The first Caritas was established in Freiburg Germany by Fr. Lorenz Werthmann in 1897. After that Caritas Chapters were established in Switzerland (1910), the USA (1910), Holland (1924) and later, in other countries. Priests and parishioners described the work of these groups as “service in the spirit of caritas pastoralis (pastoral mercy). The spiritual guidance and impetus for the first Caritas centres was provided by Pope Leo XIII, specifically as a result of the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which became Christian social doctrine.
Rerum Novarum was an alternative to socialism. It differed from socialism because it acknowledged mutual dependency and cooperation between classes, and demanded that conflicts be resolved by having each party claim its responsibility according to Christian teaching.
After the break demanded by the war from 1914 to
1918, Caritas continued to expand their global family. In July 1924, during the
Eucharistic World Congress in Amsterdam, 60 delegates from 22 countries formed
an advisory body that was headquartered in Lucerne Switzerland.
Starting 1928, their regular conferences became known as Caritas Catholica. The delegates met every two years until the outbreak of the Second World War when all activities again, came to a standstill.
Caritas’ Ideology was subjected to harsh criticism in fascist countries and in the USSR. Fascist countries criticized it for claiming that all people are equal before God regardless of their ethnicity or race. In the USSR it was criticized for conservatism—for not accepting the ideals of the social revolution, and class struggle. Anti-Christian sentiment was prevalent in both of these critiques, as was the attempt to set new values while destroying the thousand year old traditions of theistic ethics. Because of this, Caritas’ activity was greatly complicated in Western Europe until the mid 1940s and practically impossible in Eastern Europe until the fall of communism.
Charitable activity was revived in 1947 by two conferences held in Lucerne. The goal of the conferences was to coordinate efforts and re-establish international cooperation. Caritas’ development was further stimulated when the State Secretariat of the Vatican named the organization the official international representative of Catholic social organizations, most importantly to the United Nations.
The celebrated year of 1950 marked the start of unifying all Caritas organizations. At the suggestion of Monsignor Montini (State Secretary, who later became Pope Paul the VI), a meeting was held in Rome to discuss the problems Caritas’ Christian services were having with representatives from 22 countries. The result was the creation of an international Roman Catholic goodwill confederation.
In December of 1951, with the blessing of the Holy See, the first Constituent General Assembly of Caritas was held. The founding members represented Caritas organizations from 13 countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States of America. In 1957 the Confederation was named Caritas Internationalis to reflect the growing presence of Caritas on every continent.
Today Caritas is a confederation of 165 national charitable organizations from nearly 200 countries. Caritas Internationalis is a member of the Papal Council’s Conference of International Catholic Organizations Cor unum, which has advisory status inUNESCO and other UN organizations, in the Council of Europe, and in the Organization of African Unity; they also cooperate with European Union structures and many other renowned political and community activists.
Caritas Europe is one of seven regional members of Caritas Internationalis (this structure was created in 1971 and coordinates the cooperation of 48 organizations from 44 European countries). Generally speaking, the orientation of Caritas Europe is the same as Caritas Internationalis, but it has some of its own unique features. Here the work of the member organization is more oriented towards fighting poverty, social injustice, helping migrants and refugees, and providing humanitarian assistance.
Today the confederation is one of the largest humanitarian networks in the world. Its general secretariat is located in the palace of San Callisto in the Vatican. The President of Caritas Internationalis is Oscar Andrés Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga; the Secretary General is Lesley-Anne Knight.
The most developed members of Caritas Europe are the chapters in Austria, Albania, England, Belgium, Holland, Greece, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Hungary, Ukraine, France, Sweden, and Switzerland.