Catholic Volunteers in Health and Social Care

The Church Teaches: Voluntary Work in Healthcare

Cardinal Javier Lorenzo Barragan

Cardinal Barragan, a Mexican, was President of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers at the Vatican. He has been auxiliary Bishop of Mexico City, then Bishop of Zacatecas.  This reflection was given during a gathering one of the International Health Care Conferences in Rome, before Cardinal Barragan retired. Translated from the Italian by Jim McManus.

There are people and associations that have chosen to work for the improvement of the quality of our history and for the development of civilisation – voluntary workers.

They have embraced the banner of mercy. There are very ancient and glorious associations – some even have that name – and they seek to hear the voice of those in need, those without speech, and the cry of the land in order to find an answer ‘as long as this is possible’.


Interpreting the commandment of Christ to love one’s neighbour, voluntary workers have decided to place their own lives at the service of other people in order to construct a ‘civilisation of love’.

Moved by religious faith or because they believe that a more civilised world is possible, they want to literally give their hands to others. Whether they begin in the parish – that creative unit from which so much voluntary work stems – or pushed forward by organized humanitarian movements; voluntary workers struggle against the consequences of racial discrimination, fight against social exclusion linked to a multiplicity of forms of poverty and deprivation, and promote campaigns to respect human dignity in every historical and geographical context.

Following the Christian vision of life, many are concerned with the ‘least’ and the ‘last’, who Jesus tells us are  to be the privileged of the kingdom of God.

The Church throughout history has seen the force present in the voluntary work movement as a bearer of civilisation in care for older people, children, the chronically ill, disabled people, homeless people and immigrants. This is a presence that wants to create conditions of life that are more human, out of respect for God, and God’s creation.

When we reflect on the varying activities promoted by voluntary workers we feel a sense of admiration, but also a certain anxiety because one asks oneself how voluntary workers can carry out the tasks which society entrusts to them today. The Church, which has created and nourishes many associations, points to the promotion of Christian values as the inescapable point of reference and the inspiration of every social activity. This much can be seen in the encyclicals Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae of Pope John Paul II.

Strong because they belong to and are formed by this solid inner structure, Catholic voluntary workers through their action can give a soul to the civilisation of the third millennium and encourage the advance of everyone without us falling into the brutal dehumanisation to which so many wars have borne witness. We should not  yield to pessimism because, as we can happily see, today voluntary workers exist in their thousands, and they have even been defined as the ‘flower in the buttonhole’ of the church’s efforts in the new millennium.

The Church looks with hope to voluntary work – the soul of solidarity – and must be involved in spiritually guiding so many Christians by supporting their organisation, forming their consciences, and encouraging the exercise of free-giving in favour of one’s neighbour.


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