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July 1, 2011

What a permanent deacon's ministry agreement accomplishes -
On politics, the fiscal crisis and the demands of the common good --
Are physician-assisted-suicide proponents gaining steam? --
Evangelization's essential dynamics

In this edition:
1. Evangelization's healthful benefits.
2. U.S. bishops speak out on assisted suicide.
3. Defining a class of people to die.
4. Revisions of bishops' 2002 abuse charter.
5. Current quote to ponder: Hobbling the common good through politics.
6. What is expected of a permanent deacon?
7. The permanent deacon's distinctive call.
8. When and where permanent deacons preach.

1. Evangelization's Healthful Benefits, Essential Dynamics

An interesting discussion of what are termed "maintenance-oriented" parishes is found in Cardinal Sean O'Malley's pastoral letter on evangelization for Pentecost 2011. It may well be that a consumer culture helps to shape such parishes, the Boston archbishop suggested.

Some parishes are "maintenance-oriented" because "their parishioners often have a consumer culture mentality," Cardinal O'Malley said. "They come to church to get something, and they expect the leadership to provide it." As a result, the parish's energy and resources "are oriented to serving the people who are present rather than reaching out to those who are absent," the cardinal wrote.

He said, "We must work to help our parishioners to move beyond being consumers to being disciples who share actively in the mission and the ministry of Jesus." Underscoring evangelization's essential place in Christian life, Cardinal O'Malley wrote:

"If a doctor had discovered a cure for cancer and said, 'Well, I am going to use this only for my family and my close friends,' we would consider that criminal. Not sharing the power of the Gospel and the sacraments with our neighbor is also criminal."

Cardinal O'Malley proposed that to accent evangelization is healthful for the church.

He cited a book by Paulist Father Robert Rivers titled "From Maintenance to Mission: Evangelization and the Revitalization of the Parish." Its premise is that "evangelization has the power to bring new unity to the church in periods of upheaval and can lead to an experience of reorientation within the church and a renewed impact on the society in which we live," the cardinal said.

Evangelization challenges all baptized Catholics to live faith fully, invite others to faith and live the values of the Gospel in the world, according to Cardinal O'Malley. He commented that evangelization "gives us a new lens through which we can view our Catholic faith. This lens is threefold: spiritual renewal, missionary activity and action for justice in the world."

Demands that are "very practical" accompany the work of sharing the Gospel message, in the cardinal's view. He wrote that "evangelization includes working for justice and caring for the material needs of others."

The word "evangelization" bears "negative connotations for some" and often is "misunderstood to be an aggressive or manipulative form of proselytism," Cardinal O'Malley noted. But he stressed that Catholic evangelization is not proselytism. "Evangelization always seeks to propose our faith and never to impose it. It is always respectful of human dignity and authentic freedom," he said.

His pastoral letter identified parishes as the chief venues for evangelization. The parish, he said, "is the place where most Catholics experience the church." And inevitably evangelization "involves the parish community because ultimately we are inviting people to the Eucharist," he added.

The cardinal believes "there are many ways to identify a healthy, vibrant parish." But "one of the most important manifestations of vibrant parish life is having the resources and the spirit to evangelize, and particularly to reach out to those who have left the church," he stressed.

Cardinal O'Malley asked that "pastors, parish pastoral councils and parish evangelization teams recommit themselves to advancing their understanding of their parish's mission in a way that develops concrete evangelizing activities." (The cardinal's pastoral letter appears in the June 30 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

2. U.S. Bishops Speak Out on Assisted Suicide

"People who request death are vulnerable. They need care and protection. To offer them lethal drugs is a victory not for freedom but for the worst form of neglect," the U.S. Catholic bishops say in a statement on physician-assisted suicide adopted during their mid-June meeting in Bellevue, Wash.

The abandonment of vulnerable people reflected in the legalization of assisted suicide "is especially irresponsible when society is increasingly aware of elder abuse and other forms of mistreatment and exploitation of vulnerable persons," the bishops state in "To Live Each Day With Dignity."

They urge Catholics to "be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives." Palliative care to address the pain seriously ill people may experience also is encouraged by the bishops.

"Respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome. Nor does it mean we should deprive suffering patients of needed pain medications out of a misplaced or exaggerated fear that they might have the side effect of shortening life," the bishops explain.

In fact, they add, "the risk of such an effect is extremely low when pain medication is adjusted to a patient's level of pain, with the laudable purpose of simply addressing that pain." The bishops make the point that severe pain actually "can shorten life, while effective palliative care can enhance the length as well as the quality of a person's life."

Palliative care even can "alleviate the fears and problems that lead some patients to the desperation of considering suicide," the bishops continue. And effective palliative care "allows patients to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones and with themselves."

Voters approved physician-assisted suicide in Oregon in 1994. The bishops note that though "the claim of a constitutional right to assisted suicide was firmly rejected in 1997 by the U.S. Supreme Court," the campaign for assisted suicide "advanced its agenda when Washington state passed a law like Oregon's in 2008. The following year, Montana's highest court suggested that physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients is not always against public policy."

The bishops believe that the success of an "aggressive nationwide campaign" to legalize assisted suicide will result in "a radical change" in society.

What society ought to do is to "embrace what Pope John Paul II called 'the way of love and true mercy,'" the bishops advise. This "way" involves "a readiness to surround patients with love, support and companionship, providing the assistance needed to ease their physical, emotional and spiritual suffering."

That approach "must be anchored in unconditional respect for their human dignity, beginning with respect for the inherent value of their lives," the bishops say.

3. Defining a "Class of People" to Die

A thought-provoking section of the U.S. bishops' new statement against physician-assisted suicide expresses their concern about attempts to define a particular class of people whose suicides might become broadly legal. The bishops offer this observation:

"Legalization proposals generally leave in place the laws against assisting most people to commit suicide, but they define a class of people whose suicides may be facilitated rather than prevented. That class typically includes people expected to live less than six months."

But however wide or narrow this class of people may be, "it defines a group of people whose death by lethal overdose is wrongly treated by the law as objectively good or acceptable, unlike the suicide of anyone else," according to the bishops' statement. In this way, "the bias of too many able-bodied people against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is embodied in official policy."

This bias is "fueled by the excessively high premium our culture places on productivity and autonomy," the bishops comment. They describe it as a bias that "tends to discount the lives of those who have a disability or are dependent on others."

The bishops fear that people in this category who choose to live may come to be viewed "as selfish or irrational, as a needless burden," and may "even be encouraged to view themselves that way."

The bishops recognize that "the sufferings caused by chronic or terminal illness are often severe" and "cry out for our 'compassion,' a word whose root meaning is to 'suffer with' another person." True compassion both alleviates suffering and maintains "solidarity with those who suffer," they insist.

The worst suffering for such people is "often not physical pain, which can be alleviated with competent medical care, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness," the bishops say. This suffering can be magnified by the realization that "others -- or society as a whole -- may see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems."

Suicide is commonly viewed within today's society as a tragedy, the bishops point out. For example, "medical professionals recognize that people who take their own lives commonly suffer from a mental illness such as clinical depression." Thus, the bishops urge recognition of the real need these people have, which is not to be assisted in suicide but "to be freed from their suicidal thoughts through counseling and support and, when necessary and helpful, medication."

And not only medical professionals, but most people today, "regardless of religious affiliation, know that suicide is a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent," the bishops affirm.

A caring community will devote "more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives," the bishops state. For, "when people are tempted to see their own lives as diminished in value or meaning, they most need the love and assistance of others to assure them of their inherent worth."

4. Revisions of Bishops' Abuse Charter

The U.S. Catholic bishops revised their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" during their June 15-17 meeting near Seattle. The charter first was adopted by the bishops in 2002 and has been revised previously as the church, both in the U.S. and in Rome, continued to address issues related to sexual abuse of minors in the church.

The newest revisions of the charter were designed to bring it in line with the most recent Vatican instructions. That meant mentioning child pornography as a crime against church law and maintaining that the abuse of someone who habitually lacks reason, for example someone with mental retardation, is equivalent to child abuse.

With its revisions, the charter also now outlines procedures to follow if a bishop is accused of having sexually abused a minor and another bishop becomes aware of it.

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, introduced the charter revisions to the bishops during their meeting. He said that over the past nine years "the charter has served the church well." The charter "is a helpful tool as we keep our pledge to protect children, promote healing and rebuild trust," he said.

During a news conference at the conclusion of the bishops' June meeting, Bishop Cupich said that yet another charter review will take place within two years. This review will act upon recommendations the National Review Board might make in light of the study released May 18 on the "causes and context" of clergy sexual abuse of minors. The board, a lay consultative body created under the bishops' charter, commissioned the study.

The "causes and context" study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, found "no single identifiable 'cause' of sexually abusive behavior toward minors." Thus, it accented the need to take steps to deny abusers "the opportunity to abuse."

Bishop Cupich called attention to the fact that 125 new U.S. bishops have been named since the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" was adopted in 2002. In addition, he said there are countless new staff members in U.S. dioceses. One of his committee's next challenges is to ensure that everyone stays informed about the charter's requirements, he said.

"We must provide training for the new generations, in order to keep fresh the insights gained from experience over the years," Bishop Cupich said. He added that the bishops' major responsibility is to provide healing for abuse victims.

Recent Vatican documents related to clerical sexual abuse have "reinforced the commitment we bishops made in 2002," Bishop Cupich commented. He called the documents "a source of encouragement that the decisions we made are making a positive impact on the universal church."

5. Current Quote to Ponder

Hobbling the Common Good Through Politics: "Amidst [California's] deepening fiscal crisis, political dialogue has failed to identify a path forward, despite strenuous efforts by many in state government. Partisan dynamics have blocked the crafting of hard but necessary solutions that will genuinely address the enduring problems built into California's budgetary house of cards. Major elements necessary for genuine remedies for our state's financial woes are declared 'off the table' by both political parties, as well as by the vested interests that support them. Policy is dictated more by stalemate and impasse rather than by a search for compromise on solutions that will best serve the interests of all. The common good rejects the notion that society's decisions should be determined by the clash of partisan, economic and political interests in a way that lets power dominate over justice. Indeed, the notion of the common good rejects the pursuit of only our own interests in the political process at the expense of the good of the society as a whole. The acceptance of shared sacrifice is crucial in an era of increasing concentration of wealth and disparity of income in society. Further reduction in the net present tax burden with the full realization that the poor, fragile and forgotten will experience the cruel consequences is unacceptable." (From "In Search of the Common Good," a June 9 statement by California's Catholic bishops)

6. What Is Expected of a Permanent Deacon?

An agreement outlining the expectations for a permanent deacon's ministry must be drawn up "between the deacon and his pastor or between the deacon and his supervisor in ministry," Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Mich., said in a pastoral letter June 9 titled "The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant."

Bishop Sample's pastoral letter also announced that to serve "the process of accepting potential candidates" to the diaconate, a Permanent Diaconate Screening and Admissions Committee will be established. A permanent deacon's wife is to be one of the committee's members.

The bishop said that a married candidate for the permanent diaconate must enjoy "the full support of his spouse, who will participate actively in the formation program."

Ministry agreements for permanent deacons are not new. But it is worth noting what Bishop Sample said about such agreements.

The ministry agreement is to "clearly delineate the extent and limits of the deacon's ministry in relationship with his pastor or supervisor," Bishop Sample said. The agreement's intent "is to have a clear and common understanding in writing that becomes a reference point."

The ministry agreement "seeks to make sure that the deacon is able to balance family, work and his diaconal ministry without unreasonable expectations being placed upon him in ministry," the bishop explained. The agreement "also seeks to hold the deacon accountable" for his ministerial obligations.

Bishop Sample said that a ministry agreement "should be reviewed on an annual basis and adjusted as needed," especially "as the deacon may transition to other areas of service ministry."

A permanent deacon's relationship with his pastor and with other priests is among key points addressed in Bishop Sample's pastoral letter. "To be avoided at all cost is any sense of rivalry or competition between priests and deacons," he said.

When a permanent deacon is assigned to a parish or mission, the pastor and other priests serving there must recognize him "as a collaborator in ministry and as one who shares with them in the sacrament of holy orders," the bishop said. He added that while the deacon "is there to help and serve the pastor, his dignity as a brother in Christ and as a sacred minister of the church must be respected."

The deacon also "must remember that the pastor is the one whom he helps and serves" under the bishop's authority. "Mutual respect and charity should govern this relationship," Bishop Sample said.

The pastor, he added, "should show particular solicitude toward the deacon and assist him in the development of his diaconal life and ministry." The pastor should mentor the deacon and teach him how to be the best minister he can be. "Regular and open communication should exist between a pastor and the permanent deacon," the bishop said.

7. The Permanent Deacon's Distinctive Call

"The diaconate is first and foremost completely about service - 'diakonia,'" Bishop Sample said in his June 2011 pastoral letter on the diaconate. The Marquette, Mich., bishop noted that "an essential character of the church is to be servant of God and his people," and he described a deacon as "an icon of this servanthood in the midst of the church."

The deacon's "distinctive call is to charity," he said. When deacons serve at the altar, they bring into the liturgy "a powerful and important reminder to all of us that the church has an essential diaconal character and identity," Bishop Sample wrote.

He commented that though people often "closely identify the ministry of the deacon with his role in the sacred liturgy," this "is not his essential identity and role," and "his service in the liturgy is only a reflection of his true identity" brought into the church's public worship. "His essential identity is as one who serves."

Various special ministries "are particularly suited to the deacon as servant," Bishop Sample said. Among them are "ministry and service to the poor, to the imprisoned, to the sick and to those who are abandoned and lonely."

Christian discipleship is never "about oneself," whether the disciple is ordained, or is a layperson or religious order member, Bishop Sample emphasized. Thus, "ordination to the permanent diaconate is not about achieving some special status or recognition in the church." Instead, he said, "the deacon is ordained to be a servant of Christ to his people and a humble aid to the ministry of priests and the bishop."

8. When and Where Deacons Preach

Preaching by deacons, particularly during the Mass, was among topics addressed in Bishop Alexander Sample's pastoral letter on the permanent diaconate. "The pastor and the permanent deacon assigned to the parish should have a discussion and come to an understanding as to when it is opportune that the permanent deacon be entrusted with the homily at Mass," the bishop said.

The bishop affirmed that from time to time and in a "particular, concrete instance," a deacon may preach during Mass. However, his pastoral letter ruled out "the notion of the deacon preaching the homily at Mass on a routine or scheduled basis."

Bishop Sample said that "permanent deacons possess the faculty to preach anywhere" in the Marquette Diocese "with the consent of the pastor of the parish." The bishop said too that deacons preach in many ways and in many contexts.

"A permanent deacon 'preaches' first of all by the witness of his life, especially in his marriage and family life," the bishop wrote. He added that a deacon "has the opportunity to 'preach' in the marketplace through his teaching and witness to those he encounters," and he "exercises his role as teacher" in his various catechetical roles.

Even preaching in its "strictly liturgical sense" involves more than preaching during the Mass, Bishop Sample explained. Thus, permanent deacons preach during wake services, weddings or funerals celebrated outside Mass, baptisms, Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest and other prayer and liturgical services.

But when it comes to preaching the homily during Masses, the bishop said that two diocesan norms need to be followed:

1. "The permanent deacon may be entrusted with the homily at Mass on certain occasions, in other words from time to time, as circumstances suggest. This should not occur, however, on a routine or regularly scheduled basis."

2. In accord with the "General Instruction of the Roman Missal," the priest celebrant for a Mass makes "the determination as to when the permanent deacon may be entrusted with the homily. This determination should be made under the direction of the pastor."

Bishop Sample urged permanent deacons to "pay careful attention to the other opportunities" they have to preach, both during liturgical services and through the witness of daily living.

A strong point of emphasis in the pastoral letter focused on the opportunity for a married permanent deacon, his wife and family to give witness to the meaning and potential of marriage and family life. A large majority of permanent deacons in the U.S. are married.