Sean Callahan, the veteran Catholic Relief Services executive who was named Friday to head the Baltimore-based organization, takes over amid a historic global humanitarian crisis: the displacement of a record 60 million refugees worldwide.
Callahan, who is set to become president and CEO of the international humanitarian organization Jan. 1, sees an opportunity.
He says Catholic Relief Services could help Americans better understand the polarizing subject of refugees while working to improve the conditions that are driving them from their homelands.
"Many Americans seem to feel that displaced people simply want to come to the U.S.," Callahan said Friday. "But if we provide those people with better opportunities to stay at home — with good livelihoods, with education and with health opportunities — they do tend to stay in their own countries.
"We need to educate the American people about our intentions. We want people to have the opportunity not to migrate here."
Catholic Relief Services, the global humanitarian arm of the Roman Catholic community in the United States, serves 107 million people in 101 countries around the world. Its operating expenditures are to reach almost $900 million in fiscal year 2016, the largest outlay in its history.
Callahan, 56, succeeds Carolyn Y. Woo, the former business school dean who has headed the organization for five years.
A 28-year veteran of Catholic Relief Services, Callahan has led its programs in Nicaragua and East Asia, where he worked with Mother Teresa, the Nobel peace laureate who was canonized by Pope Francis this month as a saint. He served eight years as executive vice president for overseas operations, and the last four as chief operating officer.
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the organization's board of directors, called Callahan "an extraordinary man, a leader."
"Everyone recognizes his integrity, his capability and his faith," Coakley said. "He is eminently qualified."
Callahan was chosen after a six-month nationwide search. Coakley said the board hired an outside firm to locate outside candidates, but the three finalists submitted by the search committee all came from within the organization.
"Given the uniqueness of CRS and its operations, there really isn't an opportunity for leaders from elsewhere in the Catholic world to have the same kind of preparation or training one can get within CRS," Coakley said.
"Sean has been [chief operating officer] for 41/2 years. He knows the international relief and development world better than anybody. Twenty-eight years' experience is not something you can replicate easily."
Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo headed the search committee.
"Sean's experience, faith and empathy make him ideal to lead CRS in its important, lifesaving and life-affirming mission," he said. "We looked all across the nation and found that the best person for the job was Sean, already working for us."
Callahan spoke Friday from Montreal, where he is attending an international donor conference for the Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the conference Friday; other attendees include U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Bill and Melinda Gates, and singer Bono of the rock group U2.
As president of Catholic Relief Services, Callahan said, he plans to build on what the organization calls three areas of "immense need and particular strength" — emergency response, agriculture and health. He also plans to continue diversifying its fundraising strategies and expanding the use of technology in development work.
The organization "has shown it has a lot of the right techniques and strategies we need to move forward," he said. "I know the different areas where we need to go, and I'm excited about working with a terrific team to help bring the agency to the next level."
In fiscal year 2015, Catholic Relief Services responded to emergencies in 46 countries, including in the Middle East, where 1 million people affected by the war in Syria have received help. A food assistance program helped stave off hunger for millions this year when drought struck Ethiopia.
The agriculture programs included training for some 1.2 million staff, partners and farmers in the past two years. The health programs supported malaria prevention and treatment to more than 13 million people in 10 countries.
Callahan said Catholic Relief Services has emerged as a leader in the field of information and communication technologies for development, or ICT4D. He spoke of expanding the use of mobile devices in rural areas to spread health information, diagnose medical problems and help farmers maximize their profits.
"It's about using the technology and coverage available now to reduce barriers to development, whether it's providing expertise or helping locals build their own capacities," he said.
Such efforts can give people in troubled countries incentive to stay where they are, he said, and prevent their joining the global refugee exodus.
But it's unlikely to end all displacement. For that reason, he said, Catholic Relief Services must correct some of the "misinformation" surrounding refugees.
"It's an informational effort, and we need to explain," he said. "Why do people migrate? In many cases, they're moving for better security and opportunity. We need to provide Americans the opportunity to hear and to understand why they're coming [and], to more effectively integrate them into society, to be more welcoming neighbors."
Callahan is also president of Caritas North America, serves on the board of trustees for Catholic Charities USA, and has served on the executive committee and representative council of Caritas Internationalis. Caritas Internationalis is the Vatican-based confederation of 165 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations operating in more than 200 countries and territories.
Callahan holds a bachelor's degree in Spanish and a master's degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University. He and his wife, Piyali, have two children, Sahana and Ryan. He is a parishioner of the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City.
Coakley said Callahan is ideally positioned to build on the foundation established by Woo.
"We are grateful to Carolyn for giving the agency a firm strategic footing that has helped it thrive in some difficult and turbulent times," Coakley said. "And we are excited as we look forward to Sean continuing CRS' seven decades of work helping millions live their lives with the respect and dignity that God intended for them."
Woo, who joined Catholic Relief Services from the Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame, made it clear at the beginning of her term that she would leave after five years.
She called her time with the organization "an extraordinary privilege."
"We have a generous God who has given us a bountiful world," she said. "Our work is to see that that bounty reaches all members of his family."