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April 14, 2008

The A-B-Cs of Pastoral Planning - Rescuing Religion From Two Current Tendencies - Ministry When Prisoners Go Home - Implementing One Diocese's Parish Reconfiguration Plan - and More!

In this issue:
-- Crossing the border to Yuma's lettuce fields.
-- Ministry when prisoners go home.
-- Compassion for former offenders.
-- Pope Benedict XVI: Helping the incarcerated to rediscover purpose.
-- Current quotes to ponder: the secret of the church; anchoring education in the resurrection; signs of the times.
-- Rescuing religion from two current tendencies: fresh perspectives on interreligious relations.
-- The A-B-Cs of pastoral planning.
-- How one diocese is implementing its parish-reconfiguration plan.

Crossing the Border to the Lettuce Fields of Yuma

Arizona legislators were called upon by the Catholic bishops of Tucson, Ariz., and Mexicali, Mexico, to change state law to require overtime pay for seasonal agricultural workers and to pay workers for the time they spend in transit to and from a job site, as well as for work time lost due to adverse weather conditions. The bishops also called for the strengthening of pesticide safety guarantees to ensure that all workers clearly understand both the risks of pesticides and their own rights to protection.

A dialogue also ought to be initiated with Mexican legislators to determine how best to protect the rights of farmworkers in Mexican fields, according to the two bishops.

Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas and Mexicali Bishop Jose Isidro Guerrero Macias said in a March 28 statement that they wanted to express solidarity both with workers and employers in their dioceses. "Employers and workers alike are anxious for solutions that will provide them safe and legal access to jobs and a guaranteed work force to keep agriculture in the Yuma area strong," the bishops said.

"Our church is attempting to develop a new model of legal, stable and just farm labor in the produce industry in our border region that will benefit workers and employers alike," the bishops said.

The Yuma, Ariz., border region is known as the "winter salad bowl" of the U.S. because it supplies more than 90 percent of lettuce sold in the nation from November through February. This "requires a huge pool of readily available labor," the bishops said. However, recent enforcement of immigration regulations has prevented most workers from crossing the border to work in the Yuma fields, the bishops said, causing "a serious disruption" of this work.

In the face of new sanctions for employers, it has become much more difficult to find enough farmworkers in Arizona, even though workers in Mexico - many of whom would go back and forth across the border daily, returning to their homes at night - are anxious for the opportunity to work but are denied that opportunity.

The bishops have been working in partnership with Catholic Relief Services to expedite the provision of guest-worker visas for workers from Mexico, to address legal requirements that result in excessive absenteeism from the fields or that pose unneeded burdens on employers, to end the exploitation of workers and to link workers in legal ways with trustworthy employers who guarantee fair labor practices.

Ministry When Prisoners Go Home

"There are many things that the community, and particularly churches, can do to help offenders make the transition from prison life to freedom successfully," according to Pat Nolan, a Catholic who is vice president of Prison Fellowship. Writing in the most recent edition of Charities USA, a quarterly publication of Catholic Charities USA, Nolan says that "one of the most important ways to help is to mentor a returning prisoner."

Nolan says that "most inmates do not leave prison transformed into law-abiding citizens. Prisons are, indeed, graduate schools of crime." He notes also that "while approximately three of every four inmates released from prison have a substance-abuse problem, only one in five has received drug treatment."

More than 1,700 offenders return to U.S. neighborhoods every day, Nolan writes. He asks, "What has been done to prepare them to live healthy, productive, law-abiding lives?" Society cannot afford to send prisoners home with little preparation, but "fortunately there are proven ways to increase the likelihood that inmates will return safely to our communities," Nolan comments.

Nolan served for 15 years in the California State Assembly. He also served 29 months in a federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of racketeering in a matter involving a campaign contribution he accepted, according to Prison Fellowship. He is the author of "When Prisoners Return." His Charities USA article titled "650,000 Offenders Returning Home - Should We Care?" appears in the edition for the fourth quarter of 2007.

Expanding on his suggestion that churches consider providing mentors for offenders leaving prison, Nolan writes, "These men and women need relationships with loving, moral people far more than they need any program."

One way for mentors to "show their love to returning inmates is to 'meet them at the gate,' walking with them as they take those first difficult steps in freedom," Nolan says. He observes: "As they move from the very structured environment of prison, in which they had virtually no control over any aspect of their lives, they need someone to provide love, advice and encouragement, and to hold them accountable for their actions."

Finding a good job is essential when prisoners return to the community, Nolan says. In addition to the income a job provides, it "puts offenders into daily contact with the mainstream of the community, forming positive relationships with 'everyday' people." Unemployment, on the other hand, leaves former prisoners with "time on their hands and can often lead them into trouble," he says.

A "fear of rejection by their hometown church is one of the greatest fears many Christian inmates experience" when they are released from prison, according to Nolan. He writes, "A welcoming parish is crucial for returning prisoners who have become Christians in prison."

Compassion for the Former Offender

Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, served at one time as a prison chaplain -- over a period of three years -- in Minnesota. Writing in the Charities USA edition on ministry to prisoners and ex-offenders (Charities USA, fourth quarter, 2007), he says that "showing compassion and extending forgiveness to offenders means that we offer them a second chance - a chance to discover their own humanity and self-worth, to impact for good the lives of those around them and to lead a different kind of life."

Father Snyder says that as a chaplain he was "a symbol of God's love, acceptance and forgiveness." He writes:

"The services that I and other chaplains provided became a vehicle for them to work through the things they had done and find hope again. I was invited into the deepest parts of their souls and saw that these people were just human beings who had made very wrong decisions or to whom life had dealt a very bad hand."

Church teaching "holds justice as a defining value of who we are," Father Snyder says. He adds: "Offenders must be held accountable for their actions, without a doubt. However, justice should always be tempered by compassion and requires that we also practice forgiveness."

Pope Benedict: Helping the Incarcerated Rediscover a Sense of Purpose

Pope Benedict XVI discussed the roles of prison chaplains and of prisons themselves in a speech Sept. 6, 2007, to the World Congress of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care. "Prisoners easily can be overwhelmed by feelings of isolation, shame and rejection that threaten to shatter their hopes and aspirations for the future. Within this context, chaplains and their collaborators are called to be heralds of God's infinite compassion and forgiveness," the pope said.

Prison chaplains, in cooperation with civil authorities, "are entrusted with the weighty task of helping the incarcerated rediscover a sense of purpose so that, with God's grace, they can reform their lives, be reconciled with their families and friends, and insofar as possible assume the responsibilities and duties which will enable them to conduct upright and honest lives within society," the pope told the congress participants. He said also that "when conditions within jails and prisons are not conducive to the process of regaining a sense of worth and accepting its related duties, these institutions fail to achieve one of their essential ends."

(For another report on the September 2007 World Congress of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care, click into this newsletter's archive for its Nov. 15, 2007, edition.)

Current Quotes to Ponder

A Church Secret:

"If you see the church only as an institution then you miss its secret. Its secret is love. That is why it has survived for 2,000 years and still speaks through the faith of 1.3 billion people. Yes, it is true that history shows how often the church can forget what it is. But time and time again, history also shows the church rediscovering its own secret. Often when the politicians have forgotten and the aid workers have gone to the next emergency, it will be the church -- the women and men of faith who continue to work on. In such a church you learn that the greatest freedom comes in the service of others." (Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England, in a March 24, 2008, column in The Guardian newspaper)

Anchored by the Resurrection: "Because the resurrection of Christ is such a fundamental element of our faith, every undertaking meant to convey or strengthen our faith is somehow about the resurrection of Christ. Every aspect of the church's teaching is an exploration and an explicitation of some aspect of the resurrection of Christ. We are followers of the risen Lord, and our whole meaning derives from our association with that risen Lord." (From a March 25 homily by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati during the National Catholic Educational Association convention in Indianapolis)

Signs of the Times:

"[This is] a period of great social, economic and political change, of heightened ethical, cultural and environmental problems and unresolved conflicts between races and nations. Moreover, in our time, communication between peoples is more intense, there are new opportunities for knowledge and dialogue and a livelier exchange on the spiritual values that give meaning to life. The church urgently needs people with a solid and profound faith, an updated cultural training, genuine human sensitivity and a strong pastoral sense. She needs consecrated people who devote their lives to being on these boundaries. Only in this way will it be possible to evangelize effectively." (From the March 31 address by Pope Benedict XVI to the Salesian order's general chapter)

Rescuing Religion From Two Current Tendencies:

A Fresh Perspective on Interreligious Relationships

Religious faith needs to be rescued from two current tendencies that undermine its role of "supporting humanity on its journey to fulfillment," Tony Blair said in a speech April 3 at London's Westminster Cathedral hosted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster. Blair, a former Anglican, was received into the Roman Catholic Church just before Christmas 2007.

-- First, religion needs to be rescued from an "extremist and exclusionary tendency" that is witnessed today, he said.

-- Second, religion needs to be rescued from the view many have of it "as an interesting part of history and tradition, but with nothing to say about the contemporary human condition."

Discussing the first tendency, extremism, Blair pointed to terrorists who attach a religious justification to their own violence. But, he said, religious extremism is not limited to terrorism. Blair explained:

"There are extremists in virtually every religion. And even where there is not extremism expressed in violence, there is extremism expressed in the idea that a person's identity is to be found not merely in their religious faith, but in their faith as a means of excluding the other person who does not share it."

What happens in this case, Blair said, is that rather than serving as a "means of reaching out in friendship" to others, faith becomes "a means of creating or defining enemies."

Blair said he did not intend to suggest "that it is extreme to believe your religious faith is the only true faith. Most people of faith do that." However, he said, this need not stop people from "respecting those of a different faith or indeed of no faith."

So religion needs to be rescued from the notion that it is divisive, Blair proposed, but it also needs to be rescued from the notion among many that it is irrational, or "an interesting part of our history but not of our future," or somehow "removed from the necessities and anxieties of ordinary life." He said, "Too many people see religious faith as represented in stark dogmatism and empty ritualism."

Blair said that a foundation dealing with interreligious relationships that he plans to establish in London this summer - the Tony Blair Faith Foundation - will support people in an exploration of their own religious roots, while also helping them to "discover what they share."

The foundation, Blair added, "will expressly not be about chucking faith into a doctrinal melting pot." Instead, "it is about learning about, living and working with others of a different faith."

Blair believes that people of the world's religions can "reach out to one another, learn to co-exist" and in doing so "play an important part in reducing fear and tension" in our world. Alternatively, however, religion "could be used to bolster, to promote, to intensify the very clash of civilizations we seek to avoid."

The changing world emerging around us "will be immeasurably poorer, more dangerous, more fragile and, above all, more aimless if it is without a strong spiritual dimension," Blair said. He described himself as "passionate" about both "the importance of faith to our modern world and about the need for people of faith to reach out to one another."

The A-B-Cs of Pastoral Planning

To do the work of pastoral revitalization is to take "what is timeless and unchanging" and to apply it "to the new and different circumstances of each time and place and culture," according to Dan Conway, president and CEO of RSI Catholic Services, a consulting firm, and former chief stewardship and development officer for the archdioceses of Louisville, Indianapolis and Chicago. Conway discussed the meaning and goals of pastoral planning in a March 4 address to priests of the Diocese of Orange, Calif.

"Pastoral planning does not mean inventing a new program. But it does require taking the program already present in the Gospel and in Catholic tradition and applying it to the opportunities and challenges of today," Conway told his audience of priests. He said that "to plan is to think through ahead of time a course of action. To build a new church, you need a plan. To minister effectively to an increasingly multicultural community, you need a plan."

Pastoral planning requires "acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses as a community of faith and naming the challenges and opportunities we face as we respond to the Gospel call to discipleship, evangelization and stewardship," Conway said. Pastoral planning begins, he added, with the following questions:

-- "What is our vision as a community of faith?

-- "What is our mission -- who are we called to be and become as disciples of Jesus Christ?

-- "What are our long-term goals?

-- "Where are we headed as a pilgrim people, and what are our priorities for getting there?"

In the end, pastoral planning that is successful has three purposes, according to Conway:

-- "To set a direction for the future and to answer the questions, Where are we going and how will we get there?

-- "To establish priorities (those things which are either essential or urgent in carrying out the church's mission in the circumstances of today) and guide ministries at the parish and diocesan levels.

-- "To exercise responsible stewardship of the church's human, physical and financial resources (her spiritual and temporal gifts)."

The full text of Conway's address appears in the April 10, 2008, edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.

Implementing One Diocese's Parish Reconfiguration Plan

"What is not an option at this time is leaving things alone and hoping for the best. We've tried that for too many years, and it doesn't work," Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden, N.J., said April 3 when he announced a plan to reconfigure parishes in the diocese. The plan calls for the establishment of 38 merged parishes, three parish clusters involving six parishes and 22 stand-alone parishes. When fully implemented, there will be 66 parishes in the diocese, a reduction from the current 124 parishes.

Bishop Galante said the diocese would call upon more than 100 trained facilitators to help pastors and parishioners deal with feelings of loss that may occur as parishes adopt new structures.

It will be essential under the Camden planning initiative to add paid, professional staff at each parish to carry out key ministries and to improve service to the people of the diocese, Bishop Galante said. The reality has been that, as presently configured, many parishes do not have the means to do this, he commented.

His hope, Bishop Galante said, is that the merging and clustering of parishes will lead to parish revitalization by "combining human and financial resources in a way that will allow the newly configured parishes, under the direction of good pastoral leadership and staffing, to better serve the needs of the people."

The Camden announcement followed an extensive consultation over a 15-month period with representatives of each of the diocese's current parishes. Almost 500 parish planners provided input for the bishop.

Population shifts, a decline in religious practice, a reduced number of priests (the diocese projects it will have fewer than 85 diocesan priests available for ministry by 2015) and the need to advance pastoral priorities identified by Catholic parishioners at more than 140 "Speak Up" sessions were among factors leading to the parish reconfiguration decisions. Bishop Galante noted also that the diocese's growing population has become more diverse, with significant Latino, Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese populations requiring pastoral care.