April 11, 2014

Mysteries of God, neighbor, self shape mission of CRS

Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, responds to a question from an audience member on March 25 after the talk she delivered on “God, Neighbor, Self” at Marian University in Indianapolis for the school’s Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies speaker series. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, responds to a question from an audience member on March 25 after the talk she delivered on “God, Neighbor, Self” at Marian University in Indianapolis for the school’s Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies speaker series. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Carolyn Woo is an appropriate person to speak on the topic of “God, Neighbor, Self.”

As president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) for the last two years, the Catholic woman gives of herself every day to serve God in poor and suffering neighbors around the world. CRS is the international aid agency of the U. S. bishops.

“We are in 101 countries helping over 100 million people,” Woo said to the approximately 300 people who came to hear her speak. Her talk on March 25 at Marian University in Indianapolis was part of the school’s Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies speaker series.

“We go wherever there is a need, regardless of creed. We don’t go where there are Catholics—we go because we are Catholic. We go where need and suffering are intense.”

After touching on the works of CRS, Woo addressed the “three mysteries” of God, neighbor and self.

“We live our whole lives trying to discover what those three mysteries are, gaining deeper and deeper understanding,” she said. “The two greatest commandments join those three [components]: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Woo identified 10 things she has “come to recognize in doing this work” of international development and crisis relief:

  1. If God is in our neighbor, then he is in everyone we meet. “ ‘There is no mere mortal.’ We all have divine in us, every person,” she said, quoting author C.S. Lewis.
  2. Every encounter with a neighbor is an invitation to serve. “I read in a book from a Notre Dame theologian that when you give alms to the poor, the hand of the poor is the altar of God.”
  3. Faith requires us to act. “Our faith is not a good intention, good emotion or just a feel good thing. Our faith calls us to work. Pope Francis has been emphasizing this.”
  4. When we do take action, we’re participating in God’s miracle of allowing life to flourish. “Every day we see children who would otherwise die” without our help.
  5. Because we’re doing God’s work, we don’t have to worry—the work doesn’t depend solely on us. “Our job is to do what you can. You don’t have to do it all.”
  6. Our work comes from God’s abundance, not from scarcity. “The God that we serve is a very generous God. When he sent Peter to fish, the fish nearly broke the net.”
  7. The call of Christ to serve the poor is directed to everyone. “I don’t think everyone has to go to Madagascar or Somalia—I haven’t been to Somalia yet. We may play different parts, but we’re all called.”
  8. In the final judgment, we won’t be separated good from evil, but rather by those who chose wisely and those who chose poorly. “When we make a choice for [God], we make a choice for our neighbor.”
  9. Every act of giving is actually an act of thanksgiving. “It’s an act to recognize our gratitude for what God has given us.”
  10. “It is a mystery that God is in us and our neighbor all at the same time.”

In answer to a question from the audience, Woo shared her journey of how she came to be head of Catholic Relief Services.

She described how she immigrated to the U. S. from China to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“I came with one year of tuition and no buffer,” she admitted.

She went on to obtain bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Purdue. She worked in administration there, rising to the level of associate executive vice president for academic affairs.

Woo left Purdue to become dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. She held that position for more than 14 years. Under her watch, the school was ranked “number one in the country, and number one in ethics,” she said.

In 2011, a selection committee asked Woo, who was then a board member for CRS, to consider being a candidate for the position of president and CEO of the organization.

“At first, I thought it was a joke,” she said. “I thought I was just their diversity candidate.”

She spoke with her spiritual director, a priest at Notre Dame, who gave her wise advice about discerning her answer.

“He told me, ‘Pray, and carry a piece of paper with you. When thoughts come to you, jot them down.

“ ‘Pay attention to your joys and fears. It’s not pros and cons—it’s joys and fears. And it will come to you. It’s not hard, but it takes time,’ ” Woo quoted the priest.

She said in time she did have insights identifying her fears, particularly her fear of not having a background in international development.

“I suddenly realized it was clear to [the selection board] that I knew nothing about international development. That was not why they wanted me. It must be for something else.”

She did agree to be a candidate, and began her role with CRS in January of 2012.

One member of the audience asked Woo if statistics showed an increase in natural disasters.

Her answer was an unhesitating “yes.”

“And the projections are that we will see more severe natural disasters in coasts and in urban areas,” she added.

When asked if she ever got depressed by the tragedies she sees, Woo said, “Absolutely not.

“We serve a common good, and it’s a privilege. We want Catholics to be out there in the world. We want our friendship and presence known.

“The poor deserve our best.”
 

(The next and final speaker for this semester’s Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies speaker series is Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin. The topic will be “The Catholic Church: Catalyst for, or Obstacle to a Better World?” He will speak at Marian University, 3200 Cold Spring Road in Indianapolis, from 7-9 p.m. on April 16. To register, log on to www.marian.edu and click on “register now.”)

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