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March 14, 2015

Mercy's key role in theology -
Bishops address poverty at nation's crossroads -
Looking ahead to the ecology encyclical -
Leadership essentials today

In this edition:
1. A holy year of mercy.
2. Mercy in the theologian's vocation.
3. Poverty at a nation's crossroads.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Serving marriages and families.
b) Leadership in the church.
5. Ecumenism's real starting point.
6. The coming encyclical on ecology.

1. Holy Year of Mercy Announced

Mercy more and more is cited as a central theme for Pope Francis. He speaks and writes on the theme almost constantly, it seems. But during a Lenten penance service in St. Peter's Basilica March 13 he underscored the theme's importance in his eyes by proclaiming an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy in the church to begin Dec. 8 this year and continue until Nov. 20, 2016.

"I have often thought about how the church might make clear its mission of being a witness to mercy," the pope said. This, he explained, involves a "journey that begins with a spiritual conversion." That is why he "decided to call an extraordinary jubilee that is to have the mercy of God at its center. It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy."

Mentioning the holy year's biblical theme, he added, "We want to live this year in the light of the Lord's words: 'Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful' (cf. Lk 6:36)."

In his homily during the penitential service, Pope Francis remarked that "the call of Jesus pushes each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart." He added:

"No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it, and the church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one. Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness."

It did not go unnoticed that the holy year will begin on the very day marking the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

2. Mercy in the Theologian's Vocation

In early March Pope Francis turned attention to the theme of mercy in the field of theology, where he suggested its role is essential.

"Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude but is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus," Pope Francis wrote in a letter to the Catholic University of Argentina, whose theology faculty is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The letter encouraged theologians "to study how the various disciplines" of theology -- doctrinal studies, moral theology and canon law, for example - "may reflect the centrality of mercy."

Theology, Pope Francis said, ought to be "an expression of a church which is a 'field hospital' that lives its mission of salvation and healing in the world." He cautioned that "without mercy," theology and pastoral care run "the risk of collapsing into bureaucratic pettiness or ideology" of a kind that "wants to tame the mystery."

To understand theology "is to understand God, who is love," the pope wrote.

The theology faculty's centenary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican Council II, the pope noted in his letter. He referred to the council as "an update, a rereading of the Gospel in the perspective of contemporary culture." The council, he added, "produced an irreversible movement of renewal that comes from the Gospel. And now, we must go forward."

He asked, "How, then, do we go forward?" He replied that "teaching and studying theology means living on a frontier, one in which the Gospel meets the needs of the people, which should be proclaimed in an understandable and meaningful way." It is essential, he said, to "guard against a theology that is exhausted in academic dispute or watching humanity from a glass castle."

A theologian formed at the Catholic University of Argentina should not become someone who simply "accumulates data and information on revelation without really knowing what to do with it," the pope wrote. Rather, a theologian should be "able to build humanity around him, to transmit the divine Christian truth in a truly human dimension and not an intellectual without talent, an ethicist without kindness or a sacred bureaucrat."

3. Poverty at a Nation's Crossroads

In a 2015 Ash Wednesday pastoral letter on poverty, the Catholic bishops of Indiana call attention "to the poverty that exists right here within the state that calls itself the Crossroads of America."

The state "is home to thousands of the so-called 'working poor,'" the bishops note. The working poor are "women and men who have jobs but whose income is not enough to sustain them or to cover the necessities of life, including food, housing, health care, transportation and child care." For such families, the bishops say, "full-time, year-round work by itself is not enough to lift them out of poverty."

Their pastoral letter is a call to act both "with justice and charity," the bishops explain. They invite readers of the pastoral letter "to join us in reaching out to the poor members of our state." The bishops also challenge everyone, beginning with themselves, "to engage the leaders of business, government and voluntary organizations throughout our state in effecting meaningful changes in the policies and practices that perpetuate poverty in all its manifestations."

The Gospel parable telling of "a poor 'street person' named Lazarus and the rich man who passed by him each day without noticing him" is cited by the bishops. "It is apparent," they comment, "that the rich man could not -- or would not -- see the poverty that was right in front of his eyes. As a result, he was blind to the poor man's need and -- just as tragic -- to the opportunities God gave him day after day to share his abundant gifts."

In light of that parable, the bishops ask readers: "What are we not seeing as, day after day, we go about our busy lives? Are we incapable -- or worse --have we chosen not to see our sisters and brothers who are poor? Are we blind to the impact poverty has on families, neighborhoods and entire communities, and unquestioning as to its causes?"

Poverty's root causes "are complex and must be addressed effectively by a holistic and multifaceted approach to social, economic, cultural and spiritual development," the pastoral letter stresses. It says that "while we may be tempted to direct our attention and charitable resources toward addressing the immediate needs of the poor for food, shelter and health care, in justice we cannot neglect the more thorny public-policy issues."

The church responds to the poor "through institutions and organizations such as Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, parish social ministries, elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities," the bishops note. They write that the church in their state also "is a leading advocate for just social structures that will preserve families while addressing the systemic problems of poverty."

However, the church "at the same time" joins "all people of good will in calling for the development and implementation of strategies that address the root causes of poverty."

In order "to address the serious challenges" facing the economy in the state, "we must look carefully at the impact of policies, legislation and governmental regulations on real people -- the women and men who struggle to earn a living, support their families and make ends meet," the bishops state. They insist that the economy cannot be fixed "by employing abstract theory that is detached from those whose lives are at stake."

While "the church does not propose detailed programs aimed at creating jobs or promoting economic development," the bishops point out that "the church does remind governmental, business and community leaders that the only truly effective measure of sound economic policy and practice is the extent to which real people thrive and grow as persons and as workers."

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Pastoral Outreach to Marriage and Family: "We need new strategies, new language and creative pastoral outreach to encourage young adults to consider sacramental marriage and family life. We must develop better methods of evangelization and catechesis to convince young adults that marriage is good, beautiful and worthwhile! We must discover new avenues of communication and outreach to those recently married. What do we provide for them? How do we thank the thousands of couples who, day in and day out before our very eyes, lay down their lives for others and serve the Lord and their families with great generosity? And let us never forget those who have loved and lost, and those who have suffered the pain of separation, divorce and alienation. May our field hospitals provide for them healing, consolation and loving welcome." (From an address on marriage and family by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, who heads the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto, Ontario, to the Feb. 24-25 meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, of the Catholic bishops of western Canada.)

Leadership Qualities: "From the Catholic perspective leadership is never autocratic or selfish; it respects and calls forth the gifts and skills of everyone; it acknowledges initiative and creates a culture where a variety of gifts is nourished, developed and celebrated. At times this might mean taking a risk with new leaders, allowing someone to lead even when you are uncertain it will work out. We all know our leadership ability grows through mistakes, gentle constructive criticism and reflective conversations where we are not put down or ridiculed for failure, but encouraged to try again, doing things slightly differently." (From a March 3 address by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland, to the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin)

5. Ecumenism's Starting Point Today

Up to the present moment, one approach has dominated most efforts to promote unity among Christians of different churches and denominations, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa commented in a March 6 Lenten presentation for Pope Francis and others in the Roman Curia. Father Cantalamessa is the official preacher of the papal household.

He explained the dominant ecumenical approach in the following way: "First resolve the differences, and then share what we have in common." However, he made clear that today this approach is being succeeded by another, which he explained this way: "Share what we have in common, and then resolve the differences with patience and reciprocal respect."

Father Cantalamessa said that what is "most surprising" about "this change in perspective is that the same doctrinal differences" thought to divide Christians, "rather than appearing to us as an 'error' or a 'heresy' of the other side," now "are beginning to appear more and more often as compatible with one's own position and at times even as a necessary corrective and an enrichment."

In his homily Father Cantalamessa focused principally on relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, in light of Pope Francis' November 2014 visit to Turkey. During the visit, the priest said, the pope exhorted Eastern and Western Christians "to share fully their common faith." Father Cantalamessa devoted particular attention in his homily to the theology of the Trinity in East and West.

The time has arrived "to reverse" the tendency in ecumenical discussions to focus first on what divides, according to Father Cantalamessa, and to leave aside "any obsessive insistence on the differences (which are often based on a forced interpretation, if not a distortion, of the other's thought)." Instead, he proposed, it is time "to bring together what we have in common and what unites us in one faith."

This approach is necessitated today "by the common duty of proclaiming the faith to a world that has profoundly changed and has different questions and interests than those during the time in which the disagreements arose -- a world in which the vast majority no longer understands the meaning of so many of our subtle distinctions and is light years away from them."

6. Looking Ahead to the Ecology Encyclical

The encyclical on ecology that Pope Francis plans to publish later this year "will explore the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor," Cardinal Peter Turkson said March 5 in a Lenten address at Ireland's national seminary and pontifical university in Maynooth. Cardinal Turkson is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

On a number of occasions, Pope Francis "has echoed the sense of crisis that many in the scientific and development communities convey about the precarious state of our planet and of the poor," Cardinal Turkson observed. But what the pope "adds to the conversation about future approaches," the cardinal explained, "is the particular perspective of Catholic social thought," rooted in Scripture and natural reason.

That "offers something unique and vital to the efforts of the international community" related to the environment, he added. But Cardinal Turkson said that what Pope Francis ultimately wants to bring to the environment "is the 'warmth of hope.'"

Cardinal Turkson called attention to comments of Pope Francis during an early morning Mass Feb. 9 at his residence. On that occasion, the cardinal noted, the pope considered it wrong to contrast the terms "green" and "Christian." In fact, the pope said, "A Christian who doesn't safeguard creation, who doesn't make it flourish, is a Christian who isn't concerned with God's work, that work born of God's love for us."

It is important not to politicize the pope's comments on the environment. On this point, Cardinal Turkson explained:

"When Pope Francis says that destroying the environment is a grave sin; when he says that it is not large families that cause poverty but an economic culture that puts money and profit ahead of people; when he says that we cannot save the environment without also addressing the profound injustices in the distribution of the goods of the earth; when he says that this is 'an economy that kills' - he is not making some political comment about the relative merits of capitalism and communism.

"He is rather restating ancient biblical teaching. He is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little, that our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbor, especially the poor, and with the environment has become fundamentally 'unkept' and that we are now at serious risk of a concomitant human, environmental and relational degradation."

Also, when "pointing to St. Francis as a model, Pope Francis holds that a truly practical and sustainable, integral approach to ecology has to draw on more than the scientific, the material and the economic, more than laws and policies," according to Cardinal Turkson. For, "when St. Francis gazed upon the heavens, when he surveyed the wonder and beauty of the animals, he did not respond to them with the abstract formulas of science or the utilitarian eye of the economist. His response was one of awe, wonder and fraternity."

In his remarks Cardinal Turkson expressed concern that despite the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent agreements, "global emissions of carbon dioxide continue their upward trend, almost 50 percent above 1990 levels." He said:

"The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a level last seen 3 million years ago -- when the planet was significantly warmer than it is today." Moreover, "millions of hectares of forest are lost every year, many species are being driven closer to extinction, and renewable water resources are becoming scarcer."

International agreements certainly are important, Cardinal Turkson said, "but they are not enough in themselves to sustain change in human behavior." He recalled St. John Paul II's insistence that an "ecological conversion" is required, which the cardinal described as "a radical and fundamental change in our attitudes to creation, to the poor and to the priorities of the global economy."