By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 28, 2006
Less than a century ago in 1910 when Catholic Charities agencies across the country formed into a national network, 75 percent of American Catholics were immigrants and the majority lived in poverty, said Catholic Charities USA president Father Larry Snyder.
The priest visited Catholic Charities of the Atlanta Archdiocese Aug. 18 and gave an overview of the history and mission of the national network, which now has 50,000 employees.
Ninety years ago the focus was largely to help immigrants “to acclimate to a new culture, but also find a way to get jobs and an education. That’s what we were doing back then. … When we were serving the immigrants, we were serving a church that primarily lived in poverty.”
Catholic Charities USA formed to promote solidarity among the agencies and ensure professional practices in their services and to “be an attorney to the poor” who had no voice. This focus on the poor was “not something that just happened at Catholic Charities but has been there since the beginning,” Father Snyder said.
Catholic University of America established a national school of social work in the 1930s. By the middle of the 20th century Catholics had established themselves in the middle class, and a study was conducted in 1972 to refocus Catholic Charities USA.
“What the Cadre Study did was to bring us back to the fundamental mission to serve those who are most in need, the most vulnerable, those who live on the margins. … They identified service, convening and advocacy as three marks we have to address ourselves to,” he said.
That Catholic identity and mission was reaffirmed for the new century through a series of meetings. Leaders formulated the Vision 2000 mission given to the church by Christ to proclaim the sanctity of human life and dignity of every person through help to individuals, families and communities to meet their needs, eliminate oppression and advocate for just social structures to build a just and compassionate society. One element of Catholic social teaching is that the poor participate in their own recovery from poverty and do not just receive a handout.
Father Snyder told some of the 82 attentive Atlanta Catholic Charities employees, wearing new hunter green CC polo shirts, that the organization traces its roots to 12 Ursuline Sisters who journeyed from Paris to “New France,” or New Orleans, in 1727. “They began an orphanage, school, hospital and outreach to women of the street. In that you see the germ of what will become the Catholic Health Association. Catholic hospitals are the largest private health association in the U.S. And the Catholic school system, which is the largest private education system in this country, and Catholic Charities—depending on who’s doing the survey and if you keep it apples to apples—could be the largest human services network in this country,” said the former director of Catholic Charities for Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Father Snyder believes that the organization was at its finest in workers’ immediate response to Hurricane Katrina and in raising over $162 million for relief and recovery; the second largest collection was $31 million after Sept. 11, 2001.
“We did what I think Catholic Charities does so well, to jump in and do it and figure it out later,” he commented.
Although in past disaster situations its role was to come in after the first month to provide long-term support, CCUSA couldn’t wait in the face of such massive need.
“All at once, all of us were called to be emergency responders,” he said, and “one of the most amazing things is the generosity of the people.”
CCUSA this month issued a report on its Web site that provides overview information of local agencies’ related activities and how donations and other funding are being used. In the first six months after Katrina, CC agencies helped almost 200,000 people with over $16 million in direct cash assistance, provided over 60,000 people with case management and counseling services, and helped almost 500,000 people identify and connect with a wide range of services provided by CC and other agencies.
Of the money raised, most has already been allocated or earmarked for hurricane relief. “You just do it. Next time it happens, we’re going to know a lot more, but the fact is that we jumped in and did it and really helped people whose lives were just devastated by this. … It was an amazing thing, and it was our finest hour as a network because the devastation was so great, and yet every community responded to the extent they needed to,” Father Snyder said.
In Atlanta, Catholic Charities was honored with a Phoenix Award by the city of Atlanta for its Katrina relief work. Catholic Charities in New Orleans last month opened a service center in the Ninth Ward, one of the most devastated areas, which “is a very strong statement about how when we go in, we’re there to help rebuild communities,” he said.
CCUSA is now focused on continuing to support struggling evacuees. In Congress they are advocating for better coordination and communication among service providers during disaster response “because it was not very good after Katrina.” Another focus is to relax some of the restrictions on the use of government commodities during an emergency and on how “we can’t forget the poor and vulnerable because they were forgotten in many relief efforts. Even now in relief efforts nobody is talking about them and how to get them back if they want to go.”
Depending on local needs, Catholic Charities services around the country range from legal clinics, refugee resettlement and immigrant services to adoption, daycare and parenting support programs.
“Some things don’t change, like our commitment to the most vulnerable never will,” he said.
Located in Alexandria, Va., the national office helps its member agencies in their mission to serve people in need by providing a national voice, networking opportunities, training and consulting, program development and financial benefits. The Catholic Charities network was ranked in December 2005 as the second largest nonprofit in the country, according to The Nonprofit Times, which publishes the oldest annual ranking of charities in the country. The 2004 combined revenue of the network was $3.189 billion, and nearly 90 percent of these funds were spent on programs and services, making it one of the nation’s most efficient charities. In that same year it raised $580 million in private support. About 80 percent of the donor base has always been Catholic.
Catholic Charities of Atlanta, formerly known as Catholic Social Services, celebrated its 50th anniversary on Sept. 26, 2003, and assists over 12,000 clients annually. Programs include Pregnancy, Parenting and Adoption; Village of St. Joseph Counseling Services; Parish & Social Justice Ministry; Immigration Services; Migration and Refugee Services; Emergency Assistance Program; and Community Outreach Centers in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties and in Athens, Dalton and Gainesville. The local budget is roughly $5 million.
The CCUSA president said that leaders in Washington often come to the organization to get data about how national policies are affecting communities across the country, such as whether outreach centers are experiencing an increase in clients seeking food assistance.
“When people in Washington are starting to look at policies and situations, they will call Catholic Charities because they know we are on the ground in almost every community across the country,” he said.
Father Snyder praised Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical entitled “Deus Caritas Est” for expressing that charity is an integral manifestation of faith.
“The Holy Father says unequivocally that the church’s deepest nature is expressed in its threefold responsibility—proclaiming the word, celebrating the sacraments and exercising the service of charity,” he said. “The pope said that (the church) can’t neglect the service of charity any more than it can neglect the sacraments and the word.”
It affirms that service providers must be professional, but “you need a formation of the heart so that every person who comes to you for services you are approaching with dignity and respect and in a way that enhances their lives,” Father Snyder said.
The nonprofit, with more than 1,700 local agencies and institutions nationwide, served more than 7.1 million people last year regardless of religious, social or economic background. The smallest agency with a staff of one is in Minnesota, and the Brooklyn Diocese has a $477 million budget. He stressed that “inclusive is a key word” and that 50 percent of employees nationally are not Catholic. Some dioceses have non-Catholic board members too. Some are surprised to learn that about 60 percent of their money overall comes from the government.
“We are faith-based, but we also operate as community-based so that people we work for represent the communities we serve as well; that’s been a huge thrust,” he said. “Our actions are our evangelization. ”