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January 2, 2013

Church leaders react after Sandy Hook tragedy -
Pope says religion not a pretext for arrogance -
The Year of Faith and the church's divided people

In this edition:
1. Happy new year!
2. After Sandy Hook: needed actions.
3. After Sandy Hook: five recommendations.
4. A bishop speaks out on gun control.
5. Current quotes: Christmas revisited.
a) Reaching deep into the corners of life.
b) The value of your life.
6. Religion, not a pretext for arrogance.
7. When God is considered superfluous.
8. Vatican II's 50th anniversary continues.

1. Happy New Year!

"What will this new year be? We wonder. We pray. We hope for the best," wrote Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Ore., in an end-of-2012 column for The Catholic Sentinel, the archdiocese's newspaper.

It will be a good year, one that will not lack challenges for us as well, according to the archbishop, who expects to retire during 2013.

"In the calendar year 2013 the lunar year, observed by many cultures in the Far East, will fall on Feb. 10. This time it will be the Year of the Snake, the sixth in the cycle, following the dragon years, reoccurring every 12th year," the archbishop said. He "was born in the Year of the Buffalo," he recalled, adding:

"Snakes apparently make good scientists, sociologists, investigators and even spiritual leaders. Maybe a number of future priests will be born this year."

Speculations of this kind "are very entertaining, but we all know that every year is a good year to be born, to live and even to die," Archbishop Vlazny commented. For, he said, "the gift of life comes from God, who knows us and loves us all with equal devotedness." There are, however, "days when some of us need his attention and care more than others."

Nonetheless, the archbishop predicted that "throughout 2013, as in every other year, God's unwavering attention will be upon each one of us."

2. After Sandy Hook: Needed Actions

"The massacre of 20 little children and seven adults causes each of us to reflect on our own understanding of the value of human life," the chairmen of three U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees said in a joint statement Dec. 21, one week after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In their statement, the bishops:

-- Expressed support for stronger gun regulation.

-- Urged better understanding and care for mentally ill persons and their families.

-- Asked the entertainment industry to address its glorification of violence.

The actions of a gunman who forced his way into the Newtown school Dec. 14 resulted in the deaths of 20 first-graders and seven adults; ultimately he took his own life as well.

"Understandably, this tragedy has given rise to discussions about national policies and steps that can be taken to foster a culture that protects the innocent and those most vulnerable among us. It is time for our nation to renew a culture of life in our society," said Bishops Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., John Wester of Salt Lake City and Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.

The bishops are chairmen, respectively, of the U.S. bishops conference committees on domestic justice and human development, on communications and on laity, marriage, family life and youth.

On the issue gun control, the bishops stated that while "the intent to protect one's loved ones" is honorable, "simply put, guns are too easily accessible."

Here the bishops pointed to a 2006 document by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace that stressed the importance of concrete controls on handguns and said that "limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe upon the rights of anyone."

Turning attention to the entertainment industry, the bishops urged entertainers, "especially film producers and video game creators," to recognize "how their profit motives have allowed the proliferation of movies, television programs, video games and other entertainment that glorify violence and prey on the insecurities and immaturity of our young people."

The bishops said, "Such portrayals of violence have desensitized all of us."

It is important, they added, to "improve our resources for parents, guardians and young people so that they can evaluate entertainment products intelligently." It needs to be admitted, the bishops said, that "the viewing and use of these products has negative emotional, psychological and spiritual effects on people."

Finally, the bishops turned attention to mental-health needs within society. Mental illness generally is considered a root cause of the mass shootings witnessed in schools, and other settings.

It is necessary to "reflect on our own fears as we grapple with our prejudices toward those with mental-health needs. Our society must provide health services and support to those who have mental illnesses and to their families and caregivers," the bishops said.

"As a community," they continued, "we need to support one another so no one feels unable to get help for a mentally ill family member or neighbor in need." The bishops said that "burdensome health care policies must be adjusted so people can get help for themselves or others."

Mental-health concerns should be approached with a sensitivity equal to that shown in reaching out "to those with physical challenges," the bishops said.

3. . . . Five Recommendations

The Dec. 21 statement by three U.S. bishops' conference chairmen reiterated recommendations the full body of U.S. bishops made in a 2000 statement titled "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice." Bishops Blaire, Wester and Rhoades said the earlier recommendations called for all Americans, especially legislators, to:

"1. Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms.

"2. Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner).

"3. Call for sensible regulations of handguns.

"4. Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons, including assault weapons.

"5. Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime."

4. Bishop Supports Assault Weapons Control

"To be in favor of limits on assault weapons is to be pro-life," Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote Dec. 17 in his "For His Friends" blog.

Bishop Lynch's blog entry appeared in the wake of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. A young gunman's shooting rampage that day resulted in the deaths of 20 children and seven adults.

"I have in this space on four occasions before argued strongly that the government (federal, state or local) must do something about assault weapons of mass destruction," Bishop Lynch said.

The U.S. ranks "highest in the civilized world for armed aggression against innocent people," he noted, adding that "part of the reason has to be the ease with which one can procure these 'weapons of mass destruction.'"

What the nation could not find "in Iraq, we overlook on our own streets and in our own communities. A war against weapons of mass destruction was fought overseas but has thus far been ignored in our neighborhoods," Bishop Lynch said.

He thinks America's "founding fathers (and mothers) could never have dreamed of AK-47s and Glocks," and that "when they thought of the right to bear arms, they only knew single-load rifles and pistols -- necessary in some instances to protect oneself or to hunt for food."

Expressing support for the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the right to keep and bear arms, Bishop Lynch said he thinks that "with some restrictions like registration and concealment laws," the amendment "remains sound." But, he insisted, it is "not, in the name of God, anything which would allow a killer to wipe out or to almost wipe out the first grade of an elementary school."

He concluded, "We still have the opportunity in the time left to us on earth to work for peace -- not just globally, but on the streets where we live."

5. Current Quotes: Christmas Revisited

Reaching Deep Into Life's Corners: "Christmas is a light that penetrates through the clouds, and it reaches to the most obscure corners of life to heal us of our forgetfulness and our blindness. We already have the treasure we were looking for. We are not alone. Yes, there is much to do, but not like we had previously thought. We have children to embrace and old folks to kiss. We have friends with whom to carry our burdens and with whom to enjoy life; and we have family members to console and with whom to rejoice. Life is precious, and it is vulnerable, a gift without price. My brother needs me, and I need him in my life. Together we can make it." (From a Christmas 2012 Christmas message by Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas)

The Value of Your Life: "Our lives, so changed by Christ coming into the world, are part of all that God is doing in the world. Like Mary, we are partners in all that God wants to accomplish in bringing creation to fulfillment. This should leave us with a new respect and love of our lives, knowing that God has brought us into this world for his own purpose. So this Christmas I invite you to have a new regard for the value of your life and know that God will bring to fulfillment the good work begun in you." (From a Christmas message by Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash.)

6. Religion, No Pretext for Arrogance

Some say that religions, particularly those that are monotheistic, "are the cause of the violence and the wars in the world," Pope Benedict XVI noted in his homily for the Midnight Mass on Christmas in St. Peter's Basilica.

The pope cautioned believers in the one God not to become arrogant or intolerant, and not to look upon God as their "private property." But he insisted that a world without room for the one God will not be a peaceful world.

Today, the pope said, there are those who hold that for peace to be established on earth, "humanity must first be liberated from" religion. Explaining this, he said: "Monotheism, belief in one God, is said to be arrogance, a cause of intolerance, because by its nature, with its claim to possess the sole truth, it seeks to impose itself on everyone."

"It is true," he added, "that in the course of history monotheism has served as a pretext for intolerance and violence. It is true that religion can become corrupted and hence opposed to its deepest essence when people think they have to take God's cause into their own hands, making God into their private property."

The pope considered it necessary to "be on the lookout for these distortions of the sacred." He said, "There is no denying a certain misuse of religion in history." Still, "it is not true that denial of God would lead to peace," said the pope. "If God's light is extinguished, man's divine dignity is also extinguished."

While "there has been misuse of religion" over the course of time, "it is also true that forces of reconciliation and goodness constantly have sprung up from faith in the God who became man," Pope Benedict said.

The human person's "divine dignity" will be extinguished if "God's light is extinguished," the pope warned. In that case, he said, "the human creature would cease to be God's image to which we must pay honor in every person, in the weak, in the stranger, in the poor."

Furthermore, "we no longer all would be brothers and sisters, children of the one Father, who belong to one another on account of that one Father," said the pope.

In fact, he said, we have learned what then would happen. "The kind of arrogant violence that then arises, the way man then despises and tramples upon man: We saw this in all its cruelty in the last century."

7. . . . When God Is Considered Superfluous

"The great moral question of our attitude toward the homeless, toward refugees and migrants takes on a deeper dimension" at Christmas, when the Gospel reminder is heard that there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn, Pope Benedict said in his homily for the Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

He said the question that inevitably arises is this: "What would happen if Mary and Joseph were to knock at my door? Would there be room for them?"

The pope challenged his hearers to ask themselves whether there is room in the world of our times and in their own lives for God, who with Christ's birth became one of us.

Nowadays, "the question of God never seems urgent," the pope commented. People may think that God needs not to be considered, but to be explained away, he suggested.

Pope Benedict asked whether the risk is incurred in contemporary societies of turning "God himself" away when he is encountered. Expanding upon the problem of God in 21st century lifestyles, the pope said:

"The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. . . . Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist."

But when there is no room for God, "there is no room for others either, for children, for the poor, for the stranger," Pope Benedict said.

Driving home his point, he said that in "reflecting on that one simple saying about the lack of room at the inn," it is seen that the conversion "we need must truly reach into the depths of our relationship with reality."

The pope hoped his hearers would challenge themselves to "make room" for the Lord within themselves and recognize his presence "in those through whom he speaks" to them, including "children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world."

8. Vatican II's 50th Anniversary Continues

The church's Year of Faith continues in 2013 until Nov. 24. Does the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council continue in 2013 as well?

In 2012 the anniversary of the council's 1962 opening was observed. It is highly noteworthy, however, that the 50th anniversary of the council's Constitution on the Divine Liturgy arrives in 2013.

The celebration of an anniversary in the church is "not about nostalgia," Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, Texas, said in a pastoral letter released in late November for the Year of Faith. He wrote:

"Anniversaries celebrate people, places and ideas in order to assimilate them anew in the present and to allow them to equip us to face the future with confidence."

An anniversary in the church, Bishop Farrell said, provides "a golden opportunity to reawaken in our Catholic community those features of our faith that we may take for granted and which may need some refurbishing for our communal and individual growth."

He pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics during the Year of Faith to study the documents of Vatican II as a means of avoiding "anachronistic nostalgia" and "running too far ahead."

The four constitutions approved by the council (on liturgy, the church, revelation and the church in the modern world) reflect "the pillars upon which we understand our faith," Bishop Farrell suggested. He urged that people focus initially on these four constitutions, explaining:

"It seems to me that part of the genius of Catholicism is that these four pillars of faith are always put in dialogue and in relationship (liturgy, church doctrine and life, revelation and witness), and together they solidly comprise the bedrock of who we are and what we believe."

A hope on Bishop Farrell's part is that the Year of Faith will lead to "renewing and possibly reconciling" the relationships among the church's people. "Our faith is a communal faith," he stressed.

He recalled that the 1985 assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in Rome looked to the term 'communio' as "the key term which we should use to interpret" Vatican II.

"The church is a 'communio,' a variety of persons, vocations, cultures and places," Bishop Farrell wrote. He said that "figuratively, the church is like a mosaic made up of a variety of shapes and sizes of glass and other materials which together comprise a work of art."

In the church, he said, "we all have 'gifts that differ,' as St. Paul reminds us." The bishop asked that Catholics, during the Year of Faith, "allow 'communio' to be a reminder of who we are and a challenge to respect each and every other person who belongs to the body of Christ in the Catholic Church."