In two of his encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict insisted that service to the poor was a normal and necessary aspect of a genuine Christian life. Yet more suggestively, he linked such service to the project of the New Evangelization. He was convinced that caring for the poor would be a kind of arrow point that would open the hearts of many to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For that vision to become a reality, service to the poor needs to be understood as more than simply humanitarian aid. It needs rather to be an expression of the heart of Christ, embracing all aspects of the person: spiritual, material, social. As Mother Teresa often said, ignorance of God is a terrible poverty.

With this in mind, many in the church have been seeking ever deeper ways to integrate service to the poor with a genuine and compelling Christian witness. In a gathering filled with possibilities for the future, 45 people gathered this past June for a weeklong seminar to gain greater understanding of and training in this way of charity: integral human development.

The Benedict XVI Institute was a joint project of the Center for Catholic Studies and Caritas in Veritate International, this latter an umbrella organization comprised of groups and organizations from around the world engaged in service to the poor. The Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership and the Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought joined forces to host the seminar. Presenters included Dr. Michael Naughton and Father Michael Keating, along with Jeff Runyan, director of FOCUS Missions, and Renee Allerheiligen, research fellow of the Habiger Institute. Separate weeklong tracks ran on the topics of discipleship, true leadership and human development.

Participants came from varied backgrounds. FOCUS Missions brought two groups of students preparing for summer mission trips to Haiti and El Salvador. The Centro San Juan Diego in Denver was present in the person of its director, Luis Soto, and members of his staff. Others included Adam Urenek and Irma Montes from Christ in the City in Denver and Colorado Springs, Colo.; Mary Peterson, founder and director of Maggie’s Place, a home of hospitality serving pregnant women in Phoenix and Cleveland; Mark Van Brunt, director of the Raza Fund; Viviana Sotros and members of the staff of the newly founded Sagrada Familia Center in South Minneapolis; and Henry Capello, founder and president of Caritas in Veritate International. A number of the Habiger Institute’s Leadership Interns energetically participated and helped keep the practical side of things moving smoothly.

This summer’s institute was something of a trial run. Responses were very positive. One of the FOCUS Mission trip leaders, Rachelle de la Cruz, noted that “Benedict XVI Institute was the springboard that propelled me into mission with a greater heart, mind and compassion for God’s people in Haiti. As I encountered the poor in orphanages and refugee camps, I was grateful for the time I had spent learning Charity in Truth in the classroom, in discussions around the dinner table and in prayer and the sacraments.”

This is the beginning of a regular event held at the center for those seeking training in integral human development.

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