Are you as startled as I am by these facts from UNICEF’s report on The State of the World’s Children 2005?
* 90 million children are severely food-deprived
* 640 million children do not have adequate shelter
* 400 million children do not have access to safe water
* 270 million children have no access to health-care services
* 140 million children have never been to school
I share these facts and figures with you because I would like to invite you to take part in a very special Diocese of Rochester initiative to thrust ourselves fully into these issues over the next two years — for the sake of children here and everywhere. It is important you understand the magnitude of the problem and why it is critical that we all participate as best as we can.
Like most statistics, these are numbing — cold, hard facts and figures that obscure the individual tears that must fall daily from the eyes of those in suffering.
But close your own eyes for a moment and try to picture real human faces in your mind’s eye. Perhaps you, like me, can imagine the faces of the children who hunger daily in Africa, or the maimed victims of bombings in the Middle East or in other hot spots of violence that tragically dot our world.
Now come closer to home. Picture the faces of poverty in what the Catholic Campaign for Human Development calls the largest “state” in our country:
“With nearly 36 million residents, ‘Poverty USA’ is the largest state in America. Today, 12.9 million children — 1 in 6 — live in poverty. Yet a recent Gallup poll found that only 5 percent of Americans believe poverty and homelessness are important problems for the country,” the CCHD states.
Sadly, the problem of children at risk is getting worse, not better.
Consider the words of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan earlier this month.
“I know you will not accept a world where others die of hunger, remain illiterate and lack human dignity,” Mr. Annan said on the eve of September’s General Assembly summit of world leaders to discuss child poverty. “Today, there are almost 3 billion people in the world under the age of 25. More than half a billion of them live on less than $2 a day. More than 100 million school-aged children are not in school. Every day, almost 30,000 children die of poverty. And 7,000 young people become infected with HIV/AIDS.”
In our own state, in our own diocese, and likely in your own community, children suffer the deprivations of poverty, of inadequate or no medical insurance, of hunger.
What are we to do? What are we called to do by our faith?
Jesus gave us clear examples. “Whoever receives one child in my name receives me,” the Lord says in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ ministry in embracing “the little ones” and the church’s long tradition in serving the needs of children must frame our response as a moral mandate rooted in Gospel values and Catholic social teaching.
Certainly, we must continue to support financially — locally and beyond our own community — Catholic-run and other agencies that are working to ease the suffering and provide for the world’s children.
But we must do more than write checks. We must try to better understand the situation and its causes, including whether government officials are properly prioritizing and addressing the issues through adequate resources. We also must bolster our prayers for these unfortunate children with knowledge and action.
To this end, the diocese’s Public Policy Committee is initiating a two-year effort of education, actionand examination of our local, state and federal policies addressing the needs of children. One major goal of the initiative is for individuals to connect in a personal way with the issues and, more, with the people affected. Further information and guidance will be forthcoming from the Public Policy Committee.
As the program unfolds, I encourage you individually, in small groups and as parish communities to embrace this initiative for the sake of the children. Included in the effort will be such activities as special liturgies and a “Children’s Sabbath” to pray for and support children at risk; special Advent “giving trees” aimed at connecting us to the families of children who benefit so greatly from your kindness; and parish involvement in programs intended to help families in need to apply for and obtain the financial and other assistance available through government and private programs.
In your own home, you might encourage family discussion of how each of us can learn more about the issues and about our own ability to assist through prayer, advocacy, volunteering and fundraising.
Above all, do not be discouraged by the magnitude of problems facing the children of the world — and in our own community. Do not give up or — worse — become anesthetized because the problems seem insurmountable. Do not think your help is insignificant. It is not, especially if it is pooled with the work of others as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Together, as church, we can do much to help children at risk, anchoring all our hopes in Christ Jesus. We must trust in the incredible strength of the Eucharist and the synergy of our community of believers to inspire and re-energize us for the hard work we must do as Christians to repair our world, find new solutions for these children God has entrusted to our care.
Only a few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI talked about that very idea.
“The loving attention of Christians to those in difficulty and their commitment to a more supportive society are continually nourished by active and conscious participation in the Eucharist,” he said. “Anyone nourished with the faith of Christ at the Eucharistic Table assimilates his same style of life, which is the style of service especially attentive to the weakest and most underprivileged persons.”
In 1991, the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued the statement Putting Children and Families First. “Our nation is failing many of our children. Our world is a hostile and dangerous place,” my brother bishops and I wrote then.
Tragically, the situation may be worse now. But like Kofi Annan, I do not accept this as the normal course for our world. I know you don’t either. Let us together see what we can do to begin to make things right, even if we must chip at this problem one child and one family at a time.
Peace to all.