Doing more than just helping the poor:
A Canadian humanitarian’s encounter with Pope Francis

It’s not everyday you are rallied by Pope Francis. From June 15 to 17, I attended the annual meeting of the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches (ROACO) at the Vatican, where about 24 Catholic aid agencies came together to share analysis, current action plans and develop common solutions to the many violent conflicts affecting millions in the Middle East — in particular, Christian minorities.

I stayed in the Domus Sanctae Marthae — the same residence where the Pope lives. Almost everyday I crossed paths with him in the hall, the elevator, the dining room and, with a quick smile, he’d greet me with a buona sera. The interactions were brief. Even though I work for his papal agency where we carry out pastoral and humanitarian work on his behalf, it was no time to talk business as he needs his rest, too.

On June 15, after meeting with the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign affairs representative, he joined the 60 of us before we started our meeting. It was the fourth time I’ve had the privilege to meet Pope Francis, but this time, something was different. Despite his packed schedule, he certainly didn’t show any signs of being tired as he delivered a strong, direct and decisive message. “I encourage you while you carry forward the service of Christian charity to denounce all that crushes the dignity of man.”

We were a bit surprised but certainly energized by these words. He dared us to do more than just aiding the poor, the refugees and the displaced but to be compassionate and truly find ways to stop the metaphorical and literal bleeding. “Every good work, in order not to fall into efficient-ism, or into an assistance-ism, which does not help persons and peoples, must ever be reborn from this benediction of the Lord, which comes to us when we have the courage to look at reality and the brothers in front of us…May their cry become our own and together may we break down the barriers of indifference.”

The Pope added that he wants us to be actors of change to find real solutions in order to build lasting peace in the Middle East, in Ukraine and with creation itself. As the 21st century unfolds, new challenges emerge and build on the old ones that need political will and ingenuity in order to be resolved and Catholic agencies like ours are part of the solution.

Following my ROACO meeting, I attended the Holy See press conference on the Pope’s highly anticipated encyclical on the environment that was made public on June 18. Even if he wasn’t present, here again, his words showed us a determined Pope who isn’t here to please, but rather, to challenge all of us and to get us out of our comfort zone. We can’t separate nature from God and people. The current state of the planet, its conflicts, the increasing poverty, climate change and how we consume are all connected and, thus, become the responsibility of individuals, but also that of decision makers, our politicians, business and financial leaders and civil society as whole.

The time for empty speeches and empty promises is over. We need to open a dialogue that goes beyond religious and ideological differences. It won’t be easy and many bumps are sure to be felt along the way, but the alternative is simply not an option. Talk to the Filipinos who endured the worst typhoon to ever touch down, those experiencing drought in the horn of Africa over the last seven years or to the millions of families in the Middle East that are on the run — they’re all a testament to this. Tragically, the list goes on.

No, contrary to some media reports, this Pope isn’t tired. He is inspiring, defiant and, above all, wants all of us to debate and enter into dialogue in order to find new and lasting solutions. He is showing us the path to save ourselves and all of God’s creation. It is now up to us to push for the political will to make the necessary transformation to build a world where all can be living in dignity and in peace. Some may call this Utopia, but it is all about redemption and comes down to Jesus’ message of forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and love that is ours to grasp. Let’s not miss this opportunity to get back on track. In one sense, Pope Francis can relax a little now that he passed on this responsibility onto us.

Carl Hétu is the Canadian National Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

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