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Press Conference for the Presentation of the Lenten Message 2002

"Cor Unum": 30 Years of History and the Challenges of Today

Ladies and Gentlemen,

     We and our contemporaries, with a little sensitivity, cannot avoid seeing the suffering of many people.  It is evident, both near and far from us, when it manifests itself in poverty and catastrophes, in suffering and in need, in youth and in old age.  Over thirty years ago, the Pope himself was compelled to intervene by undertaking a new initiative.  In accord with the aid activities of many Catholic agencies and works, Paul VI created an instrument to act in his name for specific emergency cases and to foster the coordination of the various charitable institutions of the Church.  On July 15, 1971, he founded the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum" with the Letter Amoris Officio.  This document shows the intent of Paul VI:  "We therefore think it opportune to set up a special Council which would, so to speak, offer to all the People of God the possibility of coming together to deal with the above-mentioned questions concerning the promotion of human society and development."

     Since its foundation, the Popes, in order to make this intention tangible, by the end of 2001 had channeled aid in the amount of US $87,510,201 through this Dicastery.  As you know, most recently "Cor Unum" was entrusted and charged with taking care of the collection which the Holy Father proposed concomitantly with the day of fast on December 14.  By January 31, more than 2 million euro had been given.

1. The thirty years that have passed give "Cor Unum" an occasion to reflect upon and consider its orientation towards its origins.  For its Anniversary, "Cor Unum" has published Ars Caritatis.  It gathers together all of the speeches of the Popes to the members of our Council, along with an historical description of the same.  Added to this are two sections on the Foundations entrusted to us, namely, the Jean-Paul II pour le Sahel and Populorum Progressio for Latin America.  Along with these historically oriented articles, we have included a glossary of key concepts regarding the most significant terminology in the sectors within our competence.  I would like to emphasize that this section would seem to be of particular use, perhaps even for the work of journalists.  We all know that the imprecise use of terms can confuse concepts and therefore give a false understanding to reality.

2. Looking back, we must recognize that "Cor Unum" was not to be simply a philanthropic institution.  Our purpose was not to be merely an emergency service, which is seen well over the past years.  In fact, all of us need something more than bread and a roof.

     As such, our attention cannot be limited to the material needs of men and women.  To substantiate this, it is enough to read the Lenten Message, which the Pope has addressed to the Universal Church, and to which, as always, "Cor Unum" has given its contribution.  There is certainly a calling once again to assist those in need.  The Pope makes an appeal for "generosity toward the poorest of our brothers and sisters!" But this is not limited to a call for financial aid.  It must be underlined that the gift a member of the faithful offers should be an expression of his own gratitude.  This year's Message has as its fundamental conviction the fact that we have received much.  The traditional Lenten collection thus becomes an occasion to go back to God and to the works He has done for us.  The collection acquires, therefore, a transcendent significance and leads to a revitalization of our faith.  In an age in which man wants to live in a totally autonomous manner, the Pope recalls the attitude which deceives us: "...the capabilities we now have to improve the quality of life can lead us to think that man is the "master" of life.  The achievements of medicine and biotechnology can sometimes lead man to think of himself as his own creator..."  This is the presumption that we can be self-sufficient and not have need of another person.  This growing temptation is decisively countered in a reflection often repeated by John Paul II, which is found in Gaudium et Spes (n. 24): "Man cannot fully find himself if not through a sincere gift of self."  As a result, the situation of suffering for so many people in our time can become an occasion to go beyond oneself, a challenge of gratuitous giving.  Along this line, the answer to gifts received implies, in the end, a stimulus for each individual to give himself, even though one may fear that this stimulus may be a threat to oneself.  The pontifical document, which we present today, takes up all of these catechetical urgings in the affirmation: "Giving thanks to all those who, throughout the world, render witness to charity."

3. This element also leads us to consider another theme, which we cannot ignore.  Last year was proclaimed the Year of Volunteers by the UN.  At the request of "Cor Unum", Pope John Paul II sent a message to the countless volunteers who are willing to put into practice the teaching of loving one's neighbor.  The Church is proud of them.  The numbers speak for themselves.  In Italy, for example, the "Misericordie" alone account for 650,000 members.  Another example is the Spanish organization "Manos Unidas", which sends help to the third world for nearly $40,000,000 per year, almost exclusively through its volunteers.  On the other hand, the statistics as of May 31, 2001, speak for themselves, in that the UN accounted for 3,067 volunteers in their service. 

     The volunteers are extremely important for the mission of the Church.  In fact, each believer is offered the opportunity to systematically live out the call to love one's neighbor.  At the same time, this contributes to strengthening the Church's credibility.  "Charity," writes the Pope to volunteers, "represents the most eloquent form of evangelization because, responding to corporal needs, it reveals to man God's provident and fatherly love, concerned for each one" (n.2).  Beyond this, the work of volunteers is a path of education for each one of them, and even more meaningful because it is a school of gratuitous giving.  It helps each of them to open his eyes to witness the action of God in society and in history.  Whoever undertakes charitable activity soon realizes that evil is rooted in distance from God.  Evil reigns where God and His will are despised or misunderstood.  This is why the fight against human misery undertaken by the Church is not merely a philanthropic activity. 

     Within the most profound, and therefore theological, dimension of human suffering, lies the common denominator for the activities that we present here today: that answer to our search for happiness is found only in the love of God.  The activities we highlight today are the initiatives of "Cor Unum" throughout its history, the Lenten Message of the Holy Father, and his Message to Volunteers.

4. The bountiful goodness of God is constantly present throughout the history of His relationship with mankind.  The name of the Messiah is Jesus, which means "God is salvation" (see Luke 1:77).  Jesus is announced as the one who is going to free his people from sin.  In this sense, a good example is a verse from Matthew's Gospel (cf. 9:2): Jesus heals illness and frees from sin.  This teaches us, therefore, that there is a link between sin and illness, and even if this is not true for every specific case, Jesus highlights this fundamental law.  We find this also in the Gospel of John, when Jesus orders the paralytic whom He healed: " not sin any more." (5:14).  In fact, only the final coming of the Lord will put an end to our temporal condition marked by physical and spiritual evil (see Rev. 21:4). 

     I wanted to quote the Scriptures to highlight the truth that comes to us from life itself, a truth that each of us can learn very well by committing ourselves to those who suffer. One case, for example is that of Agnes Neuhaus.  She was in the forefront of charitable activities in Germany and the first person to devote herself specifically to abused and harassed women.  She is the foundress of the "Sozialdienst katholischer Frauen" (1899).  Another prominent personality of the social movement in Germany was Helen Weber, a trade union member and a parliament deputy, who spoke of Agnes in these terms:

     "We must not distort things and ascribe ideas that are modern into the thinking of Agnes Neuhaus.  Her starting point was not the work undertaken by the law, humanitarian philanthropy, the state of need of the population, but the desire to save the souls of man, of each single person. 

     It can be said of Agnes Neuhaus that she was repulsed by sin, by the idea of man far from God, which is a strong affirmation and can have a deep impact on our times. Today, who can say this of himself or herself?  She made and perceived the call of God to diffuse His Reign into the souls of women, who were destroyed or fallen either through their own fault or that of others."

5. We have with us one of the great initiators of Catholic volunteers of our day: Jean Vanier.  He is a well-known personality, a Canadian living in France, who in 1964 founded the first group of L'Arche.  Today, there are 117 such communities in 29 different countries.  They seek to be places of acceptance and integration for the mentally ill.  The purpose of the foundation is this: to give a family, a community to whomever has a mental handicap, in order to enable them to learn as much as possible, to be independent in every-day life, when working and living in communion with others and meeting God.  In his spiritual experience of closeness with the most weak, Jean Vanier has been able to gather thousands of people into the "Faith and Light" movement.  In particular, his witness conveys that good works do not aim only at alleviating suffering or making a person happy. Rather, the most important feature of charitable work is that for someone it turns into a path for discovering God.

Vatican City, February 5, 2002.

 Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes


The Pontifical Council "Cor Unum"


Intervention of Jean Vanier, Founder of L'Arche in France

I am always impressed by  the way John Paul II, day after day, proclaims a way of love, a vision of the "civilization of love". Is this just a dream? Is this civilization possible? We live in a world filled with conflicts, inequalities, a world where selfishness, hatred and violence so often seem to overshadow the works of love. What can each one of us do to change things and to bring hope to our world?

In his message for Lent, the Holy Father calls us to "give freely", because we "have received freely". He calls us in a special way to welcome each person regardless of their qualities or defects, and to accept responsibility for the sick, the marginalized, the poor and the exploited.

For 37  years now I have had the privilege of  living with men and women with learning disabilities who have often known the pain of being mocked,  rejected and excluded. People with mental handicaps are amongst the most oppressed people; they are not wanted in our stressful world of competition.. Many consider them a nuisance, a disturbance, less than human, having no real value. A recent survey in France has shown that 96% of the women who know that the child within their womb has a handicap, seek an abortion.  I would like to bear witness here however to the "power" of these so called "powerless" people, their capacity to open hearts, to help people become more truly human, to lead people into the mystery of the gospels and a meeting with Jesus.

We cannot however ignore that children born with a severe disability are a scandal, humanly speaking. Maybe it is only the gospel message that can help us to enter into the mystery of their lives.

We know that each person is important, unique, precious  for Jesus. People with learning disabilities have a special importance for Jesus because in all their apparent incapacities, they are more open to love. They may not be able to develop their intellectual capacities but they are people of the heart, people yearning for relationship. That is why Paul affirms in his letter to the Corinthians that God has chosen the weak and foolish in the eyes of the world in order to confound the strong and the so called clever; that those who are weakest, "the least presentable" are necessary to the church and should be honoured (cf 1Cor 1:21; 1Cor 12 ).

Over these last 37 years I have also met and accompanied a number of young  and less young volunteers who have come to  l'Arche and to Faith and Light. In our 120 l'Arche communities they share their lives, living and working daily, with men and women with disabilities. In the 1,500 Faith and Light communities they meet regularly with people with disabilities and their parents. Some have become faithful friends of people with disabilities, committed to them. And I can testify to how this friendship with the weak has led them to growth in maturity and wholeness and in faith in Jesus.

Antonio is a young man with severe mental and physical disabilities. He had an incredible, beautiful face and a capacity to touch hearts. When you called him by name, his face would light up. Many of us regarded Antonio as our "teacher", because so many of us have trouble accepting ourselves as we are. We may be able to walk and talk and learn, but our handicaps are more interior, we have difficulties with relationships. We are often filled with prejudices, closed up behind protective inner walls or barriers. We have difficulty forgiving others when they have hurt us. We frequently want power over others who quickly become rivals.  Sometimes we are angry or in depression.  Antonio showed us how to accept our limits and to work with them so that we become more whole.  If you had visited Antonio he would have touched you by his smile, his self acceptance, his thirst for love and friendship. You would also have been touched by the young volunteers along side of him. If you had asked them: "Is it difficult to be with Antonio and to care for him?" You might have been surprised by their answer.  "I had been taught to be strong, assertive, aggressive so that I could get a good job. Later, at work, I had to struggle, to be the best, in order to climb the ladder of promotion and have more money. Antonio has led me into a completely different world: the world of community, mutual listening, of growth in compassion, where each person is important however weak, able or disabled."

I can witness that many young volunteers who come to our communities live an experience of transformation. Jesus is waiting for them in the poor and the weak. They discover something fundamental about being human and about being a follower of Jesus.

First of all, they gradually discover their own hearts, their own deepest self. People with learning disabilities are crying out for affection, faithful friendship and understanding. They have a mysterious way of breaking down barriers around peoples' hearts. They awaken what is deepest within us: our hearts and our desire for relationship. We see in the parable of the "good Samaritan", how the wounded Jewish man left lying in the street somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho touched and awoke the heart of the Samaritan who was passing by.

Many other young people today want to go to poorer areas of the world, to share their lives with people in the slums, in refugee camps, in schools for disadvantaged children. They also live an experience that transforms their lives. They realise that they can do something beautiful with their lives just by being with people, learning to love them intelligently. They also realise how  closed and prejudiced they were before, how they were only concerned about their own immediate family or group or religion or culture and they begin to understand how richer cultures oppress the poorer ones. This shared experience with suffering and weak people helps them to discover what it means to be part of the human family. They  discover that to be human and to be Christian means to love people. Things and projects are important but should always be orientated towards people. Martin Buber, the Jewish Philosopher says that when societies put too much emphasis on acquiring things, they tend to lose the importance of relationships. And yet the treasure of we human beings is precisely relationships, the heart. The road to conflict  resolution and justice can only come  through dialogue, relationship and love..

Many young volunteers come to our communities wanting to do good to the poor, but what they discover is that it is the weak and the poor who are healing and transforming them, leading them into compassion. Many discover or deepen their faith through compassion. It is a road to Jesus. They discover that God is waiting for us in the poor and the weak. Then they discover that Christianity is not first of all a theology, a catechism or moral laws, but a relationship with a person, the person of Jesus. Isn't that what John, the beloved disciple, reveals when he says in his letters:

"Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God and whoever loves is born of God, knows God." (1Jn 4)

"But if any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1Jn 3:17)

In our broken world, many young people feel confused. Some, when they  discover the chaos in the world and in themselves, in their own violence and disordered sexuality, can fall into a life of chaos. Others just want to do what everybody else is doing. They seek to ignore the chaos, not question the values of society and just want security, money and success. Still others see the chaos which can make them insecure. They look for strong groups which give them security. They need to feel that they are strong and on the right side.

Still others take the rather insecure road of compassion. They want to be with the broken of our world. But they discover also how broken they themselves are. To grow in love they need help. Through compassion they discover community and their need for a deep, personal  relationship with Jesus. They discover the meaning of  Eucharist and the washing of the feet. They discover the church, a community of believers, and they begin to cry out for unity amongst all followers of Jesus and of all of humanity.

In our world of confusion and brokenness, L'Arche and Faith and Light are like schools of relationship, schools of the heart. We learn through moments of hardship, when we touch our own violence, how much we need help in order to love intelligently.  We need the support of community and good spiritual accompaniment to grow to greater wholeness, maturity and union with Jesus.

"Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you." (Luke 6:36-38)

Press Office, Vatican City, 5 February 2002