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May 27, 2016

Introducing civility to political conversations -
Accountability in the blogosphere -
New priests fashioning new dreams

In this edition:
1. Beyond the blogosphere.
2. Anger in the blogosphere.
3. Civility and political discourse.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Tip for praying.
b) Understanding human unity.
c) Caring for the mentally ill.
5. New dreams for new priests.
6. A grand imam meets the pope.

1. Beyond the Blogosphere: What's the Message?

"With [Pope] Francis, the church must re-enter public discourse with a full-throated defense of the common good that rises above bitter partisan divisions that have poisoned our cultures in North America," Basilian Father Thomas Rosica said in a May 11 speech to the Brooklyn Diocese's Catholic Media Conference.

Father Rosica, who heads Canada's national Catholic TV network, the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, challenged Catholic communicators to "stand for something much greater than the division, rancor and meanness of spirit that have dominated politics and infected the church." Father Rosica also serves as an English-language attaché for the Vatican Press Office.

His hard-hitting speech turned attention to the goals of Catholic communications today, as well as to the effects of a Catholic blogosphere that he finds divisive. In a third point, he discusses what he terms the "rebranding" efforts of Pope Francis.

This pope "has rebranded Catholicism and the papacy," according to Father Rosica. He observed that "prior to Pope Francis, when many people on the street were asked, 'What is the Catholic Church all about? What does the pope stand for?' the response would often be, 'Catholics, well they are against abortion, gay marriage and birth control.' 'They are known for the sex abuse crisis that has terribly marred and weakened their moral authority and credibility.'"

Father Rosica ventured that today "the response is somewhat different." Now "people are speaking about our leader, who is unafraid to confront the sins and evils that have marred us. We have a pope who is concerned about the environment, about mercy, compassion and love, and a deep passion, care and concern for the poor and for displaced peoples roaming the face of this earth."

Many of Father Rosica's colleagues in the secular media "have said that Francis has made it fun to be a religion reporter and journalist again." In fact, the priest-communicator said, the pope "has changed the image of the church so much that prestigious graduate schools of business and management are now using him as a case study in rebranding."

A question Catholic communicators ought to address, Father Rosica suggested, is how to "allow our media platforms to become transmitters of the rich and beautiful Catholic tradition while at the same time serving as instruments of dialogue with the peoples, traditions and cultures around us."

For Francis, he stressed, dialogue is a central concern. "Francis wants the church to be an instrument of reconciliation and welcome, a church capable of warming hearts, a church that is not bent over on herself but always seeking those on the periphery and those who are lost, a church capable of leading people home."

While Pope Francis "does not compromise on the hot-button issues that divide the church from the secular West - a gap that liberals would like to close by modernizing doctrine," he also "is not a pope for the Catholic right," said Father Rosica.

Instead, the pope views "contrasting positions held together in tension, loyal to fundamentals but open to the action of the Holy Spirit," as necessary in forging "a new, better consensus." (The text of Father Rosica's speech appears in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, the edition dated May 26.)

2. Accountability in the Blogosphere

Pope Francis wants communicators to build bridges that connect people, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica told the Brooklyn Diocese's May 11 Catholic Media Conference. But he asked: "How do we become agents and vehicles of tenderness and mercy? Or do we simply contribute to the acrimony, division, vengeance, condemnation and hatred present in so many parts of the world?"

The church today "must go out and encounter human beings who, even though they believe that they do not need to hear a message of salvation, often find themselves afraid and wounded in life," the priest said.

Those working in Catholic media and broadcasting, he said, are called to be instruments and agents "of peace by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding onto it, by opening paths to dialogue and not by constructing new walls."

What he very much admires about their work, he told them, is that they "have avoided the great temptation in religious communications and broadcasting to remain prisoners of nostalgia, enchained by the past." Instead, he continued, their "activities are firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition and pointed to a future of hope."

A serious challenge in the digital universe at this time is that it is one in which "many wars are waged each day and where many wounded souls live, walk or troll," Father Rosica said. He described it as "an immense battleground that needs many field hospitals set up to bind wounds and reconcile warring parties."

Father Rosica did not temper his comments on the blogosphere in which numerous Catholics make their views known. "In the wild, crazy world of the blogosphere, there is no accountability, no code of ethics and no responsibility for one's words and actions," he noted.

"If we judged our identity based on certain 'Catholic' websites and blogs on the Internet," he insisted, "we would be known as the people who are against everyone and everything!" However, "if anything, we should be known as the people who are for something, something positive that can transform lives, and engage and impact the culture."

Father Rosica protested that "the character assassination on the Internet by those claiming to be Catholic and Christian has turned it into a graveyard of corpses strewn all around." He urged his audience to pray for those whose sad or angry writings fill such a blogosphere - pray "for their healing and conversion."

3. Bring Civility to Political Conversations

If you wanted to come up with a single word to characterize the 2016 political conversation in America, "civility" almost certainly would not be that word. But in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati a campaign is under way to promote civility in conversations between people whose viewpoints differ, particularly in political matters.

The campaign is called "Civilize It." In unveiling this effort, the archdiocese's Catholic Social Action Office stressed that respectful dialogue can occur among people of differing political views.

Materials related to the Civilize It campaign can be found online at www.civilizeit.us. The campaign includes a three-part pledge that states:

"I pledge:

"1. Civility. To reflect respect, to throw no stones and to rise above it.

"2. Clarity. To align my political point of view with my formed conscience.

"3. Compassion. To encounter others with a tone and posture that say, 'I see dignity and goodness in you.'"

An explanation of goals precedes the pledge. The discussion begins, "We've all experienced it" -- perhaps with "a Facebook post, a family dinner, a water cooler conversation that suddenly turns political with opposing viewpoints." What happens? "You might get angry. You may go silent."

Civilize It, however, "is about making room in your heart and speaking peacefully with those with whom you disagree." The campaign challenges participants to "imagine what would happen if aggressiveness were transformed into openness and confrontations were turned into thoughtful conversations."

The website describes Civilize It as "a nonpartisan movement and a call for all of us to help change the tone, follow our faith and quiet the quarrels in our day-to-day lives."

The campaign has nothing to do, however, with downplaying firmly held beliefs. The website presents an article on "Civil Discourse" by Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who points out that "a wise and ancient Catholic maxim has always insisted that we are to 'hate the sin and love the sinner.'"

The cardinal says that "at the heart of this time-honored wisdom is the simple recognition that some things are wrong and yet we still distinguish between what is done and who does it." He expressed concern about a "tendency to disparage the name and reputation, the character and life of a person because he or she holds a different position."

Tony Stieritz, director of Catholic social action in the Cincinnati Archdiocese told Catholic News Service that the Civilize It campaign is rooted in Pope Francis' message to the U.S. Congress last September. "What Pope Francis is trying to consistently tell us is that we're about evangelization, we're not on the defensive. We've got to see how the Holy Spirit is actively working in the other person's life," Stieritz said.

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

On Praying: "Prayer is a conversation in which there is a time to speak, to listen and to remain in silence. There will be times when nothing happens at all, when prayer seems empty and Scripture doesn't speak to us, as though God had just disappeared. But St. Paul tells us to persevere. Our willingness to remain there and be available, no matter what we may 'feel' or not, is enough." (From "Five Easy Tips to Change the Way You Pray," by Emilie Callan, a producer at the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto, Ontario. The article appeared May 17 in the Salt and Light blog - www.saltandlighttv.org.)

New Understanding of Human Unity: "Today the numbers of those who are fleeing from war and persecution are on the increase, and the level of solidarity is often inadequate. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is almost the 'national anthem' of this Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, we see two figures of officialdom turning their eyes away and passing by in the presence of a fellow human being in distress. Interestingly, in that parable we are told absolutely nothing about who the man was that was wounded on the roadside. Why is this? Because there is no need for us to know any particulars; it is sufficient that he was a fellow human being in distress. The Christian faith can never be a passing-by culture when faced with distress. . . . Pentecost . . . reminds us that faith in Jesus involves a new understanding of the unity of humankind in Jesus Christ." (From a Pentecost 2016 homily by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland.)

Care for the Mentally Ill: "Not only can mental illness bring profound suffering to those who experience it and to their families; it can also cause painful isolation when friends and strangers don't know what to say or what to do to help. One thing is certain: Your friends and loved ones who suffer mental illness are your treasures. Precisely because you love them, precisely because they are your very own, you see their human dignity clearly and long for healing, understanding and welcome. . . . Many advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness, but much remains to be done. Many of our homeless and those in prisons are there because of mental illness and might not have met such hard times had adequate treatment been available to them. We have to remind our legislators to budget sufficiently for this care in recognition of the value and dignity of the mentally ill. And we who are their brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to reach out as we can -- in love and compassion, in understanding and acceptance, in practical care and attentiveness. They, too, have gifts to place at the feet of the Lord. Not only does the Lord treasure them and their gifts -- the church is not complete without them." (From an April 28 column by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle for the Northwest Catholic, Seattle's archdiocesan newspaper.)

5. New Priests Fashioning New Dreams

Most of those ordained to the priesthood or about to be ordained long harbored a dream of become a priest. Speaking to the five men ordained May 21 in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., Bishop Robert Lynch said that "throughout formation we sometimes made it through the more challenging and darker moments by dreaming of our ordination day or our first Mass or our own image of what kind of shepherd we might ultimately become."

In remarks that day, however, Bishop Lynch urged those being ordained to refashion their dream. "You need to begin to fashion new dreams in which you see yourselves" as good shepherds of God's people, he said. For what they were becoming that day was "far deeper, richer, transforming than what you have dreamed you might be."

The dream of Pope Francis for priests, Bishop Lynch said, is that they will "become so attracted and attached to Jesus, the Good Shepherd," that they will be "guided by his words" and "see how he acts" and "have his same sentiments" - sentiments which include "humility, mercy, closeness to others, but also a firm rejection of hypocrisy, duplicity and idolatry."

The bishop stated that "Francis is redrafting the dream of priesthood," which "is far from an office of privilege for the ordained, but rather a privilege which through ordination allows us to be Christ" to others. And who are those others? Bishop Lynch mentioned some of them, including:
  • "The terrified immigrant father and mother facing deportation."

  • "The confused and wounded young mother who has chosen to take the life within her womb for fear of being unable to care for the child once born."

  • "The condemned prisoner on death row or the overnight visitor to the county jail who has been arrested for a DUI or a lesser offense."
There are "pastoral realities which must reshape the dream of how we are to become" good shepherds, the bishop suggested. Thus, a priest may be called "to promise a parent that their parish will work hard to improve literacy at the miserably failing local public schools their children are attending."

Again, a priest may need "to comfort a dad who has just lost his job," saying "that while searching for new employment we will work to retain his children in our parish or diocesan school even though we might be at a loss also of how to make ends meet."

Bishop Lynch remarked that "it is almost the nature of dreams, especially about priesthood, to see us as ministers of the sacraments."Indeed, he added, "that is an essential part of the job description of today's priest." But he said that "in several waking hours" a priest can accomplish that.

So the bishop asked, "What are you going to do in the remaining time -- wait for the phone to ring or the doorbell to sound?" He said:

"Pope Francis calls us to dream of using more of our time as good shepherds in a different way -- as ministers of God's mercy, taking the initiative to seek out the lost, recapture and reclaim the disenchanted and disenfranchised, to get dirty in the hubris of daily living by giving special attention to the poor, to the lonely, to the forgotten, to the angry."

6. A Grand Imam Meets the Pope

"Terrorism exists, but Islam has nothing to do with terrorism," said Ahman el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar University, a leader among the world's Sunni Muslim universities. The grand imam spoke during an interview at the Vatican after his May 23 meeting with Pope Francis.

The grand imam said that "those who kill Muslims and who also kill Christians have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence." It is important, he added, not to "blame religions because of the deviations of some of their followers, because in every religion there exists a deviant faction that raises the flag of religion to kill in its name."

The grand imam's visit with Pope Francis represented the renewal of a relationship with the Vatican. A dialogue established in 1998 between al-Azhar University and the Vatican became unsettled in 2006 after a speech by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg, Germany.

Al-Azhar officials felt that the Regensburg speech linked the religion of Islam, as such, with violence. But the Vatican insisted absolutely that this was not in any way the intention of the pope's scholarly speech.

Then, in 2011, Al-Azhar halted the dialogue after the Vatican called attention to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. The Muslim officials felt the suffering of Muslims in the Middle East was being slighted. In his interview at the Vatican May 23, the grand imam commented that "there are more Muslim than Christian victims" of persecution in the Middle East, but that "we all suffer this catastrophe together."

St. John Paul II, during a visit to Egypt in 2000, became the first pope to visit the grand imam of al-Azhar. Then, in his May 23 visit, Ahman el-Tayeb became, in his own words, "the first sheikh of Al-Azhar to visit the Vatican and to sit alongside the pope in an encounter of discussion and understanding."

In his interview he stressed his conviction that "the moment has arrived for the representatives of the divine religions to participate strongly and in a concrete way to give humanity a new direction, toward mercy and peace, so that humanity can avoid the great crisis we are suffering now."

For, he said, "man without religion constitutes a danger to his fellow man, and I believe that people now, in the 21st century, have started to look around and to seek out wise guides to lead them in the right direction."