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November 27, 2016

The church, immigrants and the U.S. president-elect -
New U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on racism planned -
Creating a culture of mercy

In this edition:
1. Year of mercy concludes.
2. A culture of mercy.
3. Quoting "Misericordia et Misera."
a) A revolution of mercy.
b) Ministry of confession.
c) Forgiving procured abortion.
d) Mercy and families.
4. Immigrants and the president-elect.
5. New racism pastoral letter foreseen.
6. Launching fifth U.S. Encuentro.

1. Year of Mercy Concludes, Yet Continues

The church's Year of Mercy may have concluded Nov. 20, but Pope Francis used the occasion to encourage dedicated efforts to keeping the Gospel message of mercy alive in the church and the world.

"Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the church; it constitutes her very existence," the pope said in an apostolic letter titled "Mercy and Misery" ("Misericordia et Misera") issued for the jubilee year's conclusion.

"We have learned that God bends down to us so that we may imitate him in bending down to our brothers and sisters," he wrote. "Now is the time," he insisted, "to unleash the creativity of mercy."

Creativity is vital, he suggested, because "our world continues to create new forms of spiritual and material poverty that assault human dignity." Thus, "the church must always be vigilant and ready to identify new works of mercy, and to practice them with generosity and enthusiasm."

Pope Francis encouraged every effort "to devise specific and responsible ways of practicing charity and the works of mercy." In this context he pointed out that "mercy is inclusive and tends to expand in a way that knows no limits. Hence we are called to give new expression to the traditional works of mercy."

There are many situations today "where we can restore dignity to individuals and make possible a truly humane life," Pope Francis said. He mentioned, for example, "the many children who suffer from forms of violence that rob them of the joy of life."

He wrote: "I keep thinking of [the children's] sorrowful and bewildered faces. They are pleading for our help to be set free from the slavery of the contemporary world."

There also "is no alibi to justify not engaging with the poor, when Jesus has identified himself with each of them," said the pope.

Mercifully restoring human dignity is possible in many other situations too, he made clear:

"Being unemployed or not receiving a sufficient salary;

"Not being able to have a home or a land in which to live;

"Experiencing discrimination on account of one's faith, race or social status:

"These are just a few of the many examples of situations that attack the dignity of the person."

"In the face of such attacks," he said, "Christian mercy responds above all with vigilance and solidarity."

2. Creating a Culture of Mercy

In a culture of mercy, no one would look "at another with indifference" or turn away "from the suffering of our brothers and sisters," Pope Francis commented in "Misericordia et Misera," his apostolic letter for the conclusion of the Year of Mercy. He said, "We are called to promote a culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of encounter with others."

A culture of mercy avoids the temptation of merely theorizing about mercy, according to the pope. Such a culture "urges us not to overlook situations that call for our involvement." And "to the extent that our daily life becomes one of participation and sharing," the "temptation to theorize 'about' mercy can be overcome," he explained.

"Mercy impels us to roll up our sleeves and set about restoring dignity to millions of people," Pope Francis wrote. He said that "by its very nature mercy becomes visible and tangible in specific acts."

In fact, he stressed, "the social character of mercy demands that we not simply stand by and do nothing. It requires us to banish indifference and hypocrisy, lest our plans and projects remain a dead letter."

Consolation is among the faces of mercy, Pope Francis said. It conveys a "word of hope . . . to all those who experience suffering and pain."

"All of us need consolation because no one is spared suffering, pain and misunderstanding," he wrote. So much pain "can be caused by a spiteful remark born of envy, jealousy or anger!" Moreover, "great suffering is caused by the experience of betrayal, violence and abandonment," and profound sorrow is experienced in the face of a loved one's death.

Consolation in these kinds of situations may be expressed with "a reassuring word, an embrace that makes us feel understood, a caress that makes us feel love, a prayer that makes us stronger." Pope Francis said that "all these things express God's closeness."

The greatness of mercy is the way it nourishes hope and allows a person to look to the future confidently, the pope indicated. Here he mentioned Jesus' encounter in the Gospel with a woman considered an adulteress (Jn 8:1-11). "This page of the Gospel," he said, "could easily serve as an icon of what we have celebrated during the Holy Year."

"Jesus looked that woman in the eye and read in her heart a desire to be understood, forgiven and set free," the pope commented. Jesus' compassionate love and mercy will help this woman "to look to the future with hope and to make a new start in life."

3. Quoting the Pope as Year of Mercy Ends

Works of Mercy Initiate Cultural Revolution: "The works of mercy are 'handcrafted,' in the sense that none of them is alike. Our hands can craft them in a thousand different ways, and even though the one God inspires them, and they are all fashioned from the same 'material,' mercy itself, each one takes on a different form. The works of mercy affect a person's entire life. For this reason, we can set in motion a real cultural revolution, beginning with simple gestures capable of reaching body and spirit, people's very lives. This is a commitment that the Christian community should take up, in the knowledge that God's word constantly calls us to leave behind the temptation to hide behind indifference and individualism in order to lead a comfortable life free of problems." (From "Misericordia et Misera," No. 20.)

Ministry of Confession: "I invite priests once more to prepare carefully for the ministry of confession, which is a true priestly mission. I thank all of you from the heart for your ministry, and I ask you to be welcoming to all, witnesses of fatherly love whatever the gravity of the sin involved, attentive in helping penitents to reflect on the evil they have done, clear in presenting moral principles, willing to walk patiently beside the faithful on their penitential journey, far-sighted in discerning individual cases and generous in dispensing God's forgiveness. Just as Jesus chose to remain silent in order to save the woman caught in adultery from the sentence of death, so every priest in the confessional should be open-hearted, since every penitent is a reminder that he himself is a sinner, but also a minister of mercy." ("Misericordia et Misera," No. 10.)

Confessing an Abortion: "I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the extraordinary holy year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary. I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God's mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation." (From "Misericordia et Misera," No. 12.)

Mercy and Families: "The journey of life that leads a man and a woman to meet one other, to love one another and to promise mutual fidelity before God is often interrupted by suffering, betrayal and loneliness. Joy at the gift of children is accompanied by concern about their growth and education, and their prospects for happiness and fulfillment in life. The grace of the sacrament of marriage not only strengthens the family to be a privileged place for practicing mercy, but also commits the Christian community and all its pastoral activity to uphold the great positive value of the family. This Jubilee Year cannot overlook the complexity of the current realities of family life. The experience of mercy enables us to regard all human problems from the standpoint of God's love, which never tires of welcoming and accompanying." (From "Misericordia et Misera," No. 14.)

4. The Church, Immigrants and the President-elect

"Serving and welcoming people fleeing violence and conflict in various regions of the world is part of our identity as Catholics," and the church will continue this life-saving tradition," Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle said Nov. 11 in a statement congratulating U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on his Nov. 8 election victory. Bishop Elizondo chairs the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee on Migration.

The president-elect's campaign spoke often about immigration and placed in doubt the status of many immigrant families in the U.S., whether from Latin America, Syria or various other parts of the world. Against this background, Bishop Elizondo offered "a special word to migrant and refugee families living in the United States," assuring them of "our solidarity and continued accompaniment" as they "work for a better life."

Today, welcoming refugees and providing "freedom from persecution" for them is a more acute need than ever. "We stand ready to work with a new administration to continue to ensure that refugees are humanely welcomed, without sacrificing our security or our core values as Americans," said Bishop Elizondo.

The U.S. bishops "believe the family unit is the cornerstone of society, so it is vital to protect the integrity of the family," the bishop stated. This is a reminder, he added, "that behind every 'statistic' is a person who is a mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother and has dignity as a child of God."

The bishops pray, he said, "that as the new administration begins its role leading our country, it will recognize the contributions of refugees and immigrants to the overall prosperity and well-being of our nation." He pledged that the bishops "will work to promote humane policies that protect refugees' and immigrants' inherent dignity, keep families together, and honor and respect the laws of this nation."

5. New Pastoral on Racism Urgently Needed

Current plans call for the U.S. Catholic bishops to publish a pastoral letter on race relations in 2018 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But during the bishops' Nov. 14-16 national meeting in Baltimore, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta encouraged the bishops also to consider issuing another, briefer message on racism sooner than that.

It is important, he suggested, to take into account the "postelection uncertainty and disaffection."

The archbishop urged the Administrative Committee of the national conference of bishops, "given the urgency of the present moment," to "do all it can to expedite the drafting and approval of the statement on racism currently contemplated" by the 2017-2020 strategic plan on conference priorities, which was approved during the bishops' meeting.

And he urged the president of the bishops' conference and relevant committees to "identify opportunities for a shorter-term statement on these issues."

It will not, of course, be the U.S. bishops' first pastoral letter on racism. In fact, the 2018 pastoral will arrive nearly 40 years after publication of the bishops' "Brothers and Sisters to Us," the1979 national pastoral letter emphatically labeling racism a sin and an evil.

"Racism is a sin," it said - "a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father."

"Brothers and Sisters to Us" referred to racism as "the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights."

The 1979 pastoral said that racism "mocks the words of Jesus: 'Treat others the way you would have them treat you' (Mt. 7:12). Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the incarnation."

Earlier in 2016, as a number of local communities in the U.S. dealt with tensions, protests and violence surrounding incidents that resulted in the killing of black men by police officers, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, established a task force to explore ways of promoting peace and healing in the nation. He called on Archbishop Gregory to head this task force.

Archbishop Gregory delivered a report to the U.S. bishops during their November Baltimore meeting on the task force's work and consultations. "The church has a tremendous opportunity, and an equally tremendous responsibility, to bring people together in prayer and dialogue to begin anew the vital work of fostering healing and lasting peace" in local communities, he told the bishops.

He cited the importance of solid models of engagement, particularly for at-risk young people, as an important need. In providing feedback from interviews by the task force, as well as an October listening session between bishops and leaders from communities struck by violence and unrest, the archbishop stressed the need for dialogues involving law enforcement, community leaders, young people, activists and community groups as a means of fostering peace in U.S. communities today.

6. Launching Fifth U.S. National Encuentro

The U.S. bishops heard reports on plans for the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry during their fall national meeting in Baltimore. The Encuentro, in a sense, was launched officially during the bishops' meeting.

This Encuentro culminates Sept. 20-23, 2018, with a national gathering in Fort Worth, Texas, but starts up early in 2017 with local-level, preparatory gatherings, to be followed later by regional gatherings.

"The Encuentro seeks to acknowledge and value the specific gifts that Hispanic Catholics have offered, and continue to offer, to the church in your country," Pope Francis said in a video presentation for the bishops on the upcoming Encuentro.

"Our great challenge," the pope commented, "is to create a culture of encounter, which encourages individuals and groups to share the richness of their traditions and experiences, to break down walls and to build bridges."

The pope said that "the church in America, as elsewhere, is called to 'go out' from its comfort zone and to be a leaven of communion -- communion among ourselves, with our fellow Christians and with all who seek a future of hope."

Pope Francis observed that the church in the U.S. throughout its history "has welcomed and integrated new waves of immigrants" and that "in the rich variety of their languages and cultural traditions, they have shaped the changing face of the American church."

The Encuentro's goal is to discern how the church in the U.S. can better respond to the still-growing Hispanic presence in the nation and to help Hispanic Catholics strengthen their identity as Christians. It envisions the development of resources and initiatives to serve Hispanic Catholics in dioceses, parishes, ecclesial movements and other Catholic organizations and institutions, while also promoting the development of Latino leadership within the church.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates that 30.5 million Hispanics and Latinos in the country identify themselves as Catholic. Some 60 percent of U.S. Catholic youths less than 18 years of age are of Hispanic/Latino heritage. The Encuentro hopes especially to engage Latino young people and families, and invite them to get involved actively in their parishes and in society.

"Hispanics/Latinos are a great gift to the church and society in the United States," and the coming Encuentro "is designed to engage, embrace and empower that gift," said Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, Texas. He chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church.