Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Richard Birkel
Catholic Sentinel photo by Jon DeBellis
Richard Birkel

For Richard Birkel, new executive director at Catholic Charities of Oregon, the more than 30 years he’s worked in social services have been about one thing — human connection.

“I’ve always been someone who was interested in human development and the mind, but also vulnerability and risk and how people respond to trauma,” said Birkel. “As we understand more about the experience of need, we have the ability to help people and build their resiliency.”

Birkel holds a doctorate in psychology and a master’s in public administration from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s degree from Yale. He’s worked for the National Council on Aging, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Rosalynn Carter Institute on Caregiving, and the Joseph P. Kennedy Institute for Developmental Disabilities at Catholic Charities in Washington D.C. where he worked with Cardinal James Hickey. He’s also an ordained deacon.

“I’m excited to be able to merge my faith and professional life once again,” said Birkel of coming to work for Catholic Charities in Oregon. “Being able to work for the good of the Church is a terrific gift.”

Birkel, 64, says he has fond memories of both his time working for Cardinal Hickey and his other positions, but that he’s excited about his new challenge. He is inspired by the scope of services that Catholic Charities in Oregon offers, and is excited about the possibility of working with the Catholic Charities member agencies here in the Archdiocese of Portland — Catholic Community Services of Lane County and the Mid-Willamette Valley and Central Coast.

He hopes to build partnerships with parishes across the archdiocese to determine what social service needs they are seeing, and to determine if what Catholic Charities is offering needs improvement or additions.

“I want this agency to be a ready partner, to build on strengths in our communities, and to support and encourage the development of programs that offer the most efficient assistance,” said Birkel.

Birkel was born and raised in Long Island, N.Y., where he met and married his wife Katherine before the couple moved to the D.C. area. He has three daughters and four grandchildren. An avid photographer, he shoots a Canon EOS 5D and enjoys taking photographs of city scenes, landscapes and the outdoors.

Birkel says he is encouraged by Archbishop Alexander Sample’s view of the New Evangelization and the importance social service and charity (along with liturgy and catechesis) play in it.

In reflecting on a recent Gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Birkel says there is a lot to be taken from scripture.

“Luke talks about when Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth,” said Birkel. “Mary was just told she was pregnant with the Lord and what does she do? She goes to take care of her cousin for three months. This is the perfect example of how a life with Christ compels us to serve others. We are a faith-filled people, the more we feel we have a connection to the Gospel, the more we are called to serve others.”