Speaker discusses CRS transformation

Gregory Doyle

Michael Weist’s “Solidarity Will Transform the World: History, Catholic Social Teachings and Organizational Development at Catholic Relief Services,” showcased the organizational transformation of Catholic Relief Services over the last 60 years as part of the Oscar Romero Lecture Series on Wednesday, Feb. 11.

The series promotes solidarity and social justice, causes to which Romero dedicated his life, according to Dr. Sally Scholz, a philosophy professor at Villanova.

Weist is the executive vice president of Marketing and Fund Development and has worked for CRS since 1973. He has been based in Africa, serving as both a country representative and regional director of East Africa for over a decade.

CRS was originally War Relief Services, founded in 1943 to provide aid to distressed European countries.

“The American Catholic community was very worried about their families back in Europe who were suffering from World War II,” Weist said. “They pressed their bishops to do something.”

The first CRS project assisted Polish refugees in Iran. After the Soviet Union defeated the German Nazis, they rescued the Polish Holocaust victims, only to take them to the Katyn forest to murder them.

“Bedraggled men, women and children walked out of slave labor, behind the Iron Curtain across Persia,” Weist said. “CRS provided food, clothing, and medicine, and then they had to find a home for [the Poles.]”

Some were resettled in South Africa, Tanzania, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and San Diego. However, President Roosevelt was hesitant to allow them in the country. The world did not know about the Katyn massacre, and he feared that the refugees’ presence would spark anger toward the Soviet Union and an opposition against the war efforts.

The CRS helped the refugees resettle in an organized village in Mexico.

By 1945, War Relief Services became Catholic Relief Services.

“We acknowledged both the Catholic and American aspects of our identity,” Weist said.

The CRS opened offices in Paris only two weeks after they were liberated in 1945. They spread to Rome in 1950, after Italy was freed from the Fascists.

“There wasn’t a lot of competition,” Weist said. “We were on God’s side.”

The most enduring and important partnership CRS established, though, was with Mother Theresa, according to Weist. Eileen Egan, who helped the displaced Polish refugees in Mexico, met Mother Theresa in 1955 and introduced her to services in the United States.

CRS witnessed a rapid expansion over the next decade.

The organization recognized the dire need for aid in Africa and its European efforts transcended to other continents.

“European countries were asked to return to pre-World War city-states,” Weist said. “Yet, Africans suffered from slavery and colonialism. They were abused as pawns during the Cold War. They were being asked to step into European city-states that were inconsistent with the tribe and culture of their country.”

CRS acknowledged that they needed to get better, according to Weist. Competition rose and standards got higher, but CRS held an advantage over all the other emerging American organizations.

“We had the natural network and a family relationship with the Church,” Weist said.

About 70 percent of all AIDS assistance in Africa is provided by the Church, according to Weist, and CRS provides programs in education, food and nutrition and major emergencies, such as tsunamis and floods.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, though, federal aid in Africa was eliminated.

“American foreign aid is driven by foreign policy, and that was turbo-charged by the Truman Doctrine,” Weist said. “[After the Soviet Union fell,] there was no geopolitical need to assist Africa. During the Cold War years, the U.S. Government and the Soviets provided security assistance to the poor countries and suppressed tribal, economic and religious hostilities.”

Members of CRS were personally affected by the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Many of the staff married Rwandans, and five CRS staff members were slaughtered.

It was during this time that CRS lost its way, according to Weist.

“Not only are we an American organization, we are a catholic organization,” Weist said. “We were focused on socioeconomic success. What came out of that suffering, though, was a belief that we had to recapture our Catholic identity. We researched Catholic social teachings and revisited every aspect of Catholic programming.”

In 1994, Ken Hackett became president of CRS, knowing how daunting the job would be.

However, he recognized the necessity of CRS and the internal changes that needed to be made within the organization.

CRS reestablished their vision statement to promote the Catholic aspect of the organization. With every endeavor it assumes, CRS asks, “How is this program promoting the common good?”

Weist presented two lectures on Wednesday, the latter explaining how college students can get involved in CRS.

The Oscar Romero Lecture Series will continue until April 15. Villanova will be hosting three more speakers as a part of the series, with the next one occurring on Feb. 18, according to the Villanova Center for Peace and Justice Web site.

“The big idea here is that as human beings we are not only sacred, we are social,” Weist said. “We work out the fullness of our humanity with relationships.”