Bishop's Interview: CRS does good work in the Holy Land and beyond

Editor: Bishop, you recently visited the Holy Land with Catholic Relief Services. Will you tell us a little about that trip?
Bishop Vásquez:
Yes, during January I traveled to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza with Catholic Relief Services (CRS). There were two U.S. bishops as well as laity representing CRS on the trip. This was an eye-opening and heartwarming experience. I learned so much about the people in the Holy Land and the struggles they endure on a daily basis. We also learned a lot about the good work that CRS is doing in the Holy Land. The tensions in the area are very real and there is indeed a sense that the peace process is completely non-existent. Despite years of constant calls for peace, there is currently little-to-no dialogue taking place between the Israelis and the Palestinians. People have begun to lose hope because without dialogue and openness people don’t see a pathway to peace. 
The most positive part of the trip was getting to meet with both Palestinians and Jews who are definitely trying their best to bring people to the table and move forward with bringing peace to the Holy Land. These are people of good will who are passionate about the peace process. The fact is people on both sides are not really very different. But, to begin the peace process, they have to come to the table, let go of their hostilities and move forward. They need to understand each other as humans who are seeking the common good. They are neighbors, and to truly live as neighbors means to work for the good of the entire community, not just for the good of one’s own culture or interests. 
During the trip, we also met with priests who are serving the only Catholic parish on the Gaza Strip. They are not allowed to do any type of evangelization, but they celebrate Mass. They are renovating the parish, which serves a small but very devoted Catholic population of about 130 people. We also visited with religious sisters who run a highly respected Catholic school. The school has 900 students, but only about 65 of the students are Christian. We also visited a home for mentally handicapped children and adults run by the Missionaries of Charity. The religious sisters lovingly and joyfully care for these people, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. 
Gaza is a very densely populated (more than 1.5 million people live in the space of 140 square miles). The people of Gaza suffer from the ongoing ravages of war. The water is contaminated and electricity is hit or miss. The unemployment rate is 40 percent, so many people are without steady jobs and they have no way to support themselves and their families. Even more troubling is the fact that the people are not allowed to leave Gaza; they are prisoners in many ways. Catholic Relief Services is working hard to assist these people with rebuilding their homes and recovering from the bombings and other attacks that have plagued the area for more than 10 years. CRS is not only offering emergency assistance, but is also assisting with long-term efforts to restore the war-torn Gaza Strip. 
Gaza was a place of great hope for me, even though it may seem a very sad place. The Catholic Church is there. The Good News of Christ is still being proclaimed. The Christian population is very small, and despite all of their challenges, they are witnessing to their faith and are very hopeful. I ask that we all pray for the people of the Holy Land that they may not give up and continue to pursue peace.
Editor: Tell us more about the work of CRS.
Bishop Vásquez:
I serve on the Board of Directors for CRS, so I have come to know well all of the good work they are doing around the world. CRS carries out the commitment of the U.S. bishops to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas. Whether it is responding to an environmental disaster, fighting disease or poverty or building peace, CRS is responding to the needs of the poor and vulnerable. They work with other humanitarian groups to preserve and uphold the sacredness and dignity of each person they serve. CRS is present in more than 100 countries and serves more than 85 million people. Please visit www.crs.org and learn of the good and important work CRS is doing. 
This organization truly puts our faith into action. I want to appeal to all Catholics in the diocese to be as generous as possible when we take up the special collection for CRS in our parishes on March 25 and 26. CRS operates with very little overhead and 93 percent of the annual collection goes directly to the programs they offer for the poor and vulnerable throughout the world. This is a commendable and worthy cause, and I have seen firsthand the good work that they are doing not only in the Holy Land but around the globe.