Putting on my Sackcloth and Ashes – only Digitally…

February 18th, 2010

Dear Readers,

As we begin Lent – a season that reminds us of the importance of repentance beginning our six week journey of preparation for the Resurrection of our Lord, after a lengthy examination of conscience I have a confession to make: I have to admit that over the past several weeks I have been a very bad blogger! Since the beginning of the year, I have been remiss in not adding one single new post to “On Earth as It is in Heaven,” and for this I am profoundly sorry! Now, some of this has had to do with time spent working on other responsibilities, which included time spent down in Washington D.C. during their recent “snowpocalypse” (more on that to come later…); but no matter, I take full responsibility for my recent bad blogging habits, and – in an attitude of appropriate repentance for Ash Wednesday – I am here to promise that this situation is going to change, and that this change begins today!

Today is the 44th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI issuance of the Constitution on Fasting and Abstinence (Poenitemini) which raised up the importance of voluntary, self-chosen penances such as works of charity for the poor to compliment traditional fasting. In contemplating this anniversary, I thought it entirely appropriate to take on as one of my Lenten observances this year – in addition to of course observing the traditional requirements of fast and abstinence – becoming a much more diligent blogger! In this regard in the coming weeks, I promise to post comments on a much more regular basis, sharing the teachings of our Church on the dignity of the human person, and all the good works – both here and abroad – that the Church undertakes on behalf of the poor and vulnerable in our midst. In making this commitment, I am following the good advice that Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI gave in his message for the 44th Annual World Communications Day (released on January 23rd) which encouraged all Catholics – but especially priests in this “Year of the Priest” – to use all the new media technologies at our disposal to reach new audiences with the message of God’s abundant love.

So please forgive the hiatus dear readers – and a Blessed Ash Wednesday to you all – will be back real soon…..

Helping Santa to do the Right Thing…

December 18th, 2009

The late autumn and early winter has always been one of my favorite times of year. Although I do miss the dwindling daylight and dread the frigid winds of the deep winter as an undiagnosed sufferer of “S.A.D.” (“Seasonal Affective Disorder” for those non-psychologists among us), the warm glow of the sparkling lights which pop up just about everywhere this time of year always serve to lift up my spirit and bring on some much needed cheer! In fact – just about the only thing I don’t like about this time of year is the proverbial “Christmas rush”. It always seems that no matter who you are talking to, people have about twice as many things to do – from shopping for presents, to visiting friends and family, to planning celebrations – then there are hours in the day. This hustle and bustle, of course, is just about the exact opposite of what the Church is encouraging us to do liturgically at this time of year: rather then the bright colors of red, white and green, the colors of Advent are a somber purple, in place of a myriad of bright lights, the Advent Wreath’s glow emanates from only four candles. Instead of mad rushes and impending deadlines, the words that Scripture speak of at this time are ones of longing and anticipation. When compared with the frenetic pace of today’s “holiday season”, in its liturgies, the Church’s wisely reminds us that these weeks before Christmas should not be “rushed” but instead should serve as a time of preparation for the coming of – not Santa Claus – but instead of the Prince of Peace.

Reminders like these are increasingly important for all of us – especially since it is so easy to get caught up in all of the seductive hoopla that surrounds the holiday; even when you work for a religious organization like Catholic Charities. In fact, when I initially sat down to write the first draft of this post, it was the Monday of the First week of Advent, but with all of the business that comes prior to Christmas Day I am only now getting around to posting it. Sadly, these days many people would not identify with the term “First Monday of Advent” as quickly as they would with another: “Cyber Monday” – a marketing term first created by the National Retail Federation to denote the Monday immediately following the more famous “Black Friday” – itself the name for the Friday that follows Thanksgiving Day in the United States, and which officially starts the Christmas “Shopping Season” when retailers see their balance sheets go from ”red” to “black”. Both of these days have little or nothing to do with spiritually preparing one’s self for the birthday of the Prince of Peace (which ironically is the reason that these two days exist in the first place); instead, they are about “helping Santa” materially fill the space under the tree with more and bigger gifts. That what was originally the season of Advent has been transmogrified into an over-marketed, commercialized, $450 billion orgy of consumption needs no further demonstration – I think – then the fact that an actual death of 34 year old at a Wal-Mart on Long Island last year was blamed directly on the fact that it was “Black Friday”: the man – Jdimytai Damour, a temporary employee of Wal-Mart – was trampled to death helping a pregnant co-worker to safety after frenzied shoppers smashed through the store’s front doors in order to buy a 50-inch flat screen television on sale for $800!

You know, it really doesn’t have to be this way, and saying no to the over-consumption that today marks the run-up to Christmas does not require a Grinch-like renunciation of any gift giving at all. That same First Week of Advent that I was preparing my first draft of posting, we in the Department of Social and Community Development here at Catholic Charities also held our Seventh Annual Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade Christmas Sale, where employees here at the Catholic Center in New York had the opportunity to come and shop responsibly and thoughtfully, using their dollars to provide the benefits of “fair trade” to producers overseas while at the same time giving their loved ones unique crafts and delicious foods! The sale is always quite popular, and every year as we approach Christmas I am continually approached by people in the hallway and on the elevator to ask me when the sale is. I’m not really surprised about that – after all, by purchasing your gifts through fair trade, you not only get to do a good thing for others by buying them great coffee, delicious chocolate and unique items, you also get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done the right thing in really supporting the producers of those goods at the source. In place of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we here at the Catholic Center have “Solidarity Thursday” and a “Fair Trade Friday”, where our purchases respect human dignity, promote economic justice, and foster global solidarity! You know, you don’t actually have to attend an actual fair trade sale to purchase fair trade goods, through the miracle of technology you can actually obtain fairly traded coffee, teas, chocolate and great “Work of Human Hands” gift items through the Catholic Relief Services website at: http://www.crsfairtrade.org/products.

So, as Advent draws to a close, won’t you too help Santa do the right thing? Take the time to check out the fairly traded items and foodstuff at the Catholic Relief Services website, and consider helping Saint Nicholas stuff your loved one’s stockings with gifts that really make a difference! Then, slow down a little, experience Advent and prepare yourself spiritually for the coming of the Prince of Peace – after all, let’s not forget that His birthday really is the “reason for the season.”

T’is the Season for CCHD

November 13th, 2009

(In preparation for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s (CCHD) Annual Appeal Sunday – this year’s, this coming Sunday November 15th – I have asked my colleague Lourdes Ferrer, Community Development Coordinator for the Department of Social and Community Development, for a brief reflection on CCHD)

Ahhh! Autumn, my favorite time of the year: cool brisk air that invigorates the body and the mind; trees adorned in brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red; the excitement the onset of the holiday season brings; the angry phone calls and letters…

Oh wait, I didn’t mean to include that last item. It’s just that this can be a pretty trying time of the year for me. You see I’m the coordinator of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) for the Archdiocese of New York and each November, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the annual CCHD collection is taken in parishes across the country. The funds you donate, helps to fund the work of CCHD.

You’re probably thinking, “That sounds like a good thing. So what’s the problem?”

Unfortunately, opposition to CCHD is as seasonal as candy corn and pumpkin pie. But let me start by giving those of you unfamiliar with CCHD, a little background about the program: CCHD is the domestic anti-poverty, social justice program founded by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 1970. Its mission is to address the root causes of poverty in America through promotion and support of community-controlled, self-help organizations and through transformative education. CCHD awards grant funds in two areas: community organizing and economic development. Community organizing grants are awarded to groups that demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of the human person by bringing diverse people together to address the root causes of poverty in their communities, removing institutional barriers that keep historically marginalized and low-income people from reaching their full God-given potential. Economic development grants support initiatives that significantly include the voice of the poor and marginalized, developing new businesses that offer good jobs, and/or develop assets that will be owned and enjoyed by local communities.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “So where do the angry phone calls and letters come in?”

Since it’s inception, CCHD has faced opposition from a minority of people that think that CCHD is – in their words – not a “Biblical organization”; they are equally afraid that the money distributed is being used for – again, their words – “non-Catholic activity.” These opponents have long called for the disbandment of CCHD and have been very vocal about their beliefs. They write articles and blogs, send letters, and make phone call of which I (along with CCHD directors/coordinators across the country) am the recipients.

To make matter worse, last year, we learned that the staff leadership of ACORN, a CCHD funded organization, had covered up information regarding the embezzlement of funds from their organization. In addition, concerns arose regarding reports of ACORN’s involvement in alleged voter registration fraud and political partisanship. This motivated CCHD opponents, across the country, to strike with greater fervor then ever before, even after CCHD had stopped funding ACORN.

I don’t want to mislead you, it’s not like I get bags of mail or my telephone is ringing off the hook (Sadly, I’m not that popular.) The truth is I usually get three to four complaints a year. Most of the complaints are harmless. For example, I once had a women call to tell me she wouldn’t be donating to CCHD because she didn’t like the website of one of our funded groups; and another time a male caller informed me I was to blame for the economic crisis. I can’t say I really understood his logic, but apparently my funding community groups triggered that whole Wall Street scandal (Oh, to have such power!)

But then there is a second group of people whose anger towards CCHD is so great, that it makes communication impossible. I’m sure you can relate to my frustration. We’ve all experienced people that don’t listen and just yell, never letting you get a word in edgewise. You can always tell, by their tone, that they’ve already made up their mind that they’re right, and they don’t want to give you the opportunity to say anything that might dissuade them from their viewpoint. And although I respect that everyone is entitled to their opinion and I understand that not everyone will change their minds about CCHD simply because I, or any other CCHD supporter, tells them that it’s a great program that touches the lives of thousands of low- and moderate- income people across our country, and that it inspires change not only in individual lives, but in the health and well-being of communities as a whole, it still would be nice to be part of a discussion where information can be exchanged and the possibility of greater understanding is possible. Maybe then CCHD won’t be judged on the handful of grants, made over its thirty-nine year history, that might be considered bad judgment calls, and instead be judged by the hundreds of successful projects that have been funded.

Maybe then, I’d have the chance to tell them about The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Port Chester, New York, who established a workers center to assist in facilitating the connection between employers and day labors while also providing an opportunity for skill development for the workers; or maybe I could answer questions about the great work being done by Movimiento por Justicia del Barrio (Movement for Justice in El Barrio) in East Harlem, a project initially established by St. Celia’s Church after receiving countless complaints from low-income parishioners suffering under hazardous and illegal living conditions, and today is a four hundred member strong organization, whose membership continues to work for improvement to their living conditions and their community; or better yet, maybe we could come together to share a meal at COLORS Restaurant, an economic development project initiated by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), and I could tell them how the idea for this amazing cooperatively owed eatery was born from the ashes of destruction of September 11th. And maybe I’d get the chance to tell them about the individual members of these organizations and how their lives have changed, for the better, because parishioners cared enough to drop a couple of bills into the second collection basket on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And at the end of our conversation, if they were still unconvinced that a greater good has been served through CCHD’s funding of these community based organizations, maybe they could, at least, acknowledge that the program has made a difference in the lives of people across our country, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

After giving it a lot of thought I decided, since the dialoging for greater understanding thing hasn’t yet happened, I would take it upon myself to come up with a solution that would satisfy both sides (What can I tell you? I’m a Libra. I need harmony.)

After much prayer and discernment, I’ve come up with the following plan:

  • First, we get everyone to agree “that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.”
  • Secondly, everyone agrees that “the person is not only sacred but also social” and that “how we organize our society – in economic and politics, in law and policy – directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.”
  • Thirdly, we need to remember that “every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency” and that “corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.”
  • Then, we acknowledge that “a basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring” and that “in a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our Catholic tradition…instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”
  • We then need to remember that “work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation” and that “if the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”
  • Then, we’ll show our “respect for our creator by our stewardship of creation.” We need to remember “we are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.”
  • And last, but certainly not least, we’ll come into full realization that we are one human family called to stand in solidarity with on another. We will remember that we are “our brother’s and sister’s keepers, wherever they may be,” and that “loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world,” and that “at the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace.”
  • Now, all we need to do is get everyone to live by these seven…what should we call them…I don’t know, maybe principles. If we could just get everyone to agree to live by these Seven Principles, then every person would have the opportunity to live life in the fullness that they deserve as children of God. And if everyone is living their lives in the fullness they deserve, then there would be no need for community groups; which means there would be no groups seeking CCHD funding; which means we won’t have to take up the CCHD collection; which means no one would have to worry that funds are being misused; which will eliminate anyone’s need to complain.

    TA-DA! It’s a great plan, don’t you think?

    Hmm? What’s that? You think you’ve heard of these Seven Principles before?

    GOOD! I was hoping you had. For as much as I’d like to take credit for them, these principles have long been at the heart of our Church’s social teachings. If you’d like to learn more about the social teachings of the Church, I recommend you visit www.usccb.org or www.osjspm.org.

    Just this week, as I rode the uptown W train, on my way to the Catholic Center, I spied a Subtalk ad that caught my attention. For those of you that don’t have the pleasure of riding the NYC subway, the MTA has a series of ads that are meant to stimulate your mind as you ride the rails. This particular ad is part of their “Train of Thought” series and it contained the following quote: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

    As I contemplated these words, thoughts of CCHD and the many phone calls, letter, and emails I’d received during my ten year tenure as CCHD coordinator, flooded my mind and I realized: After all these years, people know so little about CCHD. And I decided to make the following plea:

    Please don’t limit your vision of CCHD to only the small bits of negative information that’s making such a loud impress these days, but rather be open to hearing the entire CCHD story. Check out the CCHD website (www.usccb.org/cchd), read the funding criteria, review the funding process, read about the funded groups and visit their websites. Don’t be shy about asking questions. There are CCHD directors/coordinators, in every diocese and we’re more then happy to answer your questions. All I ask is that you hear us out. I can’t guarantee that our answers will be exactly what you want to hear, but I promise they will always be the truth.

    Give CCHD a chance, you may be surprised by what you discover.

    Of Politics and Principles…

    November 4th, 2009

    As some of you who have read my previous postings may be aware, since June of this year – with the infamous mandatory switch to DTV – I have been living without a television (link). As a real news junkie, this required some behavioral modification on my part: time that was once spent watching news program after news program could now be devoted to other pursuits – reading, exercising, more formal meditation and prayer, catching up with friends, or just some nice quiet time to myself. All in all, I have to say that I really haven’t missed television that much. Still – old habits die hard, and every evening before I retire it is my practice to go on-line and check the websites of the local newspapers to see what the most recent headlines are; then, in the morning, I always wake up to the breaking news reported on the local radio station Ten-Ten WINS: as they request, I give them their 22 minutes and they “give me the world” – or at least what’s going on in it! In this manner, I am seldom surprised when I wake up and listen to the radio and hear what’s going on, because I already have an inkling of what the next day’s news will be. Surprises still happen however – and the most recent one was just about a month ago when I awoke to the newscaster’s voice telling me that President Obama was about to comment on his reception of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. I immediately straightened up – “did I hear that right?” I thought. “Surely” I thought further “they meant that the President was going to make comments and congratulate whoever the recipient of this year’s Peace Prize was”, and so I listened again and discovered that no, what I first heard was correct: that President Barack Obama had been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for his vision to strengthen the role of dialogue, negotiation and multilateral diplomacy in resolving international crises, for his goal of and work toward a world without nuclear weapons, and ultimately for capturing the world’s attention and giving people hope for a better future (link).

    As I got ready for work, that news began to sink in a little more, and I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of surprise. As a person whose work is in the field of “Justice and Peace”, I have always noted with interest the accomplishments of past Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (one of my favorite T-shirts has the ironic comment “I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize” emblazoned across the chest!) Generally, people who win the Nobel Peace Prize do so for accomplishing some extraordinary societal change (Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela), living a life of altruism and extraordinary virtue (Mother Teresa), or some combination thereof. I admit that all of the things that the Nobel Prize Committee cited in their announcement of President Obama’s winning of this year’s prize are very good and very humane, yet arguably except for capturing the world’s attention and generating a feeling of hope in people by his election, the remainder of the reasons that the Nobel Committee gave for its selection are more the President’s aspirations, vision and goals then his concrete accomplishments at this point. President Obama seemed to realize this when he called his reception of the prize a “call to action” (link). Reaction to the President’s reception of the Nobel was pretty much mixed and predictable, based upon a person’s location along the political spectrum. One of the most astute observations, I thought, was from dissident playwright turned President Vaclav Havel, who twenty years ago this month led the people of then-communist Czechoslovakia through their “Velvet Revolution”, helping to transform their society from totalitarianism to democracy (link). The one time President of the Czech Republic, when told that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, asked rhetorically if it were true that President Obama had refused to meet the Dalai Lama (himself a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1989) in order to curry favor with the Chinese government. When told that the President had indeed done so as part of the Administration’s new policy of “strategic reassurance” – softening criticism of China’s human rights violations to calm the fears of the nation that is bankrolling the United State’s debt – Havel, no stranger himself to the interplay of politics and principle, commented that “it is only a minor compromise. But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.” (link) Our President – a masterful politician and consensus builder who has yet to make a concrete decision as Commander-in-Chief regarding our continued military involvement in the theater of Afghanistan that he inherited – would do well to consider Mr. Havel’s sage advice as he undertakes his considerable international and domestic responsibilities.

    I thought of this interplay – between politics and principle, compromise and real problems – as I read Archbishop Dolan’s October 26th blog post (link) regarding Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s comment in an interview that the Catholic Bishops of the United States were fanning “the flames of dissent and discord” by stating their intent to vigorously oppose a final bill on healthcare reform unless it specifically includes longstanding federal protections restricting abortion funding and mandates, protecting the conscience rights of healthcare providers, and providing adequate access to heath care for immigrants and the poor – concerns that Kennedy termed “a red herring”. Kennedy’s comments came on the heals of other comments in the mainstream media accusing the Church of an “inconsistent approach” to health care reform that has created confusion and led to a breakdown in understanding regarding the Church’s primary concerns (link).

    If some people in Congress, the media or even the general public are confused about the Church’s stance on the healthcare debate, they really shouldn’t be if they had been paying attention. While the U.S Catholic Bishops have for decades been at the forefront of the campaign for healthcare reform, their concerns in that debate have always remained constant: as Archbishop Dolan’s blog succinctly states, “The Catholic community in the United States hardly needs to be lectured to about just healthcare. We’ve been energetically into it for centuries. And we bishops have been advocating for universal healthcare for a long, long time. All we ask is that it be just that – universal – meaning that it includes the helpless baby in the womb, the immigrant, and grandma in a hospice, and that it protects a healthcare provider’s right to follow his/her own conscience.” What some people might have become confused over may be in reading the politics of the healthcare debate – the arena where “minor compromise” is possible; regarding the principles that should animate those compromises – specifically here for the Church: health care reform that’s universal, respects human life and dignity, is accessible for all (especially the poor and immigrants) and protects freedom of conscience – there can be no compromise without risking the much bigger dangers that Havel mentions. The Church could no more compromise on these core matters – matters that run to the very purpose of providing healthcare in the first place – then Havel could’ve compromised on the principle of totalitarian rule as he pursued the goal of freedom for his people during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. So seriously, in fact, do the Bishops take these core principles that they have taken the step of asking Catholics from around the country to contact their Senators and Congressional Representatives as they put together final bills on healthcare reform for consideration in the Congress and urge them to oppose any bills under consideration that are deficient on issues of abortion and conscience, and that do not provide adequate access to healthcare for immigrants and the poor. You can send an instant message to your Congressional representatives to that effect by clicking here: www.usccb.org/action.

    In the weeks to come, our Congressional representatives will be drafting and debating policies in health care reform that will – for good or ill – have an impact on just about every family for years to come. As they exercise this Constitutional responsibility, each of us has a corollary moral responsibility to learn about the bills under consideration and to remind our representatives that in undertaking those minor compromises that all political negotiation entail, that they keep their eyes on the prize of healthcare that is universal, accessible, and protects life and conscience, and that in pursuit of these goals they don’t – figuratively or literally – throw the baby out with the bathwater!

    Courtesy to Strangers: Lessons Learned and Now Forgotten?

    October 16th, 2009

    Last month was definitely not the high water mark for civility in American public culture: coming hot on the heals of cool summer that was punctuated with red hot political rhetoric at the Congressional Town Hall meetings on healthcare reform, September of 2009 may well be remembered as the month that the American public as a whole became aware many figures in the popular culture were in desperate need of a tutorial from Miss Manners. Whether it was Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift to publicly disrespect her during her reception of an MTV music award, to Serena Williams’ very public – and vulgar – dressing down of a referee at the U.S. Open; it seemed that everyone from entertainers to athletes forgot the most basic lessons of civility and sportsmanship that our parents teach us at home and our teachers re-enforce in Kindergarten. It was the actions of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson however – who with a very angry and audible outburst of “You lie!” interrupted a speech President Obama was giving to Congress back on September 9th – that unacceptable behavior by public figures hit a surprising low: given the position that Congressman Wilson holds, the venue and timing of his outburst in the Congressional Chamber, and the intended recipient of his insult (the President) – you would think that a Congressman should know better!

    Later on, when I learned that the supposed provocation of Congressman Wilson’s outburst was President Obama’s statement that the new healthcare legislation proposed in Congress would not cover illegal immigrants, I must admit that my initial shock at the Congressman’s comments was replaced by both a profound sadness and an utter lack of surprise that the issue of immigration was the catalyst that launched his outburst. This emotional response on my part is born of the fact that – as regards intolerance and issues of immigration – I have unfortunately been witness to some the more uncharitable exchanges that pass for public discourse these days. What was the cause of this? Well, several months ago a number of pastors asked our Department developed a series of bulletin announcements that call attention to the vulnerable position our immigrant brothers and sisters occupy in society, as well as the profound concern the Church has for them. The entire text of each and every one of these bulletin announcements – which have been running monthly since July of this year – is taken straight out of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s documents: “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope”, published as a pastoral response to the issues of migration back in 2003 (link). The feedback that we have received in response to these bulletin announcements (my telephone number and e-mail are listed for those seeking more information) have been varied: many of the comments are supportive – some who contact us are immigrants who are either seeking assistance or are grateful that the Church stands with them in their struggles, and others are individuals concerned with the plight of immigrants and their families living within their parish communities. Our Department however has also been the recipient of some responses that are the exact opposite of supportive: calling the content of the announcements things such as “ambiguous nonsense”, more then a few of these responses go on to slander today’s immigrants in terms so hurtful and uncharitable they don’t bear repeating here. I have to admit, in all my years of working for the Church and advocating on behalf of Her positions on some very controversial issues, the vitriol I have read and heard expressed in response to these bulletin announcements is astonishing; and the fact that these writers and callers are presumably responding as result of their attendance at Church just adds to my profound sadness at this situation.

    Whenever we receive a response to our bulletin announcements our Department always responds back: to those seeking assistance, we try to connect them with the right people here at Catholic Charities who can help them; to those who complain, we try to point out that we are only promulgating the teachings of our Bishops and our Church (you would be surprised how many of those who complain refer to the content of the bulletin announcements as “my” statements!) Because the content of some of these statements are so outrageous I can’t help but believe that they are made more out of ignorance then experience. Instead of just responding back in writing, what I would really love to do for these folks is to have them accompany me to places like St. Mary’s Parish on the Lower East Side, where on September 14th I attended an interfaith prayer service in support of our immigrant brothers and sisters called “One Family Under God”. If those people accompanied me there, they would encounter a multi-hued and multi-lingual community of people standing together as brothers and sisters united in the family of a merciful God; they would hear the testimonies of individuals and families struggling to live in, work for and contribute to a community not of their birth but still grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded them here (See some video of the Prayer Service here). The stories I heard there at that Church reminded me so very much of the stories that I heard growing up about my own family, the struggles my ancestors endured to prosper in a country not of their birth, and the tremendous gratefulness that there was to a nation that welcomed them in and gave them opportunity where before there was none. In fact, one of the testimonies that I heard at St. Mary’s – from a woman extremely proud of her own heritage but additionally grateful to be a resident of this country which has allowed her and her family so much opportunity – reminded me of a story that my mother has told about when she was growing up in St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish on University Avenue and Fordham Road in the Fordham section of the Bronx. The child of immigrant parents from Ireland like almost everyone else in that neighborhood at that time, my mother was very proud of her Irish heritage, but even prouder to be an American – the country that had welcomed her parents when their own could no longer support them. So proud was my Mom that when she took her first job at Dollar Savings Bank on the Grand Concourse and they asked her what ethnicity she was (you could do that in those days), she replied with the now politically incorrect term, “American Indian”. Well, you could just imagine the ribbing she took when my Grandmother came to visit her one day at work: when she approached the bank manager to asked for my mother, he smiled, went to go find my Mom and told her that her mother was there to see her, and “that for an American Indian, she had a lovely Irish brogue” (to use another now politically incorrect term).

    Of course, just about every American family whose ancestors are not Native American could undoubtedly tell the same or a similar story. It doesn’t escape me that I am writing this posting the week of Columbus Day – a holiday that should remind us all that – except for the Native Americans, all of us who call this wonderful continent of North America home are all descended from people from other places. My ancestors arrived here in New York by boat – on my Mom’s side it was by steamship – on my Dad’s (whose family has been here much longer) it was by sailing ship. When they came, they were welcomed by some, and disparaged by others. Often today, when we remember our immigrant ancestors, we sometimes romanticize what they encountered upon their arrival; we sometimes think that those coming today “are just different” from our ancestors. From my own perspective of course, any cursory glance at a description of the Five-Points Slum in lower Manhattan at the times of mass Irish immigration demonstrates that anti-immigrant sentiments and prejudices (link) are not unique to today, but instead sadly have belonged to every period of American history.

    Immigration as an issue is about many things, but boiled down – the way I see it – in this nation of immigrants it should really be about primarily three: assimilation, memory and encounter. For the immigrant, the experience is primarily about assimilation and how difficult it is to assimilate into a new culture without loosing your own. For the native born descendent of immigrants, it’s primarily about memory, and remembering that we too are decedents of immigrants who undoubtedly had difficultly assimilating to a culture different then their own – a difficulty that was often exacerbated by prejudice of the then native born against those different from themselves, a memory that should all but eliminate any prejudice to the newcomers among us today. For all of us – immigrants and native born – our experience of one another should be one of encounter – like the one I had at St. Mary’s Parish – where we all treat one another as precious members of the single family of God.

    Names…

    September 11th, 2009

    Of all of the many things that I have come to love about living in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is the island of Manhattan, perhaps my favorite is the opportunity to meet people from just about every corner of the globe. Of course, in today’s ever shrinking “globalized” world, this possibility is no longer confined to just the big cities, but still living in New York – because of its stature as a “capital” of world finance, media, art and fashion – allows a person to make these diverse connections with relative ease. My time living here has let me meet and mingle with people of many different backgrounds from just about every continent save Antarctica: from almost every part of Europe to South America, Asia and the Middle East, the fact that I can now count as friends such a diverse mosaic of people has immeasurably enriched my life, and has helped me to develop what I hope to be a much broader perspective.

    Encountering such diversity was not always part and parcel of my daily experience however: as a young man, I spent a significant amount of my adolescence living in a beautiful little town located right over the New York City Line from the Bronx in the southern most corner of Westchester County. This particular village, where my parents still live, was a wonderful community within which to grow up – my family had its own home with a backyard, we lived within walking distance of our local parish and parish school, and were surrounded by wonderful neighbors who quickly became friends. At that time, most of these neighbors – except for a few of the long time residents – were also from families very much like my own; they were for the most part families of white ethnic Catholic professionals just recently moved from apartments in the boroughs to the suburbs in search of their piece of the “American Dream”. As far as diversity was concerned, at that time quite frankly the most exotic that any of our neighbors got were those from France, Finland and yes – Canada – who were employed by their respective countries’ embassies, and who lived in our town for its proximity to the United Nations by train. As I grew, unlike a lot of my contemporaries whom after graduating college moved away, I remained living “in town”– at first in my parents’ home, then later in my own apartment: as the oldest in a family of significantly younger siblings, I wanted to remain close by so as not to miss any of my brothers’ “growing up years”. For this reason, it wasn’t until my late thirties that I actually moved out of Westchester County and into the city. In all that time, of course, the town I grew up in itself had changed considerably – as had the world. In fact, my move into Manhattan from the suburbs came in the years when significant numbers were making the exact opposite journey, many as a result of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

    Today, of course, marks eight years since that terrible moment in our history, and like most New Yorkers who were in Manhattan at the time I carry with me vivid memories of the experiences of that day. I remember the crystal clear blue sky broken by the dual columns of grey-black smoke; I remember the terrible confusion of the morning commute replaced by noontime with grim realization; I remember accompanying co-workers downstairs in our Chancery Building to pray together in the Chapel on the first floor and going outside to witness the multitude of people walking slowly up First Avenue in a stunned and hushed silence from lower Manhattan – some barefoot, and many still covered in white ash; I remember scrambling to find everyone a way home off an island now cut off from the rest of the world; and once home I remember anxiously waiting to hear the key in the door that signaled the return home of a loved one and anguished phone calls that continued well into the night, bringing with them word of those found and of those still missing.

    In the days and weeks that followed, other things stand out in my memory: armored humvees and tanks now patrolling the streets on my walk to work as fighter jets flew patrols overhead, stories of the heroism of fellow New Yorkers who risked – and in too many cases, gave – their lives to assist others, and most heart-breakingly, I remember the posters of those still missing hanging everywhere – their faces and their names asking and begging passers by for recognition. This year, as has happened every year on the anniversary of the attacks in 2001, the names of the 2,752 men, women and children who lost their lives at the site of the World Trade Center that day will be read aloud at a ceremony at Ground Zero; these names will likewise eventually be inscribed upon bronze parapets surrounding twin memorial pools at the National September 11th Memorial being built at that site, serving fittingly as the very heart of the Memorial (link).

    And of course, throughout that whole period I remember the fear.

    Fear at that time was understandable – we were a city that had just experienced unimaginable loss, attacked as it were by a group of men who came from a part of the world many of us had no experience with and who were members of a terrorist organization based in one of the remotest regions on earth. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from a country and culture substantially different then our own, with which most of us had only a cursory knowledge and the slightest familiarity. In weeks and months that followed that dreadful Tuesday in early September, amid attending memorial services I also remember voraciously reading anything I could get my hands on about the crisis in the Middle East and the countries and culture that these men came from, in order to try to get a grasp in some sense on what had happened. Much of the analysis that I read at that time seemed to serve as vindication of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial theory know as the “Clash of Civilizations” (link): specifically here, Huntington’s claim that in a post-Cold War world the “age of ideology” had ended and that the 21st Century would witness a bloody “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world. Thus the events of September 11th, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed them, were not anomalies in the relations between people from various states but somehow were instead acts we could’ve and should’ve anticipated, following some terrible logic of history.

    At that time, wounded from attack and in an overwhelming environment of fear, such a pessimistic view of human relations is understandable, but as Christians we are called to be a people of hope. Indeed, no less an authority then Pope John Paul II – no stranger to war and violence he – also had developed a “theory” on relations between peoples, cultures and “civilizations”, one that he first spoke of at the United Nations in October of 1995, and later reiterated in his World Day of Peace Message in 2004 (link). Not based on the concept of “clash”, the essential element of the Pope’s analysis was a different human capacity – namely, that of love. The Holy Father reminded us that, “Christians know that love is the reason for God’s entering into relationship with man. And it is love which He awaits as man’s response. Consequently, love is also the loftiest and most noble form of relationship possible between human beings. Love must thus enliven every sector of human life and extend to the international order. Only a humanity in which there reigns the “Civilization of Love” will be able to enjoy authentic and lasting peace….I wish to repeat to women and men of every language, religion and culture the ancient maxim: Love conquers all!”

    In the intervening years since that fateful day in September 2001 I have learned a great deal more about that part of the world once so remote and unfamiliar to me, as much from personal experience as from the written word. I now count as friends many people from the Middle East, and in fact one of my dearest friends was born and grew up in the same country as the majority of those who carried out those terrible acts on that dreadful day. Since I first met my friend, he and I have spent considerable time together: he has been to my home, met my family and friends, and shared meals with us; I in turn have been to his home, met his family members when they came to visit, and have shared meals with them. I have witnessed how important his religion is too him and come to admire his attentiveness to his prayer life, as he likewise respects my faith and its place in my life. When he became engaged to his fiancé while back home in Saudi Arabia, I was one of the first people he called to tell (and at a very early hour of the morning here mind you!) I have met his loved ones, seen their faces and know their names, and he has met and knows the names and faces of mine. No matter what any theoretician’s “logic of history” dictates, it would be impossible for me to imagine a circumstance where he could either wish or do me or those I love any harm, and I am certain that he feels the same. My relationship with my friend, his friends and family helped me to learn that – as important as theories and knowledge can be- it is truly only through living out a “civilization of love” in friendship that we individually can help to change the world. I realize here that I am moving from the very specific to the general, and yet I still see the wisdom of Pope John Paul II’s approach: if our aim – as it should be – is to prevent another event like the one we commemorate this day from ever happening again, there can be no more important goal to undertake. Learning about others who are different from us makes a “clash of civilizations” less likely; but becoming their friend makes it impossible.

    A Commodity?…like No Other!

    September 1st, 2009

     

    Late summer is usually the time of year that is most dreaded by children – with the shorter cooler days and waning hours of sunlight that are the herald of the coming of the school year. When I was a child though, I was unusual – as if readers of this blog don’t already know that – in that I looked forward to the end of the summer: not so much for the impending beginning of the school year per se, but instead for the start of the “new season” on network television! For you see, I was truly a television child from a television family – I looked forward with baited breath for the beginning of the fall season to learn about the latest exploits of the “Brady Bunch” or the “Partridge Family” and too see what was happening to the “Banana Splits”, “H.R. Puffnstuff” and in the “Land of the Lost” on Saturday morning television. As I grew, I have to admit that this childhood obsession of mine had waned somewhat, but still television – now in the form of evening news programs, investigative journalism and shows on the public broadcasting network – remained an important part in my daily routine.
     
    All of this now has changed drastically for me, and has changed just this summer: as all of you are aware, back on June 12th, all full-power U.S. television stations switched their broadcast over-the-air signals from analog to digital only, effectively ending all traditional – not to mention cost free – antena-only reception. Known as the “DTV Transition”, this conversion was originally mandated by Congress for the express purpose of freeing up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for important public safety communications (such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads), as well as allowing some of the spectrum to be auctioned to companies to be able to provide consumers with more advanced wireless services. The result: now that the DTV Transition is completed, all analog TV sets – like the one that I own – need additional equipment in order to receive over-the-air broadcast signals. Specifically, TV sets having only analog tuners need to obtain separate digital-to-analog converter boxes to watch over-the-air TV. In an effort to defray costs for consummers who may be unable to afford to buy a new television or subscription to cable, the government offered households a $40 coupon in order to off-set some – but not all – of the cost of the digital transition for analog TV set owners. If one were to analyse this DTV Transition from the perspective of our Catholic social teachings, it seems apparent that Congress in mandating the switch from analog to digital TV acted within its legitimate authority to foster the Common Good (here the allocation of the limited spectrum of the airwaves for important public safety and communications services) all the while exercising an equally necessary option for the poor vulnerable (by providing a coupon to offset the cost of conversion for those less able to bear those costs). Despite these good intentions however, the basic upshot of Congress’s action has been that for some folks – myself included – a basic commodity that was once universally available has now been premanently changed and made available only to those who have both the time and disposable income to afford the technology necessary to adapt to these changes.
     
    As someone who has been adversely affected by these changes, I must say that I was less then pleased when the transition took effect and my once perfectly good television set went fuzzy forever, and yet, of course, I know that I still here have a choice: while my television veiwing was once a nightly occupation, I have to admit that I really probably have been making better use of my time in the evening that used to be consumed by television watching, and of course, to remedy my situation, all I need do is walk down to Radio Shack and buy a converter or break down and buy a subscription for basic cable.
     
    Without television this summer I have been missing what is perhaps some of the best reality-based T.V. of the season – namely, the “Town Hall” meetings on healthcare reform taking place all over the country, complete with their colorful casts of citizen protestors and combative congresspeople unprepared to respond to the anger and allegations that they hear. In fact, as I read more about these Town Hall Meetings, the concerns people raised and Congress’s proposed changes to our nation’s health care system, I reflected upon some similarities between Congress’s actions in this instance and the transition to DTV. In making this comparison, its not lost on me that I’m really comparing apples and oranges: while a case – and a good one – can be made that making a change in the broadcast spectrum that will close off a sizable – and mostly lower income – minority of the population from a media source could be detrimental to the formation of an informed population in a democracy, television is not a commodity that is essential to life. Health care, on the other hand, is a commodity like no other. Although the current reform initiatives underway see healthcare as an element of our Nation’s economic recovery program – as a commodity that should be subject to market forces where competion drives innovation and delivery and where the patient is treated as a “consumer” – as Catholics we know that because health care touches upon the very life and dignity of the human person, it can’t be considered just an “economic commodity”, but instead is a fundemental human good – a necessary aspect of the overall Common Good. Because of this, both civil society (that’s you and me – individually and collectively – in Catholic social teaching “talk”) and the state have an obligation to protect everyones’ right to health care, as well as the means to take advantage of that right.
     
    We are blessed as Americans that our county offers some of the best technologically advanced private health care treatment in the world. This treatment however, because of it’s quality, tends to be extremely expensive. In a way this makes sense, because health care is after all the human activity that cares for the most precious of subjects – the human person, him and herself. The way that the majority of Americans enjoy access to this vital but expensive system is through insurance, which is key to understanding how our health care system works today. In gaining this understanding, please remember – private insurance is a business: as such its driven by a legitimate profit motive. The way insurance companies turn a profit is simple: they attempt to pay as few claims as possible on the premiums they collect, and seek to avoid covering people who are likely to need care in the pool of insured that they cover.Most Americans are currently covered by health insurance in one of two ways: for those under 65, the majority receive their insurance coverage privately through their employers, those over 65 enjoy health coverage provided directly by the government in a program known as Medicare. Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans are reasonably satisfied with the health insurance that they currently receive, this despite the fact that the insurance industry seeks to profit off of their care. How can this be? The answer rests specifically on past action by the government protective of the Common Good: for the elderly – in 1965 Congress enacted Medicare which offered universal coverage to those 65 and older and broke the link between aging and poverty; for those working with chronic health conditions – Congress passed a law prohibiting discrimination in coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions in any employer provided health insurance plan; for the very poor Congress enacted the Medicaid – a system of state programs that provides low-income children and some adults with coverage for necessary care. Falling between the seams in this uneven safety net of employer-sponsored coverage, Medicare and Medicaid are approximately 46 million other Americans – almost all from working families – who live without health insurance coverage often in fear of getting sick because of the financial ruin it could bring their lives, and in these harsh financial times there are many others who are simply one layoff away from the same situation.
     
    It is because the burden in these gaps in coverage falls most heavily upon “the poor and the vulnerable” – those in lower income jobs in a shaky economy – that the United States Catholic Bishops Conference has for a long time advocated for genuine national health care reform – with coverage that universally protects all from conception until natural death – as a moral imperative. However, because legislation if not carefully crafted can be a pretty blunt instrument to fix nuanced societal inequities, as we pursue genuine health care reform Catholics have to be sure that in addressing the needs of the poor and the vulnerable our society does not literally “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and violate any fundemental principles regarding the life and dignity of the human person. Specifically, here this means that for Catholics its essential that any of the health care reform proposals put forward maintain existing federal laws resticting abortion, as well as incorperating current federal protections against abortion funding and mandates, and provisions for the protection of conscience rights of health care providers and religious institutions. Over the summer, the health care debate reached a critical level, and it is essential that the Catholic community speak clearly and strongly this autumn as Congress makes important decisions about the specific policies included in the legislation. There is much that is complicated about the health care debate in this country: there are several Congressional bills in progress, multiple Congressional committees involved and much information and misinformation being communicated. In an effort to help Catholics better understand the issues, the USCCB has developed a special website: www.usccb.org/healthcare that can help Catholics better understand the Church’s principles and priorities in the current health care debate as well as fundemental problems in the current bills. It is hoped that with the help of this resource, the Catholic community will be able to speak with one unified voice on what is likely the most important domestic reform legislation in a generation.
     
    Advances in technology and the delivery of services, and the sometimes unwanted changes that accompany them, can be unsettling to the consummers of any commodity – especially one as central and fundemental to the preservation of human life as healthcare, but if in implementing these changes we are careful to do so utilizing principles as tried and true as the Gospels themselves, the negative reactions may only be prelude to an enhanced system that better protects the life and dignity of all. 

    Fireworks on the banks of the Tiber….

    July 31st, 2009

    Ciao, dear readers. I apologize for the longish interlude between this post and my last, but one of the things that I have been doing in the interim was spending two magnificent weeks with my family and friends in the beautiful country of Italy. Traveling as one of the almost 200 who made the journey to Rome to witness our new shepard, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, receive the pallium of his office as Archbishop from Pope Benedict XVI back on June 29th (link), I really feel as if my time there was as much a pilgrimage as a vacation. My very first trip to Rome, I can’t begin to tell you the excitement I felt as I walked up the broad boulevard of the Via Della Conciliazione on that bright sunny morning and got my first glimpse of the iconic dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. As I walked further down that broad street built by Mussolini and entered past the curving majesty of Bernini’s Colonnade to enter St. Peter’s Square, I was struck with the fact that – despite its immenseness size – the church itself did not overwhelm me; instead, I felt the beauty of the space and the Mass (link) welcome me – the sweep of the Colonnade on either side of me feeling like the arms of a friend reaching out in a warm embrace, the beautiful music, prayers and song lifting my spirit like the words of a dear loved one. Although far from New York, I felt right at home – and being able to sharing the Sign of Peace and the Eucharist with so many fellow Catholics from all over the world brought the universality of the Church and its teachings on Solidarity home to me in ways I had never quite experienced before. This tremendous feeling of welcome was only magnified later that day after the Mass when we were able to attend the reception held at the North American College for the five U.S. Archbishops who received the pallium along with Archbishop Dolan; from the hospitality shown by the seminarians to the warm greeting that our new Shepard extended to everyone who came up to congratulate him, the experiences of that day will stay in my memory forever.

    Because tradition dictates that Archbishops receive the pallium on the Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), it was unfortunately necessary for me to be out of the country this year for the Fourth of July. Generally, I don’t like to be away on Independence Day – I’m a real lover of all of the pomp and patriotism that holiday represents (not to mention the fireworks and my Dad’s barbeques!) I remembered the last time we were out of the country for the Fourth we were – somewhat ironically – in England for the holiday. At the time, when we had gone out to supper at the local pub, we thought it wise not to be too demonstrative in our celebration lest we raise a potentially sore subject to our hosts. We, of course, could not have been more mistaken – once our hostess had figured out that we were from the States, we were overwhelmed with well-wishers who made a particular point to come over and chat with the folks from one of the “thirteen rebellious colonies”, making that one of our most memorable Fourth of July’s ever. I kept wondering what the celebration of the Fourth in Italy would be like – would there be similar well-wishers, would there be fireworks along the Tiber River the way there was along the East River back home (only perhaps in red, white and green as opposed to the traditional colors). As Independence Day came in Italy – and the hot, dry day turned into a cool, clear night – I looked up to the night sky and saw no fireworks: only the beautifully lit dome of Saint Peter’s reflected in the river and the stars twinkling above. Instead of the traditional loud noises and the oohhhs and aaahhs of the crowd, there was only silence, broken occasionally by the whine of a vespa’s engine carrying it’s owner home after a days work. I was actually grateful for this silence: it gave me the opportunity to prayerfully contemplate the day’s meaning in ways that if I were at home I probably never would have. As I stared out of Saint Peter’s – dominating the Roman skyline – I thought of some significant similarities between my home in New York and the Eternal City: both considered “empire” cities, both perceived as at the pinnacle of their respective cultures, both attacked in uncivilized manners because of their perceived importance – and yet, both these great cities survived and carried on. Of course there are some very profound differences as well – Rome is well over 2,000 years old with ruins and monuments of multiple civilizations all over the city, the facades of its buildings sturdy, solid, low and old, where as New York is barely over 400 years old, the facades of its buildings tall, sleek, shiny and new, and where squabbles are still take place about what the appropriate monument should be at the construction site in lower Manhattan where our most terrible tragedy occurred – and only within this decade.

    Thinking about these two great cities on Independence Day – and their similarities and differences – got me thinking about two significant components of my personality that evening: I thought first of Rome – of its age, its enduring nature and permanence – the arms of the Bernini Colonnade reaching out – and then I thought of our Roman Catholic faith. Following up on this, I then thought of “home” – of New York and America – the spires of our skyscrapers reaching up, our nation’s relative newness and promise in the family of nations, our love of freedom and our American pragmatism and the opportunity for a new life that she extends to newcomers. As I contemplated these two major “components” of what makes me authentically “me”, I was awash with gratitude that God had allowed me the blessing to be born in these circumstances – as a Catholic and an American – and at this time. There are those who would view being born into either of these circumstances as more of an affliction then a blessing: on one side, those who view the ancient moral and social teachings of the Church as “out of date” and “oppressive”, on the other, those who see America as an amoral nation awash in licentiousness. Frankly, I think that people who view matters this way have misunderstood the nature of our God-given gift of human freedom, and the tremendous responsibility that this gift imparts us with. As Americans, we are wonderfully blessed – by our Constitutional rights to free speech, religious liberty, to assembly, to petition our government – to have a unique opportunity shape our nation’s policies and laws through our democratic institutions. These rights of course, impose upon us considerable responsibility. Our previous Pope, the great John Paul II, said it best in the homily he gave at Orioles Park in 1995 when he said, “America has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God’s image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people and the direction they must give to their lives and their activities…it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”(link)

    While I was in Rome, the two most powerful representatives of these “bookends” of my personal make-up met on July 10: Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama (link). Many in the media on both sides of the Atlantic thought – because of fundamental disagreements on the meaning of human life and dignity – that this meeting would be confrontational, a veritable clash of the titans, with a winner leaving victorious and a looser vanquished. Instead, the meeting was cordial and genial – the two world leaders discussed matters of great importance: concerns of social justice, disarmament, the Middle East and Cuba, as well as violations of the dignity of human life like stem cell research and abortion. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Pope gave President Obama a copy of the document “Dignitas Personae” (link) – which explains in detail the Church’s defense of life from conception until natural death, and urged the President to read it. In doing so, the Pope demonstrated that he correctly understands the nature of human freedom. Through his appeal to the President as one man to another the Pope was showing that we authentically exercise God’s gift of freedom – “the right to do what we ought” – through ongoing engagement and reasoning together person to person. It is a responsibility that all Baptized Catholics share, and it’s a lesson that we all sorely need to learn today – on both sides of the Atlantic.

    To Engage, Persuade, and Challenge – from Tarsus to Time Square

    June 25th, 2009

    In less then a week – on June 29th – the special jubilee year dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle by Pope Benedict XVI will be coming to a close. Commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of this “Apostle to the Gentiles” (link) , the Pope hoped for Catholics to use this past year to contemplate the life and work of Paul; a once a violent persecutor of Christians, who – after falling to the ground on the way to Damascus dazzled by an apparition of the persecuted Jesus – became one of the Church’s foremost evangelizers. Back in March, I was fortunate enough to attend a symposium on the life and teaching of St. Paul sponsored by the National Pastoral Life Center at St. Paul the Apostle Church over on the Westside of Manhattan (www.nplc.org). Entitled “St. Paul: A Man of Many Cultures“, each of the four speakers examined the ministry of St. Paul and spoke of how timely his ministry is for we Christians today: like so many of us, St. Paul was a man of many different “worlds”, he was a Hellenistic Jew who lived in the very pluralistic city of Tarsus with all of the richness and complexity of any major metropolitan center today who prior to his conversion was a Pharisee (a political-religious sect of Judaism noted for its strict observance of Jewish rites, ceremonies and written law) and a violent opponent of Christ’s message. When he encountered the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus, and experienced not stern condemnation for his persecution of Jesus and his followers but instead graciousness and forgiveness, Paul turned his life around to become probably the most effective Christian teacher ever. In a manner that was certainly very counter-intuitive for this one time Pharisee, it was through an encounter with another living person, the resurrected Jesus, and not through a set of rules of practices that St. Paul was able to see the error of his ways and turn himself to Christ, with a result that changed the world.

    I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about St. Paul and his effectiveness in communication as I’ve been recalling events of the past month – some hopeful, others tragic -and how they impact our Church’s efforts to support and defend human life and dignity. A little over a month ago, I remember coming across several very encouraging reports in both the secular and religious media: for the first time since the Gallup organization began asking, a majority of Americans described themselves as pro-life with respect to abortion (link). This finding detailed a trend that had started in the early 1990s with the public debates on partial-birth abortion, and showed how “out of sync” current U.S. abortion policy was with the view of most Americans. This information of course is not news to many of us who have had conversations about abortion with family, friends and colleagues; but what I thought was important was not merely the reporting of this “message”, but frankly that the “messengers” commissioning, conducting and reporting these polls were predominantly from the secular media – a realm not generally friendly to pro-life views. The fact that this story was being circulated and talked about in venues that went beyond the religious communities meant that the pro-life message was being discussed in circles beyond the “usual suspects”.

    Tragically, almost immediately following up on this progress, a deranged man named Scott Roeder – who allegedly had ties to both local right-wing and anti-abortion groups – entered the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita Kansas and shot Dr. George Tiller – a doctor who ran a clinic that preformed third-trimester abortions – point blank in the head, killing him. Dr. Tiller’s murder was immediately condemned by every responsible pro-life leader and organization, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (link), but the damage had already been done. In news reports and across the “blogosphere”, blame was being levied at the pro-life movement for inciting Dr. Tiller’s murder. Worse still, this murder was followed up two weeks later by the killing of a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C by an 88 year old white supremacist. Although there were no ties between these two murders or their perpetrators, many in the mainstream media began making connections between the pro-life cause and “right-wing extremism”, some even linking these two abhorrent and violent acts to the controversy surrounding President Obama’s appearance at the Notre Dame University graduation last month. Indeed, two articles making these connections were sadly among the “top viewed” features for the New York Times last week (link). The violent events in Wichita changed the conversation on abortion in the mainstream media – tragically in ways not helpful to the pro-life cause. In what is perhaps the ultimate irony, the “logic of violence” employed by Scott Roeder in the murder of Dr. Tiller actually spurred many in the media to speak out in support of a continuing need for the late-term abortions that he provided (link).

    I must admit that I writing about these situations, I understand the passions that can be stirred. When I read the articles discussing Dr. Tiller’s practice, I couldn’t help but think of my own sister Marianne, who was born with the condition anencephaly 9 years after I was and who passed away soon after birth: to use the euphemism employed in the articles, she would have been categorized as one of those pregnancies “gone tragically wrong“. When reading about Dr. Tiller’s practice in the news, having a connection like this helps put a human face on the “issue” and deepens my resolve to see things changed. Despite this, I know when confronting the tragedy of abortion that violence – in word or deed – is never the answer. Abortion represents a tear in the social fabric – and violence in response simply rends that fabric more. The “logic of violence” breeds more violence, and only postpones – but never answers – the underlying questions of any situation.

    As to my own efforts, I remember that back in my “post-graduate” days I was invited by a former professor to return to school and address the seniors at an event prior to their graduation. Upon reviewing the materials provided, I responded back, thanking her for the honor but respectfully declining because the other speaker scheduled to address the class was from the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, an arm of the U.N. that I knew to be supportive of China’s forced abortion policy. I never heard back directly from the my professor, but when I was later talking with a friend who was still at the school I heard that my letter caused quite a stir when it was received; she commented that everyone was “talking” about it and that my former professor had commented that “he’ll probably wind up working for the Church someday“. Aside from my professor’s accuracy at prophecy, it’s hard for me to access how effective my actions were – in retrospect, I may have missed an opportunity by not engaging her more directly, and after all I was a very small fish in a very small pond and the event occurred anyway without me there. Still, the one thing that I was sure of is that in the “small pond” of my former school, people were “talking” – and perhaps that is exactly the point! Remember, it was through an encounter with the person of Jesus that St. Paul converted from ways of violence to love, and it was through the words of his Epistles that St. Paul in turn changed the world. Encounters and words are still changing the world today: this year marks the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Poland, an encounter that marked the first blow in the eventual demise of totalitarian communism in Europe, and even as I write conversations are still changing the world as the brave students of Iran – aided by technology – clearly demonstrate (link). For a time, the “logic of violence” may prevail, but ultimately it is through talking to each other that change takes place.

    As the Pauline year concludes next Monday, and Pope Benedict confers the pallium on the new Metropolitain Archbishops including our own Archbishop Timothy Dolan at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, let us pray for both our leaders and ourselves, that we – like St. Paul – will have the courage to engage others in challenging conversations; and that through these conversations we can help change the world to reaffirm society’s commitment to the sanctity of every human life. Like Paul, we must trust in God’s providence to do the rest.

    I was in Prison and You visited Me

    May 19th, 2009

    (In light of last week’s 15th anniversary of Abraham House, I have asked my colleague Ken Hoffarth, Director of the Office of Criminal Justice, for a brief reflection on the Criminal Justice Ministry of Catholic Charities here in the Archdiocese of New York.)

    For those of us who have labored in the area of criminal justice for the last twenty-five years we have long waited for meaningful change to our Criminal Justice System.

    The New York State Bishops and faithful have yearly visited the Capitol in March to advocate for the reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws, an end to the death penalty and the enactment of the SHU (Special Housing Units) Bill, which would remove mentally ill inmates from special housing units (link).

    These have been the goals of the New York State Catholic Criminal Justice Advisory Committee composed of representatives of all eight dioceses of our State. In their Pastoral of 2,000 Restoring All to the Fullness of Life – A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice for the Jubilee Year (link), the Bishops renewed their call for comprehensive criminal justice reform and their invitation to all believers to embrace an approach to criminal justice that focuses on restoration of wholeness through healing for the victim, rehabilitation and reintegration of the offender, and stability for society.

    I, like many of my colleagues throughout the state have lobbied our state legislators for meaningful change in the system to heed the Bishop’s extortion. Many times as I traveled to Albany and especially on my return trips through the beauty of the Taconic Parkway, I wondered if change would ever come to those imprisoned. I have been told over and over again that meaningful change takes time but my patience was wearing thin.

    This year we have seen meaningful change come to Albany. The State Legislature has reformed the Rockefeller Drug Laws permitting judicial discretion in our sentencing practices. Although the Governor and the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) objected to the SHU bill — the Legislature in their wisdom implemented the SHU bill, which will not permit the DOCS to assign mentally ill inmates to special housing but to mental health units. More importantly the Legislature has removed the Death Penalty from the books recognizing the dignity of the human person.

    Our next challenge is for meaningful re-entry programs for inmates upon their release to society. It is coincidental that this week we celebrated the 15th Anniversary of Abraham House, a parish of ex-offenders and their families. It has for 15 years provided services to returning inmates and their families. The late John Cardinal O’Connor a great supporter of Abraham House once said we should have 50 Abraham Houses through the Archdiocese.

    As I will travel to Albany by train this week for another meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee I will reflect on the work that lies in front of us. Cardinal O’Connor was right 15 years ago that we need more Abraham Houses to provide re-entry services to inmates and their families. We must direct our attention to the most vulnerable members in our society. We must design re-entry models and funding streams for these programs. That will be the focus of our meeting on Tuesday and I am sure for the near future.

    We must always remember Our Lord’s extortion in Matthew 25:37- 40 “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you… or when did we see you in prison and visit you… “And the King will answer, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me