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February 1, 2011

What gives cyberspace communication a Christian mark? -
Accenting the parish's community dimension -
Cardinal's retirement plan: to welcome the stranger

In this edition:
1. Why Cairo Muslims suspended dialogue with the Vatican.
2. The real-life complexity of Christian-Muslim relations.
3. New CUA president on virtue, community and education.
4. Accent on parish's community dimension.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) A week in January and the consistent ethic;
b) capital punishment versus respect for life.
6. Cardinal's retirement plan: to welcome the stranger.
7. What makes cyberspace communication Christian?

1. Cairo Muslim Leaders Suspend Dialogue With Vatican

In a world as "precarious" as ours, "full of walls separating people physically or morally," Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran said it seems to him "more necessary than ever for religions, despite their differences, to promote love and peace together." The cardinal was speaking at the end of January to the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said his council still was attempting to understand why leading Muslim academics in Cairo, Egypt, decided to suspend dialogue with the Vatican in protest of remarks Pope Benedict XVI made in his Jan. 10 speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican and, apparently, also in protest of his remarks Jan. 2 regarding the bombing a day earlier of a Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt.

The decision to suspend dialogue with the Vatican was made by Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, president of al-Azhar University in Cairo, and members of the Islamic Research Academy. After news of the suspension was reported, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was "collecting the information needed to adequately understand the situation."

Catholic News Service reported that the day after the pope's speech to the diplomatic corps, Egypt's government recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, bringing her back to Cairo "for consultation." It is possible that one key to explaining why the Muslim academics in Cairo suspended dialogue with the Vatican is that they were following the lead of their nation's government.

But it seems the reasons for the suspension of dialogue will be found complex, once they are carefully examined. At a tumultuous time in the Middle East, it may indeed take time to discern the political and other sensitivities surrounding this action.

I, for one, cannot help wondering whether the volatility in the Middle East at this moment will prove to be an opportunity or a threat to future Christian-Muslim dialogue. Certainly, some observers do not think the current suspension of dialogue will be permanent. …

2. … The Real-Life Complexity of Christian-Muslim Relations

The Jan. 1 bombing at the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, Egypt, left some two dozen people dead and many wounded. It would seem, on the one hand, that what Pope Benedict said in January, defending and promoting the rights of Christians in the Middle East, he has said many times before. Speaking Jan. 2, Pope Benedict said:

"Yesterday morning we learned with sorrow the news of the serious attack on the Christian Coptic community in Alexandria, Egypt. This despicable act of death, like the current trend of setting bombs close to the homes of Christians in Iraq to force them to leave, offends God and the whole of humanity, which only yesterday was praying for peace and began a New Year with hope."

The pope added: "In the face of this strategy of violence that is targeting Christians with consequences on the entire population, I pray for the victims and their relatives, and I encourage the ecclesial communities to persevere in faith and in the witness of nonviolence which comes to us from the Gospel."

Then, in Jan. 10 remarks to the diplomatic community on anti-Christian violence in today's world, Pope Benedict said that "in Egypt too, in Alexandria, terrorism brutally struck Christians as they prayed in church." There is a need for governments "to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities."

The pope stressed to the diplomats that in the Middle East, Christians are "original and authentic citizens," loyal to their fatherlands. He called it only natural that they should enjoy all the rights of citizenship.

Cardinal Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, patriarch of Coptic Catholics, told the Vatican newspaper that the attack on the church in his city was "a criminal act aimed at destabilizing internal security and harmony among citizens."

Nonetheless, Cardinal Naguib said, "we have complete trust in the wisdom and the determination of the authorities, and are certain that they will adopt the necessary measures to put an end to such painful events."

The Cairo Muslim leaders suspended their dialogue with the Vatican about a month before the annual meeting of the pontifical interreligious dialogue council and the Permanent Committee of al-Azhar for Dialogue Among the Monotheistic Religions. The committee, established in 1998, meets in late February each year.

What did Pope Benedict say about the church bombing in Alexandria that elicited such a protest from Cairo? Indeed, it is somewhat unclear - not unclear what he said, but why it elicited this protest. No wonder the pontifical council said it needed time to answer the question.

It was reported that the Muslim academics said the pope's remarks constituted undue interference in their nation's affairs. But what, precisely, does that mean?

There were indications that some Muslims felt blamed in all of this for violence that may have been the fault of extremists, but not of Muslims in general. And there were indications that some Muslims felt they (and Egypt's government) falsely were being accused of persecuting Coptic Christians. According to various reports, many Muslims served as human shields for Coptic Christians during their Jan. 6-7 Christmas celebrations this year, just days after the bombing.

There also were Muslims who suggested that the pope ought to be defending the rights and lives not only of Christians in the Middle East, but of Muslims too. And in a sense, Egyptian Muslims may be cautioning against overgeneralizations about Muslims - cautioning that Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan or Egypt, for example, are not carbon copies of one another in all their thinking and attitudes.

Perhaps, ultimately, the question of what the pope said that proved so offensive in Cairo will be answered differently now than it might have been earlier, after further assessments are made of the social and political upheaval that erupted in Egypt and elsewhere near the end of January.

Cardinal Tauran told L'Osservatore Romano that he believes "an attentive reading" of the pope's remarks will help clear up any misunderstanding. "If we want to move forward with dialogue, one must first of all find the time to sit and talk face-to-face, not through the newspapers," he said. The cardinal said his interreligious dialogue council would "continue to welcome with friendship whoever wishes to enter into a conversation with the Catholic Church."

But few would dispute, I assume, the cardinal's assessment of the "precarious" state of the world today and the strength of the walls that divide people.

3. New CUA President on Virtue, Community and Learning

There is a vital connection between virtue and the intellectual life that needs attention today, John Garvey proposed in a speech during his Jan. 25 inauguration as president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. The widely reported speech, discussing how people learn, may well prove of interest not only to academics, but to religious educators and others in pastoral ministry.

Calling for a renewal of Catholic intellectual life, Garvey said that virtue is what "leads the intellect to the right result, not the other way around." He explained, "The particular goals we set for ourselves are illuminated by our character or moral orientation."

But in accenting virtue's contribution, Garvey also accented the community dimension of Catholic university life - the environment in which a person learns not alone, but with others. "The intellectual life, like the acquisition of virtue, is a communal (not a solitary) undertaking. We learn from each other," Garvey said.

Acceptance of the principle that the intellectual life is a communal undertaking ought to bring "the nature of student life" into clear focus as an important concern, Garvey suggested. He said:

"A Catholic university should be concerned with the formation of its students. Campus ministry, residence life, service opportunities, athletics, student activities are an integral part of our mission. The measure of our success is how our graduates live their daily lives: Do they pray and receive the sacraments, do they love the poor, do they observe the rest of the Beatitudes?"

Garvey said that "although we sometimes speak (as Bonaventure does) of learning virtue from a holy man (a kind of moral Bruce Harmon, or yoga master), we learn it better as members of a group."

He and his wife sent their "five children to Catholic schools from kindergarten through college," Garvey said. As parents, they hoped that "in the right environment" their children "would grow in wisdom, age and grace. … We wanted our children to discern their vocations, in married or religious life, in the company of friends and teachers who loved God and the church."

In cautioning against "the mistake of separating intellect and virtue," Garvey spoke of their "interplay" in university life as a whole. He argued "that the arrow between intellect and virtue travels in a different direction than scholars sometimes suppose."

Of course, he said, "academics like to think that intellect is the key thing -- that if we know the good, we will cultivate and pursue it." But that is not surprising, since "academics are intellectuals," and "thinking is what we are good at," Garvey commented.

Here he called to mind an observation by Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology, that if one has only a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails!

Garvey insisted that "the cultivation of virtue prepares the ground for the work of the intellect" by making learners aim at the right mark. He said, "We do not come to understand what is right, or good, or beautiful through mental exercises conducted from an armchair." (The text of Garvey's speech appears on The Catholic University of America website, www.cua.edu.)

4. Accent on the Parish's Community Dimension

"Community life refers to the ways in which we welcome and support each other in a parish," Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, said Jan. 13. A parish is a multidimensional community, he indicated.

Is the community dimension of church life still considered one of the essentials of Catholic life? Three decades ago one came upon a discussion of the formation of community at every turn of the page in Catholic publications. In 2011, an accent on the church as a community continues to be heard, though probably not as frequently, in discussions of church life.

The welcome and support extended by the people of a parish to each other is particularly important "in times of difficulty such as sickness, recession and tragedy," Cardinal Brady said. As a community, a parish endeavors to create "a sense of welcome, and belonging, and ownership, and solidarity," he observed.

Independence is prized by people nowadays, the cardinal noted. He said: "We live in a deeply individualistic time, where everyone loves to be independent, but wherever we are we are all interdependent -- whether we like to admit it or not." The cardinal spoke during the launch of a new parish pastoral council formation manual in Ireland.

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., discussed the church as a community not too long ago. "Because we participate in the divine life of the Trinity, we are invited to live completely as community," he wrote in a 2007 pastoral letter on the Eucharist. He said:

"We are not individuals living in an isolated world; we are communal beings who need to move beyond our self-centered ways so that we may enter into right relationship with all of creation, including all our brothers and sisters. This is not an option. Our path to God is a journey with and in community."

When people suffer, the value of the church's communal dimension comes into view for them, the Catholic bishops of New Zealand pointed out in a November 2010 pastoral reflection. "Unable to avoid suffering, none of us should have to meet it alone," they said.

Suffering is "common to all, though individually wrapped," and it "needs a community response," the bishops insisted. They added that serving "in solidarity with one another," the church's people "can support and encourage, befriend, care and provide reassurance and practical support to ensure that no suffering is left unnoticed and no sufferer abandoned."

Young adults often hope to discover, but fail to find, a sense of community in the church, according to Passionist Father Robin Ryan, former director of a vocations discernment program in Chicago. Addressing a vocations symposium last September, he said:

"Many young adults say that they find it difficult to feel at home in typical Catholic parishes. Often they do not have many friends in the parish community and so feel alone and isolated.

"There are parishes that 'specialize' in outreach to young adults, … but the majority of parishes are lacking in such outreach. When that is the case, it is very easy for young adults to get lost or simply to drift away." (The texts by Father Ryan, New Zealand's bishops and Bishop Lynch all appeared in Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

One Week in January and the Consistent Ethic: "On [Jan. 17] we will celebrate the birthday of a modern prophet … [The] message [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] preached as a Christian pastor was unequivocal: We are all God's children, equal in his eyes. … Color, size, age, economic background, creed, nationality, usefulness -- all were second to the fact that we were first of all children of God. … Now jump ahead to Saturday, Jan. 22, the 38th anniversary of the chilling, morbid Supreme Court decision, 'Roe versus Wade,' that did in fact take away from an entire group of people -- babies in the womb -- the most fundamental of all rights: that to life itself. … If the life of the baby in the womb is worthless, able to be destroyed when inconvenient or troublesome, no wonder we are callous to life destroyed in war, the life of the homeless or the life of the terminally ill. … Thus our Catholic consistent ethic of life: Human life is sacred, inviolable, from conception to natural death. To crush it or destroy it -- whether by slavery, racism, unjust war, human trafficking, crushing poverty, violence, abortion or euthanasia -- goes against God's plan, the most noble principles inherent in our human nature and also, by the way, against the philosophy of human rights at the very foundation of our republic." (From the Jan. 13 column by New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan in the Catholic New York newspaper)

Capital Punishment versus Respect for Life: "Gov. Susana Martinez has expressed her desire that the death penalty be reintroduced in the state of New Mexico for certain crimes. …We are deeply saddened by the heinous acts of violence experienced by so many people in our society because of criminal activity. Our hearts go out to them. We pray God's healing hand to come upon them. But the execution of a dangerous criminal will not bring back a loved one who was killed. I believe it is much better that there be life imprisonment without parole so that the citizens of our state can be protected from such a criminal. … I believe that a climate of respect for life that includes opposition to capital punishment is very important. I hope that our legislators will remain firm that the repeal of the death penalty signed into law two years ago in our state will remain in place." (From a Jan. 21 statement by Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M.)

6. Cardinal's Retirement Plan: To Welcome the Stranger

As he approaches his retirement near the end of February as archbishop of Los Angeles and reflects on his years of ministry, Cardinal Roger Mahony says he has "come to see that so much of that ministry brought [him] in touch with immigrant peoples, regardless of how they came" to the U.S. In a Jan. 16 entry on his blog, Cardinal Mahony wrote:

"Over the years immigrant peoples have become very dear to me. … I intend to spend the coming months and years walking in solidarity with the 11 million immigrants who have come to the United States to improve their own lives and the life of our country, and to advocate on behalf of the silent millions."

After retiring the cardinal said he hopes "to focus on the positives and encourage all of us to get to know our immigrant neighbors more personally." In so doing, it will be discovered "that their core values are the same as ours and that they are here to help enrich, not diminish, our fine country," he wrote.

Something the cardinal believes ought to be done is to "engage our Catholic business and professional leaders, our Catholic colleges and universities, and our national Catholic organizations, urging them to put a human face on the immigrants in our midst and to give assistance to immigrant peoples."

The cardinal's blog retold the story of his long and well-noted involvement with immigrant peoples. "During my years as a seminarian … in Camarillo, several of us seminarians were able to accompany priests to the farm labor camps where Mass was offered for the braceros, the temporary farm workers mostly from Mexico," he wrote.

Later, after ordination, the future cardinal "served in the San Joaquin Valley and was always deeply touched by the faith, traditions and commitment to family on the part of countless immigrants across the valley, a large number of whom were involved in agriculture," he said.

He told of being "greatly inspired" by "the efforts of Cesar Chavez to improve the salaries and working conditions of thousands of farm workers" in California.

After ordination as a bishop, Cardinal Mahony said his "ministry continued with immigrants." And after becoming archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, his relationship with immigrants "expanded as Asian Pacific and other immigrant peoples" became part of his ministry.

Today, life is not easy "for so many immigrants in the United States," Cardinal Mahony wrote. With the economy's recent "terrible downturn," millions of people lost jobs. Now, he said, "so many voices blame immigrant peoples for our economic woes," though "this is unjust and flies in the face of the facts." Immigrants "are easy targets of blame for everything that has gone wrong, and is going wrong, with our country," the cardinal stated.

He thinks that "if we would refresh our memories as a nation, we would see that the presence of immigrants -- with or without legal documents -- is never a cause of concern when the unemployment rate is low and our economy is sound and expanding," as was the case in December 2000 when "the nation's unemployment rate was 3.9 percent." Then "we needed everyone available to fill the jobs."

Today, as the economy gradually improves, in Cardinal Mahony's judgment the need for workers again will increase.

After his retirement, Cardinal Mahony said he wants "to live more wholeheartedly the answer to the call I have heard from Jesus: When did you see me, a stranger, and welcome me?"

7. What Makes Cyberspace Communication Christian?

There is a Christian way "of being present in the digital world," a way that "takes the form of communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others," Pope Benedict said in a message released Jan. 24 for the June 5, 2011, World Day of Communications. He suggested that while the new communications media such as the Internet and social networking hold great promise, they also give rise to important challenges.

"To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms," but also to communicate judgments, choices and preferences "that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically," the pope said.

Serious reflection is called for today "on the significance of communication in the digital age," Pope Benedict said. He encouraged believers, by bearing witness to "their most profound convictions," to help "prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others."

For many people, the entry into cyberspace is "a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others," he observed. But he called attention to a challenge hidden in this "search for sharing, for 'friends'" - a "challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself."

The pope said, "It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives." His message raised a few penetrating questions in this regard about the new communications technologies by asking:

-- "Who is my 'neighbor' in this new world" of the Internet?

-- "Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life" as a result of a focus upon online relationships?

-- "Is there a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world 'other' than the one in which we live?"

-- "Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting?"

It is "an ever more commonly held opinion" today that "the radical changes taking place in communications are guiding significant cultural and social developments," Pope Benedict noted. He said:

"The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself -- so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation."