Monthly Archives: July 2012

Message On Screen

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I am always fascinated when I come to an electronics store with its street window  filled with 15 or 20 television sets all broadcasting the same program.  I never fail to stop and watch before moving on.  I don’t expect this practice to be a life-changing experience, but it can be, as it was for the Brazilian gentleman who wrote to Mother Teresa about it.

Mother Teresa told about a letter she received from a well-placed Brazilian gentleman who had lost faith in God and in people, and had decided to end his own life.  As he walked along the street with troubled mind, his eyes were drawn to a shop window full of television sets all showing the same program.  The program was about Mother Teresa’s nuns taking care of the people in the Home for the Dying in Kalighat, India.

The man wrote to Mother Teresa to tell her that the sight of the Sisters caring for the dying in Kalighat changed his life.  It showed him that God still loves the world.  It restored his faith in humanity and in God.

One of Our Lord’s favorite sayings is, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11, 15; Mark 4, 23; Luke 8, 8).  God speaks continually to those who have ears to hear.  God speaks through the revealed writings, but even more God speaks through the universe itself which is the primary revelation.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning summed it up well when she wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only those who see take off their shoes”.

Mother Teresa’s Brazilian gentleman had eyes to see and ears to hear.  Many others looked at those same television screens in the window but saw and heard nothing that affected their lives.  He saw and heard and became a new man.

Now when I find myself looking at a battery of television screens in a store window I realize that they are more than what they seem.  They remind me that the God who never sleeps is always reaching out to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear and really needs some help.

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Nuns on Trial

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The letters LCWR stand for Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. The conference has about 1500 members, who represent more than 45,000 women religious in the United States. Founded in 1956, the conference assists its members to work together in their service of leadership to further the mission of the Gospel in today’s world.

The LCWR has been in the news for the past few months because on April 18, 2012 Cardinal William Levada, head of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (C.D.F.) issued a statement revealing that the LCWR had been found guilty of several serious faults.  Following this assessment, the LCWR was told it must submit to a process of renewal and reform.

People in the United States were astounded at the news.  Over the past 10 years the public had been aware of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, where priests had been accused of abusing children, and bishops had been accused of failing to protect the children by knowingly allowing the abuser priests to continue in ministry, and even transferring some of them quietly to other unsuspecting communities.

But why is Rome investigating the Sisters? Have they done something wrong? Where are the victims of their wrongdoing?  Cardinal Levada in his statement explained that the Sisters were guilty of serious doctrinal errors, of radical feminism, and of sometimes disagreeing with the bishops.  The Cardinal detailed several other concerns, all of the same doctrinal or attitudinal nature.  There was no hint of anyone being hurt by the alleged failings of the Sisters.

The failings attributed to the Sisters pale into insignificance when compared to the harm done by the failings of the delinquent priests and bishops which left hundreds of young victims emotionally scarred for life, a Church with its reputation badly tarnished, and a bill for hundreds of millions of dollars to be paid out in compensation and damages.  Some dioceses were reported to have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Cardinal Levada’s C.D.F. in Rome saw fit to make an assessment of the nuns’ Leadership Conference and to order reforms to correct their perceived failings.  It seems appropriate that the C.D.F. would order a similar assessment of bishops and priests to explain how the Church as an institution failed to protect the children, and to acknowledge institutional responsibility.

If that does not happen, some friend should reach out to Cardinal Levada and his colleagues and remind them of Our Lord’s words in the Gospel: “How do you see a splinter in your brother’s eye, and you do not notice the beam of wood in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye’ when there is a beam of wood in your own eye?  You hypocrite!  First remove the beam of wood from your own eye, and then you will see more clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye”. (Matthew 7, 3-5)

People of God

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Recently I received a video of Clifford Longley speaking in Australia.  Clifford Longley is a leading English Catholic who was invited to Australia by the Catholic organization Catalyst for Renewal to deliver a series of lectures on the legacy of Vatican II, which opened fifty years ago in 1962.

Longley has had a distinguished career as a journalist and columnist, specializing in religious affairs.  Since 1994 he has been a columnist and leader writer for the well-known English Catholic weekly, The Tablet.  In the particular video which I received he speaks about the developing maturity of the Catholic laity in the light of the teaching of Vatican II.

The second Vatican Council taught the Catholic laity to see the Church and themselves in a new light.  The Church is not just the Pope and the bishops, but all the baptized, the People of God.  The new laity see it as their right and duty to take part in Church policy decisions based on their knowledge and their experience of trying to live their Faith in a challenging world.

It is a challenge for Church authorities to live with this new laity empowered and emboldened by Vatican II.  The authorities know that they can no longer govern simply by issuing decrees from on high.  They know that they cannot speak authentically for all the Church if the laity have not been part of the debate.

Clifford Longley insists that the Church authorities must learn that they cannot stifle debate.  He points to Pope John Paul II’s letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 22, 1994) which decreed that all debate on the ordination of women must cease.  With that inimitable British intonation of indignation and disbelief Longley declared “You can’t do that.  You can’t suppress debate”.

In that same letter Pope John Paul II stated in a most definitive way that the Church has no authority to admit women to the ministerial priesthood.  The Pope based his statement on an argumentation which seemed to me inconclusive and open to debate.  He quoted Pope Paul VI’s explanation for excluding women from the ministerial priesthood:  “The true reason is that, based on the fundamental constitution of the Church and theological anthropology, this is the way Christ arranged it to be and the way ecclesial tradition has always followed” (The Angelus 30 Jan. 1977).

But despite the ban on the debate, the issue has not gone away.  As recently as June 2011 the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon in an interview with the magazine “OA” stated that while there is a tradition of exclusion there are no theological reasons for excluding women from the priesthood.  He added that we are forbidden to talk about it, but that the matter cannot be resolved like that.

Last week there was interesting news from the Vatican.  It was reported in Asian Catholic News that the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper has a new editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, who is an historian journalist and a campaigner for women’s rights.  She maintains that if women had been in positions of authority in the Vatican, many of the scandals in the Church would have been avoided.

The Osservatore Romano was founded in 1861, but had no women journalists until four years ago.  Despite the Pope’s backing, Ms Scaraffia knows there are many who are against her.  She says there is a lot of fear of women in the Church.

It is understandable that Ms Scaraffia is meeting fear and opposition in her job.  Pope Benedict has shown courage in appointing her to the post, but those who oppose her have reason to be fearful.  The male stranglehold on power in the Church is a seamless robe.  To share power in the tiniest way with any outsider could lead to the unraveling of the whole garment.

If Benedict XVI could appoint Lucetta as editor of the Osservatore Romano, some future Pope may nominate a woman to be Vatican Secretary of State.  If the most powerful country in the world can have a woman Secretary of State who is both efficient and effective, it is not beyond imagining that the Vatican could have a competent woman Secretary of State at the Pope’s right hand.

Clifford Longley suggests that the Church is coming to the end of an era, the era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  I think Benedict has been a bit more flexible than his predecessor, and that may make it less difficult for another Pope to loosen the male clerical stranglehold on power in the Church.

The primary duty of everyone in the Church, lay or clerical is to respond wholeheartedly to the universal call to holiness.  But Catholic lay men and women must also take their rightful place in decision-making bodies at all levels in the Church.  Only when that happens will the Church truly be the People of God that Vatican II proclaimed it to be.

Food for the Poor

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Recently I came across a book about prayer.  I am always on the look-out for books about prayer, but I never read much of them because they leave me frustrated.  They are always about different kinds of prayer, techniques of prayer, posture at prayer and all sorts of abstractions about prayer.

This book was different.  Its title was ALL YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PRAYER YOU CAN LEARN FROM THE POOR.  The author is Louise Perrotta, and the book consists of interviews she had with about 30 people living on the margins of society in Haiti.  In the book you hear the poor in their own words speaking about their life and how they talk with God.

One example is two young brothers, Moise and Jean, 11 and 13 year-old, whom the author met as they stood in the food-line waiting to collect the family’s ration for the day.   The family lives in a one-room cinder block house that is too small for the seven children, and their only sure meal is the food that the boys bring back from the soup kitchen five days a week. Their parents are unemployed, and the average income in the area is less than $ 1 a day.

The two boys show a real concern for the other members of the family, and their prayers reveal an unquestioning trust in their heavenly Father, whom they address in their native Creole as Bondye.  When asked, “What do you say to God when you pray?” Moise says, “I ask Bondye to help my parents and give them courage to keep going”.   Jean adds, “I ask Bondye to make me strong so I can keep going to school, so that when I’m older I can help my parents have a better life”.

It is the same story with all the other people interviewed, whether it is Mabel, who finds herself homeless and abandoned at 78 years of age, or Lourdie the 32 year-old widowed mother of five young children.  Extreme poverty has simplified their lives and their prayer.  They feel powerless, they fear for their very survival, and they have no one to turn to but Bondye who they believe cares for them and will provide for them in their dire need.

Bondye is providing for the poor in Jamaica and Haiti through Food for the Poor which was founded in 1982 by the Mahfood family who owned one of the most successful businesses in Jamaica.  I learned about Food for the Poor from Louise Perrotta’s book, and in appreciation of what I read in the book I sent a donation to the organization for the work being done on behalf of the very poor.

In response I received a short film on DVD which highlighted how young children are the most tragic victims of hunger and poverty-related sickness and disease.  I was reminded of a 2010 report of the United Nations Children’s Fund which stated that 22,000 children die each day due to hunger and poverty-related diseases.

The UNICEF report stated, “They die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world”.  Being meek and weak in life these multitudes are invisible to the world in death.

Last Friday in Paris there was a meeting of nations interested in ending the fighting in Syria.  A United Nations report stated that during the 16 months of fighting in Syria about 10, 000 people have died.  The U.S. Secretary of State solemnly declared that this is “unacceptable” and must stop.

I wonder if anybody at that Paris meeting was aware that during those same 16 months, according to the United Nations own figures, 10,692,000 children in the poorest countries of the world died from hunger and poverty-related diseases.

I pray that the day will soon come when some important Secretary of State at some international meeting will refer to the preventable deaths of so many children and declare solemnly, “This is unacceptable, and we will lead the nations of the world in remedying this tragic situation which shames us all”.

A tiny fraction of what the nations of the world spend on weapons of destruction would be sufficient to end world hunger, provide clean water for everyone on the planet, immunize all children against preventable diseases, and allow all children to receive a basic education.

It is all within our reach.  What have we to say to our elected representatives and our leaders?  What would the children of Haiti say?  What would Bondye say?

Fortnight for Freedom

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated the period from June 21, to July 4, 2012 as the “Fortnight for Freedom”.  The two weeks are a special time of prayer, study, catechesis and public action to protest government encroachment on religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The catalyst for this action is a mandate issued in January by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring that all employer health plans include provision of free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-producing drugs.  The bishops argue that this mandate denies religious freedom to Catholic employers by requiring them to act contrary to the teachings of their religion.

The campaign began on June 21 with Mass in Baltimore at the national shrine of the Assumption, and concludes on July 4 with Mass in Washington D.C. at the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  During the two week period there are special events scheduled throughout the country to support the campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.

I wonder why the bishops and the government failed to agree on a wording for the mandate which would respect the religious freedom of the employers while providing for the rights of the employees.  It will have to be done eventually, and it should be attainable for two groups of intelligent people who both claim sincerity and good-will in their dedication to human freedom.

It is noteworthy that, at this moment of Government-Church collision on the issue of freedom, both institutions are under a certain amount of criticism for curtailing the freedom of their own subjects – the Government for intruding on the personal privacy of citizens, and the Church authorities for stifling intellectual freedom and silencing their critics.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is quoted as saying that our institutions are imperfect because they are constructed with the faulty timber of our imperfect humanity.  Maybe if Church and State took that as the starting-point in their discussions, they could help each other arrive at an agreed position that may not be perfect for either, but that both can accept as tolerable.