Natalia PeiroCaritas' key points of action are people".

Cáritas Española celebrates its 75th anniversary. Since 1947, Spanish society has changed a lot in terms of its needs and social structure. However, as its secretary general, Natalia Peiro, emphasizes in this interview with Omnes, the heart of Caritas remains unchanged. 

Maria José Atienza-February 24, 2022-Reading time: 8 minutes
Caritas Natalia Peiro

Interview with the Secretary General of Cáritas Española.

Cáritas Española is, according to its official denomination, the official confederation of charitable and social action entities of the Catholic Church in Spain, instituted by the Episcopal Conference. But, beyond its structural definition, Cáritas could be called, as its Secretary General calls it, "Cáritas Española", "the caress of God". 

Today, and for three quarters of a century, Caritas has been the charitable arm for hundreds of thousands of people who find accompaniment, help, a way out or training for employment through the various diocesan and parish Caritas and the various projects.

A year ago, the Permanent Commission of the Spanish Episcopal Conference renewed Manuel Bretón as president of Cáritas Española and Natalia Peiro as secretary general, a task she had held since 2017, for a new three-year term. This General Services team has lived through the socioeconomic crisis resulting from the pandemic, as well as the emergence of new gaps of social exclusion. A change in society that makes essential, even more if possible, that ministry of charity that Caritas volunteers and workers personify. 

Caritas is preparing to celebrate 75 years of life in Spain. What has changed and what remains since its birth?  

-The root remains. Our feet are founded on the Gospel, on the Christian community. Caritas is an expression of that Christian community and that remains true in all countries of the world. 

What remains? The spirit that animates us and the experience of God that we have in our work in Caritas. In Caritas there is a special care for the formation of the heart of the people who are part of it. Our work breaks down these disjunctions between action and contemplation, between justice and spiritual life. 

There remains that raison d'être that tells us that our task is an expression of our faith. And it remains, always, the service to all, without exception, without asking where you come from or how they are. 

The organization and activities have changed a lot because the social reality has changed. From the American milk that was distributed when Caritas was born to the employment and recycling projects... many things have changed. Life has changed. 

What makes Caritas different from any other NGO, even one made up of Catholics? 

-The key difference is our organization, which is indivisible from the Church. In each diocese our presidents are the bishops, and our local organization is the parishes. We are the Church. We are the Church's ministry of charity, one of the three ministries along with Liturgy and the Word. 

This identification gives us, apart from the sense, that permeability, the possibility of reaching all places, all corners. Being Church gives us a universality that other NGOs, not even international ones, do not have. By belonging to the universal Church we have a different capillarity, a vision of the world as a single human family. 

In these 75 years, Caritas has seen the evolution of Spanish society and has evolved with it. What are the key points of Caritas' work today?

-I think Caritas makes a huge effort to try to support and accompany people on their way to a full, integrated life. You ask me what are the key points of Caritas' work: the key points are people. 

We are not an organization that has a set of priorities, for example, in the field of health or education, but we accompany people along the way. 

If I had to highlight some different challenges today I think that, at present, we work with some situations of more extreme marginality: people who are victims of trafficking or homeless people. This work has very different challenges if we think about the life we can give to those people. Another big challenge is loneliness and isolation. This is especially evident in the elderly or, for example, in migrants. We are in a more individualistic society and accompaniment changes. 

In this regard, we view with great concern the intergenerational transmission of poverty and the danger of the breakdown of the welfare state. When we presented the FOESSA report on the consequences of the pandemic in Spain, we spoke of the rupture of the social contract with youth. In other words, if we do not transfer the best we can to present and future generations, if we do not help the weakest, we are heading towards a society that has nothing to do with the rule of law or social cohesion. 

We have to ask ourselves in which society we want to live: in a State where those who do not have papers are forced to live and even die in the street? Or in a place where there is social cohesion and solidarity that allows us to live in peace and justice? Our accompaniment has resulted in a work of prophetic denunciation that we frame in the Gospel.

These two years of pandemic have undoubtedly been a challenge for the entire organization of Caritas Española. How have you experienced these moments from within and in your work?

-It has been a shock for the Church and, especially, for an institution like Caritas, where the difference lies in the being and being. We are used to being very close to people and, therefore, this situation has violated our way of working, our volunteers' way of being, etc. A very big impact for the whole Spanish society and especially strong in those groups, parish or neighborhood communities... which are rooted in human relationships on a daily basis. 

The first transformation we had to make centered on how to follow being close without being able to be physically close. Power remain open having to close. 

Our campaign of these years points out that "charity does not close", and so it has been. All Caritas, diocesan and parochial, received many people referred by the public administration, which could not take care of them.... 

Half a million new people reached Caritas through the hotlines, the website and social networks. 

Just as many people came asking for help, we also had to transform ourselves to have the capacity to receive initiatives, proposals, and many people who wanted to help. 

Attending to all this tsunami of petitions and solidarity had to be very tightly organized. We had to put in a lot of work, from the parish Caritas to the General Services. We all had to be at 150% to be able to attend to everything that was asked of us. 

We quickly saw that the digital issue was leaving many people out. The administration, collapsed and completely digitalized, was leaving many people out. The regulatory tangle that arose required a lot of analysis: what volunteers could and could not do, how to apply for the Minimum Vital Income, what happened with domestic workers, what social canteens and insertion companies could do, etc. 

We had to make a very quick analysis, within an organization that is not dedicated to just one thing. This analysis was an opportunity to dialogue with the administration, asking, for example, to be declared essential services, or how to transform our insertion companies so as not to lose jobs. 

In the medium term, we had to face the accompaniment of families, and the training programs that already had to be very digital. We analyzed which were the jobs that could be most required for our employment programs and, already in summer 2020, many courses were scheduled for people specialized in cleaning and disinfection, mask manufacturing, etc. 

In addition to all this, many initiatives were also promoted to help neighbors, those close to us... to solve, in a way, the difficulty of the presence. In this sense, the young people gave a lot of support: they got involved in social networks, made videos, virtual presence... 

Are there still volunteers and is there a future for Caritas volunteers?  

-There are still volunteers, thank God. We have a great challenge in this field, which is the challenge of the whole Church. Caritas volunteers are born from the Christian community and the parishes. Volunteering in Caritas has to do with our learning about the logic of gift, of gratuitousness, of giving ourselves to others. It is not the same as other volunteer work we know. 

The challenge, like that of the whole Church, is the transmission of faith, the transmission of values. Caritas has to contribute that part to the Church.

We see, for example, how in rural environments, in parishes, there is a lack of young people to make this transition. At this point there is an important issue. Caritas is the caress of the Church. It has an outreach and an outreach to the people, and we have to learn to integrate volunteers who are not strictly "parish volunteers", but who discover the face of Christ through the people we work with and accompany. 

Being Church has given us everything, and we want to be a contribution to the future of this transmission of faith.

In Europe, for example, there is a youth Caritas revolution. It has been difficult to understand that young people are in universities, in companies or in movements and we have to let ourselves be surprised by them and integrate them. Welcome these people who have a lot to give. 

Obviously, we have to be very careful because being a volunteer in Caritas is not the same as being a volunteer in any other NGO. With this challenge in mind, we are trying to change ways and means, so that more people can become part of Caritas. 

There are some years in which it is very difficult to be a volunteer; the profession and the care of the family do not leave any time, etc. But, if you have been a volunteer when you were young at university, it is easier that, at the age of 50, when your children are already grown up, you can take up this task again. That seed had to be planted by someone and there we have a task. 

Our strategic plan has a key focus on the renewal of volunteerism and, within it, a very nice point, which is the intergenerational relationship of volunteers. 

What do you consider to be the new forms of poverty? 

-I believe that, in general, there is little new in terms of the difficulties that people have and that cause them to be excluded. The profiles are essentially young people, women with dependent minors and immigrants.

The new forms of poverty are those caused by two fundamental issues. The first is the deterioration of labor market conditions. The working conditions of people who started working before 2008 and keep that job have nothing to do with the working conditions of those who started working after the 2008 crisis. This is a reality that we see all around us. In addition to this reality, there is the second issue, which is the opposite trend between wages and housing prices. In the end, employment and housing remain the fundamental keys to social inclusion. If a person earns little and, when paying housing costs, remains poor, it is very difficult to do anything else: education, health, social relations or to fix a deterioration of the house. These new poor are people who work, maybe only part-time or on temporary contracts, but most of them prefer working to the "little paycheck". 

Have we come out of this crisis "better" or worse? 

-The truth is that I have doubts. The Pope told us, at the beginning of this crisis, that we are not going to come out of it the same way. It is true that, in the pressure of need, all people bring out the best in themselves, but in the exit from an emergency there is a great tendency not to look back to get out. This "not seeing" is reflected, for example, in the data of the FOESSA report. Those of us who have a certain stability in life -a paycheck, a job-, have some daily problems, but there are other issues that are there and we do not "see" them. For example, what has happened to those children who have been left alone because their parents had to go out to work and teleworking did not fit, or to those households in which only one person works and has been fired, what about people who have no digital skills and could not go to the bank or make a doctor's appointment? We have to realize that the gap exists, that these realities exist, even if we don't see them every day or don't want to "look back". 

And these realities do not occur because these people do not make an effort. When we ask people what they are doing to get out of this situation, eight out of ten are active: working a few hours, actively looking for a job or participating in a training program. As a society, we sometimes close doors because we don't know the reality. It is necessary to know it in order to understand it.

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