Sunday, March 18, 2012

Relief Takes the "Rose" -- CRS' Hackett Named Laetare Laureate

For the second year running, American Catholicism's most august award is being given in tribute to a life spent in service to the neediest.

Keeping a 130 year tradition, this Laetare Sunday brought the University of Notre Dame's announcement of this year's recipient of the vaunted Laetare Medal: Ken Hackett, the recently-retired president of Catholic Relief Services whose two-decade tenure saw the US church's humanitarian arm expand its global reach by multiples, all while steering clear of the identity wars that have roiled no shortage of other Catholic-based social service and humanitarian efforts over recent years.

A Boston native and four-decade veteran of CRS, Hackett joins a venerable list of the Stateside church's brightest lights of the last century and a half in receiving the Laetare: a group that spans artists and thinkers, healers and prophets; poets, prelates and the nation's first Catholic president.

At its inception in 1883, the Medal was intended as an American answer to the millennium-old "Golden Rose," conferred by the Popes on Catholic queens and Marian shrines.

Philadelphia's "Mother Teresa" -- Sister of Mercy Mary Scullion, the city's peerless crusader for the homeless as the visionary leader of its Project H.O.M.E. -- received the 2011 Medal with her co-founder, Joan Dawson McConnon. The Californian poet Dana Gioia was the 2010 honoree, and Martin Sheen was given the prize in 2008. In 2009, amid the heated controversy over President Obama's selection as Notre Dame's commencement speaker and his reception of an honorary degree, the intended Laetare laureate, the Harvard Law star professor and former US ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon, declined the award.

A highly-regarded figure across the ideological spectrum of the national church's top rank, Hackett's 18 years at the helm saw CRS grow to a staff of over 5,000 on mission in over a hundred countries, with an annual budget that now approaches the billion-dollar mark.

Notably, his selection is Notre Dame's second high-profile gift to Baltimore-based CRS over recent months. On his December departure, the longtime relief chief was succeeded by the dean of the Golden Dome's Mendoza School of Business, Dr Carolynn Woo.

Born in Hong Kong and educated by the Maryknoll Sisters, the new CRS leader is the first woman to head the agency, and is believed to be the first Asian-American to hold a national-level post in the Stateside church leadership.

Keeping with tradition, the Medal will be awarded at the university's 167th Commencement on May 20th. The day's main speaker remains to be announced.