Catholic student UN delegates hear they must work for justice

  • November 25, 2010
Jenny Cafiso TORONTO - Promoting the option for the poor and working for justice go hand-in-hand with the Gospel values that students are learning at Catholic schools, says Jenny Cafiso, director of Canadian Jesuits International.

And the United Nations, a forum of diverse nations, beliefs and ideas, is precisely the place where Catholics should be making their voices heard on behalf of the marginalized, she said.

Cafiso delivered the keynote speech at the 16th annual Catholic Schools United Nations Assembly at the Catholic Education Centre on Nov. 17. More than 500 students from 23 high schools attended the three-day conference. Some Grade 8 students also attended, as well as high school students from the York Catholic District School Board and Holy Name of Mary College, a private Toronto Catholic girls school.

At the annual assembly, student delegates draft resolutions, debate, negotiate and resolve conflicts, much like what goes on at the United Nations.

This year, students debated topics such as child labour, women’s and minority rights, the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the war in Afghanistan and HIV/AIDs.

“Know that every encounter, every experience, every choice is an occasion of faith. Let your heart be touched by those on the margin,” said Cafiso. “It is there that we meet faith and learn to hope that another kind of world is possible.”

During her speech, Cafiso introduced students to some inspiring youth she met over the years. She first spoke of Faith Siakour from Liberia whose family survived that nation’s civil war. Her father had worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service and the family sought refuge in camps in Ivory Coast and Guinea after war broke out in Liberia.

Cafiso said Faith, now 14, has a “lively spirit tempered with a strong sense of justice.”

“Hope is a virtue grounded in suffering. Imagine the will, the sustained desire, the strength of character needed to keep a refugee’s hope alive,” she said.

Cafiso also talked about small-scale farming and a Zambian farmer named Sarah Muyoya. She told participants of the Jesuit-run cultural training centre which trains small-scale farmers in organic agriculture so that they are less dependent on foreign imports. The Jesuits took a public position in Zambia against genetically modified organisms, including genetically modified food aid which was refused by the Zambian government.

Cafiso, who was based in Rome at the time with the Jesuit Refugee Service, recounted a visit by American officials who asked her “how I, as a Catholic, who is interested in feeding the hungry, could justify taking this position, denying food to the poor.”

“But I knew they were only telling me half the story,” she said, adding that she knew small-scale farmers like Muyoya couldn’t afford to buy genetically modified seeds. Dependence on large foreign corporations for these seeds makes it “impossible for small-scale farmers like her to be able to run a farm,” she said.

“I thought of Sarah when I defended our position with the officials from the U.S. embassy.”

Although there are countries and organizations which promote laws and policies that are opposite of Catholic teachings on topics such as the death penalty, abortion and child soldiers, the United Nations is a place where Catholics need to be engaged.

“We as Catholics cannot retreat in our own world,” Cafiso told The Register. “We are to be engaged in the world as it is today, so we sit there expressing our voices just like others express their voice, negotiate and seek what is right.”

Elizabeth Sabyah, one of the conference’s participants, said she found Cafiso’s talk “inspiring.” A Grade 11 student from St. Joseph’s College High School, she was participating in the event for the third year in a row because it “makes us more aware of what we have and what we’re doing in the world.”

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