Carl Hétu shakes hands with Pope Francis. Photos courtesy CNEWA

Putting faith into action

By 
  • May 12, 2021

When Carl Hétu was a teenager growing up in Quebec, he recalls a conversation he had with his father that helped shape the man he would become. 

In those days, there was little to no racial diversity in Beloeil, the city just east of Montreal where Hétu and his family lived. At age 13 or 14, in the mid-1960s, classmates began throwing around the N-word in reference to Black people. He didn’t think much of it but that changed one night because of his father. 

“I remember coming home and I used that word and I got it so hard from my father,” remembered Hétu. “He put me in my place. I remember it as if it was yesterday. He spoke to me about the dignity of people and about how those words are used to continue enslavement. So here I am getting my first teaching (about systemic injustice) from my father who did not work in an environment with people of colour but he knew that this was wrong and that shouldn’t be used. I never used that word again.”

It was moments like that Hétu says marked his personal evolution, which eventually led him to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). He has been director of its Canadian branch since 2004 and last month his contract was renewed for another three years.

CNEWA was founded as a papal agency in 1926, operating on the ground in areas where Muslims, Christians, Jews and other religions live and interact with one another on a daily basis. The strength and survival of the Catholic faith over the centuries, Hétu says, has been its ability to foster meaningful relationships with other faiths and provide quality services to those in deepest need. 

CNEWA supports the Catholic Church in parts of the world where Catholics are a religious minority, yet still make a disproportionate impact in providing quality schools and social services. It helps form priests, aids farmers, teaches children and provides emergency relief to refugees, all while encouraging dialogue. This is how Hétu says Catholic values continue to be shared in that part of the world. 

Social justice came naturally to Hétu. He took to looking out for others like his parents had — they met through their work with an organization called La jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne (Young Christian Workers), a Church-led initiative founded by Fr. Joseph Cardijn in 1925 to provide vocational assistance to young people. The social justice teaching of the Catholic Church formed the moral foundation of their family. Hétu’s mother was a social worker supporting disadvantaged people with health issues, his father a trade union leader fighting for workers. 

As a teenager Hétu embraced social responsibility and was deeply involved in student politics. Angered by any injustice he saw in his school environment, he wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line in defence of someone who was being beat up or discriminated against for one reason or another. 

Through the years he’s been able to transfer that passion into the positive action through faith, which has defined his work at CNEWA. 

Driven by the parable of the good Samaritan, Hétu believes the work of the Catholic Church goes far beyond responding to incidences of injustice or need. It also involves working to understand the systemic issues that cause injustice. It’s faith in action inside and outside of the four walls of the church that defines Catholicism and is continuing to bring the teachings of Jesus to people all over the world. 

“Never underestimate the teaching of the Church that is done via the schools, hospital services, providing help for the elderly, handicapped, refugees and the displaced,” said Hétu. 

“All of that work is done in the name of Jesus, serving all, transforming all. Despite the small number of Catholics we continue to do God’s plan, to teach about being kind with your friend. Like the good Samaritan, we don’t care about your religion or if you’re a good person when you are in need. You might have been the worst person and maybe you deserve to be beaten up on the side of the street but that gesture to help that person could transform them to maybe become a better person.”

Michael J. Lacivita, communications director of CNEWA New York, has worked closely with Hétu over the years. They’ve travelled together on many trips throughout the Middle East and beyond, from Lebanon to Rome to Israel. He has been personally impacted by Hétu’s energy and drive to see the Gospel in action. 

“His dedication, his passion, his witness to the Church and to the people of God in general is really noteworthy,” said Lacivita. “At times it’s quite humbling because he’s really passionate about what he sees as the role of the Church in the regions that we are privileged to serve. He understood the unique role that the Church in Canada could play in helping the Church in general reach out, build up and empower others. He recognized the opportunity and potential and quickly seized on it.”

Over the past seven years CNEWA Canada has raised over $4 million annually for its work to advance the mission of the Church on the ground in the Middle East. Accustomed to being on work trips steadily throughout the year, Hétu has been grounded since the pandemic hit but continues to work virtually with staff and partners around the globe. 

Though doing the work from a distance has its challenges, he is grateful to have more time with his wife Lorraine at their home in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Ottawa. The couple has four adult children. 

Hétu remains as passionate as ever and is hopeful that with the increasing vaccine distribution the world is on its way to some semblance of normal. Despite the troubles around the world with the increasing number of migrants and refugees, he says people of faith need to continue to believe that good things are happening if we work together.

“We have to put our trust in God,” said Hétu. 

“Human beings are so weak, but together we can be so strong. With God motivating us, inspiring us, we can change the world as He did. What an amazing movement Christianity has been. I have been blessed to be a part of it.”

ON THE COVER: Carl Hétu pauses for reflection during a visit to a small wooden church in Ukraine. Photo courtesy CNEWA.

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