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January 13, 2017

The church's "greatest challenge" now -
Upcoming synod to hear voices of youth -
Race relations and the church

In this edition:
1. The church and race relations.
2. The church's "greatest challenge" now.
3. Voices of youth: Next world synod.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) CRS and climate change.
b) Suicide prevention.
5. Migrants: Pope to diplomats.
6. A renewed culture of encounter.

1. The Church and Race Relations: Report

The Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities established last July by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report Jan. 5 recommending that bishops convene members of their local communities "for conversations on race, violence, policing, incarceration and the like."

The report says that "the convening power of the church, which was indicated and lifted up by many, is a powerful tool to begin the process of understanding, give voice to past and current pain and difficulty, and begin healing."

During a listening session the task force conducted Oct. 11 in St. Louis, "participants emphasized that matters of race relations and the evil of racism were central issues to be confronted and addressed." Related to this are "relationships between law enforcement and communities of color, especially in African American communities."

The challenges local communities confront "are complex and interconnected," the report observes. They include "difficulties related to our education systems, poverty, lack of jobs, domestic violence, gun violence, prisons and incarceration, migration and the like."

The report encourages bishops in local communities to "foster opportunities for themselves, their clergy and the faithful to see firsthand the challenges within their own and others' communities." It says that "creating forums and settings in which all are able to experience lived realities, dialogue with individuals and families, and deepen relationships is critical."

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, immediate past president of the national bishops conference, established the task force and called for a national day of prayer, held Sept. 9, "to help bishops and their faith communities to understand, assess and address the multilayered and pervasive challenges associated with race relations in the United States." Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta chairs the task force.

The report urges that the National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities be made a "standing, annual observance."

Establishment of the task force came in the wake of greatly increased tensions between law-enforcement officials and black citizens after a number of controversial police shootings of unarmed black men. Interviews were conducted under task force auspices "with law-enforcement officials to provide their perspectives," according to the report.

It noted that "in the opinion of one law-enforcement official, the Catholic community and church leaders can work to set up community events in various neighborhoods that promote dialogue and give police and the community a chance to sit and talk. They can also hold police departments accountable for the actions of the officers, both good and bad."

Discussing parish-based and internal diocesan conversations and training in issues related to race relations, the report observes that "clergy and staff will benefit from dialogue meant to explore how the church can plan to be even more active within communities that face tension and race-related strife."

The report says, "By surfacing local realities and discussing collaborative approaches, we can ensure that the church is proactive in building bridges and providing constructive forums for engagement by all people." In fact, it adds, "bishops may wish to explore intercultural competence trainings for staff and parishioners."

2. Church's "Greatest Challenge" Today

The church's "greatest challenge" today is "the chasm between faith and life," Cardinal Joseph Tobin said Jan. 6 in a homily during the Mass for his installation as archbishop of Newark, N.J.

Someone asked him recently in a social context to name the church's greatest challenge. He assumed the person expected him to cite "any one of the so-called hot-button issues that dominate the discourse both inside and outside the church" at this point in time.

However, "as noisy and divisive as those questions might be," they don't worry him as much as "a growing trend that seems to isolate us, convincing us to neatly compartmentalize our life, subtly seducing us to go to Mass on Sunday and for the rest of the week do whatever we think we need to do to get by."

Yet, his homily stressed, "faith has everything to do with life - all of life."

The problem is, he commented, that "if we permit the chasm between faith and life to continue to expand, we risk losing Christ, reducing him simply to an interesting idea or a comforting, nostalgic memory. And if we lose Christ, then the world loses the salt, light and leaven that could have transformed it."

"Jesus Christ lives today in his body, the church," said the cardinal. But this body neither is "an elite club nor static container of truth."

Rather, he explained, "the church is a set of interlocking and dynamic relationships among people and with the triune God."

Cardinal Tobin spoke of the church as "the place where believers speak and listen to each other," as well as "the community of faith that speaks with and listens to the world."

He said, "The church senses a responsibility for the world, not simply as yet another institutional presence or a benevolent nongovernmental organization, but as a movement of salt, light and leaven for the world's transformation." That, he added, is why "our kindness must be known to all."

The kindness of the people of the church must, he said, be known "to the searching young and the forgotten elderly, to the stranger and the voiceless, to the powerful and the cynical."

3. Next Synod of Bishops to Hear Youth Voices

So that young people can contribute their voices to a working paper for the October 2018 assembly of the world Synod of Bishops, the Vatican will launch a dedicated website March 1 - www.sinodogiovani.va -- where youths can respond to issues raised in a synod preparatory document released Jan. 13.

In a letter to young people also released Jan. 13, Pope Francis formally announced the upcoming synod's theme, "Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment."

The church wants to hear "your voice, your sensitivities and your faith; even your doubts and your criticism," Pope Francis told young people. "Make your voice heard," he wrote. "Let it resonate in communities, and let it be heard by your shepherds of souls."

He said that a better world can be built "as a result of your efforts, your desire to change and your generosity." The letter exhorts youths not to fear listening "to the Spirit who proposes bold choices" and not to "delay when your conscience asks you to take risks in following the Master."

Here are just a few of the many questions the synod preparatory document poses to youths and others:

"What are the main challenges and most significant opportunities for young people in your country/countries today?"

"What kinds and places of group gatherings of youth, institutionalized or otherwise, have a major success within the church and why?"

"What kinds and places of group gatherings of youth, institutionalized or otherwise, have a major success outside the church and why?"

"What do young people really ask of the church in your country?"

"In a world which is greatly secularized, what pastoral activities are most effective for continuing the journey of faith after the sacraments of Christian initiation?"

4. Current Quotes to Ponder:

Catholic Relief Services Concern About Climate Change: "The climate for climate change is likely to be different in the Trump administration. But both lessening and adapting to rising temperatures and altered weather patterns have become so ingrained in the work of relief and development agencies, they will certainly continue this work no matter what happens in Washington. The same is true for their private sector partners: Climate change 'adaptation and mitigation' are baked into development programs. But will funding be a challenge, especially for poor nations trying to adapt, looking to nations like the U.S. for help? What about policies and regulations? 'Climate change does not need to be controversial -- it has much to do with understanding how communities are being affected by weather and ensuring that we are designing aid that reflects the risk and realities of what's happening on the ground,' said Lori Pearson, senior policy adviser at Catholic Relief Services. 'We need to be listening to our communities and acting on what we hear in order to protect the development gains we've seen.'" (From "Top 5 Humanitarian Stories to Watch in 2017," an article posted on the Catholic Relief Services website: www.crs.org.)

Suicide Prevention: "In 2014 -- the latest year for accurate figures -- there were 42,773 reported suicides in the United States, and that number probably is vastly underreported. Currently, there are approximately 120 suicides a day, and a substantial number are military veterans. Suicide is the only Top 10 cause of death in the United States that is increasing each year, and because of differences in data collection and classification, a substantial number of other deaths, including opiate overdoses and motor vehicle accidents, also are suicides but not counted as such. For every suicide there are at least 25 suicide attempts, and almost 500,000 people a year visit an emergency room to seek care after a suicide attempt. . . . All too often people do not seek medical attention when they are struggling with early signs of mental illness. They may fear being labeled as mentally ill or crazy, or they don't believe anyone can help them. Perhaps they have had previous negative experiences in the health care system or ineffective treatment. . . . In line with the Catholic Health Association's mission, it is vital that we respond with effective interventions and thorough public health education so that no individual feels alone in a struggle against hopelessness and no family carries the painful burden of losing a loved one to suicide. . . . Addressing suicide as a public health issue requires a health care policy strategy that is comprehensive in its scope, compassionate in its delivery and effective in its outcomes." (From "Suicide Prevention: A Public Health Challenge," by Gary Behrman, in the January-February edition of Health Progress, published by the Catholic Health Association of the United States. Behrman is a clinician, educator and consultant specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders and depression in order to lower the risk of suicide.)

5. Migrants and Refugees: Pope's Speech

"Individuals of different nationalities, cultures and traditions can indeed live and work together, provided that the dignity of the human person is placed at the center of their activities," Pope Francis remarked Jan. 9 in his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican.

The concerns his speech addressed ranged from religiously motivated terrorism to the importance of efforts that promote justice and education as building blocks of peace.

A common international effort is needed at this time to offer a dignified welcome to the world's migrants, displaced persons and refugees, the pope told the diplomats. Insisting that migrants always be treated as persons, he said that "there can never be true peace as long as a single human being is violated in his or her personal identity and reduced to a mere statistic or an object of economic calculation."

It is important that the right to emigrate to other nations be recognized and that migrants "be integrated into the societies in which they are received without the latter sensing that their security, cultural identity and political-social stability are threatened," he suggested.

Looking back on the church's recently concluded Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said that only in cultures where "no one looks at another with indifference or turns away from the suffering" of others will it become "possible to build societies that are open and welcoming toward foreigners and at the same time internally secure and at peace."

Among the "enemies of peace" today, Pope Francis said, "is the ideology that exploits social unrest in order to foment contempt and hate, and views others as enemies to be eliminated." But "sadly, new ideologies constantly appear on the horizon of humanity," ideologies that promise "great benefits" but leave, instead, "a trail of poverty, division, social tensions, suffering and, not infrequently, death."

Peace, however, "triumphs through solidarity," the pope concluded.

Turning attention to acts of terrorism, Pope Francis noted that while "every expression of religion is called to promote peace," there is, in fact, "no shortage of acts of religiously motivated violence" today. He considered it sad that religious experience at times, "rather than fostering openness to others," is used "as a pretext for rejection, marginalization and violence."

In "fundamentalist-inspired terrorism," he said, "we are dealing with a homicidal madness that misuses God's name in order to disseminate death in a play for domination and power."

The pope appealed to "all religious authorities to join in reaffirming unequivocally that one can never kill in God's name." Fundamentalist terrorism, he said, "is the fruit of a profound spiritual poverty and often is linked to significant social poverty."

Such terrorism "only can be fully defeated with the joint contribution of religious and political leaders," he said.

In this, religious leaders "are charged with transmitting those religious values which do not separate fear of God from love of neighbor."

Political leaders, at the same time, "are charged with guaranteeing in the public forum the right to religious freedom, while acknowledging religion's positive and constructive contribution to the building of a civil society that sees no opposition between social belonging . . . and the spiritual dimension of life."

Government leaders also are responsible, Pope Francis said, "for ensuring that conditions do not exist that can serve as fertile terrain for the spread of forms of fundamentalism. This calls for suitable social policies aimed at combating poverty."

6. Toward a Renewed Culture of Encounter

"In the days and weeks ahead, there will be intense debate [in the U.S.] over immigration reform and refugee policy," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Jan. 12 in a statement for the Jan. 8-14 National Migration Week. The week is a time when the church reflects on the realities of life for migrants and the church's work in serving and accompanying newcomers.

The ultimate question to raise in this national debate, said the cardinal, is whether the nation will "treat all migrants and refugees, regardless of their national origin or religion, in a way that respects their inherent dignity as children of God."

It hasn't always been easy to achieve the goal of being "one nation under God," the cardinal noted. But he said that each earlier period of immigration ultimately "strengthened our society."

Cardinal DiNardo said that "those who seek to do us harm must be kept from our shores, but those fleeing persecution in need of hope and ready to help us build a better America must be welcomed." It is not necessary to "sink into the darkness of isolation," he insisted.

He pointed to "a humane refugee policy" and "comprehensive immigration reform" as "equally necessary and possible."

Cardinal DiNardo also turned attention to the plight of migrants and refugees in a Jan. 9 message to the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese at the end of the church's Christmas season.

He suggested that the feast days of Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord at the Christmas season's conclusion have a way of calling "our attention as members of Christ's body to those who are afflicted, in need, who [like the Magi] journey to faith, who are refugees and exiles and immigrants."

The "artificial divisions and distinctions between and among us" must not be allowed "to distort our appreciation for the human person," he said. He noted that National Migration Week always occurs in January near these two feast days and added that "welcoming the migrant and the refugee is a major theme of both the Old and New Testament."

Today, "in this sensitive time of a change of federal political administrations," Cardinal DiNardo said he hopes that the church's people will "take action so that we can all experience a renewed culture of encounter with the other in our world."