Serving the poor is a privilege, and hard work is required to earn that privilege, says Carolyn Y. Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. 

Carolyn Y. Woo has served as president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services since January 2012. CNS photo

“That would sum up my first year of learning,” said Woo, 58, who, on Jan. 1, 2012, became the seventh chief executive of CRS since the international relief organization’s founding in 1943. 

Woo, a Hong Kong native who previously served as dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor to reflect on her first year of leading CRS. 

“This is God’s humor. I know little about international relief compared to the rest of my colleagues,” Woo said. “On average, everybody has 15 years of experience, and I don’t yet have 15 months of experience.” 

“I bring new perspectives and organizational skills,” said Woo, who served on the CRS board of directors from 2004 to 2010. Her teaching and research areas include entrepreneurship, competitive strategy and organizational systems, including the study of why some organizations fail and others flourish. 

Woo is also a student of the Catholic Church’s social teaching, especially on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.  

Our Sunday Visitor: How do we get beyond the social justice vs. pro-life mindset? 

Carolyn Woo: In the Gospel, there was no separation between the social and moral teachings of the Church. I don’t know where the two things got separated, but we always go back to Scripture, and it’s not separated in Scripture. The Church’s teachings are about love, about love for the dignity and welfare of everyone, a respect for dignity and the sense that each human person is created by God, who calls us to respect life in all its phases and basic dimensions. 

OSV: What were your thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s Nov. 11 motu proprio “The Service of Charity,” which calls on bishops to strengthen the religious identity of Catholic charity organizations? 

Woo: I loved that motu proprio for several reasons. It reminds us that it is important to emphasize not just the humanitarian acts, but to remember that Christ is the foundation, the energy, the reason and being that allows us to do this work. 

In our fixed strategic priorities, the first one is mission and being faithful to the commitment of the bishops to live the Gospel, to make sure that dimension is really alive and vibrant and the touchstone of everything that we do. 

OSV: What were your thoughts on the clarification from Msgr. Giovanni Pietro Dal Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, who said that the motu proprio does not prevent Catholic charities from accepting government funding on the condition that the funding does not cause those charities’ actions to conflict with Church teaching? 

Woo: That guidance is very helpful to us. Here it is saying that anything that is specifically directed at actions which go against Church teaching, we cannot participate in those programs. 

Another reason why the motu proprio is important is the Holy Father clearly states the importance of local bishops in providing governance for charities in their dioceses. I think it makes it very clear that the authority for governance and guidance has to come from the local bishop. 

OSV: Local decision making, also known as subsidiarity, has been a constant theme thus far in your tenure at CRS. Why is that? 

Woo: In the last six to eight years, there has been an enhanced focus on subsidiarity in developing the capabilities of our local partners. There are multiple reasons why that is important. It’s the right thing to do. We want to make sure people who are closest to the problems are equipped to solve them. We want to build up the resilience and capabilities of local people to take hold of their own lives. 

OSV: What are some ways that subsidiarity is seen in CRS’ mission and work? 

Woo: In a lot of developing countries, a lot of people do not have great access to education. We work with our local partners to make sure that a lot more women are going to post-primary school, that more kids are going to school. People are becoming much better educated, and that helps them be ready to step up. 

A lot of development-work funding goes directly to local countries. We want our partner agencies to be competitive. We want them to be able to win these grants. 

In the process, it is important to build up the capability of those who have the wherewithal to address issues. Our goal is not to serve the same people over and over again with the same problem. Our goal, as we work with (aid) recipients, is how we can reduce the number of people who are vulnerable.  

OSV: What are some other important aspects of CRS’ mission programming? 

Woo: We focus on the poorest and most vulnerable because of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. For example, we work with small farmers. These are people who are very vulnerable. They live on a sustenance level. 

Second, integral human development is our operating philosophy. The Church defines that as serving the whole person, in every person, not just focusing on need, like housing, food or medicine. Our program is very comprehensive because we recognize the human person has multiple needs, and that includes education, earning a livelihood, sanitation, medicine and shelter. 

We also make sure that people have access to the spiritual assets that they need, whether it is a prayer shawl or a prayer book. We serve on the basis of need, not on the basis of creed. 

A third thing is our programming that focuses on families. A lot of agencies focus on just children or women. In our programming, we actually focus on the family. For example, we have a program called “Faithful House,” that is to move in and work with couples in cultures with a lot of promiscuity to help them understand what fidelity is about, why it is important and how to practice that. 

A fourth thing to mention is our partners are very important to us. We work with 1,250 partner organizations around the world in about 100 countries. Our preferential partners are the Catholic institutions. It could be the episcopal conference, agencies like Caritas or religious orders. It’s very important to us that we practice good partnership principles, that we demonstrate respect, that we improve the capacity of our local partners and that they become better as they work with us. 

OSV: What is something new we can expect from CRS in 2013? 

Woo: Our Operation Rice Bowl program is being renamed CRS Rice Bowl. We have redesigned the program. It will have well-designed learning resources to engage people to understand the three themes of Lent, which are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. We are also building online resources and interactive family events. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.