By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published June 21, 2007
As he arrived in Atlanta to address the 2007 Eucharistic Congress, Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga had just been elected the new president of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based confederation of Catholic relief and development agencies.
In an interview between his presentations to Spanish-speaking and English-speaking audiences at the congress, Cardinal Rodríguez, 64, smilingly acknowledged that he was elected to this new role by Caritas delegates at a meeting in Rome June 5 that he was not even able to attend because of meetings with Latin American bishops.
He sees the election as a call from the Lord, he said. “It is a lot of more work, but I think it is necessary.”
On the recent visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Brazil, where he addressed the bishops of Latin America, the pope gave the bishops a “new task,” which also can be applied to those in Caritas, Cardinal Rodríguez said.
The pope said Latin America has been a “continent of hope,” and he called the bishops to transform it into a “continent of love.”
The pope’s visit “was really a big blessing,” the cardinal said, and the response of the people to Pope Benedict XVI “was beautiful,” in particular when he visited a religious center where drug addicts are recovering. “He was moved deeply by the witnesses he heard there.”
The cardinal archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said many people identify Caritas with charity extended to those in need following natural disasters around the world. This, he said, “is the smallest part” of their work.
“The main goal is … educating Christian people in the practical living of charity. We are called to be a community of love. To develop love is to educate for human promotion.”
The Catholic Church recognizes that helping poor nations develop contributes to lasting peace, Cardinal Rodríguez said, and he will make development a priority for Caritas.
Pope Paul VI “said 40 years ago the new name of peace is development. Forty years have passed, and we still have no development,” Cardinal Rodríguez said.
“My pledge will be to ask the international community to help the nations of Latin America with authentic projects of development—not only (with) loans that sometimes go into the wrong hands.”
He is the first cardinal from Honduras, named by Pope John Paul II in 2001, and he serves as head of the Honduran bishops’ conference. He was once vice president of Caritas Honduras and has a long history of being an outspoken champion of human rights and the poor.
In Honduras, about 400 priests minister to nearly 5 million people, Cardinal Rodríguez said, but 30,000 lay men and women serve as catechists who teach Scripture and the Catholic faith and bring Communion to areas where priests can come only two or three times a month.
Additionally, many sons of these catechists are now entering the seminary and studying for the priesthood. There are now 200 seminarians where there were only 14 three decades ago.
After enduring civil war in the 1980s, the country was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 but is recovering with international assistance. Also, a portion of its international debt, which was costing Honduras $400 million annually in interest payments alone, has been cancelled by a group of developed countries under a structured program intended to allow those funds to be used to develop the country.
Still the first source of income in Honduras is “family remittances” sent to Hondurans by their relatives living and working out of the country, primarily in the United States. He said there may be 400,000 Hondurans in the United States.
Speaking gently, Cardinal Rodríguez said if he could talk to people in the United States about immigrants working here he would say, “mainly the people who come from our countries are good people, they are people of faith. They are not criminals or a threat to the security of this beautiful country.”
They are searching for employment they cannot find at home and sending most of what they earn to help their families in Honduras, he said. “People work hard in construction, outside. I see the hands and the skin of many of our people destroyed by the sun. They are becoming older. They send much of their money back home.”
“The poor are supporting the poor,” he said. “It is a beautiful Christian sign. It is not necessary to build walls. It is necessary to extend hands.”
He spoke a “word of encouragement especially to Hispanics, not to be sad or in fear.”
“The church is always a mother that receives everyone. I know the Archdiocese of Atlanta is receiving them,” Cardinal Rodríguez said. “ (I) encourage them not to lose the faith but to work hard and to be good in every aspect.”