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Decades…

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

When I was a younger man attending Manhattan College in Riverdale New York (feels like 1,000,000 years ago!), my maternal grandmother – a petite and beautiful woman, with model-strait posture who very much resembled Katherine Hepburn who was born and raise on a farm in rural Western Ireland before World War I – lived with us. Because of proximity, she had a tremendous impact – though indirect – on my up-bring and on me becoming the person I am. That impact extended out from me and my family to our circle of friends and acquaintances – particularly the group of friends that I had at college. I can’t begin to tell you how many times my grandmother’s little snippets of Irish country wisdom – from things like “Self praise is no recommendation” directed at those whose view from the heights of their own pedestal had become a little too clouded, to “wish in one hand, wee in the other and see which one weighs the most” some toilet-training humor directed at me when I was a little too busy dreaming and not quite busy enough studying – brought delight to my friends, not only for their wry humor but also because of the underlying truth that gave these sayings their foundation in a knowledge earned through a life well lived. Even today when I get together with my college friends we still reminisce about these sayings and how true over time many of her lessons have proven.

My grandmother had other saying of course, one of which was “time heals all wounds” – not her’s really as I’ve heard it repeated often by others in many context. She would always try to sooth someone’s pain away by gently assuring them that – no matter the hurt – the passage of time was the salve that would close their wound forever and take all the hurt way. As with her other sayings, I never doubted the veracity of my Nan-Nan’s statement – but now, to be honest, I am not so sure. It’s not that I think that my grandmother intentionally told me something that was untrue – I can honestly say that I know for a fact that this women NEVER lied to me about anything in all our time together – its just that now perhaps my perspective has changed; all the more-so as I write this blog post from my Office in Manhattan in the days approaching the tenth anniversary of the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

As anniversary’s go of course this is one that many of us – particularly those of us who were in Manhattan on that day – wish that we did not need to remember; so changed did our world become – both by the events in Manhattan and Washington and Pennsylvania on that particular day, and the consequences felt around the world because of those events to this very day – that it is with trepidation that we approach September’s coming around on the calendar. In many ways for a lot of us, such reactions are not intellectual but quite literally visceral: this was brought home to me in an all too real way only two weeks ago, on Tuesday, August 23rd. On that day as many may remember – at 2 O’clock p.m. – the Mid-Atlantic region experienced an earthquake that measure 5.8 on the Richter Scale, an unusual occurrence for sure, that interrupted cell-phone service, disrupted train travel, and caused tens of thousands to evacuate from their office buildings in some of the country’s largest population centers. So unexpected and nerve-rattling was this event that news of it spread quickly on the news-wires from coast to coast and across the globe. Thankfully no lives were lost in the event, but many structures were sadly damaged including the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and several buildings in Catholic University of America.

Ordinarily at the time that the quake hit I would be sitting where I am right now – at my desk at the Chancery Building in Mid-town Manhattan – and probably would’ve joined the many other New Yorkers who quickly evacuated their office buildings for the street; but on that day I was fortunate enough to have had off, and was sitting in my apartment reading. I had been out earlier in the day enjoying the beauty of summer in late August: it was -I remember – a beautiful cloud free day, clear blue sky, low humidity, warm but with a cool breeze blowing. At the time of the quake I was sitting on my bed (as a studio dweller, there honestly are not many other places in my apartment to sit and read) and as such, did not experience the shaking sensation caused by the quake – most probably because the springs absorbed the shock. As a result, I was unaware that anything had indeed occurred. The first clue that I had that something was amiss was that in the span of about five minutes I received several phone calls in succession on my cell phone – from my family in Westchester, and several friends; oddly as I attempted to pick up the calls they were dropped, and when I attempted to return the calls the service was dead. At first I was perplexed, but as I sat and contemplated the coincidence of receiving these multiple calls – coupled with the lack of cell phone service, and the beautiful cloudless weather outside – my confusion turned to anxiety: I remembered this feeling….I had been in this place before. Quickly, I turned on the radio to find out what was going on, and was frankly – oddly – relieved to discover that the proximate cause of these coincidences was a minor earthquake and nothing more sinister.

Later on that evening and in the intervening weeks, I have gone back to this seemingly simple occurrence and have been surprised at my reaction: I’m usually not a person that jumps to conclusions or immediately assumes the worst in a situation…but given my experiences that afternoon – the inability to communicate with others, the feeling of helplessness in not knowing what was going on, and, oddly enough, the magnificent weather on that day – it was not my mind but something much deeper inside me that took me back to that place that I did not want to be in – a place that perhaps I sought to forget, but that my body remember all too well. It took this seemingly innocuous event – an earthquake where thankfully no one was seriously hurt – to get me to understand that no matter how much we think we have “moved on” there are some things that we cannot help but remember, and that perhaps- just perhaps – this is not such a bad thing. After all, much of what we do religiously as Catholics are acts of sacred “remembering” – everything from our participation at the Mass, where the words of the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament literally implore us to remember in our hearts and in our heads the great sacrifice that Our Lord Jesus made on our behalf, to the recitation of the Holy Rosary, where every Decade asks us to contemplate the events of the life of Our Blessed Mother: the Joyful, and the Glorious, but the Sorrowful as well. In Her ancient wisdom, perhaps the Church understands all too well not just the importance but the necessity of such remembering for we human beings, and offers in Her actions of sacred remembrance a path for us to follow approach the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001.

As we remember this day, our feeling will of course return naturally to a place of tragedy, of loss, of tears, of pain that our wounds still cause us, but in remembering perhaps we should try equally to also remember – and especially honor – the place of the selfless acts of bravery, of honor, of devotion, of love, of condolence and of generosity that that day, and its aftermath, also represent. In remembering the events of 9/11, we have not only much to honor – the memory of all those we lost that day who will live forever in our hearts – but also much to be grateful for: the heroic example of our First Responders, the simple acts of compassion between strangers so evident on that day, and the generosity from those around the nation and the world who reached out to our wounded city at the time of our greatest need and offered help and prayers and love as we struggled to recover.

Perhaps the words that my grandmother spoke to me all those years ago – that “time heals all wounds” – was not literally true; time may not literally heal all wounds. What time does definitely do however is change things. So much has changed in the decade since 9/11 – in both my personal life and the world. For me, this decade has seen me leave the suburbs and – perhaps counter-intuitively – move into the city, this has in turn opened up my world tremendously, and allowed me to meet people from around our nation and across the globe. In the decade since September 11, 2001, I have developed many new wonderful friendships, and conversely have lost some of the people who were closest to me on that day. I miss them of course still – but my new friendships have given me a strength and support system that has sustained me over the intervening years. Change is always hard, but without change growth is not possible. As time inexorably changes things, as Christians, perhaps it is our role to be the balm my grandmother spoke of in her saying – to be the ones who “heal the wounds” that time creates; to work to see to it that change is for the better. In ways great and small this has always been the Christian story, and continues to be in the 21st Century. That is my prayer this Anniversary, and one for which I have hope. So much has changed in the decade since September 2001- some for the good, much for the ill – but in looking back over this decade, as obscure as it can sometimes appear going forward in time, I trust that God’s hand is at work….in fact, I know that it is…I have got the proof…for you see two weeks ago – when after the earthquake I was alone and confused  and fearful in my apartment in New York City and returned to that place I did not wish to go, the frantic phone calls that I received to check on my well being came not only from family and friends here, but from Saudi Arabia as well.

Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead…

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

One of the things that I think sets New Yorkers most apart from people from many other parts of the country is our distinct appreciation for the concept of irony – whether its in our humor (it’s no coincidence that the sitcom “Seinfeld” – perhaps the most ironic comedy ever produced on television – is set in New York City), or in recognition of the sometimes circuitous journey that life take us on, New Yorkers appreciate irony like almost no other people on Earth. Given this fact – and considering that I am a born & bred New Yorker – I have always found the events of Holy Week extraordinarily powerful. It is a week of events that to the common observer appears to begin with Earthly exaltation ending five days later in apparent weakness, humiliation and death…..and yet to believing eyes, these circumstances are quite the opposite – the events at the culmination of this most Holy of weeks signifying not the destruction of a particular life that those in authority in that time and place had intended – but instead, the beginning of life renewed for all of us; a sacrificial gift of love that created hope of life renewed for us all. It is for this reason that we Christians call the Friday of this week “Good” Friday – it is not because the things that happened to Jesus on that day were in any sense good: the conviction of an innocent man for reasons of politics and religious intolerance, His scourging and torture, and His eventual execution by the means employed by the governing authority of that day on a Cross, are by no means “good” things – neither today nor 2,000 years ago. No instead, we Christians call this day “Good Friday” because it was on this day that Jesus Christ took on the means employed by the governing civic and religious authorities of his day who intended to utterly humiliate, degrade and destroy him by those means, and yet – by the power of His loving sacrifice – He transformed these terrible events into the birth of hope for the world that has endured for the over 2,000 intervening years since that day when those in authority thought that they had finally “taken care” of what they considered to be their “Jesus problem”.

This thought about the irony of the fact that we Christians dare call the day of Jesus’ loving sacrifice “Good” Friday hit me recently when a colleague of mine – after I had returned from the Sirius/ XM studios with our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan after the taping of one of his “JustLove” programs – asked me about the topics discussed on the air that day. I responded to her that that day, we had highlighted one of our “Catholic Charities Around the Nation” segments, and that the topic that we had discussed was a shelter – operated by Catholic Charities of the New Orleans Archdiocese – that assisted those who were victims of sexual assault and domestic violence to remove themselves from their abusive situations and begin to rebuild their lives in an atmosphere of support and respect. In response to my statement, my colleague challenged me how I could maintain a hopeful disposition when discussing a topic as horrible as sexual assault and abuse. To be honest, her question left me very shaken – and I truly had no adequate answer for her at that moment; she got me thinking not only about sexual assault and domestic violence, but about many of the topics that we had discussed during the show for the past several month – of the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and the overwhelming toll of death and destruction that occurred in these places, of events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire whose 100th anniversary just occurred where many young working immigrant girls lost their lives due to a desire for profits over safety, of the tragedy of the shooting in Tucson in January that took the lives of 6 innocent people including a 10 year old girl born on September 11, 2001 – all these things terrible –and like those things done to Jesus that Friday  2,000 years ago – none of them in any way or any sense “good”.

My colleague’s question continued to haunt me for some time; like any good one, it had me search deeply within – asking fundamental questions about human suffering, about pain, about loss, about love, and about God. Blessedly, this searching on my part happened during the later stages of Lent and Holy Week, when our attention turns to Jesus’ own suffering and death. Answers to these questions are of course never easy, even those who were closest to Jesus during His life on Earth remained confused when confronted with His profound suffering, of His undeserved death. In Scripture, after the events of Good Friday, the women who accompanied Jesus – Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, all while the male disciples were in hiding – went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His body with spices as was the Jewish burial custom of the day. I am sure that they were all three troubled by questions as they walked together to that tomb – questions about suffering, about pain, about loss, and about God – and they sought answers. When they had reached their destination, they found Jesus’ tomb open and empty. In answer to their questions, a messenger from God appeared to the women and asked them “Why do you seek the living among the dead”, informing them that Jesus was not there – and reminding them of Jesus’ words to them that His suffering and death would not be final, but that He would be raised up. God’s messenger did not then dismiss the women upon proclaiming Jesus’ triumph over suffering and death, instead he called them to action – enjoining them to “go quickly and tell the disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and He is going before you to Galilee”….for Jesus Himself at that time was not standing still but was on the move ahead of them…

Here at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, our motto is “Providing Help. Creating Hope.”; that motto is included in our logo, and appears in the shadow of a Cross. It is here, in reflecting on the words of this motto – in the shadow of the Cross, on this Easter weekend – that I believe I can begin to find an answer to my colleague’s question. If we, like the first Christians – those women who witnessed both the terrible suffering and underserved death of Jesus as well as His Resurrection from the dead  – can respond in action to the terrible suffering of this world, perhaps we can play a small part in creating the Hope that His loving sacrifice and Resurrection laid the foundation for on that first Easter weekend 2,000 years ago.

A Blessed Easter to you all!

Do they Know its Christmastime?” – You bet..Do we?

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

I think that I may have said this on this blog sometime before, but Christmastime is just about my favorite time of year. Especially in New York – with all of the wonderful preparation for the Holiday including the World’s most famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, all the stores up and down Fifth Avenue decorating their windows in clever and festive Holiday motifs, and of course the majestic splendor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral itself, festooned with evergreen branches, poinsettias and a life size crèche – there is no place on Earth that I think could boost my spirits more as the city that Pope John Paul II dubbed the “Capitol of the World”, dresses up in her finest to await the birth of the King of Kings. It is unfortunate this beauty is so short-lived however as practically no sooner has the sun set on December 25th than many people here begin to dismantle all the elaborate decoration as much as to say “well – the party is over…its time to clean up now”. Nothing is sadder than walking through the streets of Manhattan the few days after Christmas and seeing pile after pile of discarded Christmas trees laying prone in the street along with the garbage, awaiting pick up by the Sanitation Department. This year, the situation was made worse by the fact that a post-Christmas blizzard – locally dubbed here our “snowapocalpse” – delayed this pick-up, so the trees sat even longer, half covered in dirty snow. I know many people who make a similar comment about these depressing post-Christmas scenes, noting that at this dark and cold time of year we certainly don’t need such visual stimulation to bring on the post-holiday blues. It always strikes me odd that folks dismantle their Christmas decorations so quickly today; in talking to my parents, they both have noted that when they were growing up, the Christmas tree was almost never put up before Christmas Eve, and at that, never taken down until after the Feast of the Epiphany that we celebrate today. Also known as “Three Kings Day”, today is the day when the Church commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men from the East to the infant Christ-child in Bethlehem, symbolically stressing that Jesus’ saving actions and message was not for the Jewish people alone, but was meant to be for the peoples of the entire world. The period of Christmas – the joyful celebration welcoming Christ into our world and our lives – only begins on December 25; it extends for 12 days (hence the popular Christmas Carol “The 12 Days of Christmas”), and closes with the Epiphany of our Lord to Casper, Melchior and Balthazar – and yet for many people today, the holiday is already over practically before its begun. It makes you wonder if people here really know it’s still Christmas Time at all…..

The last sentence is actually written a bit tongue in cheek: for you see there is another contemporary Christmas Carol – written by the British pop performer Bob Geldof entitled “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (recorded by a broad collection of British pop artists) and first released in 1984 in an attempt to raise funds to combat the terrible famine that had struck the people of Ethiopia at that time. This song – and the “Live-Aid” concert that grew out of the effort – raised millions of dollars for Ethiopian famine relief. I have always liked this song, but this past September the song took on particular significance for me; as readers of this blog may recall it was then that I had the good fortune to have the opportunity to go to Africa with Catholic Relief Services and was able to visit the region of that country – Dire Dawa – that was most hard hit by that famine. While there, we were able to observe the actual famine relief facilities that were initially funded by the funds raised by the “Live-Aid”/ “Do They Know Its Christmas” record promotion and fundraising. Today, the facility – which houses at least a dozen airline-hanger sized food storage and distribution centers full of such staples as rice, grain, corn and cooking oil – is administered by Catholic Relief Services which works with other major international food relief programs to ensure that in this still very food insecure region of the world a famine like the one that ravaged the country in 1984 does not take another devastating toll in the future. You can see some of the photos that I took of these food storage facilities below:

Now that I have been to Africa, I think that I might answer the question “Do They Know It’s Christmas” that is likewise the title of the song a little bit differently. Back in 1984, the presumed answer to the question of whether the Ethiopians knew it was Christmastime was no: presumably because of the famine, but additionally – according to the song – because “there won’t be snow in Africa at Christmastime” – as if snow is what makes the holiday so special! No, now that I have been to Africa – have met and witnessed the faith of the people not only in Ethiopia but also in Tanzania and the other places we visited, I believe that “they” do totally understand that it is Christmastime – perhaps even better in some ways then we do here in the United States, where the mad, commercially-driven rush to December 25th sometimes obscures the real meaning of the holiday, which of course is “Emmanuel” – quite literally “God is with us”. The Incarnation – that God loved us so much that He came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas and became human like us – is the key. It is because of the Incarnation that we Catholics can say with confidence that every human person – no matter how old, how rich or poor, healthy or sick, able-bodied or not, regardless of race, sex, class, religion education or orientation, born and unborn, all of us – is made in Image and Likeness of God and possesses such immense dignity that God himself became human to show us how to live, to love and to give. This is in fact why Catholic Charities domestically – and Catholic Relief Services internationally – engages in all of the life-saving work that they do: because every human person deserves a life of respect and dignity. They really get this in Africa, in a way I can only hope that we can begin to appreciate on some level here.

For Christmas as one of my presents this year, my Mother gave me some Christmas decorations for my small (Manhattan studio-apartment sized) tree: they were three beautiful ornaments of African wildlife – a zebra, lion and giraffe – given to me this year to commemorate the life-changing trip I took to Ethiopia and Tanzania this past autumn. When I returned to my home the day after Christmas, I took these three ornaments and put them on a privileged spot on my tree. In years to come, I know that when I hang these cherished ornaments on those trees, I will recall not only my wonderful trip to Africa – but more importantly I hope the incredible lessons in human dignity that I learned while I was there. And rest assured, those decorations – the tree that they are on and the Christmas Crèche that sits on my mantle – will not be coming down until January 6th!

A Blessed Epiphany to you all!
CRS Food Storage in Dire Dawa

Thy Kingdom Come….

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

I’m sure that I am not the only one who has noticed that recently the news – except for the ongoing cyber-drama of the Wikileaks and its unconventional (to use a polite word) founder Julian Assange – has been a buzz with all things royal. Whether it was the announcement of what in many ways is THE “main event” of the upcoming year – the pending April 29th nuptials of Prince William of Great Britain to the lovely and decidedly middle-class Kate Middleton , to the consternation expressed by certain well-healed New Yorkers that they would have to recuperate from surgery along with the general population over at New York Presbyterian Hospital/ Weill Cornell Medical Center because 86 year old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had block-booked every single room of the VIP floor of the hospital in order to recover surgery for a slipped disc and blood clots , to the run for the money that the recent film “The King’s Speech” (about the relationship between the stuttering British monarch King George VI & his speech therapist Lionel Logue) is giving the favored film “The Social Network” for this year’s Oscar nomination, to the “hot leadership” advice available in the recently published book “Cleopatra: A Life” shining new light on the life of everyone’s favorite Queen of Egypt . It seems that everywhere, the mention of “things royal” still captures the popular imagination here, even though its been some 234 years since the American colonists won their independence from Prince Williams Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather in 1783.

I have to admit, I certainly share some of this curiosity – a fact I am sure would undoubtedly make both my Irish-Republican and yankee New York ancestors do somersaults in their respective graves. I remember that I too got caught up in all the hoopla surrounding the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales all those years ago, and have to admit that I still get a chill when I listen to the playing of “Hail to the Chief” as a sitting President walks into a room (itself an homage to the ceremonial – almost royal -role our own Presidency plays in our democratic system of governance). And, living after the conclusion of the bloody 20th Century, we are able to realize – perhaps better then our Founding Fathers could have imagined – that while a constitutional government founded upon self-evident and inalienable human and natural rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is preferable to rule by a hereditary monarch, rule by a king or queen is perhaps not the worst form of government there is. After all, in the years following the end of their respective monarchies, the peoples of Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece all found themselves living under dictatorships. In the words of author Jeremy Paxman writing of the phenomenon of rule by royalty: “Better the crown is worn by a dullard than by someone who thinks he has a mission”. In addition, as a Roman Catholic, I of course have tremendous respect for the role that tradition can and must play in society, and appreciate the beauty that ancient practices still possess. All of this adds up to the fact that (I am almost embarrassed to say) you can count me among the folks who drive the medias insatiable drive to report on the comings and goings of the rich, privileged and powerful.

In thinking about it, I realize that this fascination with the lives of royalty has been with me since the time I was a young child; some of this I am sure can be blamed on two sources: the fairytale stories read to me by my mother and grandmother when I was a boy – full of kings, and queens, princes, princesses and knights and the more exotic creatures that populated that magical landscape; as well the concrete circumstances of my own life and upbringing: for you see, I too do indeed have a real King that rules my life – although, truth be told, a decidedly different sort of one. Unlike William, Prince of Wales, whose birth was news around the world, the birth of my King–the Prince of Peace – was shared with only a small circle: the big news at that time was a worldwide census, and the only ones “in the know” were a handful of local shepards and a few foreign astrologers. In fact, so under the radar was His birth that – unlike King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who had probably a dozen empty rooms at his disposal to recuperate in – His parents had absolutely no place to deliver Him, and so He was born – for all practical purposes – outside in a space fit only for sheltering animals. And although I have never heard a recording of Him, unlike King George VI I am pretty sure that he never stuttered; He was –in fact- quite proficient at public speaking, beginning His first public speech by proclaiming: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” . As far as leadership advice goes, His differs considerably from Cleopatra’s – where Cleopatra traveled on a gilded barge with purple sails amid a cloud of incense attended by Ethiopian slaves, the Prince of Peace was the original practitioner of “servant leadership” before it was hip – admonishing his followers that in His Kingdom “the last shall be first”.

The Advent Season that is upon us is a season of paradox: the bright lights on short, dark days, warm festivities in the frosty weather, lions laying down with lambs, a virgin giving birth, and the King of all kings spending his first night on Earth sleeping not on the finest of linen dressed in a magnificent receiving gown of silk, but instead wrapped in strips of cloth and laying in a bed of straw in a trough from which animals had eaten. I know that this may sound cliché, but during this busy season – as we run from social functions, to shopping, to visiting with our family, friends and neighbors – lets us please not forget the reason for the season, and in anticipation for the birth of the Prince of Peace in less then two weeks, do some things that truly acknowledge this paradox: stop and talk with the homeless man we quickly pass by everyday and ask how their day has been, learn about the religions and cultures of our neighbors and coworkers – and deepen the knowledge of our own, ask a child what they hope for, and an elder about their memories of Christmases long ago – and really, really listen, consider the perspective of a person very different from our self, mend an old argument, pray for peace . In this way, we can be sure to prepare an appropriate warm and inviting place in our hearts where the King of kings can truly rest – both this Christmas and throughout the coming year!

A Blessed Advent to All!

“A Smile on my Soul”

Friday, October 1st, 2010

For many who work here at the Catholic Center at 1011 First Avenue and 56th Street to describe last week’s commute as a “challenge” would be an exercise in understatement. Every year at this time – because of the opening of the United Nations’ General Assembly – the area of the city were we work, known unofficially as “midtown east”, becomes a car-free zone for almost all but the important (or self-important) who are here in the city for the opening ceremonies; First Avenue transmogrifies into a corridor where the powerful, the famous and sometimes the infamous are ferried down past our building to the United Nations’ compound in Turtle Bay to the sound of blaring sirens and the honks of horns. All in all, to the native New Yorker – especially those who work in the general vicinity of the United Nations – the occasion is about as pleasant as root canal.

While I certainly share some of my fellow New Yorkers’ annoyance at this annual inconvenience, I have to admit that this year I feel just a little more tolerant of all the commotion caused by the visiting dignitaries; this is primarily because this year the United Nations dedicated its opening session to evaluating the world’s progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals: 8 specific 15 year goals dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the poor – including reducing hunger and cutting poverty in half, reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, providing universal primary education to all and reducing by ½ the number of people without drinking water -  that the developed nations of the world agreed to pursue back at the start of the new millennium, and the gathering at the United Nations this year was the world’s 10 year on “report card” on meeting these goals.

As someone who tries in his professional life to encourage the living out of the principles of Catholic social teaching (including a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable), I can hardly imagine the global body undertaking more important work, but all the more so because I have just recently seen with my own two eyes how policy vehicles like the “Millennium Development Goals” can have a real impact on the lives of our brothers and sisters in the developing world. You see, last week I returned home from just about one of the most incredible journeys I have ever been on – a 10 day visit to Africa with Catholic Relief Services to observe the work that they and their partners do in the countries of Ethiopia and Tanzania. The trip was extraordinary – not just for the breathtaking physical beauty of both the African flora and fauna (although they are beautiful!) – but more importantly for the people we encountered there: the fact that we were traveling with CRS gave us unprecedented access to meet the men, women and children in the villages and centers where CRS and its local partners do their work. Unlike the dignitaries that I mentioned earlier who hurry down avenues of power to their designated meetings, the roads that we traveled with CRS were pathways of solidarity – our destinations: embodiments of dignity whether we were visiting with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at the homes for the destitute and dying that they run in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, meeting with villagers at a Maasai Boma (encampment) in the Diocese of Same, Tanzania, or speaking with health care providers at an AIDS Relief Project in the Babati region of that same country.  What I witnessed in those places wasn’t just “a lot of talk” as those who assemble in that building in Turtle Bay down from our Offices are sometimes accused of; instead – though the hard work of CRS staff, their local partners and the people themselves – what I witnessed were the Millenniums Development Goals come to life, particularly in the provision of safe drinking water – overwhelmingly the most significant problem confronting the parts of Africa I visited and the thing that those we met requested the most – as well as assistance for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

One of the things that was most striking about those that we met on our trip – indeed about almost all of the people that we encountered in our travels – was the overwhelming friendliness and welcoming spirit of the African people. Whether we were traveling in the big cities of Arusha or Addis Ababa, or the rural villages of Dire Dawa or Same – in both the countries of Ethiopia and Tanzania – as you traveled down the road and waved at those that you passed by, adults and children alike, invariably your gesture would be returned with a broad smile and hearty wave. It was for me one of the most striking images I took away from my trip, perhaps because I hail from a place where everyone basically walks very quickly and avoids eye contact at almost all costs. So deep was this impression of welcome on me that when our hosts at CRS asked us on our last day to sum up our impressions of Africa a picture of a group of beautiful smiling children waving heartily formed in my mind and remains with me still, putting not only a smile on my face but – more poignantly and indelibly – on my soul as well.

Me in the Diocese of Same, Tanzania in the Maasai Region