KEN HACKETT ISN'T sure what he's going to say to Pope John Paul II when they meet Sunday afternoon. But whatever it is, he won't be speaking for himself, but for Catholic Relief Services workers all over the world.
The relief agency's 2,000 employees work in 79 countries, delivering food and technical assistance to the poor, sometimes in dangerous circumstances. Just last May the agency's project manager in Burundi, Dimitri Lascaris, was killed in the line of duty.
Mr. Hackett will lead about a dozen CRS staff members to the basilica on Cathedral Street for the papal audience. He is almost certain they will talk about CRS' worldwide relief efforts during their 15 minutes with the pope.
"We do [relief work] in most of the countries he follows - in Poland, in Africa and Cuba," said Mr. Hackett, executive director of the international charity based at 209 W. Fayette St. "He will have just come back from Africa and will be interested in what we're doing there."
Africa, in fact, is the part of the world both the Vatican and CRS have been most concerned about for some time. In recent years, CRS has focused most of its efforts on Somalia and Rwanda. This year about two-thirds of CRS' relief outlay is directed to African countries, more than $212 million. It has taken the lion's share of CRS budgets since the early 1980s.
"That is where the poorest countries are," Mr. Hackett said.
The pope's interest in Africa is also intense and continuous. He has been proselytizing there ever since he was elected in 1978.
Mr. Hackett expects that during this latest visit to the United States - his fourth as pope - Pope John Paul will have something to say about the perceived isolationist trend in the United States. CRS is particularly concerned about that because most of the agency's resources - food aid, money, transport assistance - come from the U.S. government.
"The pope is aware that the Congress is cutting money for helping agencies as well as for foreign aid. He's got to ask President Clinton what's happening to the United States. Is it pulling back from the world?"
Louise Wilmot, one of Mr. Hackett's deputies who also will meet the pontiff, said she believed Americans may be more generous than their leaders think they are and pointed out that they tend to respond during moments of crisis. "When we asked for help during the time of Rwanda we received $20 million over an 18-month period," she said. About a quarter of the CRS budget comes from private donors in the United States.
CRS was founded in 1943 by the American bishops to help resettle war refugees in Europe. It grew into one of the busiest private charities in the world, delivering emergency food aid and shelter. In the 1960s, in addition to feeding people, CRS began offering technical assistance to farmers.
It now gives loans for small businesses in poor countries, helps create banking services and public works, such as clean water projects. Most recently, it has turned its attention to encouraging reconciliation between warring peoples in such places as Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.