Bishop John H. Ricard, who oversees parishes serving 85,000 Catholics in Baltimore, was named yesterday to head Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the world's second-largest nonprofit provider of foreign aid.
The auxiliary bishop, one of three in the Baltimore Archdiocese who serve under Cardinal William H. Keeler, is known for his efforts to assist the city's poor.
"He's always been interested in the needs of people," said Father John Filippelli of St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore. "He does not only look at their problems on the surface. He takes time to get to the root of their problems."
Bishop Ricard, 55, a member of the Josephite order, said he is excited about the opportunity to lead Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an organization that "does splendid work on behalf of the poor and destitute of the world."
A 10-bishop panel that serves as the CRS board of directors selected Bishop Ricard. His appointment as president and chairman, effective immediately, expires Dec. 31, 1998. He will continue in his role as auxiliary bishop.
Bishop Ricard said one of the major challenges facing CRS comes from Republicans in Congress who are pushing for a cut in foreign aid grants. About $160 million of the CRS budget comes from federal funds.
"Conflict situations are another challenge," he said. "How do we provide services to people, give them food and clothing when they are in the middle of violence? How do we provide services without appearing partisan? It becomes very difficult."
Bishop Ricard's appointment is a natural outgrowth of efforts the bishop has led for years, Father Filippelli said.
During the 1992 Christmas season, Bishop Ricard traveled to war-torn and famine-stricken Somalia on behalf of CRS to observe the relief effort, a trip he described as "a conversion experience."
"It's a sobering thing to come back into the First World and see how much we need, after being there and seeing how little they need," he said on his return.
CRS, which has a budget of $317 million, provides food, medicine and clothing to the poor in 76 countries. The organization has provided assistance for more than 30 years in Rwanda, for example, and plans to expand its efforts in Bosnia after the signing of a peace treaty late last year.
Bishop Ricard has served as CRS treasurer for three years and as chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Domestic Policy Committee, which has studied legislation aimed at welfare and health care reform.
He said he sees many parallels between the poor he's served in Baltimore and those around the world. What they most need, he said, is not handouts of food, but tools so they can feed themselves.
"The dynamic is very similar when people are hungry," he said. "It does not matter whether they are in Somalia or Baltimore. The debilitating thing about poverty is that it robs people of their sense of self-worth. We need to give people a sense of helping themselves."
To accomplish that, he said, CRS has expanded its efforts to provide self-help programs. In Somalia, for example, CRS operates a program that teaches people how to raise chickens.
"We also must help toward reconciliation between warring parties," he said. "That is going to be a major thrust because if we do not help people reconcile -- the Muslims and Christians in Bosnia or the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda -- then all the assistance we provide will mean nothing in the long run."