Families are served by the Catholic Charities of Milwaukee pregnancy and parenting support program. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities Milwaukee)

When Fr. David Reith hears the words “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly,” taken from the Good Shepherd discourse in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, he thinks of the mission of Catholic Charities.

“We come to help all people have life, and have it more abundantly,” said Fr. Reith.

Fr. Reith has been the vicar for Catholic Charities since 2016, overseeing the official charitable presence of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in southeastern Wisconsin.

The leak of the draft of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case earlier this month sent shockwaves through both sides of the debate on abortion. Faced with the imminent possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned, the pro-life movement and specifically Catholics are now faced with a mandate not unlike the one Fr. Reith describes: to help all people have life, and have it more abundantly.

“This is a moment where people of faith can say: we have a commitment to help people live life more abundantly,” said Fr. Reith.

Founded in 1920, Catholic Charities seeks to enact the corporal works of mercy in the lives of those who experience barriers to needed services; this has included not only unborn children and their mothers, but young families, single individuals, vulnerable adults, seniors, immigrants and refugees. In 2021 alone, Catholic Charities impacted more than 52,000 individuals, 98 percent of whom lived at or below the poverty line, residing in 10 counties throughout this region.

But Fr. Reith wants that number to be higher. There are still too many people, he said, who do not know about the services offered by Catholic Charities — services that include everything from pregnancy support to mental health services, in-home and parenting support, adult day services and more.

A big part of that mission, especially now, is spreading the word about the services Catholic Charities offers. Whatever the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court, Fr. Reith wants southeastern Wisconsin to know that Catholic Charities is open for business.

“You don’t have to be Catholic to be served by Catholic Charities,” said Fr. Reith. “If you’re a child of God — namely, all of us who come into this world — we offer that to you.”

One of Catholic Charities’ primary services is its case management program, whereby Catholic Charities outreach staff links clients with needed resources for which they may not even be aware they qualify. Through case management, clients have been connected with medical and dental care, educational and employment opportunities, material resources and more.

“We find that helping connect people to services they’re actually entitled to, but don’t know how to get, is sort of the area we’re going to be more and more alert to as things play out,” said Fr. Reith. “That’s a very significant part of our work, and I see that being a very significant part of our work in the future. Case managers are real advocates for people who come to us with difficult situations. What we can do here, we connect them with. What we can’t do here, we try to connect them with someone who can.”

Catholic Charities also fills a crucial gap in services for those living in poverty by providing mental health support through its community counseling program. Catholic Charities’ licensed therapists and counselors’ services are available on a sliding fee scale adjusted to a client’s ability to pay. No client is turned away for an inability to pay, said Fr. Reith.

This is an especially critical component of care for women dealing with unexpected or crisis pregnancies and young families facing uncertainty.

“We’ve been blessed in the last year in that we’ve been able to increase our staffing,” said Fr. Reith, noting that a new office was opened in West Bend to provide mental health services to the Washington County area. In addition, Catholic Charities now has community counseling offices in the Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Racine, Sheboygan, Walworth and Waukesha areas.

One of the original facets of the Catholic Charities mission at its founding continues to define its mission over a century later: pregnancy support.

“A lot of our primary focus back in the 1920s was coordinating services for orphans, helping people deal with pregnancy, parenting support programs and adoption services. That was a big part of that first decade or so of Catholic Charities, and here we are, 102 years later, dealing with the same needs to help people regarding pregnancy, birth, life, raising children,” said Fr. Reith. “What we’ve been doing at Catholic Charities for over 100 years, in one shape or form, continues to be relevant.”

Catholic Charities’ pregnancy support coordinators work to ensure that moms have a safe, healthy pregnancy with the emotional, physical and material support they need. That outreach continues after the birth of the baby with the Supportive Parenting Program.

In a world that often accuses Catholics of being simply “pro-birth” and not “pro-life,” the services offered by Catholic Charities stand as a testament to the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of all life, from the womb to natural death. In this current political climate, it is now more important than ever for Catholics to be compassionate and respectful “ambassadors” of the Church’s teaching, said Fr. Reith.

After all, in the Good Shepherd discourse, Christ points out that the reason his sheep know him is that they recognize his voice. (John 10:4) Thus, Catholics everywhere need to speak in the language of Christ: love, compassion, understanding and solidarity.

“It behooves all of us, as mature and committed Catholics, to make sure that we’re good listeners and try to be there to help — especially young couples, married or unmarried, or women who are affected (by crisis pregnancies),” said Fr. Reith. “We still have people who don’t realize our top priority is people affected by poverty — people facing barriers to care — and we need to let people know that we are here to treat everyone with compassion, dignity and respect. We can’t solve everything, but we can walk with you.”