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January 12, 2015

Journey of "spiritual discernment" during time before October synod -
Church leaders react to Paris terrorism -
Pope's list of "diseases" harmful in the church

In this edition:
1. Church leaders on Paris terrorism.
2. What "spiritual discernment" means.
3. Participating in synod discernment period.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Archbishop Romero, martyr.
b) Epiphany: Traveling strangers of 2015.
5. Pope lists diseases harmful for curia.
6. Diseases from backbiting to indifference.
7. Watching for the human slavery nearby.

1. Church Leaders on Paris Terrorism

Terrorist actions that unfolded in and near Paris from Jan. 7 to 9 left 20 people dead, including three Islamic extremists. The days of terrorism began Jan. 7 when two of the perpetrators, brothers, attacked the offices of a French magazine named Charlie Hebdo, killing 12. The magazine had published cartoons caricaturing Mohammed, Islam's founder. A third man, apparently a colleague of the others, took hostages Jan. 9 in a Jewish grocery store; four hostages were killed. A policewoman also was killed Jan. 8.

Catholic leaders spoke out on the attacks, which raised issues of religious importance. Concern was expressed for the future of Christian-Muslim relations, with some wondering how many in society might blame Muslims in general for the violent activities of Muslim extremists. Fears of anti-Semitism on the international stage also intensified after the hostage-taking at a Jewish grocery.

Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris condemned the attacks and expressed compassion for the families and friends of the shooting victims. He called for diligent efforts to build relationships of peace and mutual respect in society.

The cardinal regarded the situation in Paris as "a call to rediscover the fundamental values of [the French] republic," including freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. "A cartoon, however distasteful, cannot be put on the same level as murder," he stated. He considered freedom of the press "the sign of a mature society."

A telegram to Cardinal Vingt-Trois sent on Pope Francis' behalf by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, communicated the pope's "deepest sympathy for the injured and their families." The telegram reiterated the pope's condemnation of violence that generates such suffering.

During a Jan. 8 morning Mass in the chapel of his Vatican residence, Pope Francis said:

"The attack in Paris yesterday makes us think of so much cruelty, human cruelty; of so much terrorism, both of isolated terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism. The cruelty that man is capable of! Let us pray in this Mass for the victims of this cruelty. So many! And let us also ask for the cruel ones, that the Lord may change their hearts."

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, issued a statement to journalists Jan. 8 on the pope's reaction to the events in Paris. The pope, Father Lombardi said, wanted to encourage "opposition by every means to the propagation of hate and every form of violence, both physical and moral, that destroys human life, violates the dignity of human beings and radically undermines the foundations of peaceful coexistence between persons and peoples, notwithstanding differences of nationality, religion and culture."

Whatever its motive, "homicidal violence is abominable and never justifiable; the life and dignity of all must be guaranteed and protected decisively, every incitement to hate must be denied and respect for others must be nurtured," the statement insisted. It added:

"The pope expresses his closeness, his spiritual solidarity and his support for all those who . . . continue to make constant efforts for peace, justice and the rule of law, to heal the causes and sources of hate in this painful and dramatic moment, in France and in every part of the world affected by tensions and violence."

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue also spoke on the Paris violence. Its statement came at the end of meeting in Rome in which four imams from France participated.

The statement defended freedom of speech, commenting that without it "the world is in danger." The pontifical council urged religious leaders to promote a culture of peace and hope that is able to conquer fear and to build bridges between people.

The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, said Jan. 8 that the terrorism witnessed in Paris, though "perpetrated in the name of religion," actually "insults all religions and discredits those persons of faith who engage in the struggle for justice and peace."

2. Synod: What "Spiritual Discernment" Means

In an end-of-the-year pastoral letter on the family, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, looked ahead to next October's general assembly of the world Synod of Bishops and invited parishioners to share their thoughts with him on key questions the synod will consider.

Noting that Pope Francis views the year between the October 2014 extraordinary synod and the October 2015 general assembly of the synod as a time for spiritual discernment, the cardinal explored the very meaning of "spiritual discernment."

The pope's intention always was that the 2014 synod's work would continue in another synod in 2015 and bring this work on the family "to some conclusions," according to Cardinal Nichols. He said: "This next synod will do that. It will also have a slightly different emphasis, as the theme now is 'The Vocation and Mission of the Family Today.'" The theme of the 2014 synod was, "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization."

This time must be used well "to ponder and pray over all the challenges and opportunities which face the family and the marriage at its heart in our society today," the cardinal said in his letter, read in parishes of the Westminster Archdiocese. He added that as a period of spiritual discernment, the time ahead should not be reduced simply to "collecting together people's opinions."

What is spiritual discernment? Cardinal Nichols explained that "spiritual discernment concerns my sense of where God is present and at work in my life. It focuses on those things which both test and strengthen my faith, which give encouragement to me, which warm my heart of faith or, conversely, make that heart fearful and anxious. It includes recognition of all that is wrong and in need of forgiveness."

He continued: "Spiritual discernment also means the church's task of identifying the promptings of the Holy Spirit, by which we are led to express more fully, in our complex situations, the teachings and actions of Jesus about marriage and the family. This task comes to a crucial moment in the next Synod of Bishops."

3. Participating in Synod's Discernment Period

In his pastoral letter on the family, Cardinal Nichols encouraged parishioners in the Westminster Archdiocese to make use of a pamphlet that the bishops of England and Wales developed for reflection and discernment during the time leading to the October 2015 assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The pamphlet is titled "The Call, the Journey and the Mission."

"The pamphlet contains questions for you to ponder prayerfully. I would like to know how you respond to them," he said, and he invited individuals and groups to send their responses to him.

"You may choose to use [the pamphlet] alone or within your own family circle. Perhaps you could follow its suggestions with a group of friends or perhaps through an initiative within your parish," Cardinal Nichols explained. He observed that a "parish may also decide to draw together your responses for the benefit of the pastoral care offered there."

The pamphlet asks people "to reflect on the different stages of marriage and family life: falling in love, engagement, the celebration of marriage, the early years," as well as the years spent raising children or spent alone as a couple later.

"We believe that the Lord is present in the joys and struggles of spouses and families. We believe that times of difficulty in marriage and family life can also be moments of growth in holiness and love, and therefore have a special claim to the church's pastoral ministry," the pamphlet comments. Therefore, as a church, "we believe that marriage is the basis for family life which offers to the world the witness of faith lived as a journey of hope, joy and love."

Among its questions the pamphlet asks:

"What are the joys and hopes, and the struggles and fears of marriage and family life today?"

"How can we better understand marriage as a vocation?"

It asks how couples are enriched by their marriage and how "those around you" are enriched by your family life. One of the pamphlet's questions asks, "In what way, through the abiding presence of God, is your own family salt of the earth, light to the world and a place to hand on the faith?"

Cardinal Nichols urged that parishioners participating in the period of spiritual discernment leading to the next synod in Rome follow an approach suggested by Pope Francis, who invites people to view challenges in life as opportunities to clarify how Jesus makes a difference in their lives.

"Often those challenges emerge in family life: moments of tension and anger; moments of disappointment and betrayal; moments in which we fail to understand what has got into our loved ones; moments of fatigue or extreme stress," Cardinal Nichols observed. He said: "These are the challenges which we are invited to change into opportunities. When we do so, they open up as times of grace and of real witness to the power of our faith."

He hopes, the cardinal concluded, that in the time ahead parishioners will "be able to share with each other, and with me if you would be so kind," some of the ways in which they find that "family life is a place of grace, supported by a pattern of prayer, a place in which difficulties are present but in which they become opportunities for true Christian perseverance and for allowing Christ to lead and strengthen us."

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Archbishop Romero, Martyr: "The power of the Gospel is revealed in particular historical circumstances. In San Salvador in 1980, to think with the church meant following the pastoral direction set forth by the Second Vatican Council in 'Lumen Gentium' and 'Gaudium et Spes,' by Blessed Paul VI in 'Evangelii Nuntiandi' and by the Latin American bishops at Medellin and Puebla. But there was more. 'Sentire cum ecclesia,' or thinking with the church, demanded discernment that was attentive to the particular circumstances of the local Catholic community and to the specific needs of Salvadoran society. [Archbishop] Oscar Romero maintained a lifelong devotion to the vicar of Christ on earth. His devotion to the successors of Peter did not carry over to the Vatican's diplomats and bureaucrats. For Romero, to think with the church meant not to think with 'the powers of this world.' Romero listened to them, talked with them, but refused to align himself with them. In an informal interview granted during the 1980 Puebla Conference in Mexico, Romero spoke of having the mind of the church. He said: 'St. Ignatius would present it today as a church that the Holy Spirit is stirring up in our people, in our communities, a church that means not only the teaching of the magisterium, fidelity to the pope, but also service to this people and the discernment of the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. Through his life, ministry and martyrdom, Oscar Romero taught us that thinking with the church meant to be rooted in God, loving and defending the poor and, out of fidelity, paying the price for doing so. He laid down his life for his friends. Thirty-five years later the church confirms that Romero made the right decision." (From a Jan. 12 entry on the blog of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, the foundation's head. He wrote after a panel of theologians advising the Vatican Congregation for Saints' Causes voted unanimously to recognize Archbishop Romero as a martyr, according to the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference.)

Epiphany in 2015: "In our present day, there remain many people who embark on dangerous and uncertain journeys, drawn by the desire to provide for their family and create a better life for their children. But they do not come bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Rather, they come to us much like the Holy Family itself would have traveled on their escape to Egypt, bearing not much more than the clothes on their back and perhaps one or two small bags. As a people of faith, we are called to welcome the stranger." (From a column for Epiphany 2015 posted on the Catholic Charities USA website by Father Larry Snyder, its outgoing president.)

5. Pope Lists "Diseases" Harmful in Roman Curia

The Roman Curia, "like any human body" is "exposed to diseases, malfunctioning, infirmity," Pope Francis said Dec. 22 when he delivered an annual, end-of-Advent papal address to members of the curia. The diseases he listed have the capacity to "weaken our service to the Lord," the pope stated.

One of them is "the disease of a lugubrious face." This, the pope explained, is witnessed in "those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious we have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others -- especially those we consider our inferiors -- with rigor, brusqueness and arrogance."

Pope Francis commented that "an apostle must make an effort to be courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful, a person who transmits joy everywhere he goes." Humor also is a quality well worth nurturing, he suggested, saying:

"A heart filled with God is a happy heart that radiates an infectious joy. It is immediately evident! So let us not lose that joyful, humorous and even self-deprecating spirit that makes people amiable even in difficult situations. How beneficial is a good dose of humor!"

The diseases or temptations mentioned in the pope's address are "a danger for each Christian and for every curia, community, congregation, parish and ecclesial movement," he observed. Moreover, "they can strike" communities as well as individuals.

Because the Roman Curia "is a dynamic body, it cannot live without nourishment and care. In fact, the curia -- like the church -- cannot live without a vital, personal, authentic and solid relationship with Christ," said Pope Francis. The reality is, he insisted, that "a member of the curia who is not daily nourished by that food will become a bureaucrat (a formalist, a functionalist, a mere employee) -- a branch that withers, slowly dies and is then cast off."

On the other hand, he said, "a living relationship with God also nourishes and strengthens our communion with others. In other words, the more closely we are joined to God, the more we are united among ourselves, since the Spirit of God unites and the spirit of evil divides."

6. Diseases From Backbiting to Indifference

The diseases or temptations that are harmful for the Roman Curia and others in the church range from excessive busy-ness to rivalry and vainglory, according to Pope Francis. One he mentioned was "the disease of closed circles, where belonging to a clique becomes more powerful than belonging to the body and, in some circumstances, to Christ himself."

Pope Francis pointed out that this problem "always begins with good intentions." However, "with the passing of time it enslaves its members and becomes a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes immense evil -- scandals -- especially to our weaker brothers and sisters."

Then there is "the disease of excessive planning and functionalism." Pope Francis said that when someone "plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place, he becomes an accountant or an office manager."

The pope acknowledged that "things need to be prepared well." However, that does not mean "falling into the temptation of trying to contain and direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is always greater and more flexible than any human planning."

Allow me to mention just a few more of the diseases on the pope's list. One is "the disease of thinking we are 'immortal,' 'immune' or downright 'indispensable,' neglecting the need for regular checkups." The pope commented that "a curia that is not self-critical, that does not keep up with things, that does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body. A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable!"

A disease of "mental and spiritual 'petrification'" also proves problematic. This disease, Pope Francis said, "is found in those who have a heart of stone," who "in the course of time lose their interior serenity, alertness and daring, and hide under a pile of papers." He cautioned that "it is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that enables us to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice!"

The "disease of rivalry and vainglory" mentioned by the pope is one that develops "when appearances, the color of our clothes and our titles of honor become the primary object in life." This disease "leads us to be men and women of deceit, and to live a false 'mysticism' and a false 'quietism,'" he said.

Then there is the disease of "existential schizophrenia." This one is found in "those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive spiritual emptiness that no doctorates or academic titles can fill." Pope Francis described this as "a disease that often strikes those who abandon pastoral service and restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality, with concrete people."

Those who contract this disease "create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that they teach with severity to others and begin to live a hidden and often dissolute life." Pope Francis considered this a "most serious disease" for which "conversion is most urgent and indeed indispensable."

Pope Francis frequently criticizes gossip, so it is not surprising that he included this in his address to the Roman Curia, speaking of "the disease of gossiping, grumbling and backbiting." He considered it "a grave illness that begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a 'sower of weeds' (like Satan) and in many cases a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues and confreres."

This, he stated plainly, "is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly but instead speak behind other people's backs." Here Pope Francis exhorted the Roman Curia with these words: "Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip!"

7. Watching for Human Slavery Close to Home

Slavery still is practiced in our own cities and nation, Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, Texas, wrote on the eve of the Jan. 1 World Day of Peace.

Calling attention to the accent Pope Francis' message for this year's day of peace placed on contemporary forms of human slavery, particularly human trafficking, Bishop Farrell cautioned in his blog on the diocesan website that "we cannot close our eyes" to human trafficking "out of indifference, financial reasons or simply because we 'don't want to be involved.' We must act in a manner worthy of our, and their, human dignity."

In his message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis said that "though the international community has adopted numerous agreements aimed at ending slavery in all its forms and has launched various strategies to combat this phenomenon, millions of people today -- children, women and men of all ages -- are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery."

Bishop Farrell pointed out that among the people who are enslaved today the pope included laborers bound by indebtedness, migrants deprived of their freedom or subjected to physical and sexual abuse, those - including minors - forced into prostitution, male and female slaves, people who are kidnapped and held captive by terrorist groups, people forced to emigrate and others.

"Many of these assaults on human freedom and dignity occur in our own communities and in our own state," Bishop Farrell stressed. He wrote: "The next time you hear or read the term 'human trafficking,' understand that it means a type of slavery. In Texas there have been 346 cases of human trafficking reported this year, and that may be only the tip of the iceberg."

"Slavery still exists in Dallas, in our country and in the world," said Bishop Farrell. "There are many still bound by the chains of slavery." (A report on Pope Francis' World Day of Peace message for Jan. 1, 2015, appeared in the Dec. 15 edition of this online newsletter.)