“This is the real mission of Caritas: to help people know they are not forgotten”. The new President of Caritas Internationalis, Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo, Japan, thus described the Church’s charitable confederation, soon after the 400 delegates at Caritas’ 22nd General Assembly elected him to a four-year term on Saturday, 13 May. In an interview with Vatican Media, the Archbishop shared his hopes for his new mission, as well as a message for the countless volunteers who manifest God’s love in concrete acts of service.
Your Excellency, in your new role as President of Caritas Internationalis, what goals do you have for this mission?
Caritas Internationalis, or the Caritas organization itself, is the second biggest humanitarian aid agency in the world after the Red Cross International. So it is well known as a professional ngo offering assistance to people in difficult situations. But actually, it is not only that we are an ngo, but we are much more than that. We are a Catholic Church organization, and the institute of the service of the Church. So, that means that Caritas is supposed to be a witness of the love of God. What we do is not only provide food or materials or any kind of assistance, but rather we want to be witnesses of the love of God to show people that this is how God loves all people.
One of your focuses during this General Assembly has been on the forgotten people, the people that are missed by other organizations. How does Caritas reach out to them?
I would draw on my own experience as a Caritas volunteer. In 1995, I was a volunteer of Caritas Japan, and was sent to the refugee camp in Rwanda, in Bukavu, Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo, ed.]. There I met a number of refugees. Of course, everything was missing. They had no food, no clothing, no shelter, and people were in need of everything. Then, the second time I went to the camp, I met some of the leaders and asked them what they needed. And I was expecting the leaders to tell me that ‘we need food, we need education, we need medication, we need shelter’ — or something like that. In other words, a long list of their needs. But rather than that, he said, ‘Father, you come from Japan. So, when you go back to Japan, tell them that we are still here: we are all forgotten’. And that really shocked me. After that experience, I met so many people in different areas, in different countries struck by disaster, or people in war-torn or conflict areas. I heard the same story and the same cry again and again, that ‘we are forgotten; we are forgotten’. So, this is the real mission of Caritas: to help people know they are not forgotten. We want to be with them. Of course, we provide professional assistance, but at the same time we want to tell them that we are always with them. We are always working with them; we are always remembering them. Nobody will be excluded; nobody will be forgotten.
You yourself were a missionary priest as well, besides being a volunteer. How will that inform your mission?
I belong to the Divine Word Missionaries, the svds. After my ordination in 1986, I was sent to Ghana, in West Africa. There I was sent to a ‘bush’ parish, deep in the bush, without electricity, without water. I was there for seven years as a parish priest. I was in Ghana for eight years, altogether. And that was really an important experience for me and that helped create my identity, I suppose. Especially in that time, in 1986, the economy was not very good in West Africa, and people were really in poverty. Many people were dying without proper medication, and hiv-aids was spreading. All kinds of problems were there. But the people looked so happy. Every day, they looked so happy and wore beautiful smiles. So, I asked several people in my parish: ‘Why are you so happy’? And somebody jokingly told me: ‘Father, we have the Ghanaian magic’! So, what was their magic? It was their conviction that somebody will help you: nobody will be forgotten. In that kind of cultural background, people support each other. So, you don’t see people dying on the roadside, because nobody will be forgotten. That conviction really creates hope for life. So that was the base of my belief that if we don’t forget people, then we can manage to create hope to survive. We cannot bring hope from outside. We can bring food, materials, and everything else from outside and give it to people in difficulty. But we cannot bring hope and give it to the people in difficulty. Rather, hope has to be created within their heart. We cannot order them to create hope. But, we can be a friend, and we can walk together. We can be with them, so that they can be assured that they are not forgotten. From that, they can create the hope to survive.
By Devin Watkins