Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Charities’

Not such strange bedfellows after all…

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Recently while having a conversation with a friend over dinner – where I had asked my friend what the topic of discussion was at a cocktail party he had recently attended – we both began to bemoan the perfunctory “first question” that gets thrown at everyone once initial introductions are through: the ubiquitous “What do you DO”…my friend went on to detail that he found such talk both uninteresting and honestly invasive; while I, on the other hand, find these questions challenging and difficult to answer. You would too if your official job title was both as expansive and non-descript as “Justice and Peace Coordinator”, and – upon giving your answer – you often find yourself met with either quizzical gazes or looks of complete non-comprehension! I have learned over the years that rather than go through an exhaustive recitation of my job description only to watch my conversation partner’s eyes gloss over and approach a R.E.M. stage of consciousness, I concentrate instead on talking about one or several particular “hats” that I wear as part on my job responsibilities. In an effort to retain the listeners’ interest – and not bore them completely out of their skulls – I often begin with one of what could arguably be called the “cooler” (“cool” as in “neato,” not in temperature!) aspects of my job, that of Producer of Msgr. Kevin Sullivan’s satellite radio showJustLove on the social mission of the Church, which airs weekly on Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. Eastern standard time on Sirius/ XM’s “The Catholic Channel” 129. Because we record the show live at the Sirius/XM studios in midtown Manhattan, during our comings and goings – in the elevators, lobbies and hallways – we frequently have official and would-be “celebrity sightings”: a “who’s who “of musicians, singers, television, radio and motion picture personalities – a veritable smorgasbord of the famous, and in some cases infamous, which makes great fodder for cocktail party talk – certainly more conventionally interesting then some of the teaching, convening and public policy aspects of my job might be for many.

 

This “celebrity-centric” wrinkle in my week is entirely by happen-stance and due primarily to the function of the famous real-estate mantra “location, location, location”; it has little to do with the actual work that I do, and the two experiences seldom intersect…..however, when they do – it makes for some fascinating encounters (at least to me!). Recently in fact, while I was leaving the studio to accompany a guest downstairs, I had a particularly interesting run-in that I would like to share with you readers. As I walked down the corridor towards the lobby to meet the guest for that particular show (in the interest of honesty, I was actually coming from the restroom), I came upon our guest engaged in deep conversation with a woman whom I would describe as well- if provocatively – dressed, but for the fact that she was standing in the public area of the studio in her stocking feet. As I approached our guest and his conversation partner, it occurred to me that I had seen this particular woman before – never in person mind you, but many, many times on the television. I approached our guest and stood beside him, entering into the general sphere of their conversation – certainly close enough to hear. Prior to my approach, our guest had been discussing his appearance on the show with the woman; he explained – at her request – that he had been on the air speaking about the response that the local Catholic Charities agency in the Bridgeport Diocese had made to the families of the children whose lives were taken in that horrific episode of gun violence that had only taken place weeks earlier up in Newtown, Connecticut. Our guest’s famous conversation partner shook her head upon hearing upon this, and asked then what show and station he had been speaking on; when our guest announced “The Catholic Channel” the woman looked hard at him, leaned in close, and whispered into his ear in a manner which I was unable to hear. When she straitened up again, our guest then answered her that he personally believed that “human life began at conception”, and thought that while he could understand the concerns of a woman facing a crisis pregnancy, he himself felt that the prevalence of legalized abortion in our society was a terrible tragedy just the same. The woman then pondered a moment, and said that she felt very much the same way; she then stated that – although not Catholic – prior to her current career in entertainment she had been a registered nurse, and it was this experience in the medical field that had helped her to form her positions on the morality of abortion. It was at this point that I suppose she became aware of my presence, for she quickly turned to face me and asked quite curtly “who” I was; I answered that I was the producer of the show that our guest had appeared on. At this point, she then addressed both our guest and myself, and asked us to please not share her identity or opinion on abortion publically, lest it effect her popularity – that her agent, label and publicity managers would scream at her if they ever found out; we both in response stated that we would respect her request. It was then that her entourage – coat and boots and bags in hand – quickly whisk her out of the studio and onto a waiting elevator, which our guest and I also entered. On the ride down to the lobby – while our famous fellow elevator passenger was busy putting on her coat and boots with the assistance of three of her handlers – I undertook a quiet conversation with our guest about his performance during the show. Immediately, our famous friend turned and loudly inquired in an angry tone whether we were “talking about her”, to which our guest replied with a smile, “No – but we will later”….the tension was then only broken when he and I began to laugh in a mischievous way, and she – relieved – laughed too.

 

This certainly was one of the more unusual “celebrity close encounters” I have ever had over at the studio – as much for the seriousness of the conversation as for the intimacy of the encounter. But what stayed with me the most I think from the discussion was both this woman’s fear – paranoia almost – of disclosure of her opinion regarding abortion. In reflection, I suppose that the fact that her work is now located within the entertainment industry, any disclosure of an opinion that may be out of line with what could arguably be called the “liberal” cannon – legal abortion without restriction included – might indeed be met with severe repercussions which could affect her career and lifestyle. I guess there really in something to that saying “location, location, location”…in a similar way, later that day, another insight struck me in contemplation of the topic of the day’s radio program: efforts at addressing the epidemic of gun violence in our country. During the show, while recounting some of the week’s “Catholic news”, I had reported that Bishop Stephen Blaire – Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development had signed onto a letter – with almost 50 other religious leaders from both Catholic, and other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faith traditions – asking that Congress take action against the sale and use of assault weapons through such measures as mandating criminal background checks prior to gun purchases and making gun trafficking a Federal crime; measures which – according to most opinion polls – the public supports, and to which the National Rifle Association – a gun-rights organization considered by many to be the most powerful lobbying group in the country – had just that week given testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing. Because of the NRA’s perceived power – as well as the its famous ability to deliver single-issue anti-gun control voters in an election – many legislators are fearful to speak up in favor of gun-control legislation even if they may personally support such measures out of a concern that disclosing an opinion which might be out of line with what could arguably be called the “conservative cannon” could have severe consequences for their careers, and the lifestyles that it affords.

 

There are two things that I find particularly interesting about all of this – the first is that – despite the fact that each of the positions described above seem to originate at diametrically opposite ends of the political/ cultural spectrum -there are, to my mind, several fascinating parallels between the gun rights lobby and the supporters of legalized abortion – and I am not the only one to notice this. Both groups are organized to support the individual rights upheld by the United States Supreme Court – the freedom to own a gun, and the freedom to have an abortion. Both are concerned that the Supreme Court rulings that underlie their positions – the Heller decision for gun rights advocates, and for abortion supporters Roe v Wade  -though expansive are inadequate to protect their positions, and both will brook no dissent to their maximalist approach to gun rights or abortion: to the NRA, any ban on a certain type of gun immediately translates to Federal forces coming to your home to confiscate your guns, to abortion supporters – despite the once stated goal of making abortion safe, legal and rare – any restriction on abortion is seen as an “evisceration”. Even more so, what is needed is an expansion of abortion rights; this in a state where almost four out of every ten pregnancies ends in abortion.

The other thing that I find particularly interesting – although I am certainly not surprised by it – is the Church’s response to both guns and abortion. Instead of concentrating primarily on the “individual rights” involved in either owning a gun or obtaining an abortion, Catholic social teaching starts off instead by asking what kind of a society we want to live in and create: one in which autonomous individuals – often out of fright or perceived lack of alternatives – use their “rights” to protect their lives – as they see it – against “strangers” whom they perceived as potential threats, or instead one where such fear is met with alternatives – a net of social support which seeks to ratchet down potential violence before it erupts. In Catholic social teaching, such an approach – one where both the “lives” that people live, as well as human “life” itself matter immeasurably – is called pursuing a “Culture of Life”, and it is what we as Catholics are called to do.

Now, of course, according to classical moral analysis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, support for gun-rights– even the right to own an assault weapon – must be looked at very differently from obtaining an abortion: abortion in Catholic teaching is the intentional taking of an innocent human life and therefore always intrinsically evil, whereas simple gun ownership is not. As it is often said:  guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But this statement – while true – ignores the fact that with gun violence, people can’t kill people with guns unless they can get them. Will measures like these prevent every incidence of gun violence? The answer to this is of course no, but even if such measures prevent a few deaths like the ones experienced in the terrible tragedies this year in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown , Connecticut, they will be well worth the effort of pursuing…and while the numbers killed in gun violence – over 31,000 in America in 2010 – does pale in comparison to the 55 million lost to abortion since 1973, it is clear – at least to this Christian conscience – that something can and must be done to address both of these tragic figures.

It has been said that “politics makes strange bedfellows”…it’s my hope that in the pursuit of an authentic “culture of life”, we as a nation can begin to address every threat to human life and dignity across the board, and make such a stance not that strange after all.

Thanksgiving Reflections…from a Sandy Place…

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

When I was a kid growing up in the Northwest Bronx in the 1970s, I have no recollection whatsoever of really bad weather of any kind. Some of this is perhaps because of the circumstances in which my family and I were living at the time – we rented a three room apartment in a four story walk up; if any storms did occur they certainly made no great impact on my memory; because in our urban environment the electrical wires were underground we never lost power, and when and if it snowed, it was (blessedly) the landlord’s responsibility to clear it.

In fact, the first real “weather” events that remain with me are those our family encountered once we moved to the suburbs. That move brought with it much more space for our family to live, but also – a shock to the system for this city kid – a plethora of new chores to be taken up: the raking of leaves weekend after weekend in the autumn, shoveling what seemed to be a city block of snow every time precipitation occurred during the winter, and in the later summer, the almost annual occurrence of a storm that caused a  tree to fall somewhere on our block that left us without electricity for anywhere from several hours to several days. None of these occurrences were too burdensome in and of themselves, and of course our family soldiered through – in fact, for a kid the occurrence could be almost be described as fun – imagining yourself a pioneer on the frontier and the only light you had was the lantern that lit your way before you. As far as big storms go, the first one I have vivid recollection of was one that hit the New York City area when I was in the 6th Grade; it hit on a Holy Day of Obligation – this I remember, because my friends and I were off from school that day and had taken the bus from where we lived up to the New Rochelle Mall. My friends had gone up to the Mall to hang out, but I was there on a mission: a bit of a science fiction nerd at the time (not that I have outgrown it) I had spied on an earlier reconnaissance mission in the Mall’s obligatory toy store Mattel Toy’s Space 1999 Eagle Transporter, and I was there on my day off to get it! When I purchased it, I remember that it came in an enormous box (the toy itself was pretty big). I left the Mall and went outside to wait for the bus home with my friends, and the weather by that time had become pretty inclement. We were forced to stand inside the open bus shelter for cover. The wind was tremendous, and I recall that at one point while my friends and I waited it caught hold of the big plastic bag that contained the big cardboard box and blew my toy clear across North Avenue until it hit the building across the street and fell to the sidewalk beneath. Despite the weather, I scrambled across the street to reclaim my prize, which seemed – and was – intact, although dented and a little worse for wear from the wind and the water. The bus eventually came and my friends and I boarded it, and as I rode home, I tightly clung to the box my mock spacecraft came in  – smiling inwardly that I was probably the only kid who had a model that had actually ever taken flight – and thinking to myself that this was some weather I had never experienced back home in the Bronx!

Since that time, I do recall many big storms that have made their way through our area – Hurricanes Gloria, Hugo, Floyd and Irene, all these passed through  with no particular personal memory that I could attach to any. There was one storm – 1991’s so-called “Perfect Storm” – that I do have vivid memories of: at the time I was working at a Catholic Charities sponsored Nursing Home in the South Bronx. I used to drive there from Westchester County, and as I remember, no one was anticipating a storm of such power to pass through the area. I had lived through Hurricanes before: they all had names and were big storms, but you prepared for them before they struck and you felt secure; with this one however we were all seemingly caught unawares. Expecting just a particularly blustery rainy day, we had gone to work, expecting to get a little wet but not much more. Instead, the storm caused extensive flooding – which a colleague of mine at the nursing home got caught in on the F.D.R. Drive on the East Side of Manhattan – as well as a large number of power outages from fallen trees. I remember driving home that afternoon once we were dismissed from work – up Southern Boulevard past the Bronx Zoo – and seeing the thick trunked oaks that lined that broad street almost bent double in the wind, causing me to say a Decade of the Rosary out loud to myself in the car, that Our Blessed Mother would help see me safely delivered home in one piece that day – which gratefully She did!

Despite this wake up call, I went on in happy ignorance as to the vulnerability of our area to catastrophic weather events. I would see on television the devastating effects that severe weather would have on places like Haiti, like Florida, like the Gulf Coast – and would participate in relief efforts, donating funds and saying prayers for people in these place that they would recover and pull through despite the adversity that nature had thrown at them – all the while thinking that I would never witness in my lifetime, in this area, comparable devastation to the kind that flickered across my television screen.

That happy ignorance came to a crashing halt of course on October 29th when Sandy came barreling ashore.

I will not belabor explaining to you the devastating effects that this hurricane has had on our entire tri-state area – the lives lost, homes destroyed, property damaged, neighborhoods washed away. Others have written much more eloquently than I ever could what this storm has wrought in their lives. For myself, thankfully, the apartment live in did not lose power (in fact, it became “power-charging” central to many friends in other parts of the city that were not so fortunate); and my parents home was spared as well. Since the storm first hit, I have been witness to the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues here at Catholic Charities – both in the Archdiocese and at our sister agencies across the region in the rest of coastal New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – who quickly mobilized to establish recovery centers for those impacted by the storms, providing for the people every sort of assistance – from the basics of food, and water, and clothing and care, to rental assistance, housing and counseling for those who lost close to everything that they owned.

No, instead on this evening before Thanksgiving, I would like to write a rebuttal – not of an editorial per-se, but of a headline, one that graced (and I use this term loosely) the front page of the local tabloid here in the city – The New York Post – just about two weeks ago, in the aftermath of a snowstorm that had struck our city in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In bold stark letters, the headline declared that – in the aftermath of Sandy and the snowstorm – GOD HATES US!…

I must admit that I do not ordinarily read the Post, but walking down the street, this headline not only assaulted my eyes, but my psyche as well…. “God hates us”…. How opposite – how alien – to anything that I believe or have been taught about God – by the Church, from my parents  – so alien and jarring in fact, that the words have been echoing  within me for these past two weeks demanding a response.

While I cannot really begin to- and am neither equipped to – explain the age old perennial question of why God allows “bad things” – like natural disasters – to happen to good people (to use a MUCH, MUCH too  overused phrase: “it is above my pay grade”), one thing that I can attest and give personal witness to through my work and exposure here at Catholic Charities is that disasters sometimes present to us the opportunity to do quite “Godly” things in response to them: to reach out and assist, to try to make whole again,  to offer a prayer, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, to share with those who have been harmed from the rich bounty that God has blessed our own lives with, to simply be present to each other.

Last week, we were blessed here in the Archdiocese to be visited by an extraordinary person: at the invitation of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, Bishop Bernard Unabali – leader of the Diocese of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea – was in our city to speak about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific, whose island home is gradually being inundated by rising sea levels. They are often referred to as the world’s first “climate refugees”, and their story is told poignantly in an Academy Award nominated short film called: “Sun Come Up, which we screened here at the Catholic Center last week. After the screening, Bishop Unabali   spoke movingly to those assembled about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands, and the willingness of the people of his diocese to welcome and provide land and assistance for these “climate refugees”.  While certainly victims of a disaster, I am quite certain that the people from the Carteret Islands that are profiled in the film “Sun Come Up” do not believe that “God hates them”….in the film they were not despondent,  but instead joyful and hopeful – most especially because when presented with the Carteret Islander’s crisis, their  Island neighbors in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea responded  in a “Godly” act of solidarity, welcoming the community to their own island home as the Carteret Islanders started their lives anew.

In concluding, Bishop Unabali urged all present to integrate the biblical values of environmental justice into their lives, and to answer a similar call of solidarity – a call that has special resonance and new urgency for all of us here in the metropolitan New York area as we work to respond to those impacted by the rising waters Hurricane Sandy left in her wake.

God’s blessing upon you and your families this Thanksgiving and always.

When did We see you Hungry…?

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

When I was a much younger man – some days, especially lately, it feels like a million years ago – like many of my contemporaries I dreamed of seeing the world and traveling to far away and exotic places; my particular dream had a different sort of wrinkle however. For you see, what I really desired to do was not travel far a field to sit on a beach absorbing the local color – as wonderful as that would be! – but instead, I really longed to go someplace to be of help to those struggling to survive in what we then called the “developing world”. At that time, I always looked forward to receiving the wonderful monthly publication put out by the Maryknoll Missionaries, and I read it religiously, looking forward to the incredible stories the wonderful Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and Lay Missionaries that were doing so much to bring needed healthcare, resources, and education to far away places in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, acting in ways that helped alleviate the poverty of the people there and encourage development, making tangible the command that Our Lord gave to us when he delivered his Sermon on the Mount as it is recounted in the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. I was truly in awe of these heroic people, and of the stories they told of the incredible work they did in and among the people that they served.

 

This desire to help the poor – planted in my soul through my reading Maryknoll Magazine and elsewhere – continued to grow in me as I went on with my studies and progressed towards my still developing adulthood. I recall as I was in college and law school hearing of acquaintances of our family who were going off for summer break or a semester to work in the missions with one of the wonderful youth volunteer organizations like the volunteer corps run by the Jesuits and the Brothers De La Salle. In my heart I always admired these young people who with little thought for their own comfort and personal safety would head off and devote a portion of their lives to helping people in a far distant land that they had never actually met before. To me, this seemed the epitome of Christian love in action. I recall conversations at our dinner table at that time where I would share my admiration of this particular dedication to service of the poor of the developing world with my family. The response I got to this conversation – particularly the one from my Dad- surprised me. My Father – truly one of the most generous men that I have ever met and a native of the Fordham section of the Bronx who is an honest to goodness “small C” conservative – unlike so much of what passes in the current political debate where I think the “C’ stands for comedy instead – my Dad went on to remind me that one need not purchase a plane ticket in order to assist the poor, but that a Metrocard – or in this case, given that this particular conversation took place nearly 30 years ago, a subway token – would suffice. To find poverty, he said, one need not travel outside the confines of the United States, or unfortunately or own great city: poverty was literally right here, in front of our faces, sometimes – scandalously – in the midst of plenty; and that if it was my goal in life to try to do something to alleviate poverty I did not have to board a plane to do so, but could also work locally- here – to address it. I believe much of my Father’s awareness was born of the fact that – although a businessman and Certified Public Accountant by training – much of his business and practice was devoted to assisting local affiliates of the Catholic Charities movement address the needs of the poor – be it in the areas of housing, or heathcare, immigration services, food or social assistance – here in our own greater Metropolitain area.

 

The wisdom of my Dad’s answer to my question at that time has always remained with me, and in many ways has served as the guide star to my life’s choices – certainly as regards my career decisions. And although life has unfolded in such ways that have actually allowed me to travel to places in the developing world such as East Africa to see the wonderful work and dedication of organizations such as Catholic Relief Services to bring needed development and assistance to the populations living there, it is my Father’s instance that I not only focus on the poverty far away “out there”in distant lands, but also – equally importantly – that I look to see and work to address the poverty that exist right HERE that stands out in my mind as especially important, particularly at this very difficult moment in our Nation’s economic history. In fact – it is this reality of poverty in our midst, and particularly poverty in its most vicious manifestation: hunger – that I wish to raise up for your consideration today.

 

New York and its surrounding suburbs are perceived by many as places of unprecedented privilege and plenty, but amid this perceived veneer of abundance there is a specter of increasing poverty and hunger that is growing more manifest day by day. It may surprise you, but last year a staggering 6.1 million meals were served at soup kitchens, food pantries and senior centers in New York City and the Hudson Valley through a Federation of over 90 Agencies that are operated and supported by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York to address growing hunger needs of families in the region, including “newly poor” families who – out of work or now “under-employed – never sought food assistance before. Many of these families include those with children, and tragically in our own Archdiocese, almost 22% of the children who live in the 10 counties – over 325,000 in number – have difficulty obtaining the nutrition they need. Due to a combination of the increased cost of food and considerably less government funding for food assistance, there is now unfortunately even less food available to feed increasing numbers of hungry families. It is because of this extraordinary situation that Catholic Charities has decided to initiate a special food campaign in order to replenish the dwindling stock at all our food pantries. Entitled the Feeding Our Neighbors: A Catholic Response, this campaign begins tomorrow – Sunday January 22nd and runs through the following Sunday January 29th; Catholic Charities is encouraging all people of good will to address this extraordinary food crisis in our midst. There are three simple ways that you can help: the first is to participate in the Archdiocesan Food Drive that is taking place this coming week – over 1,000 donation boxes for canned and dried food stuffs have been distributed to parishes, schools, CYO programs, healthcare organizations and Catholic ministries around the 10 counties of the Archdiocese. Another way is to donate a collection of money to support emergency food programs – you can do this by visiting the Feeding Our Neighbor’s webpage at http://www.catholiccharitiesny.org/make-a-donation/feeding-our-neighbors/ . Or, you can resolve to volunteer at a food pantry or soup kitchen; if you want information on how to do that, please contact Carlos Rodriguez at carlos.rodriguez2@archny.org .

 

Hunger has no season. I urge you to open your eyes and see the poverty in our midst, and – just as importantly – open your heart and resolve to do something to solve it. The solution is in all our hands – lets make sure that not one of our hungry neighbors is ever turned away!

 

Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead…

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

One of the things that I think sets New Yorkers most apart from people from many other parts of the country is our distinct appreciation for the concept of irony – whether its in our humor (it’s no coincidence that the sitcom “Seinfeld” – perhaps the most ironic comedy ever produced on television – is set in New York City), or in recognition of the sometimes circuitous journey that life take us on, New Yorkers appreciate irony like almost no other people on Earth. Given this fact – and considering that I am a born & bred New Yorker – I have always found the events of Holy Week extraordinarily powerful. It is a week of events that to the common observer appears to begin with Earthly exaltation ending five days later in apparent weakness, humiliation and death…..and yet to believing eyes, these circumstances are quite the opposite – the events at the culmination of this most Holy of weeks signifying not the destruction of a particular life that those in authority in that time and place had intended – but instead, the beginning of life renewed for all of us; a sacrificial gift of love that created hope of life renewed for us all. It is for this reason that we Christians call the Friday of this week “Good” Friday – it is not because the things that happened to Jesus on that day were in any sense good: the conviction of an innocent man for reasons of politics and religious intolerance, His scourging and torture, and His eventual execution by the means employed by the governing authority of that day on a Cross, are by no means “good” things – neither today nor 2,000 years ago. No instead, we Christians call this day “Good Friday” because it was on this day that Jesus Christ took on the means employed by the governing civic and religious authorities of his day who intended to utterly humiliate, degrade and destroy him by those means, and yet – by the power of His loving sacrifice – He transformed these terrible events into the birth of hope for the world that has endured for the over 2,000 intervening years since that day when those in authority thought that they had finally “taken care” of what they considered to be their “Jesus problem”.

This thought about the irony of the fact that we Christians dare call the day of Jesus’ loving sacrifice “Good” Friday hit me recently when a colleague of mine – after I had returned from the Sirius/ XM studios with our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan after the taping of one of his “JustLove” programs – asked me about the topics discussed on the air that day. I responded to her that that day, we had highlighted one of our “Catholic Charities Around the Nation” segments, and that the topic that we had discussed was a shelter – operated by Catholic Charities of the New Orleans Archdiocese – that assisted those who were victims of sexual assault and domestic violence to remove themselves from their abusive situations and begin to rebuild their lives in an atmosphere of support and respect. In response to my statement, my colleague challenged me how I could maintain a hopeful disposition when discussing a topic as horrible as sexual assault and abuse. To be honest, her question left me very shaken – and I truly had no adequate answer for her at that moment; she got me thinking not only about sexual assault and domestic violence, but about many of the topics that we had discussed during the show for the past several month – of the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and the overwhelming toll of death and destruction that occurred in these places, of events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire whose 100th anniversary just occurred where many young working immigrant girls lost their lives due to a desire for profits over safety, of the tragedy of the shooting in Tucson in January that took the lives of 6 innocent people including a 10 year old girl born on September 11, 2001 – all these things terrible –and like those things done to Jesus that Friday  2,000 years ago – none of them in any way or any sense “good”.

My colleague’s question continued to haunt me for some time; like any good one, it had me search deeply within – asking fundamental questions about human suffering, about pain, about loss, about love, and about God. Blessedly, this searching on my part happened during the later stages of Lent and Holy Week, when our attention turns to Jesus’ own suffering and death. Answers to these questions are of course never easy, even those who were closest to Jesus during His life on Earth remained confused when confronted with His profound suffering, of His undeserved death. In Scripture, after the events of Good Friday, the women who accompanied Jesus – Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, all while the male disciples were in hiding – went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His body with spices as was the Jewish burial custom of the day. I am sure that they were all three troubled by questions as they walked together to that tomb – questions about suffering, about pain, about loss, and about God – and they sought answers. When they had reached their destination, they found Jesus’ tomb open and empty. In answer to their questions, a messenger from God appeared to the women and asked them “Why do you seek the living among the dead”, informing them that Jesus was not there – and reminding them of Jesus’ words to them that His suffering and death would not be final, but that He would be raised up. God’s messenger did not then dismiss the women upon proclaiming Jesus’ triumph over suffering and death, instead he called them to action – enjoining them to “go quickly and tell the disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and He is going before you to Galilee”….for Jesus Himself at that time was not standing still but was on the move ahead of them…

Here at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, our motto is “Providing Help. Creating Hope.”; that motto is included in our logo, and appears in the shadow of a Cross. It is here, in reflecting on the words of this motto – in the shadow of the Cross, on this Easter weekend – that I believe I can begin to find an answer to my colleague’s question. If we, like the first Christians – those women who witnessed both the terrible suffering and underserved death of Jesus as well as His Resurrection from the dead  – can respond in action to the terrible suffering of this world, perhaps we can play a small part in creating the Hope that His loving sacrifice and Resurrection laid the foundation for on that first Easter weekend 2,000 years ago.

A Blessed Easter to you all!

Confessions of a Digital Immigrant

Friday, June 11th, 2010

In this post dear readers – a post that is admittedly way l-o-n-g- overdue – I am going to begin with a profound confession: to the wonderful world of media technology in which the blogosphere is only an island in a vast digital sea, I am only a very recent immigrant. You see, I was born into probably what was the last generation that could not be considered “digital natives”: when I was a kid, our family’s idea of a video game was the original Atari table-tennis (whose on-screen ball moved so slowly from the left of the screen to the right that were the white dot that it represented to be an actual ping-pong ball, it would’ve had to defy all the laws of gravity to stay afloat), and when I went to law school, the assignments I was given had to be completed on an actual typewriter (although admittedly the electric kind with the indispensable “auto-correct function” where the tape would “magically” erase your mis-strokes from the page). I was reminded recently of my “non-native” status when a good friend of mine – who at 30 is most definitely a full-fledged digital citizen – gave me an iPod Touch for my birthday because “ it really is long past the time you should have one”. Growing up in fact, the media technology that I was regularly familiar with was fairly limited: my little black & white TV, the VCR (that’s a videotape recorder for those non-historians), cassette tape player, stereo that played vinyl albums (again for those non-historians, those flat black disk shaped objects) and of course – the radio. Of all those types of media in fact, it was the radio that was ubiquitous in my life: whether in the family room on the “stereo-system”, in my hands on my “boom-box” or later in my car, the radio was a near constant companion .It was the first thing I heard upon waking up in the morning on my stereo-alarm clock, and the last voice I’d hear before falling asleep at night, and in that fact I actually find some comfort, for you see radio is a technology that actually spans the generations: it was the technology that my grandparents used to keep updated on world events as they gathered around it during Depression and is the still what my goddaughter listens to as she travels in the car with her parents today (albeit that the signal that she listens to is delivered by satellite or MP3).

With all my affection for the medium of radio, you can all imagine my delight when earlier this year I was asked to assist our Executive Director at Catholic Charities, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, with the JustLove Radio Program that he conducts over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM Satellite Radio (Sirius channel 159, XM 117 http://www.sirius.com/thecatholicchannel) every Wednesday at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. JustLove is a nationally broadcast one-hour weekly interactive discussion exploring the Catholic community’s impact on American society. It features interviews with social ministry leaders, thinkers and doers and investigates the ideas that shape the Catholic social mission and explores deeds that puts that mission into practice around the nation and the world! In the past few month, the conversations on JustLove have included: on-going discussion with staff of Catholic Relief Services on the ground in Haiti on the devastating earthquake that struck the island in January and its aftermath, the recent troop increases in Afghanistan and prospects of peace in Iraq, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the on-going struggle for comprehensive immigration reform, and the continuing tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf. Some of the guests we have spoken to on the show have included: Cesar Chavez’s son Paul discussing his father’s life and legacy on the Cinco de Mayo show, the Rev. Jim Wallis, author and President of Sojourner’s Magazine on the moral crisis that lies behind the current economic crisis, and Richard Barnes of the New York State Catholic Conference on effective Catholic advocacy in the public sphere. Through the wonders of modern technology you can listen to some recent podcasts of the JustLove show on the web at http://www.catholiccharitiesny.org/just-love/

As you can well imagine, preparing to produce a show of this caliber is exciting and rewarding and sometimes a challenge! Each show requires quite a bit of planning and editorial preparation to create a show that is timely and coherent and which incorporates themes and topics that can help to highlight the Church’s teachings regarding the important social issues discussed. To be honest, my recent concentration and emphasis on JustLove has caused my blogging here to lag a bit (a situation some of my more regular readers have not too gently but appropriately reminded me of), but in doing some of the production work for JustLove, it has occurred to me how very similar as forms of media blogging and radio really are: the format of each – as far as technical production goes – is not too complex, and yet for all their lack of complexity each is very versatile. I was reading recently an article online at The Economist that compared radio to blogging; it said the essential similarity between each – and the reason that each succeeds as a form of communication – is that the listener or reader respectively realizes that at the other end of the technology there is someone alive – speaking or typing, taking calls or responding to comments. The author noted that the German root for the word radio is derived from the verb “Funken” – the verb “to spark” and that it is this “spark” at the other end that both readers and listeners respond to.

As a consequence of living in the digital age that we do today, thanks to our more or less continuous connection to media be it television, radio, wifi, 3G, internet, telephone or text, all of us – to a varying degree – are perpetually multi-tasking. Some of us – generally the “digital natives” at the younger end of the spectrum– are more successful at navigating these new technologies then others, but this perpetual multi-taking can take a toll even on them. In fact, in a recent New York Times article, Dr. Gary Small – Professor of Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is quoted as saying that the process of never ending multi-tasking can lead to a syndrome where we move from multi-taking efficiently to one where we are in a state of “partial continuous attention”. As a “digital immigrant”, I particularly need to strategize more effectively to negotiate this new terrain, and in the coming summer months that is exactly what I plan to do. Those of you who have been fairly regular readers may have noticed that I tend to be fairly counter-intuitive in a lot of my thinking, so it should come as no surprise that it is exactly as we approach the summer – just when the scholastic year begins to slow down – that I plan on picking up the pace of this blog by posting not just the “traditional” items, but also the guests, topics and conversations that take place on and around the JustLove show. My intention in doing so is not only post more regularly here (although certainly that would be a welcome outcome); more importantly, it is my hope that by posting on the topics dealt with on JustLove – with links so readers can listen to the podcasts as well – we can expose even more people to the quality information and discussion on Catholic social teaching and its impact that takes place there. In addition, I hope that some of this cross-pollination could – like all good media -  “spark” responses where readers/ listeners could post their impressions of the show, as well as topics that might interest them for future shows. I am always mindful that neither Catholic radio nor Catholic blogs would exist without the Catholic community, and so I urge you – whether you are a digital native or a recent immigrant like myself – to share your ideas and thoughts with us as we endeavor to share God’s Good News for the world over the airwaves through both sight and sound.

Courtesy to Strangers: Lessons Learned and Now Forgotten?

Friday, 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.

Some Change We Really Can Believe In

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

By the time this is posted, our new Archbishop, Timothy Michael Dolan, will be in his office for a little over a week; in that short amount of time, he has certainly taken the City (and its environs) by storm! Already termed “The Happy Bishop” by the New York news media (link), in just eight days Archbishop Dolan has already seen a Yankee game, distributed food to the hungry at a Catholic Charities run food pantry, visited incarcerated women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, and preached a Sunday homily from what is arguably the most prestigious pulpit in American Catholicism. The Archbishop began his tenure a week ago Wednesday in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at a three hour Mass that displayed all of the beauty, pageantry, magisterial ritual and continuity of Roman Catholicism. (www.cny.org) In that packed Church, a Papal Representative, fellow Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Religious Men and Woman, Ecumenical Representative and leaders from other religious traditions, a Governor, current and former Mayors, Senators, Congressmen, State Representatives, dignitaries and ordinary parishioners – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – joined with many others who watched the coverage on all the New York media outlets at home, and together they participated in what could authentically be called the “inauguration” of the spiritual leader of the 2.5 million Catholics of the Archdiocese of the New York or, as Pope John Paul II termed the office, the “Archbishop of the Capital of the World”.

The evening before the official Liturgy of Installation, I had the great pleasure of being at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for the somewhat more intimate but no less beautiful event where the people of the Archdiocese welcomed then Archbishop-Designate Dolan to his Cathedral Church. Called a “Canonical Possession“, this millennium old ceremony began with Archbishop Dolan knocking at the great bronze doors of Saint Patrick’s with a hammer; when he had completed his third series of knocks, the Cathedral doors were opened to him and he was greeted by a thunderous round of applause as he entered the bright warmth of his new “See” Church from the damp cold April evening air outside. He began his long march up the center aisle up to the sanctuary, and a solemn prayer service began. (link)

A couple of days later, I was having a conversation with several good friends before dinner, and I began to recount to them my experience of the previous two days. At first when we were “catching up” with each other’s recent experiences, and I told the group that I had attended a “Canonical Possession“, some of my listeners – who were less then familiar with official Ecclesial language – gave me a quizzical look and questioned whether I was going on an expedition to recover an artifact from a sunken warship or Revolutionary battlefield. I quickly cleared up their confusion by explaining the ceremony to them, and elaborated on the wonderful words that the Archbishop used – both in the Cathedral and in the print media that day – to describe his sense of his mission.

Far from being a parapet from which to attack that my friend’s comical misunderstanding could connote, the Archbishop’s words that day instead were that he would approach his office as an instrument of God’s abundant love. In an Op-Ed piece published that day for the New York Daily News, he stated in part that he “aim(s) to be a happy bishop, sharing joys and laughs…You will see me at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and…the new Yankee Stadium, and at processions and feast days and barbecues across our almost 400 parishes”. (link) Upon hearing this, my friends were all heartened, and for good reason: with all of the tremendous difficulties that our city, our country and world have experienced in the past several years – the events of September 11th and terrible loss of life here, the two wars that those events precipitated and which both still continue, the shrinkage and near collapse of the world’s economy, and the terrible abuse crisis within our Church that still shakes the foundation of faith for so many – we have so seldom needed a “happy bishop” to lead us more.

In the week that has followed, our new Archbishop has shown that what he wrote and said on the occasion of his Installation were not merely words, but instead a plan of action. On Friday April 17th, Archbishop Dolan visited the Catholic Charities Emergency Food Program (one of more then 50) and Rusty Staub Mobile Food Van at the Highbridge Community Life Center in the Bronx; located in the poorest congressional district in the United States, the food pantry is a collaboration between Catholic Charities and the Rusty Staub Foundation and provides nutritious meals to over 500 hungry New York families a year (link). While there, the Archbishop helped distributed food and blessed dozens of people who rushed forward to meet him. When asked why he was there by the media, the Archbishop answered plainly saying that the work of Catholic Charities “…is where the Church shows its love and compassion”. Several days later, when he visited New York State’s only maximum security prisons for women, he reiterated what he had said further, stating that Jesus will not judge him as Archbishop based upon a visit to Yankee Stadium or a Sermon from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s, but instead “He is going to say, “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was in prison, you came to see me…” (link).

In his Op-Ed in the Daily News, Archbishop Dolan proclaimed his love for the Church in plain language, telling us that he “love(s) being a Catholic”; he then invited us to share in this love reminding us that “loving the Church means supporting her indispensable work caring for the poor, the immigrants, the sick and elderly, the lonely, the unborn and the abandon….It means speaking…for justice and peace, for religious liberty and the sanctity of all human life.” In finishing, Archbishop Dolan promised to teach “the Catholic faith in season and out of season, as a good Shepard must…reminding New Yorkers that they must welcome God to this “capital of the world” as warmly as they have welcomed so many others.”

2009 has been a year that has witnessed some marked changes in our society – some of them have been billed as the kind we “can believe in”. Witnessing the appointment of Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan and having heard about his activities within the past week, I am filled with God’s hope that here in this Archdiocese of New York, we can wholly embrace that phrase as true statement, and proclaim it to others on behalf of our beloved Church…yes, we can!