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January 17, 2013

Church fathers, a resource for homilists -- The children of poverty - Church officials: Jews are not church's enemies - What is baptism?

In this edition:
1. Loosening poverty's bonds.
2. Children of poverty.
3. Preaching with the church fathers.
4. The homilist's joy and hope.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) On Israeli-Palestinian peace.
b) What is baptism?
6. Jews are not church's enemies.
7. Build peace, fight corruption, protect life.

1. Loosening the Bonds of Poverty

Catholics in West Virginia are encouraged in a new pastoral letter by Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston to "learn to live in solidarity with the poor." He asks people of faith to assure that the poor feel at home in every Christian community.

The bishop writes in "Setting Children Free: Loosening the Bonds of Poverty in West Virginia" that "for too many of our fellow citizens, obtaining adequate food, clothing and shelter presents a constant trial."

He exhorts "the disciples of Christ and all Christian communities -- from families to dioceses, from parishes to religious institutes -- to carry out a sincere review of their lives regarding their solidarity with the poor."

In releasing this pastoral letter, Bishop Bransfield also committed $100,000 to matching grants for parishes, schools and agencies in the diocese wishing to implement local programs and outreach to address issues his message identifies.

As the pastoral letter's title suggests, it focuses in particular on the toll of poverty on children and their families. The bishop explains:

"While the problem of poverty can at times appear so large as to be beyond any possibility of resolving it, I want to concentrate on one group of the poor for whom I am convinced that we as a people of faith should have special concern. In direct help, in advocating for beneficial policies and access to adequate health care and education, we must give special attention to children living in poverty."

A hope on the bishop's part is that "children of families living in poverty will "find a welcoming hand and supportive environment in our parishes and schools so that they may have the opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty and come to enjoy life abundantly."

In order to "better understand the experience of poverty in West Virginia," Bishop Bransfield asked his staff "to hold listening sessions throughout the state" last year. These sessions "were held in parishes and schools, soup kitchens and shelters, pastoral centers and Catholic Charities programs."

His pastoral letter observes that many "who shared in the listening sessions, either from personal experience or experience with poor neighbors, knew "how much energy and attention is used up" in many poor families "in merely managing to survive."

People spoke during these sessions, he said, about "the scariness of poverty, especially for the elderly on a fixed income." There was recognition "that for so many, there existed a real possibility of joining the poor."

But Bishop Bransfield says that in these sessions there was no wish to run "away from the poor and the issue of poverty," but rather to be "in 'solidarity' with the poor."

The pastoral letter includes the following list of signs that individuals are poor by Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA. According to this list, individuals are poor if:

"1. They cannot afford housing that is clean, safe and in good repair.

"2. They cannot afford nutritious food for themselves and their family on a regular basis.

"3. They cannot consistently pay their utility bills even though it is a priority.

"4. Their children are not adequately clothed for school with clean clothes that fit and are in good repair, and they do not have proper clothing for work. Or,

"5. They cannot afford to go to the doctor for any kind of illness for fear that the visit will be beyond their means to pay for it."

Bishop Bransfield comments that "many West Virginians live in these circumstances." Moreover, he says:

"The measures of poverty used by the federal government, including the federal poverty threshold, do not adequately capture the real number of people living in poverty among us and do not describe the challenges they face each day of making ends meet."

. . . 2. Children of Poverty

"We see the potential lost to youngsters when they are trapped in poverty. Loving hearts ache at the prospect of children doomed to defeat because of their circumstances," Bishop Bransfield writes in his pastoral letter on poverty.

"As a church of the poor, we must strive to address the needs of these little ones," the bishop states. (His pastoral letter appears in the Jan. 17 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service and on the website of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.)

It was heard in the listening sessions conducted by the diocese last year, he says, that "a terrible cycle of poverty, generation after generation, becomes a real possibility for all too many children caught in an environment of low-income, lowered expectations and lack of hope."

In West Virginia the child poverty statistics "are very distressing," the bishop notes. He explains:

"One-quarter of West Virginians under the age of 18 lives in poverty. For children below the age of 5, the poverty rate is over 30 percent. With 'extreme poverty' defined as living on $30 a day for a family of four people, some 43,254 West Virginians under the age of 18 lived in such poverty in 2008. Of these young people living in extreme poverty, well over half were under the age of 6."

It is known, the bishop points out, "that poverty is correlated with risks for poorer health among children, including mental health." He adds, "Experts have also found correlations with risks of school failure, teen pregnancy and delinquency."

Over the course of recent decades, "deindustrialization in the state, the disappearance of well-paying jobs in steel, glass, ceramics, together with the mechanization of coal mining, have made it difficult for working poor families to find jobs" that "allow them to provide a decent life for their children," Bishop Bransfield says.

Helping children in West Virginia "rise from poverty will take a wide variety of approaches," he adds. In order to extend compassionate care to children, it will be necessary to "work for policies regarding health (including the effects on children of behavioral health problems of addiction and mental illness) and education."

The bishop notes, too, that "the issues faced by children of parents who are now incarcerated present a unique challenge" to people of faith.

Bishop Bransfield asks people of faith "to take a live interest in education reform" in West Virginia. He also asks to be joined "in encouraging our state government and local boards of education to ensure that all children, especially poor children, obtain high-quality early childhood education and have access to intervention programs."

3. Preaching With the Church Fathers

If those who preach in the church find their own homilies boring, the congregation is sure to find them boring too, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, suggested Jan. 13 in a speech in Rome.

"There is a droll comment from St. Augustine about the need to avoid being boring even to oneself in preaching, the sure sign that one is boring the congregation," according to the cardinal. He delivered the annual Carl Peter Lecture at the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. bishops' seminary in Rome.

Titling his speech "Preaching With the Fathers of the Church," Cardinal DiNardo focused on the insights contemporary preachers might draw from their ancient forebears. "There is great vitality" in the homilies of the church fathers, he said.

In his text, the cardinal described his speech as "a pastoral set of observations done by a local bishop who has had a great love for the fathers and has continually read and studied them." He said:

"I have continued to read and study the fathers for many years and find them to be equal dialogue partners in our common discussion about evangelization and preaching." Though the church fathers preached so very long ago, homilists today will find a contemporary quality in what they said, the cardinal suggested.

"The very differences in times and cultures of the patristic period from our own can actually engage us all the more and allow us to see their 'contemporaneity' for the life of faith today," he said.

The church fathers "are significant," and "we should read them," Cardinal DiNardo urged. Yet, he continued, "let us be candid. We read more about them than actually read and study them and their writings."

In their homilies and sermons, the church fathers "seize the hour and time, the place and the tenor of a congregation, and bring the ever new Word of God to the situation at hand," Cardinal DiNardo insisted.

It has been said that Milan's St. Ambrose, "with his prodigious abilities, memorized all his sermons and thus seems to have spoken ex tempore," Cardinal DiNardo recalled. He said:

"Others may have had prepared texts. But there is great vitality in their homilies, the only exception I can think of being St. Cyril of Alexandria, who is very repetitious, a practice that is wearing."

The cardinal explained to his Rome audience that "the overwhelming majority of recognized church fathers," both of the East and West, "were bishops, and thus preachers. They did a vast amount of their work in homilies and sermons." In fact, he said, "in the case of St. John Chrysostom, 90 percent of his work that has come down to us is in sermons!"

The fathers of the church "present a theology that still has great value today because at its heart is the study of sacred Scripture as a whole," Cardinal DiNardo said. "Indeed, he added, "the Fathers are primarily and essentially 'commentators on sacred Scripture.'"

. . . 4. The Homilist's Joy and Hope

Cardinal DiNardo called attention in his Jan. 13 speech at the North American College in Rome to a "sense of joy" communicated in St. Augustine's preaching.

The church fathers, the cardinal said, "are eloquent and humble, a conjunction that produces beauty and delight."

He pointed out that "in the words of St. Augustine, preaching comes from 'hilaritas,' the demeanor of joy and exaltation, of a face shining because the Word of God is so wondrous, so elevating, so full of a future of beatitude, so full of Christian hope!"

Describing a homily of St. Augustine for newly baptized Christians during one Easter Week, Cardinal DiNardo said:

"You cannot read this text, even in English, without getting a sense of the joy in its declamation, even a bit of impish joy in the question/answer exchange. St. Augustine takes great delight in the newly baptized, for they are an assembly moved by the love of God already poured out abundantly upon them in their baptismal regeneration."

One rarely would find a page in St. Augustine's homilies "that does not at least have one insight about" the hope, delight and joy that characterized his preaching, the cardinal suggested.

He concluded, "If we could get at least part of this demeanor in our preaching and homiletic activity, the very energy of the Word of God will find a place in our lives of ministry and make our ministry a harmony of doxology and wisdom."

Cardinal DiNardo said that in the church fathers, "preaching is biblical, theological-spiritual and sacramental. There are a thousand other threads, but as a pastoral practitioner of the preaching ministry, these three themes are significant aspects of patristic homiletics."

Patristic homilies "are suffused and infused with biblical quotes, allusions and narratives," the cardinal said.

He added: "The patristic way of preaching is theological. It is God-talk." But the cardinal noted that for the fathers "the theological is an integrated whole" in which "Christology, soteriology, Trinity doctrine, doctrine of God and the divine compassion toward humanity . . . all work together and are at home with one another."

Finally, the preaching of the church fathers is sacramental, Cardinal DiNardo said. "Christ is present and speaks to us in the proclamation of the Word."

Patristic preaching, the cardinal added, "is consciously aware of being drawn to the Word of God and admonishing and instructing God's people to be transformed. The outer word humbly begs the Word that works within to bring illumination and transformation."

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

Israeli-Palestinian Peace: "Our nation has a special obligation to exercise vigorous leadership for Israeli-Palestinian peace. We affirm your support of the two-state solution, promise our support for strong U.S. leadership for peace and urge you even to consider appointing a high profile envoy in hopes that, as in the past, this might advance peace and justice in the region. Tragically, actions by Palestinians and Israelis perpetuate an unsustainable status quo that is profoundly dangerous to both peoples and eventually the entire Middle East. . . . The failure to achieve peace continues to take a heavy toll on both Israelis and Palestinians, and especially on the indigenous ancient Christian community of the Holy Land that is emigrating at alarming rates. . . . What is urgently needed is indefatigable and insistent leadership. The United States, as a consequence of its relationships and potentially significant influence, is poised, in our estimation, to be the most effective arbiter in this tangled situation that portends enormous risk for the world. Our conference, therefore, promises unfailing support of strong U.S. leadership that holds both parties accountable for building a just and lasting peace. Leaders on all sides must give Israelis and Palestinians hope for a different future free of the shadows of violence and open to the light of peace." (Excerpted from a Jan. 9 letter to President Obama by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace)

What Is Baptism? "What happens in the baptism that I shall shortly be administering to your children? Exactly this: They will be deeply united with Jesus forever, immersed in the mystery of his power . . ., in the mystery of his death, which is a source of life, so as to share in his resurrection, to be reborn to new life. . . . In receiving baptism they are reborn as children of God who share in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father, in other words, who can address God, calling him with full confidence and trust: 'Abba, Father.' . . . They become living members of the one body that is the church and are enabled to live their vocation to holiness in fullness." (From Pope Benedict XVI's homily Jan. 13 when he baptized 20 infants in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel)

6. Jews Are Not Church's Enemies

The Catholic Church finds it "absolutely unacceptable" to look upon the Jewish people as enemies, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said in early January. His comments came after Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, described Jews as "enemies of the church" in a Dec. 28 talk in Ontario.

Father Lombardi told Catholic News Service that the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" ("Nostra Aetate"), along with many papal speeches and Vatican initiatives, reflected the church's continued, firm support "of dialogue and deepening relations" with the Jewish people.

In a Jan. 15 statement, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs also affirmed the church's respect for the Jewish people. Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore said he wanted to add his voice to Father Lombardi's "in affirming the relationship that all of us have worked so hard to create and sustain over almost 50 years since the publication of 'Nostra Aetate.'"

Bishop Madden offered his assurance that the Vatican and the U.S. bishops conference "find the statements of Bishop Fellay both false and deeply regrettable." Bishop Fellay's remarks were "not only prejudiced, but also hurtful. Comments that cause pain to our Jewish partners are painful to us as well," said Bishop Madden.

He said, "The Catholic Church has renounced centuries-old attitudes of anti-Judaism that blamed Jews collectively for the death of Christ and denied the validity of God's covenant with his chosen people, begun in Abraham and continued into our present day. The Catholic Church deeply values the friendship of the Jewish people and looks forward to the day when bias against them is eliminated everywhere."

Bishop Madden noted that Bishop Fellay said in his Ontario remarks, in referring to Jewish support for Vatican II, that this council "is their (the Jews') thing, and not the church's." Bishop Madden said that "these statements come at the end of two years of talks between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X to reconcile the sad division that occurred between them some 25 years ago."

Pope Benedict XVI has "made every effort to help Bishop Fellay and his followers to accept the teachings of the Second Vatican Council as a precondition for full communion with the Catholic Church. Disappointingly, serious divisions in belief and practice remain to prevent reconciliation," Bishop Madden said.

Catholic News Service reported Jan. 8 that the Swiss headquarters of the Society of St. Pius X did not respond to an email inquiry regarding Bishop Fellay's comments in Ontario. But CNS said the society's U.S. district published a press release on its website Jan. 5 insisting that the society is not anti-Semitic. It said that in "referring to the Jews, Bishop Fellay's comment was aimed at the leaders of Jewish organizations and not the Jewish people."

7. Build Peace, Fight Corruption, Protect Life

To build peace in the world, corruption must be combated in nations, Pope Benedict XVI said Jan. 7 in his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican. Speaking to representatives of nations throughout the world, he encouraged greater education in developing nations as a step toward peace.

"Investment in education in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America means helping them to overcome poverty and disease, and to create legal systems which are equitable and respectful of human dignity," Pope Benedict said. Then, in a pointed comment, he added:

"Certainly, if justice is to be achieved, good economic models, however necessary, are not sufficient. Justice is achieved only when people are just! Consequently, building peace means training individuals to fight corruption, criminal activity, the production and trade in narcotics, as well as abstaining from divisions and tensions which threaten to exhaust society, hindering development and peaceful coexistence."

In his widely reported speech, Pope Benedict expanded upon themes of his message for this year's Jan. 1 World Day of Peace, insisting that peace itself is not a utopian dream.

"These days we are sometimes led to think that truth, justice and peace are utopian ideals and mutually exclusive. To know the truth seems impossible, and efforts to affirm it appear often to lead to violence," the pope observed.

Moreover, he said, "according to a now widespread way of thinking, peacemaking consists solely in the pursuit of compromises capable of ensuring peaceful coexistence between different peoples or between citizens within a single nation."

Yet, he continued, "from the Christian point of view, the glorification of God and human peace on earth are closely linked, with the result that peace is not simply the fruit of human effort, but a participation in the very love of God. It is precisely man's forgetfulness of God and his failure to give him glory which gives rise to violence."

When "openness to the transcendent" is lacking, "human beings easily become prey to relativism and find it difficult to act justly and to work for peace," the pope told the diplomats.

To build peace, it always is essential to protect "human beings and their fundamental rights," respecting "human life at every stage," Pope Benedict commented.

The task of building peace, he said, "even if carried out in many ways and with varying degrees of intensity, challenges all countries and must constantly be inspired by the transcendent dignity of the human person and the principles inscribed in human nature."