‘Culture of encounter’ crucial in aiding poor

From Nov. 5-9, leaders from Catholic charities were set to discuss the “culture of encounter” preached by Pope Francis and how the pope’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) highlights the Church’s mission of charity.

The International Leaders Forum, held at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, was organized by Cross Catholic Outreach, a Florida-based relief organization, and Caritas in Veritate International, a confederation of Catholic institutions that recruits and mobilizes volunteers. James Cavnar, Cross Catholic Outreach’s president, talked about the forum and the relationship between helping the poor and evangelization.

Our Sunday Visitor: Explain the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis preaches about. How does it relate to charitable works, and how is this going to be addressed at the forum?

James Cavnar: The word “encounter,” or “culture of encounter,” has really become a dominant theme of Pope Francis’ teaching.

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he mentions it very often, touching the core of almost every subject whether it is humanism, or the poor, or the need for peace. He talks about encounter as a personal relationship; it begins with an encounter with God.

In Evangelii Gaudium, he states that because faith is a personal relationship with Jesus (and) it leads to a real experience of his love, we must do what Jesus does: form personal relationships with others. He especially highlights the way that applies to the poor. For example, in July [2013], during his trip to Brazil, he spoke especially about forming those personal relationships with what he called those “thrown away” — the elderly, the ill, the poor. He especially wants us as Christians to not just help at a distance, but he says “get your hands dirty” — get involved personally. 

(The pope) is looking for us to express the same kind of love we experience in our relationship with God and, like Jesus, form that kind of personal relationship with the most marginalized, the most poor. When we do that, and we hear the cry of the poor personally, we are deeply moved by the suffering of others.

In other words, it is one thing to read about it in the papers, it’s another thing to meet people, [to] become personally involved, personally related.

And then, he said, we become deeply moved and that compassion is what leads to charity, which is committed and transformative.

OSV: What are some of the objectives of this forum? 

Cavnar: One of them is to bring together representatives of Catholic charities from all over the world to share their experiences of this theme “encounter,” building relationships with the poor and integral ministry, so we can learn from one another. A second purpose is to strengthen our understanding and to create a stronger theological foundation for this approach.

Some of the lectures we will hear will get into more depth about what the pope means by “culture of encounter” and how that relates to charity. As the pope likes to say, everybody is a missionary disciple from the moment they become a Christian. And that includes works of charity. So our third goal is to hopefully inspire and educate the Church at large through the impact of this concept.

OSV: What is the relationship between charitable works and evangelization?

Cavnar: That would be a very strong theme of the forum. To give some perspective on why this is such an important theme, 40 or 50 years ago, there was a trend among Christian charities to downplay or eliminate the influence of their religious faith in their charitable work; but today, there has been a rediscovery that faith can contribute to a more lasting transformation of the poor — well beyond what material aid alone can achieve.

Back when Pope Benedict first became the pope, his very first encyclical was Deus Caritas Est, and that was the theme of it: charitable works that bring in-depth transformation of the poor. This is sometimes called holistic ministry or integral ministry. It’s a vision of charity that also involves ministering to people spiritually, sharing with them the love of God, the Gospel. What we desire for people is not just better lives materially, but a person becoming better, a family becoming whole, communities becoming transformed. We see that the greater impact comes when we have a ministry combining effective charitable ministry and appropriate evangelization.

OSV: When talking about the forum you have used the phrase “missionary disciples.” What do you think a missionary disciple looks like?

Cavnar: I think what the pope was trying to do was move us away from thinking of missionaries as being the professional clergy, and that means that everyone who becomes a disciple of Christ becomes a missionary. In Evangelii Gaudium, he spelled this out and gave the example of the Samaritan woman who, after having Jesus speak to her, immediately runs into the town and tells everybody about Jesus, and of St. Paul who, after his encounter with Jesus, started proclaiming him ... (The pope) says it does not take a lot of training, much time and ordination to become a missionary. To the extent that a person has experienced the love of God, a relationship with God in Christ, we can no longer say that we are just disciples, but we are also missionaries. After laying out these examples from Scripture, the pope concludes that section of Evangelii Gaudium by saying, “So what are we waiting for?”

OSV: Why is integrating the spiritual and practical important when helping the poor?

Cavnar: One of the reasons that I (was) asked to speak in this (forum) is because (Cross Catholic has) a worldwide experience of working with Catholic ministry. In the Philippines there is a ministry that we support called ANCOP (Answering the Cry of the Poor). They have been involved in building houses and transforming slums in the Philippines since 2004. They launched a movement over there that has inspired others to do the same ... .

But when we go there, they’ll tell you that if we don’t transform the minds and hearts of the people, we can build all the houses here and in three years it will all go back to being a slum. In fact, they have retreats, prayer groups, couples for Christ groups; they have groups for children, for adults that minister to them spiritually and build community and lead to relationships among the people. And the last step of the process is building the houses. ... When you visit, people tell me “before ANCOP came, it was every man for himself, dog eat dog, now we are a community; we have to cherish one another.”

OSV: How can people encounter Jesus in the poor?

Cavnar: There are two parts of that that are worth emphasizing. One has to do with Matthew 25 ... whatever you do for the least of our brothers, you do it for Jesus. When we are ministering to the poor, we are encountering Jesus — as Mother Teresa put it — “in the distressing disguise of the poor.” That part of the theme is that we as Catholics recognize that ministry to the poor is ministry to Jesus. The second part is that renewed understanding of the term “encounter” from Pope Francis, which means building personal relationships with these people — not just institutionally, but as a personal friend ... Because when that happens, it leads to a true compassion and a true dedication to relieve their suffering.

Maria-Pia Negro Chin writes from New York.