encounter people in need," he said, even in situations where their help would be turned away unless they kept their faith quiet.

It is not enough for Christians to pray for those who suffer, he said.

"You cannot proclaim that God is good without showing this," he said.

Archbishop Cordes said he absolutely believes that effective aid programs require professionalism and technical expertise.

"The famous French Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard said, 'The pious cook does not necessarily make a good meal,'" the archbishop said.

But he is equally certain that there are situations of poverty and suffering in the world that cannot be alleviated by material aid alone, no matter how abundant or efficiently delivered. People who are poor and suffering also need someone who "can help them see that life does not end on earth, that we have to discover God even when circumstances are dark," he said.

"This is why Christian helpers in the agencies have to foster their own faith -- for these situations," the archbishop said.

While technical help, compassion and spiritual accompaniment are all part of Catholic charitable work, Archbishop Cordes said there are times when technical expertise must be given priority.

In fact, it is a lesson he said he learned when he began studying medicine before entering the seminary.

Like a physician trying to help someone who is sick, he said, charitable agencies responding to a disaster must focus first on the immediate interventions needed to save lives.

When visiting a place like Rwanda in the aftermath of mass slaughter or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he said, "I do not go there to weep with them, but to reflect for and with them" about how to meet the needs.

Once the aid is organized, which often involves some tough conversations with government officials, then he lets his compassion take the lead, he said.

The archbishop said that when he went to New Orleans and other areas hit by Katrina in 2005, even though many of the people he met were not Catholic, when they found out Pope Benedict had sent him, "they were very built up, they were happy."

"This is the moment for compassion, holding hands, giving a blessing," he said.

"But we have to do both: reflect for the good of the people and go out to console them," the archbishop said.

Archbishop Cordes said he believes the greatest challenge facing Catholic charities is not lack of funding or overwhelming demand, "rather it is the temptation to limit charity to a technical procedure."

"If carried out properly, the church's charitable initiatives, while not being programs of proselytism, speak volumes about the God of Jesus Christ -- the motivation for our love," he said.


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