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April 1, 2011

Making evangelization a Lenten practice -
Restoring trust to society -
Coming to terms with the religious liberty of others -
Rediscovering the cross in current events of suffering

In this edition:
1. Church supports religious freedom for all.
2. Religious freedom in the face of religious violence.
3. Vatican: "Religious freedom" is not "relativism."
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Japan's tragedy;
b) Rediscovering the cross in contemporary events;
c) black in America. 5. Restoring trust to society by living the virtues.
6. Adding evangelization to list of Lenten practices.

1. Church Supports Religious Freedom of All

The Catholic Church does not restrict its support for religious freedom to its own members alone, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said in Capitol Hill testimony March 29 on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He presented his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and human rights.

"We remain firmly committed to the defense of religious liberty for all - not just for Catholics - because our commitment is based on our concern for the dignity of each and every human person," the cardinal explained. He is the retired archbishop of Washington.

Cardinal McCarrick indicated to the subcommittee that the Catholic Church has learned through discrimination directed at its own members how harmful the denial of religious freedom can be. And recognizing religious freedom does not weaken, but rather strengthens societies, he made clear in his testimony on protecting the civil rights of American Muslims.

"In our pluralistic society, religious values and commitments are assets for the common good, not sources of division or conflict. American history demonstrates how people of many religious traditions have contributed greatly to the betterment of the country," said the cardinal.

He added that "religious pluralism" is today "a global phenomenon." Thus, he said, "the challenge and struggle before all of us today is to continue to build a culture of respect for religious freedom as a guarantor of human dignity and a contributor to the justice and peace of our nation and the global community."

Freedom of religion was called "a fundamental civil right" and "a natural human right that flows from the nature of the human person" in Cardinal McCarrick's testimony. He said that "without the right to religious freedom, no other human right is secure."

2. Religious Freedom in Face of Religious Extremism

It is right to be concerned about the violent actions of religious extremists today, Cardinal McCarrick said in his Capitol Hill testimony on the civil rights of American Muslims. At the same time, "a justified concern for security and the appropriate pursuit of those who pervert religion to attack others cannot be allowed to turn into a new form of religious discrimination and intolerance," he said.

Cardinal McCarrick pointed to recent "dramatic examples of the persecution of Catholic and other Christian communities around the globe," as well as to continuing "offenses against the religious liberty of Catholics" in America, where he said bishops often are labeled "bigots" for their views on traditional marriage as an institution for one man and one woman.

The church appreciated "the many sincere expressions of sympathy and condemnation that came from around the world, including from our dialogue partners in the Muslim community" following the killing "at the hands of Muslim extremists" of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic who was Pakistan's minister of minority affairs, said the cardinal.

But opposing Muslim extremism should not be coupled with a condemnation of Islam itself, the cardinal told the Senate subcommittee. While "religious beliefs are no excuse for threatening others with or carrying out acts of violence," Cardinal McCarrick said it nonetheless is essential "to avoid generalizing about Islam based solely on the extreme views and conduct of a small group of radical extremists."

The cardinal told the subcommittee that the bishops note "with particular sadness that Muslim Americans, with whom we have had a positive ongoing dialogue for over two decades, have had their loyalty and beliefs questioned publicly in sweeping and uninformed ways." He said:

"Muslim Americans are increasingly facing unjust acts of discrimination and prejudice. Like our own historical experience, their very loyalty as Americans and their traditions and values are being questioned."

The cardinal commented that "solidarity among people of every religion in the face of attacks on people of any one religion is an example of respect for religious freedom in action."

A commitment to religious liberty resides "at the heart of American life." This commitment, Cardinal McCarrick said, is also "an example to a world where too many doubt that people of different religions can live together in peace and mutual respect."

3. Vatican: Respect for Religious Freedom Is Not Relativism

The Vatican weighed-in during the month of March on religious freedom as a fundamental human right for all people. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told the U.N. Human Rights Council that the Vatican wanted to "reaffirm the importance of the right to freedom of religion for all individuals, for all communities of faith and for every society in all parts of the world."

Freedom of religion, of conscience and belief "makes possible the enjoyment of other human rights," said Archbishop Tomasi, the Vatican's representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva. Governments today need to encourage their "majority populations to enable religious minorities to practice their faith individually and in community without threat or hindrance," he said.

Respect for religious freedom is not a form of relativism, Archbishop Tomasi stressed. "There is a fear that respecting the freedom to choose and practice another religion, different from one's own, is based on a premise that all truth is relative and that one's religion is no longer absolutely valid," he noted. But he called that a misunderstanding.

He said that "the right to adopt, and to change, a religion is based on respect for human dignity: The state must allow each person to freely search for the truth."

Archbishop Tomasi called freedom of religion "a value for society as a whole." It needs to be realized, he urged, that "the state that protects this right enables society to benefit from the social consequences that come with it: peaceful coexistence, national integration in today's pluralistic situations, increased creativity as the talents of everyone are placed at the service of the common good."

The archbishop also offered the thought-provoking observation that "an environment of real freedom of religion becomes the best medicine to prevent the manipulation of religion for political purposes of power grabbing and power maintenance, and for the oppression of dissenters and of different faith communities or religious minorities."

The fact is, he added, that "religious discrimination and strife are rarely, if ever, solely the product of differences in religious opinions and practices. Below the surface are social and political problems."

A lack of religious freedom results in conflict and strife, Archbishop Tomasi noted. This is serious, since "religious strife is a danger to social, political and economic development," and "religious conflict polarizes society, breaking the bonds necessary for social life and commerce to flourish."

Conflict of this sort "produces violence, which robs people of the most fundamental right of all, the right to life," he said. "And it sows seeds of distrust and bitterness that can be passed down through the generations."

He called the U.N. body's attention to the extent of the religious hatred directed today at Christians in many places. "That concentration of religious discrimination should cause concern to all of us," he said.

Governments today "should support all initiatives aimed at promoting dialogue and mutual respect between religious communities," Archbishop Tomasi said. Furthermore, governments must enforce laws "that fight against religious discrimination" -- and enforce them "vigorously, and without selectivity."

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Japan's Tragedy: "Where does a person who has lost everything find peace? Images reflecting human tragedy come from Japan each day. The dignity and resiliency of the Japanese people, even as they suffer unimaginable loss since the earthquake and tsunami, has been a source of inspiration, offering the world a glimmer of light in this darkest of moments. As each day passes and the challenges of cold, hunger and sorrow surround them, we pray that the people of Japan will find the peace they seek. Jesus told us that those who mourn would be blessed, and today we are called to be a source of that blessing. Our acts of charity are a real response to the unbreakable bond between the commandment to love God and love our neighbor." (From a column by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, Texas, in the March 25 edition of Today's Catholic, the archdiocese's newspaper)

Rediscover the Cross in Contemporary Experiences of Suffering: "The pain was great, and the grief was lasting -- that is the cross that we will talk about. The experience of Jesus is the experience of many people who find themselves wondering what they have done, what has happened to them and why it is that they suffer so much. As a community of believers, we have to find ourselves united with [the people in Japan suffering after the recent earthquake and tsunami] as we talk about suffering in our time and the meaning of the cross." (Greer Gordon, evangelization director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La., speaking during the March 18-20 Religious Education Congress held in Anaheim, Calif., as reported in The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese)

Black in America: "I attended a wonderful event titled 'One With the Family' that brought together Catholics of African, Caribbean and African-American backgrounds. There are more than 1 million African Catholic immigrants in the U.S., and, of course, there are scores of thousands of English-speaking Caribbean Catholics as well. Many of the participants, of course, were immigrants, and most had a common heritage in Africa. Nevertheless, it was very clear that the cultures of these three groups are quite different. Historical circumstances varied quite a bit. An example I would give was a remark of Dominican Father Aniedi Okure, one of the speakers, that 'Africans discover that they are black when they come to the United States.' I had never heard that before. Father Okure explained that the stress put on race in U.S. history has made people in the USA very aware of racial issues. But that simply is not so in Africa, where the overwhelming majority of people are black. Unfortunately, for many reasons going back to slavery, it has been a big deal in our country." (From a March 29 entry to the blog of Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

5. To Restore Trust to Society, Practice Virtues

Society today suffers from a lack of trust among those who inhabit it, according to Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England. In a March 16 speech in Brentwood, England, he suggested that Christians can contribute to society's well-being by living the virtues, and one reason this is true is that a virtuous person is trustworthy.

"One of the key points today about the pursuit of [the virtues of prudence, courage, justice and temperance] is that they are what is needed for the creation -- or restoration -- of trust," said the archbishop. And while "some would say that many layers of trust have been eroded in recent decades (trust in government, in the financial sector and indeed in the church)," Archbishop Nichols said that "it is lived virtue, not regulation, that will restore trust, for a person living these virtues will be trustworthy."

A life lived according to the virtues adds up to more than "not being a cheat or a scoundrel," he explained. For it also "means being recognized as a person of sound judgment and genuine concern." This is a way of living by faith in a secular environment - a "testimony" given while "working alongside, cooperating with others, in every circumstance of our lives."

Furthermore, Archbishop Nichols said, this type of "witness" contributes to the common good because it has a way of building "on what we have in common with every other person," though it also represents an "explicit witness to the truths and gifts of faith." He said:

"If we focus our witness around these virtues, then we are starting from common ground, ground shared by everyone, because these virtues are profoundly human virtues. So we start with the pursuit of prudence, courage, justice and temperance, and then we find we can move on to the proclamation of the higher virtues of faith, hope and love.

"But let me remind you what is meant by the virtues. Virtues are habits of the heart and mind by which we behave generously and correctly. Virtues are acquired by practice. They tutor us in our use of freedom. They fashion our moral selves so that we do good, even when no one is looking. Slowly, step by step, we acquire a particular virtue until it becomes our normal way of acting. Slowly we become a virtuous people."

In the archbishop's discussion of the reasons a life lived virtuously makes a contribution to secular society, he expressed confidence that those witnessing such a life eventually will inquire about the reasons someone is trustworthy, or an excellent colleague, or a person of virtue.

His hope is that the opportunity then will be taken to "give a witness to the fact that our desire to live a good life springs from our baptism, our bond with God; our inspiration to live a good life comes from Christ, the one true Lord; and our sustenance for living a good life comes from the practice of prayer, the sacraments and every way of being refreshed by the Holy Spirit."

6. Add Evangelization to List of Lenten Practices

Evangelization or sharing faith with others is a worthy Lenten practice, according to Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y. This is important in his view because he believes "the greatest challenge facing the world, our society and ourselves is the loss or weakening of faith."

However, "to actually share our faith with others by inviting them to join our faith community or to reconnect with it will probably be more difficult for us than the other types of Lenten observances or sacrifices" such as fasting or alms-giving, Bishop Hubbard said in his monthly, online message to the diocese for March.

Bishop Hubbard pointed out that 90 million Americans are unchurched. In addition, he said, 18 million Catholics "have stopped practicing their faith." Thus, if the Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the U.S., the second largest is constituted of "fallen-away Roman Catholics."

In addition, the number of people in the U.S. who say that they are atheists "has grown significantly," Bishop Hubbard noted. Almost everyone knows someone, possibly a family member, neighbor or co-worker, who is unchurched or is atheistic, he said.

But there are a number of reasons Catholics find it difficult to reach out to these people. For example, Catholics "tend to be very privatized" in their approach to faith, Bishop Hubbard commented. He said, "The old adage that 'you never talk about religion and politics in polite company' is very much ingrained in our Catholic genes."

For some Catholics another obstacle to faith sharing is that they, like Bishop Hubbard himself, "were raised with the question-and-answer format of the Baltimore Catechism. Now these Catholics may be reluctant to share faith with others out of a fear of not having "the answer to questions they may pose -- or, worse still, that we might give an incorrect or incomplete answer."

Many Catholics also may "identify faith sharing with the pushy tactics" of certain religious groups or "the blatant hucksterism of some televangelists," for example. Catholics tend not to "want to be associated with this type of 'in-your-face' proselytism," the bishop said.

Furthermore, Bishop Hubbard said that "a kind of 'live-and-let-live' attitude" has been adopted in today's pluralistic society. As a result, "we are often reluctant to share our faith with others because this sharing may seem intrusive and offensive to them." Possibly, too, there is a fear "that we ourselves might be rejected, ridiculed, scorned or ostracized."

The bishop urged Catholics, "at a minimum," to identify someone they know who is unchurched or is a lapsed Catholic and "pray for him or her" during Lent.

He also urged Catholics to try to find an opportunity to share with this person:

-- The reasons "your Catholic faith is important to you."

-- "Why you believe in Jesus."

-- How Jesus' "message of love, healing and forgiveness gives purpose, direction and meaning to your life."

-- "How the Mass and the sacraments nourish and sustain" you.

-- And how faith "sustained you through a tough time, during an illness or in coping with the death of a parent, spouse or friend."

Of course, he added, this person also could be invited "to attend Mass with you" or "to participate in some Lenten program in your parish or deanery."