Lesley-Anne Knight's farewell speech to Caritas

Lesley-Anne Knight

Lesley-Anne Knight

After a very accomplished four years as Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, Lesley-Anne Knight was expecting to serve another term - but her appointment was blocked by the Vatican. She gave the following farewell speech to the Caritas Internationalis General Assembly on 27 May.

Your Eminence, my Lord Bishops, Reverend Fathers and Sisters, dear Caritas friends,

They say that life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.

Today, I had hoped to be beginning a second term as your Secretary General. Instead, I find myself saying good bye to you – and it seems like I have only just settled in!

Four years really does feel like such a short time.

I was talking about this to a friend the other day, and my friend told me that I could take comfort in the fact that there have been many successful leaders who served for a similarly short time. For example…

Julius Caesar was leader of the Roman Empire for about four years, until he was stabbed to death in 44 BC.

Abraham Lincoln – regarded as one of the greatest American presidents – served for just four years, before he was shot in 1865.

And John F Kennedy, America’s only Catholic president, served less than three years, before his assassination in 1963.

“But I can hardly compare myself with a Roman Emperor or an American President,” I protested.

Maybe not,” said my friend. “But you can be thankful that you have not been assassinated.”

Distressing as the last few months have been, these are not the memories that I will take away as I leave Caritas.

I shall treasure many memories about Caritas, but most of all I will remember Caritas people. Although I have only been in my current job for four years, my departure brings to an end a career in Caritas that spans 20 years – most of that time spent with CAFOD, our member organisation in England and Wales.

In particular, I shall remember the many dedicated Caritas workers in the field who I have had the pleasure of meeting during my career. And I have been very pleased to see some of them again this week.

These are the people who embody the true essence of Caritas – people who live and work alongside the poor, often in the most difficult and dangerous of environments. They are on the front line in the battle against poverty; their reality is far from the esoteric world of statutes and rules and canon law.

In many cases they have spurned a more comfortable and lucrative way of life to make a preferential option for the poor. Here is the “heart which sees” that Pope Benedict speaks of in Deus Caritas Est.

It is a humbling and necessary experience for all Caritas leaders to get out into the field and reconnect with this fundamental reality of Caritas in action.

From my own experience of Caritas programmes in so many parts of the world, I know that Caritas workers serve tirelessly alongside, and for, people of all races, people of all faiths, and people of none. They are a shining example of God’s love for humanity. What better demonstration of Catholic identity? For, to be Catholic, is by definition, to be all-embracing; to work for the common good of all humanity.

I shall also remember our Caritas supporters around the world. I have had the pleasure of speaking to many of them during the last four years. At Catholic gatherings in the USA and Canada, in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and across Europe. I have also met representatives of the trusts and foundations that fund our work, as well as individual donors, who will often come to our offices to contribute whatever they can afford to an emergency appeal. In many of these encounters I have been touched by the respect and admiration that the worldwide Catholic community has for Caritas Internationalis.

As a confederation, I believe we have much to be proud of. In my report to the General Assembly, I spoke of the journey we have undertaken in the last four years. I believe we have indeed come a long way in this time.

My wish for Caritas would be that you continue that journey – united in minds and hearts. I have no doubt that we have been on the right road; and I hope that Caritas will:

Continue to be a powerful and authentic voice of the poor and ensure that their voices are heard in international debates on climate change, migration, health, food security and chronic poverty.

Continue to reach out and embrace the wider humanitarian community. Collaborate with other faith-based and secular organisations that share our values. There is much we can contribute – and much we can learn.

And finally, continue to work towards a more equitable balance between women and men in the leadership of Caritas organisations. We should not forget that lay women make up a huge proportion of Caritas workers. They deserve respect and recognition. My appointment as the first woman Secretary General in 2007 was a courageous step. You know that we can do the job – only fear, misogyny and prejudice stand in your way.

But whatever direction Caritas takes in the future, for me a new road beckons.

And you now have a new Secretary General.

I would like to congratulate Michel Roy on his appointment. It has been a huge privilege for me to have been able to serve this wonderful, diverse community that we know as Caritas – and I am sure, Michel, that you will feel the same.

I hand the reins over to you with affection. You will be in my prayers, for I know you have some substantial challenges ahead.

You will need the courage of a lion; the skin of a rhinoceros; the wisdom of an owl; and the patience of a polar bear. And I don’t know if there is an animal with eyes in the back of its head, but that could also be very useful!

I would now like to thank all those who have given their friendship and support over the past four years; and everyone who has worked so hard to help shape the Caritas we see today.

I thank our President, Bureau, Executive Committee and Statutory Commissions for all their valuable guidance and wisdom.

In particular, I thank Cardinal Rodriguez and the Bureau for the trust they have placed in me and for their continued loyalty, support and concern for me during the past few months.

I thank our Regional Coordinators, who have always provided a critical sounding board for new proposals, and a valuable source of advice and feedback from their Regions.

I thank all the Regions who have welcomed me to their annual conferences, participated in advisory bodies, working groups and consultation exercises.

I must also thank everyone who has been involved in planning and delivering this General Assembly, including our kind and willing volunteers and auxiliaries. You have all worked extraordinarily hard and I think the results of your labours have been appreciated by us all.

Above all, I thank my colleagues in the General Secretariat team, without whose expertise and hard work my job would have been impossible, and whose faithfulness and kindness have sustained me.

My dear friends and colleagues in the General Secretariat, I wish to address a special word to you. We spoke so often over the past months of being in and going out into the deep waters... We said how important it is to read the signs of the times… we searched to understand and to do the will of God…

I have learned that the will of God in life does not come in straight lines, or clear signs, or certain choices. Life is not a set of constants to which we cling for security or seek for affirmation. On the contrary, life is often confusing and blurred, unsure under foot, tentative and shaky to the touch. Our relationships do not feel as firmly fixed as they once did. The world around us has tilted and tipped without our permission. Nothing is what it once had been, nothing is what it promised to be.

But one thing is inescapable: The way we deal with whatever happens to us on the outside will depend entirely on what we have become on the inside.

Wherever we have fixed our hearts, whatever it is to which we have given them, will determine the way we experience all that is happening to us now.

Michel, you are inheriting a dream team who deserve your highest respect and recognition – please take good care of them.

Since the announcement that I would be leaving Caritas, I have been overwhelmed by dozens of individual messages of support and goodwill from all over the world. They have come from Caritas workers in all the seven Regions, from bishops and priests, religious brothers and sisters, Catholic charitable foundations, the diplomatic corps and the wider humanitarian community.

I would like to thank all those who have written to me, and also all of you who have expressed their best wishes to me personally during this week. Your kind words, thoughts and prayers have been an enormous source of strength and inspiration and have shown me the depth of kindness that exists in the Caritas family I love.

And I do feel that Caritas is indeed a community – it is in many ways a model for the vision of ‘One Human Family’ for which we strive.

Many families today – like my own – are spread out around the world; often thousands of miles apart. Modern communications make it easy to keep in touch. But we all know that there is no substitute for a genuine family gathering, when you can reach out and embrace one another.

And this is also true for our Caritas family.

A very wise, and long-serving, Caritas colleague gave me some good advice once when I was feeling a little nervous about the objectives and outcome of a meeting: “Trust in the gathering,” she told me.

And there is something very special about a Caritas gathering. We come together not just to talk business; we gather to pray together, to embrace each other and to open our hearts to one another.

I have experienced this special Caritas communion on several occasions, but never more so than this week. At this General Assembly I have felt your loving embrace – and it has been a profoundly moving and healing experience.

Your generous affirmation of our work over the last four years has meant that I can move on in peace. I have always tried to do what I felt was right for Caritas and I am very grateful that you the Caritas family has acknowledged that.

I am reminded of these words of St Peter:

“No one can hurt you if you are determined to do only what is right;
“and blessed are you if you have to suffer for being upright. Have no dread of them; have no fear.
“Simply proclaim the Lord Christ holy in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.
“But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience so that those who slander your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their accusations.
“And if it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.” (1 Peter 3:13-17)

My dear friends in Caritas, as I say farewell to you, I pray that you remain proud and confident in who we are as Caritas. And equally, may you be open to what is seeking to emerge, open to the Holy Spirit and what is being asked of us by God in our contemporary world, as we strive to be one human family.

May you forever be clothed in heartfelt compassion, in generosity and humility, gentleness and patience. And over all these clothes, may you put on love. (Colossians 3:12-14)

Lesley-Anne Knight
27th May 2011
Joan Chittister with thanks for the inspiration

Tags: farewell speech, Lesley Anne Knight. Caritas Internationalis General Assembly

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