Posts Tagged ‘Lent’

There and Back Again

Monday, March 26th, 2012

As many long time readers of this blog may recall, the late winter and early spring is a very busy time for those who work in the social ministry of the Church; Liturgically – of course – this time of year corresponds on the Church’s calendar to the season of Lent during which Christians across the world are called to undertake corporal and spiritual disciplines in order to prepare for the commemoration of Our Lord Jesus’ Passion and Death during Holy Week which culminates with the celebration of his Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. But its not only the preparation for these most profound events on the Christian Calendar that is cause for the frenetic activity of late January, February and early March around here, instead much more mundane – and yet still important – pursuits than those ultimate ones require attending to as well. Roughly speaking – the season of Lent almost always corresponds to the legislative “budget season” for national, state and local government, and so for those of us who’s job it is to work for the protection and promotion of human life and dignity, this season means that we then set about to do those things necessary to bring the concerns of our Church to those in positions of power in Washington and Albany. The actual work attendant to advocacy efforts such as these involve everything from the exhilarating – actually meeting with United States Senators and Congress People, State Senators and Assembly Members and their staffs and discussing the impact of policies on the poor and vulnerable – to the hum-drum: ensuring that meetings are set up, and that every person has a “seat on the bus” and makes it not only to their destination, but – equally important – back home again. In fact, it has occurred to me that some of the workaday elements of the preparations for our advocacy efforts are a very good thing for me spiritually at this time of year if only in the sense that I can then “multi-task” some of the more tedious but still essential “chores” I do over to the Lenten sacrifices portion of the ledger. And more than this, it has also occurred to me that the “there and back again” nature of this kind of work actually corresponds roughly to the nature of advocacy work in democracy itself; especially for those who have been at these efforts for a long time like me. I have come to see that almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and as such it is truly the work – and indeed Christian duty – of every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for the promotion of human dignity and the flourishing of the human person, and so to, to equally combat that which is contemptible and stands against this dignity and flourishing. As such, the work of securing and promoting human dignity is both constant, and yet always new – and certainly never ever boring!

 

Of course, February’s hot ticket here in the Archdiocese of New York was for the trip to Rome to share with His Eminence Cardinal Dolan his elevation to the position of Prince of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI; the event itself was covered by just about every media outlet and was so thorough that you almost didn’t need to make the actual journey yourself to still feel part of Cardinal Dolan’s special honor. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite make the cut for that trip, but instead traveled first down to Washington D.C. with about 500 other Catholic social ministry professionals in year’s Social Ministry Gathering, and then later on in early March I traveled up to Albany with over 1,000 Catholics from around New York State for the annual “Catholics at the Capitol” Public Policy Forum Day. Both events were generally successful this year thank goodness, and although I wasn’t as fortunate as those who were able to accompany His Eminence to Rome (if only to enjoy the beautiful of Vatican City and partake in some of the delicious food), I have to say that this year’s advocacy trips – especially the one to Washington D.C. – were a little more momentous then those in years gone by. Some of this could have to do with the level of media attention that the meetings had this year, which – in contrast to years gone by where the attention paid by the media in general was zero if you discounted the coverage of the event in the Catholic press – was everywhere; wherever you turned the print, television and radio media at this year’s meeting were there. I’d like to think that some of this was because the reporters and their news editors had recently discovered some of the good work that the Church does in the social ministry field of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, ministering to the imprisoned and welcoming the stranger and were eager to cover this work….but my hunch is that the actual level of media coverage had a little something more to do with a set of regulations promulgated earlier this year in January by the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requiring that almost every employer – except for houses of worship specifically, but including religiously sponsored social welfare organizations – had to offer their employees health insurance coverage that includes sterilization, contraception and abortifacient drugs. In case some of you readers have been on a recent trip to Mars, these regulations have been the cause of quite a bit of controversy as of late, so much so that discussion of these regulations has filtered into the Republican Presidential debates, and triggered a response on the President’s part when he offered what he termed an “accommodation” for religious employers under the HHS rules, whereby the responsibility for covering contraceptive services for the employees of the religious organizations was shifted from the organizations themselves over to their insurers.(Funny enough, the press conference where the President announced these accommodations to the HHS rules took place while I was actually on the Amtrak on my way down to Washington D.C. for the Social Ministry Gathering; when my father called my cell phone to tell me of the President’s offer at the press conference, I responded the timing of the announcement was because the White House knew that the “Catholics were coming” – a bit tongue in cheek perhaps – but who knows!) While this compromise on the part of the President was a good first step, there remains some significant concerns on the part of the Church, particularly the fact that the definition of who the HHS deems a “religious employer” remains exceedingly narrow: covering only organizations who hire and serve primarily those of their own faith, and will also still involve the government in deciding exactly what is and is not effectively a “Catholic ministry”. In response to these accommodations, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on March 14th issued a statement on Religious Liberty that invited the Executive Branch to continued dialogue in an effort to secure broader exemptions from the law that would not involve the Federal government forcing Church institutions to act against Church teaching, and urged Catholics everywhere to pray for religious liberty – at home and abroad.

 

Since then of course, the whole controversy itself has been sucked up into the vortex that is the “culture wars” in our society, where vitriol serves as oxygen that feeds a fire of misunderstanding and miscommunication that generates intense heat but very little light. So outrageous has the public discourse on this matter become that on the one side, you had a nationally prominent radio commentator speculating on the number of intimate encounters a graduate student who gave testimony before a Congressional Sub-committee in favor of the contraceptive mandate had on a monthly basis, and on the other, there was a mean-spirited and ignorant full page ad in the New York Times that called Catholic women “enablers” of the Catholic Bishops’ “war against women” urging them to “vote with their feet” and “exit – en Mass” in a tawdry attempt at double entendre. The whole situation is incredibly sad, and has obfuscated the entire issue of the religious liberty concerns of the Church, as often happens in our sensationalistic, media driven society when issues of sexuality and human reproduction are added into the mix.

 

Like most people, I have my own personal responses to the situation, and they correspond – like most personal reflections do – to my life’s experiences. While I do not practice law per se, as a graduate of law school I am very concerned about the erosion – both in the present situation and others – of institutional conscience protection. While the mainstream media often concentrates on violations of individual rights and freedoms, institutional freedoms often suffer a lack of public sympathy; this frankly is much to our determinant, because as anyone who has ever tried to bring about any kind of social change comes to realize, individuals effect social change collectively through the institutions of civil society – institutions such as the Churches and their social welfare agencies. The importance of this insight was brought home to me when – soon after my graduation from Law School – I had the opportunity to travel to several republics of the former Soviet-controlled Eastern Block soon after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. I actually had traveled there with members of a group that was sponsored by the New York Times called “The Center for Independent Journalism”; the goal of this organization was to teach journalists, and the newspaper editorial boards that employed them, the ins and outs of how a “free press” operated – so long had the papers been under government control and oversight they had forgotten the habits they needed to make their now “free press” run. Being in those countries, at that time, with a group dedicated to teaching the principles of a free press made me very proud of our country and its freedoms – Americans are rightly very proud of our Constitution, and particularly our First Amendment, which guarantees for us freedom of speech, and of the press. But what we should not forget is the other essential freedoms that great First Amendment guarantees to us just as precious as our freedoms of speech and press. I think this is summed up best a famous First Amendment scholar and United States Court of Appeals Judge for the 9th Circuit John T. Noonan Jr. when he wrote, “an unregulated, unregistered press is important to our democracy. So are unregulated, unregistered Churches. Churches have played an important – no, an essential – part in the democratic life of the United States….In a secular age, Freedom of Speech is more talismanic than Freedom of Religion. But the latter is the first freedom in our Bill of Rights”.

 

As someone who as part of his job is asked to help Catholic Charities staff identify the “Catholic identity” of our work, I am equally concerned with the overly narrow definition of what constitutes our ministry. Whenever I am approached and asked why it is that Catholic Charities does the things that it does, I always find it instructive to turn to the 25th Chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel and ask the questioner to read the admonitions of Jesus as to what is required of us to live a righteous Christian life: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the ill and visiting the imprisoned – it reads almost like our annual report! And of course, in our care for the least of our brothers and sisters, we try as best as we can to do so in a way that – in a phrase made famous by the Hard Rock Café  – “Loves All and Serves All” – regardless of their race or gender, beliefs or religious practice. How is it that the drafters of the HHS regulations were unaware – or at least tone deaf – to this fact and the impact this could have on our good work? There are those who see malevolent intent in this action, perhaps this is true – or perhaps it was just naiveté – or maybe we weren’t telling our story long enough, and loud enough to enough people.

 

And so, I conclude this post right back where I began – “there and back again”: almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and it is the work of Christians and other people of good will in every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for all our human flourishing. It appears now that – at least for the short term – one of those good and laudable essentials that require renewed appreciation and defending – in addition to all those other things required to live lives of Human Dignity – includes our cherished right to religious liberty. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has an excellent page on their website that can help concerned citizens refamiliarize themselves with this foundational principle and steps needed to secure this essential liberty for themselves, for the Church and for all who cherish freedom of conscience.

 

 

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!

Reflections on a Snowy Lenten Afternoon…

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Greetings readers from a very snowy/slushy Manhattan! As a survivor of this year’s Washington “snowpocalypse”, the storm that stuck our city today – while not an unmitigated disaster – was not the biggest I’ve ever experienced, but it was certainly a whopper – and enough to keep most of us wisely at home and in doors. While we are safely ensconced inside during this first full week of Lent, perhaps we can take advantage of the time indoors by contemplating Pope Benedict XVI’s message to the world for Lent 2010. The Pope’s theme this Lent is “The Justice of God Has Been Manifested Through Faith in Jesus Christ”, and his message – very fitting for a blog concerned for things of Earth as well as Heaven – is a fascinating reflection on the requirements of “justice” incumbent upon us a People of God. The Pope’s discussion of justice is not a rehash of philosophical requirements of justice that we remember from our college reading of the works of Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes and John Stewart Mill on what we are each “due”; instead the Pope’s message on justice calls us to create a “justice” that is more than that which can be guaranteed by law. To live life fully, something more intimate is necessary: the Pope’s prescription calls us to exit our illusion of self-sufficiency and to accept our own need: our need for others and God, for forgiveness, friendship and love. It’s a timely message for these troubled times, and should be read by everyone. The full text of the Pope’s message can be found here, and further resources to help us reflect on and live out God’s Justice this Lent can be found at the United State’s Bishop’s website.

So, while the weather keeps you inside this weekend, why not take a moment and read the Pope’s reflections on Justice, and help to prepare yourself for the glorious feast of Easter, when by the mystery of his sacrifice Jesus fulfilled every cry for justice, now and for all time.

Putting on my Sackcloth and Ashes – only Digitally…

Thursday, 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…..