TRADITIONALLY in this country we keep the Friday of the first full week of Lent as Family Fast day. Our dedicated team of CAFOD volunteers will be speaking at all Masses this weekend about CAFOD’s work and the ways in which the money you generously give to our Catholic aid agency will be spent. I don’t want to duplicate that, but want simply to underline the theological importance of what we are doing. At a time when all aid agencies and other charities are under pressure we need to re-focus on what charitable giving to help people in poor countries is all about. Most of us didn’t stop going to Mass when we learnt about how children, young people and vulnerable adults have been abused by priests, nuns and others in the Church; why should we stop giving to OXFAM, Save the Children (partly founded by Pope Benedict XV) or CAFOD because of the crimes of some of their employees.
On Family Fast day the Church asks you to do something – to give something up, a luxury, a meal or something similar, and give the proceeds to CAFOD. Simple, specific and directive. In this country we are now asked to abstain from meat on Fridays anyway (unless we don’t eat meat, in which case it should be something else), so this act for the second Friday in Lent is something special and extra. Pope Francis in his Lent message this year (available HERE), part of which was read at some homilies last Sunday, reminded us of the link between fasting and the poor of the world. A very small experience of feeling hungry for a short time helps us to understand in a tiny way what it is like to be hungry for a long time – and we link this to trying to help them. CAFOD has an official and episcopally authorised place within our Church; it’s not simply another charity. Loyal Catholics support CAFOD.
In the years after CAFOD was founded in the early 1960s, Catholic aid charities all over the world got a big boost from Blessed Paul VI (who may well be canonised later this year). This was in 1967 when he published the first papal encyclical on world development, known by its Latin title, Populorum Progressio, ‘The progress of peoples’. This itself had been inspired shortly before by the first ever visit of a pope to address the United Nations, and the first ever visit of a pope to Asia (to India). This letter was so important that two of Pope Paul’s successors have marked the twentieth and fortieth anniversaries of its publication (St John Paul II and Benedict XVI). The pope very clearly placed the Church on the side of the poorest nations of the world: consequently it was warmly welcomed in the developing world, and criticised by some in the rich nations (The Wall Street Journal wrote that the encyclical ‘souped-up Marxism’ and it was attacked by right wing American Catholics). The letter can be downloaded from the Vatican website (click HERE), but here is a flavour of what Blessed Paul wrote:
‘We must repeat once more that the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the benefit of poor nations. The rule which up till now held good for the benefit of those nearest to us, must today be applied to all the needy of the world. Besides, the rich world will be the first to benefit as a result. Otherwise their continued greed will certainly call down on them the judgement of God and the wrath of the poor, with consequences no one can foretell…The world is sick. Its illness consists less in the unproductive monopolization of resources by a small number of men than in the lack of brotherhood among individuals and peoples.’
You can see why some people didn’t like it – and they still don’t. At the heart of the encyclical’s message is that inequality and injustice in the world are not inevitable: they are avoidable, because they are the result of human sinfulness. This is why this message is so important in Lent, when we try to overcome our sins and ask God’s forgiveness for our sins. Paul’s successors have repeatedly pointed out that things have not got better in the world since 1967 – John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have been forthright in their defence of the poorest nations of the world, in calls for more generous aid and trading policies, for more international regulation, and in challenging strongly the rich countries, including our own; and local bishops have taken this up effectively, here and else-where.
When we take part in Family Fast day and give to CAFOD, we don’t simply give money to help those who suffer in the world. We act in accordance with what our faith teaches us, and we link ourselves not only to those who suffer but to the vision of Blessed Paul.