The ministry of charity in Poland
07 sierpnia 2002 | 17:08 | Ⓒ Ⓟ
To provide charity and assistance to the needy has been a characteristic trait of Christianity since its earliest days.
Jesus Christ, the founder of the Church Himself, set an example of care for the sick and the poor to the first disciples. Early Christian communities raised money for the needy; attention was paid to providing assistance to the poor during common meals following Holy Masses. Deacons were appointed to deal with the material needs of the underprivileged. Christian charity, expressed in concrete deeds of mercy, was to be a distinguishing mark of the disciples of Christ. Over the centuries the charity work of the Church has taken on a number of forms. Religious orders have played an inestimable role in providing help to the poor. Concern about the needy found its expression not only in single charity actions, but also in more long-term projects, such as the propagation of agriculture in the countryside by many religious orders. It was understood that it made more sense to equip the needy with adequate means for self-assistance rather than cater to their direct needs only.
For the past two centuries charity work in the Church has assumed more and more institutionalised forms. After Poland regained independence, the Caritas Institute was established in 1929. Its role was to co-ordinate action of various charities established in individual dioceses. Charity ministry of the Church was conducted even during the Nazi occupation, and after the war, in the face of so dire needs of the war-torn nation, fully flourished. The communist regime saw in it, however, one of the reasons of a strong position of the Church in Polish society and consequently decision was taken in 1950 to dissolve the Caritas organisation run under the auspices of the Church. All the property of Church charity institutions, such as hospitals, day care homes, or creches, was confiscated by the state and another Caritas was established, known as the Association of Catholic Laity. The Church was left with limited sections of charity work, usually those that were cumbersome for other organisations; religious orders, for instance, were allowed to take care of the most acute cases of handicapped patients in state-run institutions. The Church, while no longer in possession of organised forms of charity work, could not possibly resign from the activity she had performed from the very beginning of her history. Other institutions whose registration did not require permission of state authorities were set up to fill in the void. The Polish Episcopate created a Commission on the Apostolate of Mercy, later transformed into a Charity Commission. This body organised the so-called weeks of mercy, meant to make the faithful aware of the necessity of sharing with those most in need. The breeze of freedom in the 1980s made it possible for the Church to accept international assistance in the form of donations of food or clothes. Those gifts were distributed by all the parishes of the country. This assistance continued through the hard times of martial law and later, until 1989.
The change of the political system in Poland made it possible for the ecclesiastic *Caritas* to resume its activity. As early as 1989 individual chapters of the organisation were beginning to sprout in dioceses. On October 10, 1990 a national co-ordinating body was set up known as Caritas Polska. Unlike its pre-war predecessor, it now does not co-ordinate charity actions in religious orders but is concerned with the co-ordination of activities undertaken by individual chapters of the Caritas in the 39 dioceses and in the Military Ordinariate. Caritas Polska belongs to an international group of Caritas Internationalis, which is a federation of 146 organisations from 194 countries and territories from all continents.
Caritas Polska runs many long-term projects, such as kitchens and shelters for the poor and homeless, recreation and rehabilitation centres, homes for single mothers, permanent care homes for the elderly, the sick, violence victims, and the handicapped. Caritas also manages hospices, drug stores, counselling centres, and trade therapy centres as well as organises re-training programmes for the unemployed. It also runs periodical collections of money, the biggest of which is the Christmas “Help the Children” Project. Recently the project has assumed an ecumenical character, as in co-operation with the Catholic Caritas it is run by the charity organisations of the Orthodox Church and the Evangelical Augsburg Church in Poland. Thanks to these collections of money several thousand children from the poorest families can spend their summer holidays in attractive tourist destinations. Caritas is likewise involved in temporary and long-term projects for the victims of natural disasters and wars. This aid is directed to the most needy in Poland and abroad (flood victims in Poland in 1997, and also the needy in Ukraine, Siberia, South America, victims of armed conflicts in the Balkans, Chechnya, Rwanda, etc.). Total value of the financial assistance offered by the diocesan chapters of the Caritas and Caritas Polska is estimated at 200 million Polish zloty annually. On-going training programmes for new charity personnel are organised; a three-year course known as Studium Caritas has been set up in close collaboration with Caritas Polska at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. The course trains people interested in charity and social work.
Polish citizens, taking advantage of foreign aid for many years, have contributed generously not only to the Caritas projects but also to charity actions inspired by other sources, aimed at providing aid for the needy in other countries and the poorest regions of Poland. Thanks to this generosity there are a number of charities which have been thriving recently. It would be in order at this point to present some of them to show a variety of their charisma. In 1992 a convoy of gifts gathered by the EquiLibre Foundation left for Sarajevo. Soon the Foundation was renamed *Polska Akcja Humanitarna (Polish Humanitarian Action)*. Its objective is to provide assistance to victims of wars and natural disasters as well as to offer support to schools and health centres. Aid offered by the organisation is earmarked for the poverty-stricken regions of Poland and of the countries of the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, Albania, and Turkey. A foundation known as *Dzieło Odbudowy Miłości (Re-establishing Love Work)*, created in 1991, provides another example of Polish charity organisations. Helped by numerous volunteers, the Foundation offers aid to families of the unemployed, flood victims and also victims of the war in Chechnya. Help offered to the inhabitants of this Muslim country has led to the establishment of good contacts with Polish Muslims and has helped set up the Mutual Commission of Catholics and Muslims. So-called food banks are yet another form of charity ministry. Since 1995 they have been collecting food in supermarkets, especially before major religious holidays. The foodstuffs are then transferred to charity institutions that prepare special gift packages for the poorest families. The *Dzieło Nowego Tysiąclecia (Work of the New Millennium) Foundation* was created by the Polish Episcopate after the visit of the Holy Father to Fatherland in 1999 (the bishops donated money saved during the organisation of the papal pilgrimage). The Foundation helps in the education of the most gifted children from the poorest regions of Poland. There are also people who can be thought about as veritable institutions, such as *Marek Kotański*, who for the past 20 years has been indefatigable in the construction of homes for compulsive addicts and the homeless or Jerzy Owsiak, who raises money during yearly projects known as *Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (Great Orchestra of Christmas Aid)*. A project known as “Adoption of the Heart” is a unique example of sensitivity to the needs of children from Africa; under the project Polish children commit themselves to financing food and education for one individual African child.
Charity work in Poland is likewise conducted by a vast majority of religious orders of monks and nuns, some of which regard this kind of work as their principal activity. On many occasions aid centres run by orders fulfil the role of places that shape the attitude of Polish Catholics. Such is, for instance, the contribution of the Centre for the Blind in Laski near Warsaw. The *Catholic Association for the Handicapped* is an example of a lay association created for running charity projects. There are also numerous other associations and movements that provide assistance to the needy, besides being mainly orientated towards the creation of communities of prayer or the strengthening of Christian formation of individual profession groups. Institutionalised help is by no means the only form of relief work; often the kind of assistance offered by neighbours to one another, especially concern with the needs of families with many children, is of inestimable value. In fact all charity organisations can conduct their work thanks to this sensitivity of Poles, expressed through donations for the needy.
Awareness of the exchange of gifts has always been strong in the Church; one who gives is also enriched with a gift in return. An interesting example of a gift that can be offered by those who believe that they are in need can be the prayer of the participants of the first post-war National Pilgrimage of the Handicapped to Lourdes (August 17-21, 2002) undertaken for the intention of the Holy Father and for his visit to Poland, which will take place concurrently with the stay of the participants in Lourdes.
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