Posts Tagged ‘Al Smith Dinner’

Jesus, His Church and “the uns”

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Tomorrow, January 23, is the first feast day for the newly canonized Saint Marianne Cope. I wrote this reflection while I was in Molokai last week.

“The uns . . .”

George Higgins — the legendary “labor priest” from Chicago was, if I recall correctly, the first person I ever heard use that expression, yet he attributed it to the future — God willing — saint, Dorothy Day.

I borrowed it in my brief concluding remarks and prayer at last October’s Al Smith Dinner, as I praised God for the Church’s lookout for the uns — the un-documented, un-employed, un-housed, un-fed, un-healthy, un-born, un-wanted, misunderstood, un-justly treated — and prayed that our beloved country might work for a culture where that dreaded prefix — un — might be no longer.

It was, of course, Jesus who embraced the uns, namely, us, the unsaved!

And He had a particularly tender spot in His most Sacred Heart for those suffering folks that society called “the un-clean,” the dreaded lepers!

This posting was written in Molokai, in the Hawaiian Islands.  The thoughtful shepherd there, Bishop Larry Silva, kindly invited me to the local celebration of Saint Marianne Cope, newly canonized, who came here 125 years ago, from New York State, as Mother Marianne, to care for these “un-clean” on Molokai.  (Her feast day is tomorrow, January 23.)

Here she joined the legendary Saint Damien of Molokai at his “colony” on a secluded, segregated corner of the island, in embracing those with Hansen’s Disease.  She did it, Saint Marianne wrote, because Jesus did it, and because Saint Francis, the patron of her religious congregation, did it.

She and her sisters not only ministered to these dreaded misunderstood uns; they identified with them. Saint Damien did so to such an extent that he became a leper, literally.  It was Mother Marianne who nursed him as he died, who made him the sling for his ulcerated, decaying arm that we see in his final photographs.

Jesus and His Church are always on the side of the uns.

About five years ago, I travelled to India to visit our Catholic Relief Services workers.  There we had lunch with a radiant group of sisters, all Indian, and their 200 or so students, all girls from about six to twelve.  The girls lived there and went to school.  But our CRS guide told us the sisters were in deep trouble.  Some of them had already been arrested, even put in jail.  Why?

“Because these little girls are Delats, what the culture here used to call “un-touchables.”  The powerful people here are threatened that, once these girls are educated, they will no longer stay around for positions of servitude.  One of the women from the established families even asked, ‘If these girls are educated, who will bring us our tea?’  Thus, the sisters are considered disruptive and threatening.”

Jesus and His Church are always on the side of the uns.

Three years ago, the bishop of the United States went-to-bat for the uns, the unborn baby and the undocumented immigrant, who were left uncovered in legislation bishops had promoted for nine decades, the Affordable Health Care Act.

Next week every parish in the archdiocese will have its second annual food drive for the unfed of our communities, and over four thousand of our people, mostly young, will March for Life for the unborn this Friday in D.C.

One of the nicest compliments we bishops of New York ever got, in my four years here, anyway, came from Governor Andrew Cuomo when we met with him in Albany in March, 2011.

We had spoken to him of the concerns of the Catholic community of the state.  When we had said our piece, the governor commented.

 “Bishops, most of the time, people come to see me about an agenda to advance their own interests.  For the last twenty minutes, I’ve heard you speak on behalf of people who can really not help you much — the prisoners, the sick, the homeless, the unborn, the elderly, the immigrant.  I might disagree with you on a number of issues, but I’m proud of my Church for speaking-up on behalf of those most people don’t . . .

 “For as long as you did it for the uns, you did it for me . . . “

Al Smith Dinner

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012


Last week I was out in Anaheim for the annual Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus. It was, as usual, a most uplifting and inspirational event.

In his rousing address to the thousands of delegates, representing 1.8 million knights, Dr. Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight, exhorted us to a renewed sense of faithful citizenship, encouraging us not to be shy about bringing the values of faith to the public square. This duty, he reminded us, came not just from the fact that we are Catholic, but also from the fact that we are loyal Americans.

He then went on to announce a promising initiative of the Knights of Columbus to foster civility in politics. Quoting a very recent study, he noted that over 80% of Americans are fed up with the negativity, judgmentalism, name-calling, and mudslinging of our election-year process, and eagerly want a campaign of respect, substance, amity — civility!

For seven decades, the Al Smith Dinner here in New York has been an acclaimed example of such civility in political life. As you may know, every four years, during the presidential election campaign, the Al Smith Dinner is the venue of history, as it is the only time outside of the presidential debates that the two presidential candidates come together, at the invitation of the Al Smith Foundation, through the archbishop of New York, for an evening of positive, upbeat, patriotic, enjoyable civil discourse.  This year, both President Obama and Governor Romney have accepted our invitation. I am grateful to them.

The evening has always had a special meaning, as it is named after Governor Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated, in 1928, as a candidate for president, who was viciously maligned because of his own Catholic faith.  Smith was known as The Happy Warrior, because while he fought fiercely for what he believed was right, he never sought to demonize those who opposed him.  And, the dinner named in his honor is truly life-affirming as it raises funds to help support mothers in need and their babies (both born and unborn) of any faith, or none at all.

The Al Smith Dinner has never been without controversy, since, as Carl Anderson reminded us, politics can inspire disdain and negativity as well as patriotism and civility.

This year is surely no exception: I am receiving stacks of mail protesting the invitation to President Obama (and by the way, even some objecting to the invitation to Governor Romney).

The objections are somewhat heightened this year, since the Catholic community in the United States has rightly expressed vigorous criticism of the President’s support of the abortion license, and his approval of mandates which radically intruded upon Freedom of Religion. We bishops, including yours truly, have been unrelenting in our opposition to these issues, and will continue to be.

So, my correspondents ask, how can you justify inviting the President? Let me try to explain.

For one, an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner is not an award, or the provision of a platform to expound views at odds with the Church. It is an occasion of conversation; it is personal, not partisan.

Two, the purpose of the Al Smith Dinner is to show both our country and our Church at their best: people of faith gathered in an evening of friendship, civility, and patriotism, to help those in need, not to endorse either candidate. Those who started the dinner sixty-seven years ago believed that you can accomplish a lot more by inviting folks of different political loyalties to an uplifting evening, rather than in closing the door to them.

Three, the teaching of the Church, so radiant in the Second Vatican Council, is that the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagement and dialogue. In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one. Our recent popes have been examples of this principle, receiving dozens of leaders with whom on some points they have serious disagreements. Thus did our present Holy Father graciously receive our current President of the United States.  And, in the current climate, we bishops have maintained that we are open to dialogue with the administration to try and resolve our differences.  What message would I send if I refused to meet with the President?

Finally, an invitation to the Al Smith Dinner in no way indicates a slackening in our vigorous promotion of values we Catholic bishops believe to be at the heart of both gospel and American values, particularly the defense of human dignity, fragile life, and religious freedom. In fact, one could make the case that anyone attending the dinner, even the two candidates, would, by the vibrant solidarity of the evening, be reminded that America is at her finest when people, free to exercise their religion, assemble on behalf of poor women and their babies, born and unborn, in a spirit of civility and respect.

Some have told me the invitation is a scandal. That charge weighs on me, as it would on any person of faith, but especially a pastor, who longs to give good example, never bad. So, I apologize if I have given such scandal. I suppose it’s a case of prudential judgment: would I give more scandal by inviting the two candidates, or by not inviting them?

No matter what you might think of this particular decision, might I ask your prayers for me and my brother bishops and priests who are faced with making these decisions, so that we will be wise and faithful shepherds as God calls us to be?

In the end, I’m encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.

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