Forty Years at the Service of the Charitable Works of the Church
Cardinal Robert Sarah*


On 15 July, 40 years ago, Paul VI established the Pontifical Council 'Cor Unum'

On 15 July 1971, through the Apostolic Letter Amoris Officio, Pope Paul VI established the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. In celebrating these first 40 years of its existence, it is deserving to review the Council's important role in the Church, and even more so, to define its forthcoming major challenges.

Paul VI desired to establish this new Dicastery in a time when great changes were taking place in the Church and around the world. The years following the publication of the Encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967) and the Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971) emphasized the Church's ever-growing attention towards social issues, while Western culture experienced the protest against cultural models that were considered of the past and various interpretations of reality emerged, which did not exclude even the Church from damages. If, on the one hand, thanks to the Vatican Council that had restated the importance of the relationship between the Church and the humanity, enthusiasm for creating a world more attuned to man was well-accepted, on the other, it could easily deceive others into turning this earthly perspective into an absolute value. This could have caused a rift within the Church, concealing the evangelical witness and missionary zeal for a limitless exaltation of earthly realities. Hence, it was in a moment of doubt, when the nature of Christian witness in the world was being questioned, that Cor Unum was founded, a Dicastery that would serve to support the witness to charity in the Church by creating, within the Holy See, a meeting point, for dialogue and coordination among the many charitable organizations of the Church. Its name was not chosen by chance: the concept was taken from the passage in the Acts of the Apostles that describes the first Christian community, firmly committed to proclaiming the Word of God, to prayer and the exercise of charity (cf. Acts 4:32). This simple observation includes several indications: the Church's communion marks the starting point for the witness to charity; prior to being an "action", charity is a question of "essence"; the attention towards various members of the same body lives on the communion within the Church, in caring for one another (cf. 1 Cor 12.25); it is thanks to the communion of the Church that the intent of a more unified, stronger and more universal presence in the world unfolds. The Holy Father — convinced that he had thus complied with the votes of more than one Council Father — entrusted the newborn Pontifical Council, the first to bear this title, with the fundamental task of coordinating the efforts of the Church's charitable organizations, without however undermining their legitimate independence, as some had feared, and that the Pope would soon expressly state. The Council was intended to meet the growing needs of humanity by working together, under the direct inspiration of the Holy See. It is significant that even then Paul VI had identified the response to some of the misunderstandings that undermined the proper understanding of charity within the Church and that would unfortunately be confirmed in time: the witness to charity finds its measure in Christ. The search for justice does not fulfil the task of charity. Proclaiming the Gospel, which is not proselytism, is an integral part of charitable activity. Just how dear this new initiative was to Pope Paul VI (who, when Substitute to the Secretary of State, had already proved to be very sensitive to the issue of charity), is demonstrated by the fact that he wanted the new Dicastery to be headed by the then Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean Villot. The Dicastery's first Secretary was the tireless and respected Dominican, Fr Henri de Riedmatten: together they put together the first legal framework and guidelines for the Dicastery.

On 28 November 1978, just about one month after his election, Pope John Paul II met with the Dicastery for the first time. Significantly, already on that occasion, the Holy Father wanted to emphasize the relation between the Gospel and charity: "We must also take care to set advancement carefully in the context of evangelization, which is the fullness of human advancement, since it proclaims and offers man's full salvation" (Address of John Paul II to the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum", Plenary Assembly, 28 November 1978). From an institutional point of view, the Pope confirmed the decision of his Predecessor to join both Cor Unum and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace under one President in the same person —then Cardinal Bernardin Gantin. This choice was confirmed, both through the appointment of Cardinal Gantin's successor — Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, and through the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of 1988 regarding the Roman Curia.

However, this decision was later revised by the Pope himself, who in December 1995, nominated the then Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, now Cardinal, President of the Dicastery, thus becoming the first, so to say sole President of Cor Unum. During his Pontificate, Bl. John Paul II, increased the competences of Cor Unum, which already allocated donations in the Holy Father's name in cases of natural emergency situations, by entrusting it with two foundations that the Pope wanted in order to bear witness to the Holy See's concern for the numerous populations all over the world suffering from poverty, misery and natural disasters. The first one, the "John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel", was established during John Paul II's Apostolic Journey to Africa in 1980. This journey allowed him to observe the dramatic problems linked to drought and, consequently, poverty and hunger in the Sahel countries, which were threatened by the advancing desert. The Pope was so shaken that he wanted to convey a sign to the entire world of his care for the poor. Thanks to the generosity of German Catholics, in 1984 he established the Foundation, based in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), to help the populations of the nine countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Gambia and Cape Verde) plan and carry out initiatives to fight desertification and poverty, counting above all on the formation of individuals who would assume the responsibility for handling problems on site. Later, in 1992, on the occasion of the Fifth Centennial of the Evangelization of Latin America, the Pope wanted to establish a new foundation to demonstrate his concern for the poorest populations of that continent. Thus, the "Populorum Progressio" Foundation was created, its Secretariat based in Bogota in Colombia, dedicated to the promotion above all of the indios and campesinos of Central and South America. In addition to these more tangible signs, on numerous occasions the Pope asked that the Dicastery intervene in the case of crises: for example in Lebanon in 1988, Kuwait in 1991, Haiti in 1993 and the Ex-Soviet Union countries following the Fall of the Berlin Wall, with several meetings, which ended with a large conference held in the Vatican in 1998. Finally, in September 2004, through the Autograph Letter "During the Last Supper", John Paul II confirmed the Pontifical Council Cor Unum's task "of supervising and guiding" Caritas Internationalis, a network of almost 170 national Caritas offices that, on the initiative of the Holy See, in the 50s decided to establish an international coordinating authority to face the more severe international emergencies. In addition, the Dicastery also follows the activities of CIDSE (Coopération Internationale pour le développement et la solidarité), which instead coordinates at present 16 Catholic associations, which stem from the Lenten Campaigns mostly of Europe and North America. I would like to describe the relationship between these two networks and Cor Unum recalling that not only are we called to work together "through Christ, with Christ and in Christ", but also, particularly referring to the words that the current Supreme Pontiff pronounced to Caritas Internationalis: "the Holy See is also responsible for following its activity and exercising oversight to ensure that its humanitarian and charitable activity, and the content of its documents, are completely in accord with the Apostolic See and the Church's Magisterium, and that it is administered in a competent and transparent manner" (Address of Benedict XVI to the General Assembly of "Caritas Internationalis", 27 May 2011).

The fact that the Holy Father dedicated his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, to charity certainly bears great significance. Pope Benedict XVI, who understood that the absence of God is the most dramatic problem that torments and weakens modern culture, concurrently pointed out the path for rediscovering the way towards Him: God is Love/Charity and the Church's charity is a sign bearing an inalienable witness in order to help modern man to recognize, meet and love God, who is Love. The Holy Father's important outlook has in the past few years become more and more a source of inspiration for Cor Unum's activities. These activities do not deal only with manifesting the Holy See's compassion and closeness towards human beings in need, through concrete actions or specific initiatives: they deal with conveying this inspiration to evangelize towards all of the Church's pastoral works of charity. Charity is the means through which man may understand who God is.

Last 7 October the Holy Father appointed me President of Cor Unum, and after a few weeks he benevolently made me Cardinal. I have always interpreted this gesture as the Pope's special attention, not so much towards me, rather towards the world of charity of the Church, so important today as never before. Perhaps it is not by chance that he transferred me from the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples to Cor Unum, just as occurred with Cardinal Gantin: there is the coherence that consists precisely in the fact that our activities are nurtured by evangelical charity. Hence, the celebration of these first 40 years simultaneously marks the beginning of my service to this Dicastery of the Holy See. Of course I ask myself what the main challenges that we must face in the future are.

First of all, we must remain faithful to the principal intention manifested by Benedict XVI in his first Encyclical. If God is charity, then all the Church's pastoral exercise of charity must once, again be inspired by this source. There are many philanthropic initiatives, but the Catholic associations in this field have the edge on them: they manifest God, that same God who, through His Son, taught us what true charity is, that is the gift of Himself. This specific characteristic precisely brings to mind another important challenge: joining the Gospel and charity. The Gospel inspires charity, and charity bears witness to the Gospel. The Gospel justifies charity, and charity confirms the truth of the Gospel. The third challenge concerns the ecclesiastical dimension of charity. Benedict XVI taught that the Church is the subject of charitable activity (DCE n. 32), and for this reason Cor Unum must help to maintain unity in bearing the Church's great witness: this means supporting the relations of charitable organizations with Bishops and the Holy See. The fourth and most important challenge is the concern for human and Christian promotion, a "formation of the heart", always more suitable to the times of those who work in favour of charity throughout the Church. Therefore, we would like to repeat the experience of Spiritual Exercises on each continent, such as those already organized in America, Asia and Europe.

It is precisely this Christian inspiration that helps us to better understand the needs of the poor. Confirming the divine dimension of charity, and therefore its connection to evangelization, does not mean disregarding human poverty. Rather, on the contrary, it indicates deeply searching within the needs of man, as Paul VI affirmed in his Encyclical, Populorum Progressio (n. 21). It means looking to the heart of his pain, loneliness and state of abandonment, to then announce to him, at that point, the presence of Christ who loves him. Benedict XVI also stated: "Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God" (DCE n. 31). This too is the role of the Church and institutions of charity of the Church. I believe that this deep insight allows for the activities of the Church in this field to be so successful and so generally appreciated. For a society that often does not know Him, we can in this way allow others to concretely experience that God is Love and that He takes care of His children. Cor Unum carries out this mission through specific interventions in the name of the Holy Father, but above all by keeping the true meaning of the pastoral works of charity alive in the Church.

Next 11 November on the liturgical Memorial of St Martin of Tours, Cor Unum is organizing a meeting for the Bishops and those responsible for Catholic European volunteer organizations and the Holy Father. The assembly will take place in light of the "European Year of Volunteering" declared by the European Union. This will be an opportunity to confirm, together with our adherence to the Holy Father's Magisterium, the desire to become witnesses to the Gospel of Christ in the vast field of charity.

I entrust these first 40 years of activity and the mission of Cor Unum to the maternal guide of the Virgin Mary.

*Cardinal, President of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum"


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 July 2011, page 5

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