Tuesday, March 03, 2009

From Poverty to Peace

In the current Commonweal, the archbishop-elect of New York -- and board chair of Catholic Relief Services -- reflects on the papal message for this year's World Day of Peace, its 2009 theme dedicated to the challenge of "Fighting Poverty to Build Peace":
Pope Benedict XVI’s New Year message to mark the World Day of Peace came at a time when the world faces the worst economic recession since World War II. Amid the dire economic news, a message of peace may hardly seem relevant to people worried about how to make the next mortgage payment, but the pope’s words could not have been more timely or significant, especially now, as we begin the season of sacrifice, Lent.

Right at the start, the pope makes clear that the way to build peace is to fight poverty. He quotes Pope John Paul II: “The conditions in which a great number of people are living are an insult to their innate dignity and as a result are a threat to the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community.”

The threat that poverty and hopelessness pose to harmonious progress was demonstrated often last year, with food riots breaking out from Haiti to Egypt, and violence once again engulfing the Holy Land. Half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people were already dependent on food aid before the latest round of conflict.

A cynic might suggest that perhaps the poorest countries on earth are the lucky ones during a global recession—they are poor anyway, so how much worse can it get? The answer is much worse. Pope Benedict points to the global food crisis: “This crisis is characterized not so much by a shortage of food, as by difficulty in gaining access to it.” In other words, a growing number of people can no longer afford staple foods.

Prices of basics like rice and corn skyrocketed last summer, and though commodity prices have since fallen in global trading, this is not necessarily reflected in local markets. In Kenya, for instance, the price of corn is still double what it was in 2007. In Burkina Faso, local rice prices are still 30 percent higher than in 2007. With food prices so high, parents cannot afford school supplies and so will send their children off to scavenge rather than attend school. Thus, a lack of opportunity leads to poverty, and poverty to a lack of opportunity; the cycle continues....

Benedict describes AIDS as one of the “cruel forces of poverty.” He calls for education campaigns “to promote a sexual ethic that fully corresponds to the dignity of the person,” but he also insists that “the necessary medicines and treatment must be made available to poorer peoples.” The Catholic Church cares for some 25 percent of HIV and AIDS patients worldwide. Large-scale funding for CRS’s HIV and AIDS programs comes from PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief of 2004. PEPFAR funding, together with other funds, has enabled CRS to reach 4 million people affected by the pandemic. At the urging of CRS, thousands of U.S. Catholics successfully campaigned in 2008 for the reauthorization of these funds. With a new administration in office, Catholics will again have the opportunity to call for government policies that confront the issue of global poverty outlined in the message of peace.

This month the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services are launching a new initiative—“Catholics Confront Global Poverty”—at the Catholic Social Ministry gathering in Washington, D.C. Its goal is to further educate and mobilize Catholics to defend the life and dignity of people living in poverty, both in this country and abroad. The initiative urges Catholics and our elected officials to act in response to the many faces of poverty—to help reduce hunger, disease, and conflict.

It is tempting to turn inward during an economic crisis, to let our material anxieties blind us to those whose plight is far worse than our own. Now more than ever, though, we must ensure that the needs of the poorest of the poor are on the agenda of our government and in the minds of every American Catholic, that the poor receive the compassion and assistance our faith calls us to bring them. Pope Benedict calls on Christians and all people of goodwill “to expand their hearts to meet the needs of the poor and to take whatever practical steps are possible in order to help them.” This is not a new mission for the church, but its urgency has never before been so clear.
Begun in 1975, CRS' rightly-celebrated Lenten program -- Operation Rice Bowl -- has collected close to $170 million to help feed those going without both at home and abroad.

PHOTO: Sam Lucero/Green Bay Compass-News