BY MID-FEBRUARY, Catholics
everywhere will be thinking
Lent. It’s a time of the year
when we aren’t squeamish
about being Catholic, whether
it’s wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday,
observing meatless Fridays, or giving up
something special and not fretting if
people know about it. It’s a time when
we repent of our usual ways and reflect
on who we really are—and who we
are to become.
This Lent, I want you to follow me
on a trip to Niger, the poorest nation
on earth. I went to this West African
nation and neighboring Burkina Faso
with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) last
October. I came back with reams of
notes, interviews, photos, and videos. We visited
about 15 program sites in all. In the following
pages, I want to share with you only a few
Faced with great poverty, I saw an incredible
response to Jesus’ command to feed the hungry.
CRS is our Church at work, doing incredible
good. In a time when the Church in parts of our
country is weary of argument, scandal, and
shortcoming, I thought you’d like to know that.
Three CRS staff were among our guides, and
I’ll depend upon them to help tell this story.
They know the ins and outs of CRS’ work in
these two countries. But more important, their
own commitment says a lot about what our
Church is doing in West Africa.
It is not an easy thing. There’s the decade-old
drought and resultant widespread hunger in
the Sahel, this region just below the Sahara
Desert. And the US nemesis, al-Qaeda, has
fomented political instability to the north and
south of these countries. War is brewing even
now, as the United Nations is assembling a
multinational army to run al-Qaeda out of
northern Mali, which borders both Burkina
Faso and Niger. Refugees are fleeing without
water, food, or shelter.
We journalists, in fact, wound up with an armed military escort for part of our visit and
had to change plans to avoid a dangerous area
near the Mali border. We’ll get to that as our