October 27, 2016

Cardinal Theodore E.  McCarrick is the archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Washington, which he led from 2001 until 2006 after previously serving in New York City, Puerto Rico and New Jersey. Cardinal McCarrick has been a strong advocate for the poor. His ministry focused on education, vocations and meeting the needs of new immigrants, particularly in the Latino communities.

In recent years he has frequently assisted the Vatican with international diplomatic, humanitarian, interreligious, human rights and religious freedom missions. On Oct. 27, 2016 Cardinal McCarrick will be presented with Catholic Extension’s third Spirit of Francis Award at a dinner in New York City. 

Throughout your life, you have been a strong proponent of the presence of the Church among the poor. What are the roots of your commitment?

I was a child of the Depression. My father died when I was 3, so my mother had to work in a factory in the Bronx to provide for the family.

One day she took me with her to visit an uncle who had a good job. She asked him for five dollars for food. That was hard for my mother. We got the money, but I remember her being so embarrassed by it. It was what she had to do to feed her child and herself.

At a young age I became conscious of the fact that there are people who don’t have enough food, who can’t bring up their children properly and who don’t have an adequate job. It made me aware of the suffering of want as well as the suffering from a lack of self-respect. And thank God I haven’t lost that consciousness.

When I first became an auxiliary bishop in New York under Cardinal Cooke, he sent me to Harlem, where I worked in our African-American Catholic parishes and schools. The Catholics there taught me so much about coping with poverty and trying to live a good life. It was a great blessing for me. 

Pope Francis asks us to “go to the peripheries.” What does that mean to you?

In Harlem I got to know many poor families. After a while you realize that there are those you see and those you don’t. And the ones you don’t see aren’t just living in the worst neighborhoods; they are hidden in many different living situations.

As a Church we have to make sure that our priests, our parishes and our agencies reach out to the invisible poor. Those are the people that the Holy Father talks about when he tells us to go out to the periphery.

There’s a periphery in every country, in every city and in rural areas as well. There are so many rural poor people. People tend to think of farmlands as being very peaceful and that people there can take care of themselves. That’s certainly not always true, and that is one of the reasons why we need Catholic Extension.

You have served the Church in New York City, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. What can Catholics in these heavily Catholic areas learn from America’s “home missions”?

In our major cities we have churches every few blocks. So it’s often not until we go on vacation to an area where there are no Catholic churches that we become aware that that’s not the reality for many other American Catholics. We often don’t think about what it takes to try to deliver the essentials of Catholic life to people in poor, rural and remote areas.

This can be a wake-up call for those of us who are so greatly blessed with an abundant presence of Catholic churches and communities where we live.

Rural Catholics have much to teach us. Catholics who don’t have the same easy access to churches and priests and for whom it can be much harder to practice their faith can inspire us not to take our faith for granted. They show us the importance of taking our Catholic faith seriously and making sure that it is available to all. 

Catholic Extension has made Hispanic lay leadership development a strategic priority. Both in Newark and Washington, you founded institutes to address that need. How did you make that happen?

Whenever anything happens that is extraordinary or whenever a solution is found that seems to meet the challenges of the time perfectly, it is not done by accident nor by anybody’s goodness or brilliance. It is done by the Lord.

I feel that is what happened in the Archdiocese of Newark and then again in Washington because the Lord gave us the right answer and made it happen.  

How great it is that God knows our needs and looks out for us so wonderfully. I can take no credit for the good things — and when bad things happened, it was usually because I was too blind to see the way forward that the Lord had made for us. When we humbly and confidently turn to the Lord in our need, God can and will put it together for us. This He does, not just because He loves us but because He loves the people we are trying to serve.  

Catholic Extension is looking forward to honoring your service to the Church with the Spirit of Francis Award in late October. What is your main message to Extension and its donors?

I would simply like to reinforce Pope Francis’ message, who urges us to strive not just to know and love each other from a distance but to truly encounter each other.

That is also the spirit of St. Francis: It is not enough for us to preach from afar but rather to preach by the way we live our lives in recognition that everyone is our neighbor.

We have to want for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. The Golden Rule is the rule of the Gospel and the teaching of the Lord. We cannot just proclaim great ideas from the mountaintop. We have to “get down to where the people are,” as Pope Francis would say.

And they are in the mines, in the fields, in the cottages — wherever they are living and striving to raise a family and live a good life. And that is not only the spirit of St. Francis and Pope Francis; it is also the spirit of Catholic Extension. Work with and love each other. Get to know and help each other.

The Holy Father is doing that more than anything else by the way he lives his own life and by the way he touches the lives of all of us. That is my message. 

Banner Photo: Paul Haring | Catholic News Service 

Small photo: Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters | Catholic News Service 

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