God, Caesar & Saint Patrick too…

As October draws to a close, the days are growing shorter, nights are getting cooler, trees are loosing their glorious colors to stand stark and bare against the sky…a scary season is looming up on us – and I’m not just talking about Halloween! 

With the approach the upcoming Election Day, we seem unable to escape dire predictions and partisan bickering regarding the political future of our country: this discourse dominates every media broadcast, conversation, and personal encounter. Because of the importance of the decisions to be made, this is perhaps the way things should be for Christians trying to model their lives on the example of Jesus. After all, as last Sunday’s Gospel reminds us (Mt. 22: 15-22), Jesus too confronted challenging questions regarding His relationship with the political authorities of the time; in His encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus gave us His standard for dealing with the politically powerful by reminding us to “Give to emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. Now, how Christians have lived out this important injunction of Jesus’ has differed considerably over the centuries; and I’d like to share with you some recent examples of that variety from right here in the Archdiocese of New York. 

Probably the most visible recent example was the 63rd annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, which took place here in New York City a few weeks ago on October 16th in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The “Al Smith Dinner” as it is called is a major fund raising event for the Archdiocese that raises money for Catholic health care and charitable agencies. It is named for Alfred E. Smith, four time Governor of New York State and the first Roman Catholic nominee for the Presidency back in 1928. Smith of course lost that race to President Herbert Hoover, and many believe that his candidacy was derailed in large part by anti-Catholic prejudice. Evidence for this belief is based on historical events such as Smith’s campaign stop in Oklahoma City on the night of September 20, 1928; as Smith’s campaign train pulled into the station there, it’s way was lit by the infamous large burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan. Rather then ignore this bigotry, Smith confronted it, stating that “There is no greater mockery in the world today than the burning of the Cross by these people who are spreading this propaganda…while the Christ that they are supposed to adore, love and venerate…taught by the holy, sacred writ of brotherly love”. 

In so standing up against the intolerance of his time Smith was a brave politician, and a portrait of him hangs upon my Office wall; his story has always proved very instructive to me. It serves as a reminder of the prejudice that existed at one time in this country against persons with religious and ethnic backgrounds very similar to my own, and reinforces in me the moral obligation that I therefore have to insure that members of other groups never ever receive similar – or worse – treatment because of their race, ethnicity or religious affiliation. Some good Church teaching on our collective Catholic obligation to oppose racism and respect cultural diversity is available at: http://www.usccb.org/saac/bishopspastoral.shtml 

Of course, much has changed for the better for Catholics in this country in the 80 years since Al Smith uttered these words, and the dinner named in his honor is a very good example. The event, which began a year after Smith’s death in 1945, is a very prestigious affair, and since 1960 (when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were speakers) it has traditionally been a stop for the two main presidential candidates during U.S. presidential election years: this year was no exception. Some good reporting on this year’s dinner is available in the October 23rd edition of Catholic New York – here’s the link: www.cny.org/archive/ld/ld3102308.htm

A few times in the past I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend the Al Smith Dinner; on those occasions, I always enjoyed myself as I took in the pageantry, and star-studded dais, and the traditional political roast. I was not asked to attend this year’s dinner, and it’s a good thing too: I already had an extremely important standing engagement to spend the evening of Thursday October 16th with 30 parishioners from Saint Patrick’s Parish in Yorktown Heights discussing with them the Catholic teaching contained in the United States Bishops’ recent document “Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship” available on the web at www.faithfulcitizenship.org. At this forum, participants received a packet containing the Bishops’ document and other non-partisan information and resources they could use to inform themselves on issues of life, of justice, of peace. The forums began with prayer and Scripture, together we watched a DVD produced by the U.S. Bishops’ entitled “A Matter of Conscience”, and then spent the remainder of our time together exploring the requirements Faithful Citizenship: an openness to seek the truth and what is right, a challenge to consider the moral and ethical dimensions of public policy issues in light of Catholic social teaching, a commitment to properly form our consciences mindful of what the Church teaches regarding both our affirmative obligation to seek the common good as well as the requirement that we have to avoid cooperation in intrinsically evil action individually or collectively, and a promise to fulfill our moral obligation to participate in the political process on Election Day and beyond. 

Catholic Charities has thus far conducted nineteen Parish Forums on Faithful Citizenship, in parishes in Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx, Westchester, Rockland and Orange Counties. Many were conducted in both English and Spanish. We have another six Forums scheduled between now and the upcoming election. It is our hope that through these Forums on the requirements of Faithful Citizenship, we are equipping parishioners across the Archdiocese with the tools that they will need to make prayerful, informed choices next Tuesday as they fulfill for themselves Jesus’ injunction to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

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