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Aid must go beyond immediate need and promote the dignity of people

HONG KONG (SE): “Pope Francis has invited us to nurture the capacity for compassion,” the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (One Heart), Robert Cardinal Sarah, told the 1,000 or so people gathered for the opening of an international conference on relational poverty, sponsored by Caritas-Hong Kong to mark 60 years since its foundation in July 1953.

Speaking at the Caritas Institute for Higher Education in Tseung Kwan O on May 16, the president of the Vatican aid agency explained that assistance offered to people must go beyond what is termed the practical, immediate needs of an emergency.

“It must include a catechesis of charity that embraces the concrete witness of Christian love,” he explained.

Cardinal Sarah described the role of Cor Unum as coordinating relief, explaining that it has been in Haiti since the devastating earthquake of January 2010 and a donation being made by Pope Francis to the recent earthquake victims in Sichuan, China, is designed to give local Christians a better opportunity to minister the catechesis of charity among their homeless, bereaved and suffering neighbours.

He explained that Cor Unum has done much for human development in opening up the hearts of people to relationships. “Where the divine gift of charity is burning,” he noted, “the root of relationship is ready to grow.”

He said that relief should be directed ultimately towards human development and must be holistic. “It must go beyond the immediate needs and issues. It must address structures and systems of privilege that determine who has access to resources and who is excluded,” he pointed out.

“The Church must be part of the structural response to poverty,” he stressed.

Addressing the topic, Facing a new era: Addressing relational poverty, Cardinal Sarah pointed out that relational poverty occurs when we become independent of or cut off from the context of our environment.

He quoted Pope Benedict XVI as calling isolation one of the deepest forms of poverty, as it arises from not being loved or from difficulties resulting from not being able to love. 

“This hinders the formation of relations on the level of individuals, family and society,” he explained.

Cardinal Sarah added that this type of relational poverty affects the well-being of all people, but is most devastating in the lives of the young, the aged and the marginalised. “Not only are they disconnected; vulnerable people lack relational support and are often excluded from social interaction,” he explained.

He said that in addressing relational poverty, it is essential to recognise people as loved infinitely by God.

He said that we can recognise this love as we have other examples of it, explaining that it is reflected more clearly in the lives of those who live other-centred lives.

He cited the Old Testament description of the rupture of relationship, first between people and God, then between people and nature and finally among themselves, saying that each rupture of the natural relationship brought about its own difficulties.

“The Fall ruptured the relationship with the earth, which now only gives fruit with difficulty. Relationships only happen with difficulty. The social order became more difficult, as illustrated in the story of the Tower of Babel,” he explained.

He noted that the serpent in Genesis told Adam and Eve they would become like God; and they fell for it. They no longer acknowledged the Lord as creator and took it upon themselves to define good and evil.

He called this a recipe for the relational poverty that is still affecting society, but he believes in ever more widespread ways.

Cardinal Sarah explained that in today’s world, a Christian response must go beyond the immediate problems to address the assumptions of a materialistic society. “Relational poverty is a spiritual reality,” he said, “and requires a spiritual response.”

He explained that the key to the response is found in love of God and neighbour. “The vision is not a plan,” he went on, “but an offer that we can grow in. It is a way of life, has direction, motivation and clarity.”

He called Christian charity the human face of God, quoting St. Augustine as saying, “If you see charity, you see God.” You discover self by giving self to others.

“It is the Christian charitable action that is the most attractive aspect of Christianity,” he said. “This reflects the life of the Trinity.”

However, he added that it needs underpinning with true love and the sacramental life of the Church is the prime means Christians have of sustaining this love.

“This is integral human development,” he said. “This is a full bodied humanism. It is not closed in on itself, but open to responding to the needs of neighbour.”

He cited the life of Christ as being the ultimate example of Christian service. “It has two dimensions,” he explained, “inner; focus on the presence of God—and outer; concrete good works.”

In this context he added that time spent in prayer and contemplation is essential to building a relational society and is essential to sustaining activism.

Cardinal Sarah stressed the importance of the relationship between Church and state, or the religious and the secular, sometimes described as society, and Christian charity. “But they are different realities,” he explained. “Society is more complex and more diffused than the government, the state or the secular.”

He added, “The earthly and heavenly city penetrate each other, but the interaction should take place without loss of identity.”

However, Cardinal Sarah said that concretely, we have witnessed the damage done by excess in the business and political spheres. “We have seen the damage done to the relational aspect of society,” he pointed out.

In this context, he described the mission of the Church as promoting human dignity and the centrality of the human person.

“Relational poverty results from not being able to love. It is addressed by creating an environment where people can love. This is what Jesus was on about,” he said.

He described the mission of his own organisation, Cor Unum, and Christian groups like Caritas, as responding to human needs in a holistic way; through practical, concrete help designed in accordance with the nature of people as children of God.

 “We must begin with an integral vision of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and hence imbued with a transcendent vocation,” he explained.

“But to do this, the response can only be found in contemplation,” he stressed.

“Pope Francis is calling on Christians to come out of themselves,” he said, “and go to the periphery of life.”

The moderator of the session, Denis Lam Khen-lee, pointed out in his reflection on Cardinal Sarah’s keynote address, that, as a lawyer, he understands that the law has a big role to play in addressing relational poverty, especially in ensuring proper distribution of wealth in a community.

He summarised the bottom line challenge of Cardinal Sarah’s address as learning how to inject religious values into the political and business spheres of a society today in a language people can listen to.

Cardinal Sarah was born in the African country of Guinea. He was ordained a priest on 20 July 1969, leaving home shortly afterwards to study theology at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome and later scripture at the Institute Biblicum in Jerusalem.

Upon returning home, he was a parish priest and rector of a minor seminary, before becoming bishop in 1979. 

He has been president of the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa and was called to the Vatican in 2001 to take up a position as secretary to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.


He has been president of Cor Unum since November 2010.

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