Sean Callahan, man on a mission Profile: New director of human resources for Catholic Relief Services, back from the poorest regions of India, sees much of the same inhumanity in America.

August 06, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Sean Callahan brought two things back from Calcutta: a bad dose of hepatitis and an uncomfortable new perspective on poverty in America.

He is recovering from the first. The second will probably stay with him for a while.

Callahan, 35, is the Catholic Relief Services' new director of human resources.

He was until recently head of CRS's East India Office Office in Calcutta. He returned to the agency's Baltimore headquarters on Fayette Street to recuperate, and was invited to stay.

He worked in Calcutta for two years, where CRS is helping fund the work of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.

During his eight years with CRS, Callahan has also served all over Africa, and in Central America. His experiences in these different cultures allows him to compare and measure what might be called the humanitarian quotient of his own country.

He has found some disturbing parallels here with the place where he recently lived.

"India has a lot of rich people," he said. "The stratification of society is antithetical to treating people with respect. It is accepted there that there are people who are looked upon as trash." They are the untouchables.

Since his return last November, he has detected similar attitudes here. His friends and colleagues, even family members, often reveal a physical aversion to the poor similar to that displayed by middle class and well-off Indians.

"There is a profound isolation in poverty here, a dehumanization," he says. "When we make a case to dehumanize people, we call them street people."

Is that a euphemism for untouchable? Is that an attempt to relegate these people into a caste? He suspects it is.

'A poor class'

Lawrence Pezullo, the former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua who headed Catholic Relief Services from 1983-93, is not ready to say the poor in America have evolved into a caste. But he thinks Callahan's on to something.

"There are people who have been in poverty or tied into welfare for so long they have almost become a poor class," Pezullo says. "They are so entrenched and find it so difficult to break out, it is almost becoming a caste system."

Callahan says he has friends, even family, who won't even discuss poverty. They avoid all contact with the poor. It's not mere callousness, rather a defense, an attempt to avoid seeing poverty for what it is: not an aberration, but an integral part of their world.

Callahan believes that many people know deep inside that once they accept this, they will develop a responsibility for it. Call it a missionary reflex, whatever: most people want to keep it subdued within them. If they fail, says Callahan, "there goes the lifestyle."

At first glance, one would not have expected Sean Callahan to follow the course in life that took him to so many of those places tourists like to avoid. He was born into a comfortable Irish-Catholic family in Lowell, Mass. His father was a surgeon. His mother had elevated social ambitions and the money to pursue them.

He went to the right schools -- Phillips Academy in Andover; Tufts University; the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He studied in Spain. He has a bachelor's degree in Spanish, a master's degree in law and diplomacy.

He volunteered in Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's office in 1988. He recalls somebody once identifying him immediately as being with the senator.

"I guess I had it stamped right on me," he said.

He does. For the Kennedys, for good or ill, have fostered a particular style in the politics of this country, and the least that can be said about it is that it is readily identifiable. Sean Callahan has it.

He's conventionally handsome, clean cut, cheerful. He has no sense of reserve, no restraining modesty. He worships work. He announces, neither pridefully nor arrogantly, but with naive presumption, that he wants to do good.

He expects to go into politics eventually, and one can almost anticipate how he'll be -- resonant of an era he never knew, one of those earnest young men in the right suit, orating from a truck bed, dashing about, hair and tie flying away, infecting people with optimism.

Or he'll settle for some high administrative post, something that would enable him to affect the lives of many people to their benefit. "I want to help more people," says Callahan, whose work at Catholic Relief Services involves hiring (and sometimes firing), training people for overseas assignments and helping set salary levels.

That, at least, is the plan.

One thing is unique about Sean Callahan. He does not have that hubris typical of so many thrusting young careerists chock-full of self-confidence. He does not believe he holds ultimate control over his own life, that his success, such as it is, is all his own doing.

The conviction that all circumstances could be controlled was widespread among the people who brought us the New Frontier, Camelot, Vietnam and all that.

Callahan describes himself as "providential." He believes in luck; he believes in fate; he believes in God.

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