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November 28, 2007

Advent Reflection - Overview of U.S. Bishops' Catholic Teaching and Political Life Statement - The Gifts of People With Disabilities - Migration's Root Causes - Threat to the Young Posed by Reading's Decline - Faith Formation at Home - and Much More

1. Advent reflection: Faith as pilgrimage.
2. The "bold posture" of a eucharistic manner.
3. Golden-mouthed voice for the poor: St. John Chrysostom.
4. Migration's root causes.
5. The gifts people with disabilities bring.
6. Current words to ponder: civility in church and society; priesthood; gratitude.
7. What is "the common good"?
8. Overview: U.S. bishops' reflection on Catholic teaching and political life.
9. Call to action for those working with the young: Risks incurred by decline of reading.
10. The parent as catechist.
11. Faith formation at home.
12. How rich in priests is Africa?

Advent Reflection: The Essential Pilgrimage That Faith Is

"To be human -- to be free -- means to go on a journey outward," Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, said in a speech to the mid-November meeting of the bishops of England and Wales. He suggested that a person of faith who -- believing that the goal of faith has been achieved -- brings this journey to a halt risks slipping into ideology or losing sight of what faith is.

"Human beings are on an exodus, called permanently to go out of themselves, to question themselves," said Archbishop Forte. Human beings are "in search of a home" that is "glimpsed but not possessed." Because "by constitution" they are "pilgrims toward life, … the true temptation is to stop journeying, to feel they have arrived, no longer to thing of themselves as pilgrims in this world," he said.

The archbishop cautioned against "the presumption of thinking we are already fulfilled," an attitude he regards as a "fatal illness" for people of faith.

The archbishop believes that "we need to become pilgrims once again, to overcome the frustration which at times grips us, especially when we see no results, no fruits." He said: "The most important thing for those who believe in God is not to harvest, but to sow; the sowing will bear fruit in time when and how God wills."

For the archbishop, life either is "a passion, a searching and therefore a restlessness, or it is a dying every day a little, evading, escaping."

The risk of believing that it is possible to "have faith without a struggle" is the risk of "believing in nothing," said Archbishop Forte. Faith, he said, is a "meeting between human beings who go out and God who comes, between exodus and advent." And faith "is struggle and agony, not the repose of a certainty possessed."

The archbishop pointed to a "beautifully naοf medieval insight" that "to believe ('credere') comes from 'cor-dare,' to give your heart, and this involves a continual struggle with God's total otherness, which does not let itself be 'solved' or 'possessed.' God is other than you." God, said the archbishop, "is not to be found in easy earthly possessiveness, but in the poverty of the cross."

Archbishop Forte said that "if believers did not struggle every day to be faithful to the living God, their faith would be nothing more than worldly reassurance, one of the many ideologies that have fooled the world and alienated human beings. Against every ideology, faith is to be understood and lived as continual conversion to God, a continual handing over of the heart, beginning every day afresh the effort to believe, hope and love. In consequence, faith is prayer, and those who do not pray will not live by faith!"

Finally, the archbishop observed that "faith is submission: In the combat there comes the moment when you understand that the loser really wins, and so you give yourself up to him, you submit to the one who attacks at night, you allow your life to be marked forever by that meeting. Then it is that faith becomes self-abandonment and forgetfulness of self, and the joy of entrusting yourself into the arms of the Beloved."

The Bold Posture of a "Eucharistic Manner"

"Welcome and worship are defining elements" of faith, Bishop Jaime Soto said Nov. 19 during a Mass in Sacramento, Calif., welcoming him as the diocese's coadjutor bishop.

-- First, Bishop Soto said, "we live to welcome and worship the Lord," in preparation for our "final and eternal encounter" with him.

-- At the same time, the signs and gestures of the liturgy awaken hearts and accustom eyes to see the Lord in encounters that are "less solemn but no less sacred" - in "our brothers and sisters wearied and unwelcomed by the world -- the immigrant, the incarcerated, those living with AIDS and the homeless."

Bishop Soto spoke of a "eucharistic manner" that "calms our fears so that those who come to us are not a threat to avoid but an opportunity to welcome and serve." Worship, he said, inclines "our souls to see and revere the sacredness of life. Our hands, opened humbly to reach the Lord in Communion, dispose us to receive and hold in like manner all those 'little ones' whom the King sends in his name."

This pattern of living is "a bold posture" - living "reverently in the spirit of welcome and worship" both in the sacred space of a church and in the public square, said Bishop Soto. Many encounters that one will have with others "may be unplanned and unexpected, but none should be unwanted, especially the unborn child who comes in innocence and hope," he said.

Before coming to Sacramento, Bishop Soto was an auxiliary bishop of Orange, Calif., for more than seven years.

Golden-mouthed Voice for the Poor: John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom once recommended that Christians gather in churches in order to learn to bear one another's burdens; furthermore, the saint wrote that "the needy person belongs to God" and "deserves help even if he does not believe." Pope Benedict XVI included these observations in his letter for the 16th centenary of the death of the early church father, patriarch of Constantinople. The pope's letter, dated Aug. 10, was released by the Vatican Nov. 8, and the Vatican published an English translation about two weeks later.

The pope's letter recommended that the fathers of the church "become an ever firmer reference point for all the church's theologians." Returning to the fathers of the church, he said, "means going back to the sources of Christian experience in order to savor their freshness and genuineness." In this context, it should be noted that the pope has been devoting recent Wednesday audience addresses to the fathers of the church.

Pope Benedict's letter focused on teachings of St. John Chrysostom related to the church's unity, the Eucharist and care for the poor. The pope recalled that the saint, regarded as the "golden-mouthed" preacher, "was very careful to ensure that the applause he often received for his preaching did not take the edge off the Gospel he was proclaiming."

Over the course of 12 years that he served as a priest in Antioch, John Chrysostom "distinguished himself by his eminent skill at interpreting the sacred Scriptures in a way that the faithful could understand," Pope Benedict wrote. He said that the saint in his preaching attempted "to strengthen the unity of the church" and to reinvigorate his listeners' Christian identity. Furthermore, the saint "believed that in order to correct a theological error, 'nothing is more effective than moderation and kindliness,'" the pope observed. He said that John Chrysostom, not failing to address dissenters, preferred "to treat them with patience rather than coercion."

John Chrysostom believed that Communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist obliged members of the church "to offer material help to the poor and the hungry who lived among them," Pope Benedict wrote. For this saint, "the Lord's table is the place where believers recognize and welcome the poor and needy whom they may have previously ignored," said the pope. Thus, he added, John Chrysostom "urged the faithful of all times to look beyond the altar where the eucharistic sacrifice is offered and see Christ in the person of the poor."

The contrast "between the wasteful extravagance of the rich and the indigence of the poor" was denounced tirelessly by John Chrysostom, who suggested to "the well-off that they gather the homeless in their own homes," said Pope Benedict. He added, "In the poor [John Chrysostom] saw Christ."

Migration's Root Causes

The vast majority of migrants worldwide "are economic migrants," and they "have few options to remain in their countries of origin," according to the Maryland Catholic Conference. Economic migrants are "compelled to move to provide for their families," and the risks attached to migration are "worth it" in their eyes: "The value of migration is greater than its hardship or potential for exploitation," the state Catholic conference said in a background piece issued in conjunction with a November statement on migration by its bishops, who include, in addition to Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington and Bishop Michael Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del.

The bishops' statement said that "illegal entry [to the U.S.] is not condoned, but undocumented immigrants are embraced." It said: "The rule of law must be respected. The discussion, however, cannot end there."

Certain distinctions need to be made in the debate over immigration, said the bishops. "The legality of a person's entry into the U.S. is one issue; our response to him now that he's here is a separate one."

The background piece from the state Catholic conference noted that "poverty, injustice and armed conflict displace millions of people across the globe." It said, "An understanding of the forces that favor or necessitate migration is necessary if we are to maximize benefits and minimize harm to migrants, their families, and sending and receiving nations."

The Gifts People With Disabilities Bring

"We should not focus so much on disabilities as to neglect your gifts and abilities, and the ways you can and do serve the Lord and his church," Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, Pa., said in his homily Oct. 7 during a diocesan Mass to celebrate "the gifts of our brothers and sisters with disabilities." Moreover, he said to those with disabilities, "the whole church must continue to seek to remove any obstacles to your full and active participation in the life of the church."

Bishop Rhoades said, "It is good to focus on the gifts of persons with disabilities, since your generous sharing of gifts in the midst of hardship and struggle … is a powerful sign to all of the power of God's grace and love." For, he noted, everyone struggles with life "in one way or another."

Bishop Rhoades said: "You who have disabilities have so much to teach me and others by your example about faith and courage and strength. You also have a duty, as do all members of the church, to do the Lord's work in the world, according to your God-given talents and capacity." Catholics, said the bishop, "are much poorer when we do not experience and receive your gifts, which help build up the body of Christ, the church, at every level: parish, diocese and beyond."

Current Words to Ponder

Do We Lack Civility? "I think that a lack of respect and civility is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society and has infected even us in the body of Christ. … We see it sometimes in the way people talk to clerks in stores in a harsh and demeaning way. We see it played out on television in the endless political discussions that often devolve into personal and juvenile attacks on each other. We see it in the sarcastic and arrogant ways that people sometimes write to express their views in letters to the editor. We also see it in the church…. We should always respect and honor the other person, even when we vehemently disagree with him or her. … Charity and respect can be contagious. One act of kindness toward another can have ripple effects that we may never even know." (Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Mich., in a November column)

When and How Gratitude Expands: "Being grateful seems like something that should be relatively natural, spontaneous and easy. In point of fact, genuine, heartfelt gratitude is a gift of God; being deeply and profoundly grateful requires a certain disposition of spirit, a sense of vulnerability, humility and openness. It is a strange thing, but in life things that come quickly and easily are usually not appreciated. We are most grateful for the gifts and opportunities that emerge after a long struggle or a period of suffering. We take so many things in life for granted and only come to appreciate them when we have almost lost them. Anyone with health challenges knows exactly what I mean." (From a November message to the archdiocese by Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit)

The Pope Speaks of Priests: "As bishops, we must constantly strive to build up the sense of community among our priests. … Life can be difficult for priests today. They can feel isolated or alone and overwhelmed by their pastoral responsibilities. We must be close to them and encourage them, in the first place, to remain firmly rooted in prayer, because only those who are themselves nourished are able to nourish others in turn." (Pope Benedict XVI speaking to the bishops of Kenya Nov. 19)

What Is the Common Good We Hear So Much About?

The practical measure of the common good in Catholic social thought "is the quality of life of the 'least of our brethren': those least powerful, those marginalized, those oppressed," Stephen Schneck said in an Oct. 30 presentation during the inaugural bimonthly luncheon in Washington of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Relating his comments to the U.S. presidential hopefuls and their campaigns, Schneck said, "We have to get beyond policies that pander to immediate desires and adopt the longer historical perspective of the common good."

What does the common good demand? It demands "that we weigh the passionate yens of the moment against the future good of the whole," said Schneck. He is outgoing chair of the politics department and president of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America in Washington. His address examined how key concerns such as abortion, poverty, war and peace, and health insurance relate to the common good.

The "wonderful 'pursuit of happiness'" mentioned by America's Declaration of Independence increasingly is understood "as but the private exercise of individual rights for personal desires," Schneck commented. But "from the perspective of the Catholic idea of the common good, this is a dangerous problematic. Good citizenship demands an ethic of duty to the good of the whole," Schneck said.

An Overview: U.S. Bishops' Reflection on Catholic Teaching and Political Life

During their mid-November national meeting in Baltimore and with the approach of the 2008 U.S. presidential election year, the U.S. bishops approved a statement titled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: The U.S. Bishops' Reflection on Catholic Teaching and Political Life."

"We bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God's truth," the bishops say. They state: "The church is involved in the political process but is not partisan. The church cannot champion any candidate or party. Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity, and the protection of the weak and vulnerable."

Conscience, the bishops affirm, "always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith." The bishops call it "essential" that Catholics endeavor both to oppose evil and to do good in the political realm.

"Aided by the virtue of prudence in the exercise of well-formed consciences, Catholics are called to make practical judgments regarding good and evil choices in the political arena," the bishops say. With this in mind, they add:

"There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. … These are called 'intrinsically evil' actions. They must always be rejected and opposed, and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. …

"Similarly, direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified."

There are "two temptations" that can distort the church's defense of human life and dignity, the bishops explain:

1. The first temptation "is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed."

2. The second temptation "is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity." Among other "serious threats" mentioned by the bishops are racism, other unjust discrimination, use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, torture, war crimes, failing to respond to those suffering from hunger or lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy.

Speaking of these "other serious threats," the bishops add: "Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore church teaching on these important issues."

Catholics "cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter's intent is to support that position," the bishops state. Yet, they note, voters "should not use a candidate's opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity."

Catholics "are not single-issue voters," the bishops say. Expanding on this point, they explain: "A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet a candidate's position on a single issue that involves in intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support."

All life issues "are connected," the bishops state, adding that "erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life."

What role should political parties play in one's voting decisions? The bishops make this comment: "As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths."

Catholics today "may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and too few candidates fully share the church's comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death," the bishops observe. However, they add, "this is not a time for retreat or discouragement; rather, it is a time for renewed engagement."

The full text of the bishops' reflection can be found at www.usccb.org (click on "November Bishops' Meeting") or in the Nov. 29, 2007, edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.

Call to Action for Those Working With the Young: Reading Decline Puts Futures at Risk

With a continuing decline in the amount of time Americans spend reading, their reading skills themselves are declining. And "these declines have serious civic, social, cultural and economic implications," according to a major study released Nov. 19 by the National Endowment for the Arts. Dana Gioia, NEA chairman, said that "deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting."

Gioia said that "whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways." He said: "Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual's academic and economic success … but it also seems to awaken a person's social and civic sense."

The study, said Gioia, is a "call to action" for teachers, parents and social activists, as well as political and cultural leaders, and others. According to the study, the risk is higher for deficient readers than for others of failing in personal, professional and social areas of life.

The study shows that children on the elementary school level are progressing measurably in their reading ability, but that this progress comes to a halt as children enter the teenage years. What may surprise some is the study's finding that not only are teenage and adult Americans in general reading much less today, but so are college graduates.

The NEA study demonstrates, Gioia commented, "that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities."

The Parent as Catechist

The faith formation process is a "partnership between the family and their parish community." This process is a "life-long journey that should continue to inform, form and transform individuals and families," Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., says in "Go and Teach," his Oct. 18 pastoral letter devoted to handing on the faith.

With today's emphasis on family-centered faith formation, Bishop Ramirez writes that parents "must no longer have the mentality that 'CCD will teach my children what they need to know about the faith.' We must challenge those who say, 'My child has finished catechism; he/she has made first Communion.'"

The family that takes time to pray together "also learns to forgive and to love in a respectful way," Bishop Ramirez says. A family's spirituality - for example prayer, Scripture reading, pilgrimages - creates "an environment of peace and harmony where persons can grow and develop into mature adults," he adds.

"The home is the first school of faith and the privileged place for its transmission," says the bishop. He urges parents to take steps to deepen their faith, recommending small communities as one means for families to deepen and embrace their faith in both a personal and communal way.

… More on Faith Formation at Home

Parents need to reclaim their role as their children's primary story-tellers, Kathleen Chesto told participants in a diocesan catechetical congress this fall in the Diocese of Wilmington, Del. Chesto, who said that television has replaced parents in this story-telling role, encouraged catechists to give lessons to children that require that they hear stories from their parents. "Any loving parent has done a good job with the experience of God," she said. "Now they need to start telling their own stories of faith."

Joseph Ryan reported on her address in a Nov. 20 Catholic News Service report. The experience of God "is all family," said Chesto, a nationally recognized speaker and retreat leader. "The most important things that happen in the process of religious education happen at home and happen long before you're going to see these children," she told the catechists. This education begins early, she said. "Our very first sense of who God is happens the very first time we're picked up, the first time we're cuddled and held, the first time our mother takes us to her breast and nourishes us," she said.

How Rich in Priests Is Africa?

It commonly is said that Africa has a wealth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. "This, however, is a 'tricky issue,'" Cardinal Peter Turkson of Cape Coast, Ghana, said in an Oct. 18 speech to the Von Hugel Institute at Cambridge University in England. Indeed, he said, there are local churches that "register huge numbers of ordinations and vocations to the religious life. But the statistics on the number of priests and lay faithful on the different continents, and the ratio of priests to lay faithful … show that Africa as a whole is really not terribly rich in priests," the cardinal said.

There are, indeed, African countries with a dearth of vocations, he said. "It is therefore only a few local African churches who are rich in vocations. … But even in these cases, one can describe their situations as 'relative wealth'; for if they attempted to do ministry as it is done in the churches of the West, they would not have enough priests," Cardinal Turkson said.

Thus, he stressed, in talking "about the church in Africa sending priests and missionaries" to Western nations, "one really invites the African church to share the little she has in solidarity with distressed local churches. The few local African churches which have sent priests and missionaries to churches in the West have done so not out of a surplus they have; they have done so as an expression of their charity, solidarity, being-each-other's keeper and being in communion with other churches." These, the cardinal said, "are core values which characterize life within an African family."