Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

CCHD at 50: A vision for human flourishing

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

Last week, I was pleased to join in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). My participation recognized that CCHD, like many other initiatives, such as Catholic Extension, Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), Christian Family Movement (CFM) and the Cana Conference, has its origins in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The campaign was the brainchild of a Chicago pastor (and later a bishop), Father Michael Dempsey. His parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes on the West Side of Chicago faced many daunting challenges related to education, jobs, health care, violence, economic development and access to public services. He realized that he did not have all the answers, so he decided to go door-to-door and ask people what the church should be doing to help improve their situation.

Parishioners expressed appreciation for the direct aid given by various Catholic organizations, such as Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. But they also spoke about the systemic obstacles and injustices that held them back. They expressed the need for skill development, education and support for organizing for their rights.

Two years after being named an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, Bishop Dempsey called for a national effort to empower local self-help organizations through an annual collection to “address the root causes of poverty in America through promotion and support of community-controlled, self-help organizations and through transformative education.”

While there were skeptics, the bishops of the United States enthusiastically endorsed his vision and plan, naming him the first director of CCHD. His idea caught the imagination of U.S. Catholics, as the first CCHD collection was the largest single collection in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States up to that date — raising over $8.4 million.

Sadly, Bishop Dempsey died in 1974 at the age of 55, yet the seeds he planted continue to bear much fruit, for to this day the annual CCHD collection is the largest Catholic collection, averaging more than $11 million a year.

During Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to the United States, he underscored CCHD’s effectiveness, noting, “The projects assisted by the campaign have helped to create a more human and just order, and they enable many people to achieve an increased measure of rightful self-reliance.”

CCHD has become an integral part of the church’s social mission in the United States — from helping people with lower incomes to participate in decision-making processes affecting them to its complementary mission of educating Catholics about poverty and economic injustice.

CCHD’s vision is needed now more than ever, as the church takes up the task of addressing the complexities of human development in a post-pandemic world, including the social sin of racial injustice, again brought to the fore over the past year.

Just as the events in the church and society of the late 1960s created momentum for CCHD, the confluence of this past year’s crises compels us to redouble our efforts to examine social and economic issues in light of the needs of the poor in their search for self-determination.

We need to keep in mind the vision of Bishop Dempsey that growth is not the only indicator of a healthy economy; people struggle and fall through the cracks in ways that they can’t control and that statistics don’t adequately measure.

Through CCHD-funded initiatives and grassroots organizations, we work to address complex issues such as environmental justice and historical disinvestment; to develop leaders who protect the rights of workers, immigrants and those with disabilities; to reform the criminal justice system and cultivate restorative justice; and to ensure that those affected by unjust systems share their insights and experiences to effect meaningful social change. Policies can hold people accountable and practices can be adapted, but CCHD goes beyond this by aiming to change attitudes and transform social structures.

Whatever the project, however complex the issue or enormous the challenge, the starting point must be a deep and loving respect for the poor, accompanying them and encountering them with an appreciation for their creative capacity to pursue the life God has always intended for them. 

As we seek to heal from the pandemic’s trauma, Pope Francis has compared this moment to the time of the flood in Genesis. Like Noah, his family, and the creatures that joined them on the ark, we must ask: How will we emerge from this time of destruction and pain and enter into a time of regeneration and reparation? How will the poor and marginalized find fresh hope? As Pope Francis has said, “That is the grace available to us now, the light in the midst of our tribulation.  Let us not throw it away.”

Taking our Holy Father’s words to heart, may this 50th anniversary rekindle in us the resolve to take up the responsibility to challenge adverse conditions and attitudes that trap people in poverty. This is an opportunity to re-imagine how we live, work, govern, educate, invest in people and neighborhoods, and develop ways for people to succeed, parishes to thrive and communities to prosper.


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