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August 23, 2016

U.S. bishop to head new Vatican family-laity-life office -
When violence becomes commonplace -
Poverty, joblessness, despair this Labor Day

In this edition:
1. Poverty this Labor Day.
2. Exploiting the poor politically.
3. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Violence and communication.
b) The world's uncertainty.
4. When violence is commonplace.
5. Ignoring the reality of violence.
6. U.S. bishop heads new Vatican office.
7. Roles of the new Vatican office.

1. Joblessness and Despair This Labor Day

Millions of families "find themselves living in poverty, unable to work their way out" in today's America, and "poverty rates among children are alarmingly high," Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski writes in the annual statement for Labor Day issued by the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, which he chairs.

The message calls attention to the "deep trials" families face both in the worlds of work and family life, and the risk of despair these trials carry. The life of Christ should lead Christians to commit themselves to building the common good, which demands respect for the dignity of every person and of work, it affirms.

Familiar signs of the financial difficulties families face include "stagnant wages, industry leaving towns and cities behind, and the sharp decline in the rate of private-sector organized labor," Archbishop Wenski says.

He notes new research "showing the acute pain of middle and rural America in the wake of the departure of industry. Once the center of labor and the promise of family-sustaining wages, research shows these communities collapsing today, substance abuse on the rise and an increase in the number of broken families."

Americans who lack a higher education face "lowered economic prospects," and this has "a direct impact on family health and stability," he writes. "For example, over half of parents between the ages of 26 and 31 now have children outside of a marriage, and research shows a major factor is the lack of middle-skill jobs -- careers by which someone can sustain a family above the poverty line without a college degree - in regions with high income inequality."

He says that "divorce rates and the rate of single-parent households break down along similar educational and economic lines." The Rust Belt region, he observes, "now appears to have the highest concentration in the nation of drug-related deaths, including from overdoses of heroin and prescription drugs."

2. Political Exploitation of Human Desperation

Archbishop Wenski's Labor Day message takes issue with the exploitation by political leaders of people facing severe economic difficulties. In looking for answers to present realities, "we gain less confidence from many of our political leaders these days," he writes. "Instead of dialogue and constructive solutions that bring people together, we see increasing efforts to divide as a means to gain support."

He adds, "When our leaders ought to be calling us toward a vision of the common good that lifts the human spirit and seeks to soothe our tendencies toward fear, we find our insecurities exploited as a means to further partisan agendas." However, "our leaders must never use anxiety as a means to manipulate persons in desperate situations or to pit one group of persons against another for political gain."

Instead, fear needs to be replaced by "a fuller vision that can be powerfully supported by our faith."

One response is to look on the local level "to our neighbors in need, our brothers and sisters who may be without sufficient work for their families and offer them help." What kind of help?

Archbishop Wenski points to help that "may take the form of food, money, counsel, friendship, spiritual support or other forms of love and kindness." He writes, "We ought to expect this kind of engagement from Christians in the midst of our difficulties, and we should pray to find ways to provide it as members of the church."

Furthermore, he asks employers "to respect the dignity" of employees "through a just wage and working conditions that allow for a secure family life."

"Simply put," he says, "we must advocate for jobs and wages that truly provide a dignified life for individuals and their families, and for working conditions that are safe and allow for a full flourishing of life outside of the workplace."

The archbishop comments that "unions and worker associations, while imperfect, remain an essential part of the effort, and people of faith and good will can be powerful leaven to ensure that these groups, so important in society, continue to keep human dignity at the heart of their efforts."

In times like this, Archbishop Wenski states, the church "seeks to replace desperation and isolation with human concern and true solidarity, reaffirming the trust in a good and gracious God who knows what we need before we ask him."

3. Current Quotes to Ponder

Violence, a Communication Breakdown: "We live in a time in which we kind of separate ourselves out, sometimes by where we live, but an awful lot through our electronics. . . . My guess is [that your last 10 text messages, phone calls or emails] were from people who look like you, who think like you, who live like you, who pray like you. . . . We have isolated ourselves, and we have lost the power of conversation across these boundaries that we have made throughout our country and in this place and in this city. . . . I think when communications break down, we turn to violence, and when communications are almost impossible we divide ourselves completely into us vs. them. . . . As we respond to God's call to be here today, we have to nuance how we communicate with one another. . . . We need to go back home and take a look at those texts and phone calls and emails, and decide we are going to go beyond the circle and go beyond those who like us or have unliked us. . . . We at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have a holy moment in which we are called to bridge the gaps, whether they are real or imagined, in our society. We can do this. We are the ones who are called to be bridges." (From a Milwaukee Catholic Herald newspaper report on a homily by Father Bob Stiefvater at Milwaukee's All Saints Parish, where he is pastor, during an Aug. 18 Mass of Peace. The Mass was celebrated five days after fires raged in an area of the city during unrest after the Aug. 13 killing by a police officer of a black man said to be armed and who fled after a traffic stop.)

Charting One's Course in an Uncertain World: "For some time social commentators have insisted that the key characteristic of our world today is that of uncertainty. They have been quite certain of that! But in recent times the depth of that uncertainty has been made clear. Ask the people of Nice. Ask the people of Baghdad or the people of Istanbul. There is economic uncertainty and so much political uncertainty. . . . This is the world in which you will grow to maturity and to which your contribution will be important. It is an uncertain world, so it is surely important for you to have a good compass by which to steer your course, a sense of direction or inner stability. . . . Each [person] needs something that goes beyond a proven competence, a tutored capacity for reasoning, study and conclusion. We also need something that recognizes and arises from our spirit, and by that I mean at least our capacity for courage, for daring, for compassion, for love. I mean our anger at injustice and our instinct for what is right. I mean our readiness to forget our own immediate advantage and to respond to the needs of another." (Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, speaking July 20 during a commencement ceremony at the University of Liverpool)

4. When Violence Becomes Commonplace

It is "an almost universal expression of reverence" to lower "a nation's flags to half-staff at the death of a hero or an important public figure," or "in the face of a great tragedy," Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory wrote in an Aug. 4 column for The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the archdiocese. However, he said, "we have had to employ this particular gesture far too often recently."

Speaking of violence in the U.S. involving the killing of black individuals by police officers and the killing of police officers themselves, as well as other recent incidents, the archbishop said:

"Such violence lately has become so commonplace that we risk being desensitized to the brutal killings of persons of color, of police and first responders, of innocent bystanders or members of the LGBTQ community in clubs, young students in schools, shoppers in malls and folks just watching a movie at a cinema."

Concerns about violence and racial tension across the U.S. prompted Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to create a task force in mid-July headed by Archbishop Gregory to help bishops engage the challenge.

"As a society we must come together to address the lingering evil of racism, the need to safeguard our citizens from the present danger of extremism and the overall breakdown of civility," said Archbishop Kurtz.

Archbishop Gregory insisted in his column that Catholic faith and love of country "compel us to resolve to address the issues that lie beneath these acts of violence. We must be committed to work for racial harmony and justice for every person, to restore the proper dignity that must belong to those men and women who serve us as first responders, to renew our respect for all human life, to understand more fully the mercy of God that we have received and are called to extend to all others."

Violence of the kinds witnessed recently can be "the result of unbridled hatred, either ideologically inspired or as the result of severe mental depravity or perhaps a combination of the two," the archbishop commented.

Guns are part of the problem, he suggested. The violence "has been made more frequent and horrible by the proliferation of guns because of our apparent inability to balance the right to bear arms with measures to ensure that unstable personalities do not have easy access to them."

The lowering of flags in recognition of "dreadful events" that have occurred has been witnessed "from Orlando to Nice, from Dallas to Baton Rouge," he noted.

However, he said, "if our serious resolve to address the roots of violence is absent from this gesture, then we have done a disservice to both the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: 'one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'"

5. "Tired" Responses Ignore Reality of Violence

The horrors of violence now witnessed in the U.S. and the world often are "met with the same tired phrases of shock and outrage, and now routine expressions of sympathy," Bishop Peter Libasci of Manchester, N.H., observed in a July 17 message to the diocese.

"One would think that by now there would be a clear sense that an ongoing expression of evil is present in our time, and that individual and collective sin not only allow this but foster its spread," he said. But "reflexive responses ignore this reality."

Individual Catholics and the entire church "must do more," Bishop Libasci said. He asked every Catholic in the diocese "to engage in an act of solidarity in faith" by observing a day of fast and partial abstinence Aug. 12 and, for example, by participating in the feast of the Assumption Aug.15, though because it fell on a Monday this year the feast was not a holy day of obligation.

Urging Catholics to pray the rosary that day, the bishop said that "historically, the rosary is prayed during times of war and unrest as a special appeal to the Virgin Mary for peace."

Expressing alarm at the "calamity in our streets and the rampant seething of perverse evil in our world," the bishop urged Catholics to join "in solidarity of faith for reparation for the sins that have brought us to this deteriorating condition of war and civil unrest."

He wrote, "These sins are many and personal, and I ask everyone to join this communal penance to make amends and especially to pray for the conversion of hardened hearts."

Bishop Libasci's message also addressed "religious leaders of all persuasions and all people of good will," inviting them "to join with their respective communities or, in the interior recesses of their hearts, to unite with us in observing these days as special opportunities for introspection and commitment to healing by putting our 'best selves' forward and leaving all darkness of thought, word and deed behind."

He made this request, he explained, "in the sincere hope that through such gestures we may come to a fuller understanding that despite differences in culture, background and experience, we are all made in the image and likeness of God and worthy of respect." Thus, he continued, "let us encourage one another in faith and let us gather together in this moment as a visible sign of hope in our world."

6. U.S. Bishop to Head New Vatican Office

Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, a bishop familiar to readers of this online newsletter, soon will head to Rome where he will head the Vatican's new office for laity, family and life. The new dicastery will combine responsibilities formerly held by the pontifical councils for the family and for the laity.

Statutes for the new dicastery published by the Vatican in June made clear that it was to be headed by a cardinal or a bishop, would have a secretary (the person second in command), "who may be a layperson," and three undersecretaries who will be laypeople.

Bishop Farrell said he views the new post as "a great challenge," especially in light of the recently published apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family by Pope Francis titled "The Joy of Love." He noted, too, that his responsibilities will encompass the promotion of lay ministry and ensuring that "lay people take their rightful place in the church" and in the world.

When the apostolic exhortation was released last spring, Bishop Farrell commented on it in his blog on the Dallas diocesan website, where in the period that followed he continued to discuss it.

"There are those who will be disappointed with this document" and "some who feel it does not go far enough in addressing the hopes of those in irregular marriages," while others will "feel it compromises traditional teaching," he wrote. However, he said, "in my opinion it reflects the call of Jesus to his church to continue his healing and saving mission."

In mid-August Pope Francis issued a brief apostolic letter formally establishing the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. He said the office is intended to respond "to the situations of our age and adapt to the needs of the universal church."

The church needs to show special care and concern for the laity, families and the sacredness of human life, the pope wrote in the letter released Aug. 17. He said, "We want to offer them support and help so that they would be active witnesses of the Gospel in our age."

7. Roles of New Dicastery for Family and Laity

Statutes for the new Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life published in June noted that it will be "divided into three sections: one for the lay faithful, one for family and one for life."

The section for the lay faithful will help the laity "to become more aware of their shared responsibility, by virtue of their baptism, for the life and mission of the church." This section of the dicastery has a duty "to discern, encourage and promote the vocation and mission of the lay faithful in the church and in the world."

The section of the dicastery for the family will, according to the statutes, promote "pastoral care of the family," as well as the "dignity and good rooted in the sacrament of marriage." It will support "the rights and responsibilities of the family in the church and in civil society so that the institution of the family can better carry out its proper function in both the ecclesial and social setting."

According to the statutes, this section also will discern "the signs of the times" and consider "the best way the family can face with confidence and Gospel wisdom the challenges that confront it" and "apply, at this moment in history and in today's society, God's plan for marriage and the family."

Finally, the section of the dicastery devoted to life issues will support and coordinate "initiatives that foster responsible procreation, as well as the protection of human life from conception until natural death, keeping in mind the needs of the person in the various phases of human development."

It also will promote and encourage "organizations and associations that help women and families to accept and protect the gift of life, especially during difficult pregnancies, and to prevent recourse to abortion," and also support "programs and initiatives aimed at helping women who have had an abortion."