Helping Catholics Lead the Way on Hunger: An Interview with Sean Callahan of Catholic Relief Services

Sean Callahan, holds 11 month old Siad from Syria, as he and his family cross the border from Serbia into Croatia during the European migrant crisis of 2015.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Andrew McConnell for Catholic Relief Services

Sean Callahan is the President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. Millennial editor Robert Christian recently interviewed him on his background, CRS, and the impact of the novel coronavirus on their work:

Could you talk a little about your background—growing up, your career, etc—and how you have ended up doing the type of work you do today?

My Aunt and Uncle were both Maryknoll Missionaries; so I grew up hearing about their Gospel work and adventures in the Philippines, Tanzania, Bolivia, Mexico, and Formosa (now Taiwan).  It also meant that missionaries would regularly drop by our home in Massachusetts for late night slideshows of their work in isolated locations.  I was always impressed by the selflessness of these missionaries and their zeal for working to “right” injustices.

I grew up in a family of six children, and my mom and dad were both health professionals.  We always had room for another plate at our table, and we loved people to stay over at our home. My parents were both hard workers, and they instilled that “rigor” in all of us.

During college I did fundraising one summer for cancer research and treatment in children, and I was incredibly impressed by the children I met and how they protected their parents from their suffering.  It was amazing to see the sensitivity and courage of these young children.

When I was finishing my graduate work in 1988, I met a gentleman who worked for CRS who asked me if I was “ready” to give “something back”.  I decided that I did need to “give something back”: so I accepted a one year internship with CRS to work in Nicaragua during the war there (1988-1992).  That one year turned into thirty years working in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Were there other people in your life that led you down this path? Are there saints or thinkers, theologians or philosophers or whomever, who have inspired you along the way and shaped your thinking?

I have been blessed with a supportive and faithful family, an opportunity for a great education, and the most impressive colleagues. I have also been blessed to work beside Mother (Saint) Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, to share several audiences with the Holy Father, and to have dinner with Saint John Paul II in his apartment.  The selflessness of these holy people and the joy and love they each radiated during these interactions made me simply “happy and joyful”.  It confirmed to me that the work the Church is doing, that CRS is doing, is a call for celebration.  It is also an opportunity we need to share, so that others can be inspired by that same love and joy.  When someone asks me, “Well, what can one person do?”  I simply mention the names of these saints and holy people and smile.

What is your vision for CRS?

To ensure the human dignity of our sisters and brothers around the world is a bold proclamation, and we work to do just that. It is also bold for a Catholic organization to work in countries where there are no Catholics or very few.  We are not a stealth organization. Our name proclaims who we are, and our ethos is putting the Gospel into action. This is an advantage for us as everyone knows why we have this mission, and we are able to work with other faiths that share this vision. It also calls us to be humble as we are lucky to be the hands of God.  We know it is not us who fill the “nets with fish”, but it is our hands and those of the people we work with that pull the nets in.  My vision is also one of subsidiarity.  We work shoulder to shoulder with our local partners, and our goal is to cede the leadership role to them.

What would you say to frustrated young Catholics who want to make a difference in promoting social justice and the common good but have had trouble establishing service-oriented careers because it can be hard to land that first job or to make enough to manage the high costs of raising a family?

Never give up!  And, build a vocation not a career.  It is unfortunate in our culture that we often miss the first steps of our children or the smile of a new acquaintance or the thrill a person gets from a surprise accomplishment.  We miss these occasions and, sometimes, our vocation, because we are too busy, too hurried, and too preoccupied.  We must take the time to recognize that our lives are an accumulation of experiences and those experiences prepare us for that next phase of life.  We need to always be building community, and that community will help us achieve much more then we can achieve alone.  We need to be open to these experiences, recognize the learnings, and confident enough to take the risk and put ourselves in God’s hands.  Trust me, he won’t let us fall or, if he does, he will at least help us back up again.

How has the novel coronavirus affected the work that CRS is doing?

The coronavirus has presented a significant challenge to CRS, and it has tested our agility both domestically and globally. The safety of our team and those we collaborate with on the ground has been paramount, and equally pressing have been the shadow pandemics of hunger (food insecurity), a reduction in family healthcare (immunizations, prenatal, postnatal, and birthing, malaria prevention, HIV/AIDS treatment), family violence, and unemployment experienced by those we serve.  As the Church never closes, neither did CRS. We responded to the crisis by establishing protocols in all our programs (distancing, masks, hand washing), operating virtually when possible, minimizing direct contact, and sharing key health concepts/messages.  Sadly, we have lost one colleague to COVID-19. We’ve also had staff lose family and friends. As this pandemic continues, we’ll likely experience additional loss. But, overall, we have been successful in reorienting our operations to virtual engagement in the USA and limited interaction overseas.  We continue to engage our partners on the ground and we are striving to raise additional resources to address the new dire effects of COVID-19 and the shadow pandemics.

What is the new “Lead the Way on Hunger” campaign, and why is this an important focus right now?

The Lead the Way on Hunger campaign is in response to the Holy Father’s call for all of us to act to ensure no one suffers from hunger.  Inspired by the Holy Father’s message, we initiated the campaign as the coronavirus began to spread.  The campaign calls for Catholics in the USA to join together in solidarity groups, to learn about the issue of hunger, to advocate for assistance to those suffering, and to give as generously as possible.  It is actually fortuitous that we launched the campaign as acute hunger is expected to double in 2020 due to the effects of COVID-19 – illness, mobility restrictions, supply chain disruptions – as well as drought and locust infestations.  We are hopeful that despite the difficulties Americans are facing, they will continue to demonstrate generosity to their sisters and brothers in need.