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April 2, 2012

Repentance and its fuller meaning: reflections for Easter - Good Friday becomes Cuba holiday - Bishops weigh-in on patchwork of state immigration laws

In this edition:
1. Good Friday becomes Cuba holiday.
2. Religious freedom: theme of Cuba visit.
3. Repentance and life's meaning.
4. Repentance: the great good worthy of it.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) True love.
b) Kateri Tekakwitha. 6. Catholic-Jewish vision: ethical economic order.
7. U.S. bishops on state immigration laws.
8. Undocumented workers hear mixed message.

1. Good Friday Becomes Cuba Holiday

Good Friday has become a national holiday in Cuba, at least for this year. On March 31 Cuba's government accepted a proposal Pope Benedict XVI made during a March 27 meeting in Havana with President Raul Castro that Good Friday be declared a holiday.

During that meeting Pope Benedict asked further freedoms for the Catholic Church in the communist nation. At other points during his March 26-28 visit to Cuba, the pope said greater religious freedom would benefit not only the Catholic Church, but the nation itself. Why? Because of the positive roles Christians fulfill within society when their religious freedom is recognized.

In Cuba today the church enjoys more freedom and recognition than was the case in 1998 when Blessed John Paul II made the first papal visit there. Since then, Cuba's government has declared Christmas a national holiday. It also now allows Communist Party members to identify themselves as Catholics.

Catholic News Service reported that in preparation for this year's 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the venerated statue was allowed to circulate on a pilgrimage throughout the country. President Castro said the event "brought our people together, believers and nonbelievers."

This is not to say, though, that Catholics in Cuba confront no restrictions of religious liberty and no longer are harassed in various ways. In Cuba, Pope Benedict made the point, for example, that society is better off when faith-based schools and social services are allowed to operate. He expressed hope that "the moment will soon arrive" when the church can operate schools and universities in Cuba.

CNS said also that while the church estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of Cubans are Catholic, church officials also estimate that only about 2.5 percent of Cuba's population of 11 million can be considered practicing Catholics today. That represents a fraction of the proportion prior to Cuba's revolution, but a significant rise since the time of Pope John Paul's visit.

In light of all that, freedom became a theme of Pope Benedict's visit to Cuba this year. During a Mass March 28 in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion Jose Marti, Pope Benedict said that "the church lives to make others sharers in the one thing she possesses, which is none other than Christ."

But in order to "carry out this duty," he added, the church "must count on basic religious freedom, which also consists in her being able to proclaim and to celebrate her faith in public, bringing to others the message of love, reconciliation and peace that Jesus brought to the world."

2. … Religious Freedom, Theme of Cuba Visit

The pope noted in his March 28 homily in Havana that steps have been taken in Cuba "to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly." He said, however, that "this must continue forward."

With President Raul Castro seated near the altar platform during the Mass, Pope Benedict encouraged the government to strengthen what "has been achieved."

Calling attention to the ways religious freedom benefits society as a whole, Pope Benedict said that "both in its private and in its public dimensions," it "manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer. It also legitimizes the fact that believers have a contribution to make to the building up of society."

The strengthening of religious freedom "consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favorable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations," the pope stated.

He said that "when the church upholds this human right, she is not claiming any special privileges for herself. She wishes only to be faithful to the command of her divine founder, conscious that where Christ is present we become more human, and our humanity becomes authentic."

The church for such reasons "seeks to give witness through her preaching and teaching both in catechesis and in schools and universities," said the pope.

3. Repentance and Life's Meaning

The fuller scope of "repentance" is explored in a Lenten pastoral letter released March 29 by Ireland's Catholic bishops. "Penance or repentance is not simply an exercise that we do from time to time. It is, one might say, what our life is about," the bishops state.

Their pastoral letter, titled "Repent and Believe the Good News," suggests that cultural forces heighten the challenge of true repentance. Today, God often seems "to be silent and unmissed in the lives of many," the bishops say. Even among believers, "there are many spheres of life" in which the Gospel's relevance rarely is recognized.

"None of us remains unaffected by our culture," the bishops acknowledge. "It takes a real effort in a busy and noisy world to take time to reflect, to ask the fundamental questions about what our lives mean and where they are leading."

In such an environment, the bishops stress, "we need to make space to recognize the challenge of turning our lives around and to putting our priorities right."

What does the term "repentance" mean? It "means seeking forgiveness for our sins, but more than that it involves transforming our attitudes and our lives," the bishops explain, pointing out that the New Testament term "metanoia" refers to "a profound change of outlook."

However, the bishops add that "repentance or penance is not a question of inflicting pain or hardship on ourselves for its own sake." Instead, they say:

"Penance -- fasting, prayer, works of mercy, giving to those who are in need and so on -- is done 'because the kingdom of God has come near'; we repent in order to 'believe in the good news.' It is a change of outlook that allows us to see more clearly what God is doing in us and for us."

Every person "needs goals and hopes in life," the pastoral letter makes clear. But, quoting Pope Benedict XVI's 2007 encyclical on hope, "Spe Salvi," it notes that while greater and lesser hopes keep people going day by day, they "are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God."

The Christian's demanding and "permanent task" is "to resist the temptation to put convenience, celebrity, domination, blindness, dishonesty, pride or any other ambition or craving or comfort in the place of God," the pastoral letter says.

The bishops insist that it is essential to the "process of penance" - in order to profoundly change one's outlook - that people ask themselves serious questions, "beginning with, 'Who am I?'" Our life's meaning, they state, "is to be a process of conversion" in which "we can gradually come to know ourselves and our destiny better."

Of course, say the bishops, it also is "true that, as life goes on, we acquire new blind spots, new denials of our responsibilities, new self-justifications. The process is never completed, and it involves setbacks as well as growth until we meet the Lord at the end of our lives and finally see ourselves in the light of his infinite truth."

The reach of our conversion extends beyond us to others and the care given to them, says the pastoral letter. Conversion "involves seeking communion with Christ and with one another."

In fact, it says that "the concept of penance has always included almsgiving, because we cannot be ready to enter God's ultimate peace if we have neglected the least of Christ's brothers and sisters." This is "an essential element of repentance."

4. Repentance: The Great Good Worthy of It

"The Christian life is not simply about moral purification," and "repentance, the decisive turning away from sin, is never announced for its own sake," Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, said in a reflection he presented Nov. 10, 2010, to a gathering of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore.

"The Gospel," he said, "must be perceived as a great good if it is to be deemed worthy of the pain that often accompanies repentance." Bishop Flores surmised that "if the modern world scoffs at the idea of repentance," the reason may be that "it esteems too lightly the great good it ushers in."

Bishop Flores acknowledged that "the Gospel call to perfection, to inner transformation and to the dying to self that respect for the life and dignity of others always entails is not an easy call." He added, "If our people do not hear it as a call from the Lord himself, it is an impossible path, headed for anger and resentment."

The story of a 15-year-old he knew in South Texas was told by Bishop Flores. The teenager "started selling drugs because his mom could not pay the light bill. And from there unfolded the tragic descent into violence, prison and a life of untold sorrow."

It was 20 years later that the youth began "to turn his life around," though the road for him "is a difficult one. He keeps walking that road, and he has not given up, but he has doubtless been tempted many times to simply quit trying," said Bishop Flores.

"Our people are being told that death is the final, cruel word spoken over life," Bishop Flores observed. They are told that "defeat is inevitable" and that "there is nothing beyond the walls of the world." As a result, "an increasing number of young people … quit trying to give themselves to the nobler calls of life."

However, "we, on the contrary, say love is the final word spoken over human life, and this word is spoken personally to us by God," Bishop Flores said to the bishops.

He asked, "What does grace look like?" And he responded that "it is the enduring offer of divine friendship that breaks through the enclosed circle of the world, letting a new lightness and joy into our otherwise shuttered orb."

"Every conversion," said Bishop Flores, "is an experience of the unexpected rescue from a misery we at times only dimly perceive. And the rescue is the friendship of God; this we call grace." (The text of Bishop Flores' remarks appeared in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, Dec. 23, 2010.)

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

True Love: "People often say that true love accepts me as I am. That's correct, but not the whole truth. … True love wants us to grow, not to stay as we are. True love has high hopes for the beloved. … True love, the love that Jesus has for each of us, calls us to be more, to strive for goodness, even for perfection. … The key witness we can give today [is] to embody the joy and happiness which comes with loving generously." (From a March 24 address by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, to the Flame Youth Congress in London)

Kateri Tekakwitha: "Do you know the story of Kateri Tekakwitha? In October she's going to be canonized as our first Native American saint. She lived in New York, near Albany, in the 1600s. Her mother was a Christian Indian woman named Meadow, who had been stolen from her tribe and forced to marry a Mohawk chief, Great Beaver. When Kateri was little, the small pox disease struck and killed both her mother and her father, the chief. The disease left Kateri with scars on her face and made her eyes so weak she could never come out in the sunlight unless she covered her head with a blanket. That's why they called her Tekakwitha, which means 'she who stretches out her hands' to keep from falling down. At 18, Kateri heard the call of Jesus and was baptized by a Jesuit missionary. That angered many people in her tribe, and they persecuted her. They treated her like a slave and told lies about her, trying to ruin her reputation. It got so bad that one night she ran away. She made a dangerous journey to a Christian settlement 300 miles away in Montreal. It took her two months going by canoe and through the woods. For a while her uncle's warriors were hunting her down. Kateri only lived to be 24. But she lived a holy life of service to others. Despite her limitations, she changed the lives of people she met in little ways. Her holiness and joy attracted others to God." (From the March 22 homily by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles to young people during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress' youth day)

6. Catholic-Jewish Vision: Ethical Economic Order

The global financial crisis of recent years was rooted in "a crisis of moral values in which the importance of having, reflected in a culture of greed, eclipsed the importance of being, and where the value of truth, reflected in honesty and transparency, was sorely lacking in economic activity," an international Catholic-Jewish commission said in a statement from Rome, where it met March 27-29.

The theme of the meeting between delegations representing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews was, "Religious Perspectives on the Current Financial Crisis: Vision for a Just Economic Order."

Catholics and Jews share a vision "for a just economic order" that affirms "the sovereignty and providence of the Creator," with whom "all wealth originates and which is given to humankind as a gift for the common good," the delegations said in a final, joint statement.

In light of this, they added, "the purpose of an economic order is to serve the well-being of society, affirming the human dignity of all people, each created in the divine image."

The economic crisis "revealed the profound lack of the ethical component in economic thinking," the delegations said. They called it "imperative" that educational institutions for the study of economics and policy "include ethical training in their curricula."

A more just economic order calls for the development of "a culture of 'enough,'" the statement said. A culture of enough "implies a degree of self-limitation and modesty; responsible stewardship; an ethical system of allocation of resources and priorities; and the critical importance of honesty, transparency, gratuitousness and accountability."

7. U.S. Bishops on State Immigration Laws

Weighing-in with a friend-of-the court brief in the case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving Arizona's controversial immigration law, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it views the state law as a threat to religious liberty.

Arizona's law "and many state immigration laws like it threaten [the] Catholic mission to provide food, shelter and care to all," the brief said. It explained that "the church's duty to help all in need necessarily extends to both documented and undocumented immigrants."

The conference said it "has a strong interest in ensuring that courts adhere to two important goals of federal immigration law - the promotion of family unity and the protection of human dignity."

The provisions of Arizona's law at issue "would hinder these critical federal objectives by replacing them with the single goal of reducing the number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona" and doing so "at all costs," the conference stated.

The USCCB was joined in its brief by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

With the brief, the national bishops' conference lent support to the principle that it is the federal government that controls the enactment and implementation of U.S. immigrations law. The conference expressed concern that a "patchwork set of state" laws like Arizona's "would seriously threaten the Catholic Church's mission to serve all in need."

Arizona's law "and related state immigration laws have provisions that could either criminalize" charitable services such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters offered to all in need, including immigrants, or "criminalize those who provide or even permit" the services, the brief said. The state law also could require institutions providing charitable services "to engage in costly (if not impossible) monitoring of the individuals they serve."

The brief said that state immigration laws like Arizona's, if allowed to stand, "would burden the religious liberty of Catholic institutions in many ways that the federal regime does not. They go further in criminalizing aid to undocumented immigrants than does current federal law."

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Dec. 12 to consider the constitutionality of Arizona's immigration law -- a package of restrictions on immigrants and requirements for law enforcement officers to determine people's immigration status, which was to have taken effect in summer of 2010.

8. Undocumented Workers Hear Mixed Message

The United States as a nation sends "two clear messages at the same time" to immigrants: "no trespassing" and "help wanted," Cardinal Roger Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, said March 24 in a presentation to the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress titled "Surprise: We All Employ Undocumented Workers."

It has created "a big, big problem now and especially for the future" for these people to hear "no, we don't want you here" and "yes, we need you," said the cardinal.

Cardinal Mahony believes that immigrants are going to be needed in the U.S. to fill an expanding void in skilled as well as unskilled labor. He thinks the church, as was the case many times in the past, has a vital role to play in helping the newcomers adjust to a new nation.

"So as disciples of Jesus Christ, though we are a people of hope, we don't rely on the guys in Congress," the cardinal said. "We go forward as hope-filled people, trusting in God's providence for the family of God. We need to end polarization, embracing the new opportunities across generations and groups."

Cardinal Mahony thinks that "we in the church have a great opportunity to be a civil voice in this discussion" because "we don't yell and scream and use all [the] generalities."

"It's really important for us to take that role seriously," he added. For "all of us as disciples of the Lord are really called by Jesus to look at the strangers in our midst as looking at the face of Jesus."