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March 19, 2014

The purpose of Lenten self-denial -
Fasting from what is "useless" -
Bishops' visit to Nogales: mirroring pope's Lampedusa visit -
Concrete images of Christian charity

In this edition:
1. From Lampedusa to Nogales.
2. Reverberations of Lampedusa.
3. Interfaith action on human trafficking.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Concrete images of Christian charity.
b) Children of parents in same-sex unions.
c) Accent on mercy.
5. Forms of Lenten fasting.
6. The desert time of Lent.
7. Self-denial and attention to others.

1. Nogales, Not So Far From Lampedusa

The lives of thousands of migrants who died in desert regions of the U.S. Southwest will be remembered during a March 30-April 1 visit by Catholic bishops to Nogales, Ariz., and the U.S.-Mexico border area.

Members of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration will join in Nogales with bishops of the border region during a visit echoing the respect for migrants' lives that Pope Francis expressed in 2013 on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

The bishops' upcoming visit to the U.S.-Mexico border region highlights the suffering linked to an immigration system considered broken. Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., said the visiting bishops "will have a chance to walk in the desert to get a taste of the migrant's journey" and "will meet with members of the Border Patrol and see firsthand the agents' challenges."

The migration committee's chairman, Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, said that what gets lost in the U.S. immigration debate "is the human aspect of immigration -- that immigration is primarily about human beings, not economic or social issues."

"The U.S.-Mexico border is our Lampedusa," Bishop Elizondo said. "Migrants in this hemisphere try to reach it, but often die in the attempt."

Immigrants who die while attempting to make their way into the U.S., as well as immigrants who daily are deported from the U.S., possess the same value and God-given dignity as anyone, "yet we ignore their suffering and their deaths," said Bishop Elizondo.

Pope Francis visited Lampedusa July 8 last year. In a homily on the island he remembered the lives of thousands of African migrants who died in the sea while attempting to flee suffering and to find a new life in Europe.

A tragedy in mid-June last year "deeply affected" Pope Francis, the Vatican said. At least seven people drowned at that time while attempting to emigrate from North Africa. They were part of a group of nearly 100 immigrants jammed onto an inflatable raft.

"Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death: That is how the headlines put it," Pope Francis said in his Lampedusa homily. He added, "When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart."

Pope Francis said of the migrants: "These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God!"

A "globalization of indifference" preoccupied the pope in Lampedusa. He asked, "Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families?"

Pope Francis said, "We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion."

He thanked the people of Lampedusa for their solidarity with migrants. The small island, some 70 miles from Tunisia, is part of Sicily. Lampedusa long has been a gateway to Europe for North Africans and others fleeing violence or emigrating in hopes of finding a better life.

2. Reverberations of Lampedusa

March 13 marked the first anniversary of the start of Pope Francis's pontificate. Looking back over the past year, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica recalled how the pope's July 2013 visit to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa "startled the world." Father Rosica is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation based in Toronto, Ontario.

Writing on the Salt and Light foundation's blog, Father Rosica related the Lampedusa visit to some basic concerns expressed repeatedly by Pope Francis. Lampedusa, Father Rosica wrote, lies "off the coast of Sicily" in "that dangerous area where so many refugees have lost and continue to lose their lives in their journeys to freedom and safety."

Father Rosica focused particularly on what Pope Francis said in Lampedusa about a "culture of comfort." In a homily on the island, Pope Francis described a "culture of comfort" as one that "makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others."

What happens is that we "become used to the suffering of others." Thus, the pope feared, we may think that their suffering "doesn't affect me; it doesn't concern me; it's none of my business!"

Father Rosica said that Pope Francis "disarmingly makes us deeply uncomfortable in a way that allows us to recognize and confront the alienation from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects rather than in relationship with God and others."

In his discussion of Pope Francis' first year, Father Rosica asked, "Where does Francis want to lead the church?" He responded that "Francis wants the church to be a reconciler and a means of reconciliation. For Francis, faith enters the church through the heart of the poor, not through the heads of intellectuals."

Father Rosica insisted, "The only revolution that Pope Francis has inaugurated is a revolution of tenderness." It is this pope's "goodness, joy, kindness and mercy that introduce us to the tenderness of our God."

3. Interfaith Action Against Human Trafficking

An agreement to work together to end human trafficking worldwide by 2020 was announced March 17 during a Vatican press conference by representatives of the Catholic, Anglican and Muslim worlds. A joint statement by the signers of the agreement underscores the "searing personal destructiveness of modern slavery and human trafficking" and calls for "urgent action by all other Christian churches and global faiths."

Through "physical, economic and sexual exploitation," some 30 million men, women and children are condemned "to dehumanization and degradation," according to the statement. It said:

"Every day that we let this tragic situation continue is a grievous assault on our common humanity and a shameful affront to the consciences of all peoples. Any indifference to those suffering exploitation must cease. We call to action all people of faith and their leaders, all governments and people of good will, to join the movement against modern slavery and human trafficking."

The interfaith agreement launched the Global Freedom Network, which hopes to expand to include all the world's major faiths. The idea for the network apparently took root during a June 2013 meeting between Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, primate of the worldwide Anglican Communion, when the two leaders looked for ways to pursue cooperation.

The agreement encourages faith communities to take steps ensuring that their "supply chains" and investments do not profit from slave labor. The agreement encourages education for families, educators and faith groups on ways to recognize and report instances of human slavery and trafficking.

Another hope is that the world's 20 most developed nations can be convinced to condemn modern forms of human slavery and to support a global fund to help poorer countries enact effective anti-trafficking measures.

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Concrete Images of Christian Charity: "Anyone who knows about Catholic Charities in the United States knows that we are all about the messiness in people's lives. People turn to us when things get broken: a crisis in the family, an economic setback, a personal failure, a challenge too overwhelming for their resources or emotions. In all of these situations, we try to be the hands of Christ offering hope. This is not an accident. It is our mission rooted in the Gospel. . . . Every day Pope Francis gives us concrete images of what Christian charity looks like in our time. I suspect we all have our favorite image of him: washing the feet of a juvenile offender who is Muslim and female, caressing tenderly a man whose body is ravaged by disease, playfully placing a child on his chair during a general audience. And all the time giving us the clear message that he expects no less from each of us." (From a reflection by Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, posted on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' website for the first anniversary of Pope Francis' pontificate)

Children of Parents in Same-Sex Unions: "Children from these unions need to be encouraged and welcomed to participate in the Catholic schools and catechetical programs as well as youth groups of the parish. There should not be any discrimination shown toward these children, as they are all children of God and are to be treated as such. A nonjudgmental attitude is crucial especially where children of same-sex unions are concerned. Children are not responsible for situations their parents have created. For very young children, their family life is the norm, and they do not realize there are differences until they are older (school age). A Christian attitude among those involved in the Catholic schools and in catechetical ministry is always expected, supported and recommended." (From a report by Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik on the results of a consultation involving the Vatican Synod Secretariat's questionnaire on family issues related to next October's special assembly of the world Synod of Bishops. Bishop Zubik said that 3,000 people participated in the consultation after the questionnaire appeared both online and in the diocesan newspaper. His report appeared in the March 13 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

Accent on Mercy: "Regret, shame, embarrassment and sorrow are powerful human emotions unleashed when we come to the realization that we have done wrong and that our wrongdoing has affected others. Such emotions can be very helpful -- even agents of healing -- if we expose them to the light of God's love. But they also can do us damage if we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by them. . . . Jesus' attention was always focused on those paralyzed by the burdens of life: sinners, the sick, the weak in faith, the fearful and hopeless. . . . . Think of it this way: If you were one of those in the many crowds through which Jesus passed during his public ministry, he would have noticed you. He would have sought you out." (From "An Open Letter to Those in Need of God's Loving Mercy, That Is, All of Us," a March column by Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain in the Northwest Catholic newspaper)

5. Forms of Lenten Fasting

Fasting from food still is recommended in Lent, but this "is not the only kind of fasting or the most necessary," Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said March 14 in the first of his 2014 Lenten homilies at the Vatican. The priest, known as preacher of the papal household, proposed that an even more important form of fasting today is to deprive oneself willingly of "little and great comforts, of what is useless and sometimes also damaging to one's health."

This way of fasting places people in "solidarity with the poverty" of so many, Father Cantalamessa observed. Moreover, it constitutes "a protest against a consumerist mentality."

In a world that has made "superfluous and useless comfort one of the ends of one's activity," Father Cantalamessa said that "to renounce the superfluous, to be able to do without something, to stop oneself from taking recourse to the most comfortable solution, from choosing the easiest thing, the object of greater luxury - to live, in sum, with sobriety -- is more effective than imposing on oneself artificial penances."

Fasting "from images" also is "more necessary than fasting from food today," the priest commented. He said, "We live in a civilization of images; we have become devourers of images. Through television, Internet, the press, advertising, we let a flood of images enter us."

What perhaps is "worst" about this is the "false and unreal idea of life" conveyed by many images, he suggested. In this atmosphere, some may come to believe that "life offers all that advertising presents," he said.

Risks are incurred, he said, "if we do not create a filter, a barricade" for all these images. A risk is that "we quickly reduce our imagination and our spirit to a rubbish dump."

There are images that "do not die on reaching us, but ferment. They are transformed into impulses to imitate," Father Cantalamessa insisted. Thus, images can "condition our freedom horribly."

Fasting from "evil words" is another important form of fasting, the papal preacher said. "Evil words are not only bad language; they are also cutting, negative words that systematically bring to light a brother's weak side, words that sow discord and suspicions."

This way of speaking in a family or a community has "the power to shut everyone in himself, to freeze, creating bitterness and resentment," Father Cantalamessa observed. He said that such words "literally 'mortify,' that is, they give death."

6. The Desert Time of Lent

Lent starts in the church "with the account of Jesus going into the desert for 40 days," Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said in the first of his 2014 Lenten homilies at the Vatican, given March 14. He proposed that a bit of desert time is a proper Lenten goal for all members of the Christian community.

History tells of the "groups of men and women who have chosen to imitate Jesus and withdraw into the desert," Father Cantalamessa noted. But he said that "the invitation to follow Jesus in the desert is not addressed only to monks and hermits. In a different way, it is addressed to all."

He said that while "monks and hermits chose a space of desert," all Christians "have to choose at least a time of desert."

But, he noted, because it is not always possible to "withdraw into a chapel or a solitary place to renew our contact with God," St. Francis of Assisi pointed to "another device closer at hand."

St. Francis thought, Father Cantalamessa explained, that "we always have a hermitage with us wherever we go, and every time we so wish we can, as hermits, re-enter this hermitage." St. Francis said that "Brother Body is the hermitage, and the soul is the hermit that dwells within to pray to God and to meditate."

This, Father Cantalamessa commented, "is like having a desert 'in the house,' in which one can withdraw in thought at every moment, even while walking on the street."

But did Jesus "go into the desert to fast? Yes, but not mainly for this reason," Father Cantalamessa said. Jesus "went there to pray! Jesus always withdrew into desert places to pray to his Father."

A person "does not go into the desert to leave something - the noise, the world, occupations. One goes there above all to find something, rather Someone," Father Cantalamessa concluded.

Believers do not journey into the desert in order to be alone so that they can "find" themselves. For, Father Cantalamessa noted, "to be alone with oneself can mean to find oneself with the worst of company." Rather, "the believer goes into the desert, goes down into his own heart, to renew his contact with God."

Notably, however, time with God in a desert "does not isolate [a person] from others. In the end, "it renders one more attentive and disposed to others," Father Cantalamessa made clear.

7. Self-Denial and Attention to Others

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa suggested in the preceding story that Lenten desert time "renders one more attentive" to others. Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, Texas, seems to share that conviction. He discussed the meaning of "self-denial" in a March 16 entry for his blog on the diocesan website.

Bishop Farrell asked: "What does it mean to deny yourself? Why is it essential to discipleship?" For most people, he observed, self-denial "is associated with deciding what to give up for Lent or recalling our mother's admonition to 'offer it up' when we couldn't have something we wanted."

But Bishop Farrell said "that denying oneself means something more." Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata wrote, "Unless a life is lived for others, it is not worthwhile," the bishop recalled.

"To deny myself means recognizing that I do not stand alone before God but in relationship to others," Bishop Farrell said. He pointed out that Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," viewed love for others as "a spiritual force drawing us to union with God; indeed, one who does not love others 'walks in the darkness' (1 Jn 2:11), 'remains in death' (1 Jn 3:14) and 'does not know God' (1 Jn 4:8)."

Bishop Farrell called attention to the Matthew 25 passage on the Last Judgment in which "the good works of the righteous and the failures of the condemned all have to do with seeing Christ in others or failing to do so."