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 Ladies and Gentlemen,


      At the end of our Plenary Assembly, I would like to try to give a synthesis, however inadequate relative to the experiences and ideas shared in our meeting.

       First of all, let me express my thanks to you who have taken the time to participate in this important meeting in spite of the many responsibilities you have in your own countries.  The theme which we chose actually told us a lot and I would like to say that, given your contributions, we have really hit the target.  Volunteerism, as the Spanish-speaking group indicated this morning, is truly a "sign of the times", one of those spoken of in the New Testament (Mt. 16:4).


      1. As to the rest, this is not the first time that our Council is concerned with volunteerism.  I wish to recall, at least during the time of my presidency, that on May 16, 1999, we had the great Meeting of the Witnesses of Charity with the Pope, in which 40,000 volunteers from all over the world came together.  It is not that this phenomenon is new: by itself, volunteerism has always existed.  We also recalled that the origin of the term comes from civil society.  Regardless, even without using the concept, in 2000 years of history, how many people animated by Christian faith have given of their time and energies in favor of others, fired by charity!  Think of all that has been carried out in the Catholic Church under the names of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  A profound theological-spiritual analysis was also made, beginning within the history of the Church.  The modern characteristic is that this type of activity receives the maximum social recognition and the more articulated structure.


      2. Allow me, briefly, to comment on the positive aspects of this experience, of which Jean Vanier has spoken sufficiently, thanks to his activity with the disabled.  That some would freely focus their attention on them, reveals the true value that they have.  Volunteers become faithful friends of the disabled and this friendship allows them to grow in maturity, in integrity, and in their faith in Jesus.  In this way, they discover the Mystery.  Also the numerous testimonies from various countries have helped us remember the value of this experience.

       It is good to admit into our reflections the fact that the volunteerism of which we speak is that which, mostly seen in the form of an organized community, works in the area of assistance and help to those in need.  In the English language group, we heard today a few specific points which can be helpful for defining this phenomenon: volunteerism works without recompense, serves persons it is not obligated to serve, operates normally in groups, donates time, energies, and talents gratuitously.

      The area of our competence is diakonia.  But, obviously, there are many forms of volunteerism which exist in other areas: for example, I believe that we can say that almost all catechesis in parishes and many services, as such, which parishes offer depend on the contribution of volunteers.  To them we can therefore apply by analogy a few reflections which we have considered here, in particular regarding the spirit which must animate them.


      3. I must also offer a few words on the relationship between Catholic and non-Catholic volunteerism and public authorities.  By itself, there seems to be a general appreciation, even a tendency by governments to favor volunteerism. We were given first-hand information and analyses which raise concern for development which often remains unseen.  The presence of so many volunteers signifies a greater participation of citizens in public life.  In this sense, it is interesting to note a certain change in perspective.  While in past years the participation of citizens was channeled overall through the larger structures of parties and unions, these have considerably diminished in terms of their social influence.  As such, many initiatives for intervention into the public sector have been created, relocating mostly in local aggregations, with a precise and limited focus, almost spontaneously.  Volunteerism is an expression of this desire to participate in the social life, beginning at its base.  For this, such a phenomenon must be evaluated as an effective interest shown by the citizens toward social problems, also if they are in a new form.  I believe that also on the part of the Church, there must be the best possible favor and appreciation of this change toward smaller participation because it is a sign of a living society.  I would say more: it is important that these forces, less structured, less fashioned by the state, should have an enlarged space in which to grow.  The Pope, in His letter on volunteerism, point number three, writes that society must be helped "to promote the many forms of volunteer work that are the sign of growth in social awareness."

      Here rests the temptation for governments to serve themselves by absolving responsibility which the law has given them, and leaving it to be completed by volunteerism.  I am happy that it was clearly said in this room that it is not the work of the Church, per se, to guarantee the well-being of citizens and, therefore, our volunteer organizations cannot assume all the responsibility.  This is not to say that the Church is not present where poverty exists, on the other hand, often preceding the intervention of all the other social actors.  But, this supplement cannot be an entire substitution for the responsibility which the state and society have towards their citizens.

       The purpose with regard to the presence of Catholic volunteerism in the civil ambit, I am happy to say, accords with what is expressed regarding the work of "Cor Unum" about favoring a common action between the principal Catholic agencies for the promotion of some of the undeniable values which we have particularly at heart.


      4. Going more into the merit of the question, we have seen that a fundamental aspect obliges us to reflect profoundly on the anthropology which inspires us.  Volunteerism originates from a natural desire in man to help another; we all know that a call to love is innate in man and that man finds, therefore, his full realization only when he gives himself.  In this terrain, many volunteers find a starting point, which must be gathered by groups and by leaders who have experience.

       On this purely human base, much volunteerism is constructed.  The Church appreciates this free initiative also by persons who dedicate themselves to others without having the motivation of faith, but simply in the name of man and for the attention to those in need.  Also, if today the institutional presence of the Church is less, there remains a cultural legacy: the Christian spirit is passed also to society and has left its traces: for this we must be grateful.

       I would like to note two overall dangers.  The first is that infact our institutions are being marginalized: there is no longer a need for the Church because much of the good also comes from outside of it. 

       Society, in fact, sees the Church merely in its social function.  For the greater part of the public, it is one of many philanthropic institutions.  Its work is measured according to humanitarian categories.  And both the state and society expect it to be limited to this work.  As such, man is reduced to an "intelligent animal".  Religion and transcendence in the common mentality no longer have any prophets.  As well, the supernatural contribution in favor of man in his integrality and the historical contribution of Christianity are silenced, as in the new preamble of the European Constitution, for example.


      5. The hidden secularism, or even that which is manifested, obliges the associations of volunteers as well as charitable agencies to be vigilant; if there is ingenuous adaptation to the dominant tendencies, their Christian spirit will disappear.  In other words -  and this is a very pragmatic argument - in the large and always growing army of NGOs, the Christian connotation gives an unmistakable identity to ecclesial groups. 

       To remain faithful to Christian heritage and to give attention to a deepening of the faith of all adherents, contributes, then, eo ipso to overcoming all of the misunderstandings which can arise from collaboration among charitable institutions and recipients: respect for the ultimate responsibility of the pastors ordered toward the ecclesial diakonia; the collaboration with other confessions and other religions; the financial equilibrium between institutional functionaries and local collaborators; all of the elements which create an unfailing trust between donors and recipients.  "Guidelines" were also mentioned, which "Cor Unum" must eventually propose.  In all this, we must never omit that help is never a one-way street.  The countries of the so-called first world have much to gain from countries which find themselves still on the road to development: integrity of anthropology, sensitivity, recognition of creation as the work of God, respect for the aged, a sense of belonging to family and society.


      6. Unfortunately, another highly diffused danger is the belief that Christian experience can be substituted, and therefore the personal encounter with Christ, with activity under the insignia of personal good will.  There is a risk, therefore, of retaining the idea that man is good by himself and can do good by his own strength, which means he is no longer in need of both redemption and salvation.  It is that which we call the "buonismo" in Italian - "Gutmenschen" in German - the sentiment that we are good and can do good, the temptation to make everything disappear in a presumption of original harmony.  The Catholic aid institutions resist this "Pelagian" mentality, on the basis that the redemption comes as a result of our works.  It is a horizontalism which exalts the capacity of man, saying in reality that he has no need of God.


      7. In this regard, as far as concerns volunteerism within our Catholic institutions, these seem to me to be some important points.

      We take account that volunteerism keeps organizations alive and dynamic.  Thus, where there is volunteerism, which means that there are persons who spontaneously put themselves at its disposal, there is still a will to act and, therefore, vitality.

       Further to this more sociological point, it is necessary that we Christians keep well in mind where this anchor of volunteerism is, and what is its only guarantee of success: the volunteer must be related with the person of Christ.  I will give its triple slope.

       A) Faith in Christ motivates the doing of good.  The activity of Catholic volunteerism fundamentally originates with believing - and this is an unavoidable historic fact.  It is in the name of Christ that the Church does good, because from Him has been taken the fundamental law of revelation and of love ending with the gift of self, the love particularly toward the little ones, toward the needy, toward those who seem to merit it least.

       B) In the poor themselves Christ is encountered.  In this way, whoever volunteers can find themselves rediscovering faith.  In fact, Jesus himself indicates that by his incarnation he is present to us in every needy person.  He who knows how to see well, recognizes that in the poor Jesus himself is served. This is a great mystery which maybe cannot be adequately explained in words, but can be well known by experience, because suffering introduces us to the knowledge of the truth, the which uncovers for us the profound limits of man. And it is there that Christ who is the truth appears.

       C) Finally, but perhaps the most important aspect, is that the relationship of the volunteer with Christ is manifested in the fact that only the Son of God who has taken upon himself human suffering gives also an explanation of this suffering.  How can a volunteer who sees so many problems resist the scandal of sorrow, is he does not know Christ has died and risen to redeem man from his sufferings?  Thus, the volunteer must be directed to encountering the cross as the mystery of salvation.  Allow me to illustrate this thinking in reference to the Holy Father.  His sufferings do not impede the exercise of his ministry, but they also render it more fruitful in a certain sense. Most of all there is an eloquent message in His person for a world that wants everyone to be strong.  It teaches us that the cross of Christ gives to suffering a sense which is otherwise obscured.

      To guarantee this vision of faith in volunteerism, it is necessary to find the forms of spiritual encouragement for the volunteers themselves.  It is necessary to form them even more in the profound motivation for their actions, as was emphasized this morning.  We must, therefore, flee the temptation of believing that the action of volunteers is enough in itself.  One must continually work on the motivations of the volunteer and his sense of faith, so that his service is always more applicable.  I would like that this conviction be particularly present in those who have the responsibility for the internal leadership of our Catholic agencies, but also in the Bishops upon whom so many volunteers count within their parishes and movements.  The Spanish group also recalled the importance of integrating volunteers from outside into the local Church.  We cannot forget that young people have a great potential, available and generous.  The attention to spiritual accompaniment can be one of the concrete fruits of this Plenary Assembly.


Vatican City, February 8, 2002


Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes