WASHINGTON — Kerry Alys Robinson, the new president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, the organization dedicated to carrying out the domestic humanitarian work of the Catholic Church in the United States, says its mission isn’t only to be generous, but to inspire generosity in turn.
“Generosity is humankind’s birthright and we are all called to be generous and also to be catalysts to inspire generosity in others,” Robinson told OSV News in a Nov. 1 interview. “I love that part of what Catholic Charities offers: an opportunity for people to volunteer and be generous with their time, with their talents, with their merciful hearts, and in service to others who are really struggling and were converted in that activity.”
Robinson began her new role in August and is just the second layperson — and second woman — to lead the organization. Although Catholic Charities is not a political or partisan organization, Robinson’s tenure coincides with several key political issues in the U.S. that impact its service to people who are poor and vulnerable: the potential for a government shutdown, a shifting legal landscape on abortion and a growing cultural divide on the issue of migration.
In a political landscape where the issue of migration is growing increasingly contentious — a social media influencer recently made threatening remarks about Catholic Charities staff over their work with migrants, and a handful of lawmakers in the House GOP recently questioned that same work — Robinson said their mission is to remain focused on the humanity of the individuals they serve.
“I try not to spend too much time worrying about a tiny minority of people who are critical — and their criticisms sort of baffle me,” Robinson said. “It is clear that it comes from a small group of people who either don’t understand, or for some reason intentionally misrepresent, the work that faith-based organizations like Catholic Charities do.”
The American people “almost universally are in agreement that our immigration system is broken and needs reform,” Robinson said, adding that is a task for lawmakers.
“Now, I would say to policymakers, that’s your job and we are eager for you to do your job and do your job well,” she said. “Meanwhile, we are going to care for people who find that they need a hot shower and a meal and a safe shelter after they have been processed by the Border Patrol and admitted into the country.”
Robison said she has visited with a local Catholic Charities in Laredo, Texas, and “was so impressed by many many things.”
She added one thing that really stood out was “the positive, collaborative relationship that our local Catholic Charities agencies have developed over many years with border patrol, with ICE agents, with local police.”
“I mean, this is absolute teamwork,” she said. “And again, it’s under both administrations. Again and again, I heard Border Patrol people tell me ‘we don’t know what we would do without Catholic Charities and other agencies.’ So I’m just very struck by (how) it’s not just what our agencies are doing. It’s the manner in which they do it. There is something so merciful and compassionate and Christ-like about the staff at our agencies, and that compassion extends also to their partners who are Border Patrol agents.”
Asked if she is concerned about the possibility of a federal government shutdown in November, Robinson said the impact on “people who are served by soup kitchens and food banks would be really serious, even if the shutdown was only a matter of two or three days.”
When the possibility appeared imminent earlier this year, Robinson said her team worked hard to prepare for that event “because we know that the people who would be most affected deleteriously are those who are already vulnerable and poor.”
“The young pregnant woman, veterans, families, all manner of constituents that comprise our country, who are every day living paycheck by paycheck, if they even have that luxury,” she said. “They were who we were most concerned about.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned prior precedent making abortion access a constitutional right, at least 22 states have moved to ban or restrict abortion, although not all of those efforts are currently in effect amid court challenges. As the legal landscape continues to shift, the church and Catholic Charities should “care for our vulnerable brothers and sisters at every stage of life and that intentionally and sometimes preferentially includes expectant mothers, babies, children and families in need,” Robinson said.
“There’s a great focus on the holistic wraparound services that might be required for any given pregnant, expectant mother, or new mother with a young baby or young children,” she said. “And that can range from basic services like distributing diapers and wipes, providing car seats and baby clothes, to offering parenting classes, early childhood education.”
Robinson spoke with OSV News shortly after the first monthlong session of the Catholic Church’s global gathering in Rome, called the Synod on Synodality, drew to a close. The synod’s synthesis report highlighted Caritas (the global network Catholic Charities is a part of) for its “accompaniment work … amongst the poorest, and among migrants and refugees,” and also called for that work to be more closely integrated with the local church community.
Robinson noted several invitations from Pope Francis made during the synod.
“It’s first to learn how to live synodally, and also for those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions to learn how to lead synodally,” she said. “And what that means first and foremost is this invitation to encounter and accompany people who are different than us. If we don’t encounter and accompany one another, it is easy to categorize each other and dismiss each other and polarize. It adds to the polarization that can exist between us.”
“But,” she continued, “when we sit down literally at a round table with one another, particularly people with diverse viewpoints or backgrounds and allow the Holy Spirit to be recognized as present and to commit to deep listening there is something very grace-filled that occurs. It turns statistics into human beings with stories and names and hopes and aspirations and dreams and regrets.”
In their work at Catholic Charities, Robinson said, “we are modeling synodality honestly without perhaps even being aware of that; but I see that we are addressing complex challenges like chronic housing shortages, poor kids needing to be fed.”
“I mean, these challenges can seem intractable, but living synodally forces us to remember that we have all the resources we need at our disposal to solve these challenges, if we would insist on working together rather than in isolation,” she said, “so that we are reminded about what binds us together … the very noble holy work that we’re called to do.”
Robinson, who was previously an executive partner of Leadership Roundtable, an organization of laity, religious and clergy working together to promote best professional practices of the Catholic Church in the U.S., has spent her whole career serving the church. Asked if she had advice for those seeking to live their faith in their workplaces, Robinson said, “I have a friend who used to tell me that integrity is having one story.”
“In other words, we are who we are as people of faith consistently,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean perfectly, of course, but we’re kind of consistent, there’s a cohesion to how one lives out one’s faith. But the most important thing, in my view, is people of faith are called to be joyful.
“And so having a joy, which is not facile happiness or kind of fake cheer, it’s a spiritual discipline of joy that grounds you in the conviction of a merciful and ever-loving God who is calling us to be our best, most authentic selves. When you are able to do that, and bring that to the workplace, everyone is better and the mission is influenced positively by that.”