Around 65 people attended the Caritas Networking Day at Upminster on Saturday to meet other parishioners and discuss responses to homelessness, migrants and refugees, the cost of living crisis and the environment, with representatives from the SVP, BCCS, Citizens UK, CAFOD and Your Place Anchor House.
Fr Dominic Howarth, Episcopal Vicar for Youth Ministry and Pastoral Care, grounded the meeting in Catholic Social Teaching, saying ‘we are all made in God’s likeness and image’. “Caritas,” he added, “is the helping hand of the Church, reaching out to the poor, vulnerable and excluded, to build a world based on justice and fraternal love.”
Caritas Diocese of Brentwood was launched for that very purpose by Bishop Alan in November 2018 and now has a passionate Director in Siân Thomas-Cullinan (below with Fr Dominic) who began her working life within the BCYS.
Bishop Alan, a keen runner in his youth, talked about an experience he had many years ago, while running on a beach in America at 5am. “As I approached I saw about 20 people rescuing a shoal of fish who had beached themselves by accident, amid a cloud of seagulls. Interestingly, those gulls were not feasting on the dying fish but fighting amongst themselves.”
He stopped to help get the fish back into the water but thoughts occurred to him subsequently. “Would I have stopped if I had been by myself? Probably not. And what would God’s point of view have been? Human beings see and experience all the time and make judgements of scale – ‘that’s big so is important’. But the Lord warns us against such judgements. In the eyes of God, the widow’s mite, for example, is worth the most. And there are other examples, the lost coin, the lost sheep. For God, the one lamb, the one person, you or I, are the only focus at that point. He is not distracted by the flock. So in your life and your work, don’t lose sight of God’s vision, God’s gaze. As St Ignatius said, we must see like God, judge like God and act with the mind of God. The one person falling off the boat is the one who matters to God.”
The meeting heard next from Raymond Friel, the head of the Caritas Social Action Network which was established by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in 2003 to develop the Church’s social action in the United Kingdom. Run by a small team, it has 54 charities as members, including Caritas Brentwood, and works to bring them together with common projects, support and networking. He said he was delighted to offer encouragement and affirmation of the volunteers present. He talked about his recent trip to Rome for the Caritas Internationalis General Assembly of 165 organisations from around the world: “I heard a church talking about the gospel, the needy, the poor, and advocating for a better world. Representatives from around the world, including Ukraine, Sudan and Yemen, talked about their work at the front line helping people who are suffering,” he said. The Assembly approved a vision of ‘a just world, transformed to reflect God’s kingdom, where all people in our common home experience the love, compassion and fullness of life’.
Pope Francis had much to say on this in Fratelli Tutti, he added. “Isolation and withdrawal into one’s own interests are never the way to restore hope and bring about renewal. Rather, it is closeness; it is the culture of encounter. Isolation, no; closeness, yes. Culture clash, no; culture of encounter, yes”.
That culture of encounter played out in the delegates’ meeting with Pope Francis, who jettisoned his speech to instead greet individually all those present, said Friel. It is also seen in many of the big themes of his papacy, including going out to the peripheries, compassion and combatting the destruction of our common home.
That destruction was vividly emphasised by a conversation with a Pacific islander from the Oceania grouping of Caritas who said ‘we are drowning and not because of the way we live’. Said Friel: “It is our lifestyle in the west, our insatiable appetite for growth and fuel and food which is to blame.”
He detailed current CSAN campaigns which focus on the cost of living emergency, a collaboration on Homes for Ukraine with St John of God Hospitaller Services (SJOG), and continuing opposition to the Illegal Migration Bill, which it sees as unjust. “CST doesn’t say open the borders – we need the balance – but at the moment we are not welcoming anyone.”
An interactive session on what poverty looks like followed, with the attendees bringing much insight to the discussion. Alongside the obvious lack of material needs such as food and heating, lack of security, dignity, agency, hope, friendship and purpose were mentioned. “Human misery is not just about material deprivation,” said Friel. “We need to befriend, share, accompany and participate with those in need, bringing their voice into the arena as an advocate for change. We must advocate for a more just world that doesn’t trap people in undignified poverty.”
Workshops on climate change, homelessness, refugees and migrants and the cost of living crisis followed before the attendees came together again. Siân thanked everyone who had attended and reminded them that Caritas Diocese of Brentwood is the point of contact if parishes have someone in need.