VATICAN CITY – Lesley-Anne Knight has a warm smile and a big vision, but not one that includes doing anything single-handedly.
Knight, 51, is the new secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization for 162 national Catholic charities around the world.
The Briton is the first woman appointed to the position, which involves overseeing the day-to-day operations in the network’s Vatican offices and implementing the strategic plan that network representatives approved for people-first humanitarian assistance, development, peace and environmental protection projects.
The fact that she is certain to be one of the few women in the room at many meetings does not seem to bother her or fire her up; it simply makes sense.
Since most of the network’s organizations are sponsored by national bishops’ conferences, they have tended to have bishops or priests as presidents and directors, she said. But with the growing priest shortage and the willingness of qualified laypeople like Knight to pitch in, that is changing.
In addition, she pointed out, much of Catholic charitable work involves volunteer action on the parish level, where 70 percent to 80 percent of the volunteers are women.
“My wish is that I am not seen first and foremost as a woman, but as a competent leader of the secretariat in Rome,” Knight said during a late-July interview in her Vatican office. “It is a professional job as well as a vocation.”
From emergency disaster response to long-term development projects, from feeding the hungry to caring for people with HIV/AIDS, the individual Caritas affiliates look to the secretary-general for help in reaching out to and supporting one another.
Knight speaks about the benefit to aid work that comes from “Catholic quirkiness” – the fact that the church is a universal reality that can tap into huge resources, but it is also a network of parishes scattered around the globe.
“If some disaster happens today anywhere in the world, I can find someone there who knows what is going on,” she said.
“The starting point in any disaster has to be what people on the ground are saying, what they need,” Knight said. “We must work through the local Caritas, no matter how small, because they were there before the disaster, they lived through it and they will be there when it is over.”
When disaster strikes, the local Caritas affiliate receives the material, logistical and financial support it needs from Caritas members around the world.
Knight came to the Vatican from the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, or CAFOD, the Catholic charity of England and Wales, where she had been international director for three years. A British citizen born in Zimbabwe, she also has worked for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Guatemala and Mexico and for the British charities Oxfam and HelpAge International.
While the Caritas network is second in size only to the International Red Cross, its member organizations are a unique mix of highly professional, multimillion-dollar operations – like the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services – and tiny, volunteer-driven organizations like Caritas Tajikistan, in a country with fewer than 1,000 Catholics.
Knight said the variety can create tensions, especially when the smaller Caritas members see the larger ones adopting what they view as a corporate organizational model.
“We have been accused of going along with the secularization of humanitarian aid,” she said, but the confederation strives to keep people first while being professional and accountable.
Another challenge is overcoming the stereotype many people have about the Catholic Church, she said.
While “90 percent of our action is social justice,” she said, Catholic emergency relief, development and advocacy on behalf of the poor “receive little acknowledgment and publicity.”
However, Knight said, in the small percentage of cases “where we are dealing with HIV/AIDS, the issues of family planning in the developing world or how we are dealing now with Amnesty International and their position on abortion, every journalist in the world wants to interview me” based on “the stereotypical image that the general public have of anything Catholic.”
Too many people are convinced that Caritas is “less professional, less effective and of less impact because we are not purchasing and distributing condoms in a particular area,” she said.
The network members are unshakably committed to “a holistic, coherent” Catholic message, focused on concern for the whole person and all humanity, Knight said.
As a Catholic network, the Caritas members must have the courage “to put our head above the parapet and communicate what we do and why, and not constantly feel we are in the firing line because we will be judged only on one or two issues” related to human sexuality, she said.