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July 13, 2008

The church responds to the home-mortgage crisis - Why it matters that we bless people - The makings of a leader - Bread's role in salvation history - Where in the world the church's people will be found in the future

In this edition:
-- How to give a really brief homily.
-- The greatness of a blessing.
-- What tough economic times mean for people: the church's response.
-- The home foreclosure crisis: the church, an advocate for people.
-- Bread's role in salvation history.
-- Three current quotes and insights to ponder: Where in the world will the church's people live in 2025? The future "geography" of priesthood and religious life. Getting the message of a eucharistic congress across.
-- The makings of a good leader.
-- The high cost of fear.

Let's Start on the Light Side: How to Give a Brief Sermon

"One thing I have learned in 60 years is how to deliver a sermon: Have something to say, say it simply, and sit down," Holy Cross Father George Bernard told readers of the summer 2008 edition of Portland magazine, published in Oregon by the Holy Cross Fathers' University of Portland. The magazine carried a brief profile of Father Bernard, "campus legend and theology professor," in which he shared the following story of a brief sermon:

"Shortest sermon I ever gave? I was in Washington, D.C., one time, middle of summer, it was incredibly hot and humid, and I got up and said, 'You think this is hot, imagine how hot it will be if you don't change your ways, and sat down. I hope I have given more inspiring and memorable sermons, but I don't think I can top that for brevity."

A Reason to Bless Others

"Everyone and everything has a dream of itself, a hidden wholeness. When you bless someone, you move them closer to that dream," Rachel Naomi Remen told the Catholic Health Association June 24, the final day of its annual assembly, held this year in San Diego, Calif. Remen said that in blessing others "you offer them a place of refuge from everything that conspires to make them small. To bless someone is to expand them, to remind them of the seed of a greater wholeness in them."

Remen, author of "Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal" (Riverhead Books) is cofounder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, Calif. She told the CHA assembly it is important to remember that compassion is what sustains the world. The assembly's theme was "The Future of Compassion."

A CHA release said that Remen, in her address to the health assembly, accented the difference between "curing" and "healing." Curing is about expertise, the use of technology and the body's physical recovery, she said. But "healing is about the recovery of wholeness. It is not the work of experts, it's the work of human beings." Remen added, "We are all born with the ability to heal one another."

Remen said that "the act of blessing another is a means to a person's healing." She recalled her grandfather once telling her that "each of us can become a blessing; we can bless the life in other people."

Technological advances have enabled human beings to overcome challenges once considered insurmountable, Remen said. But "technology has not made us whole. It's going to take something different to heal the world, something simpler and wiser and older," she insisted. Healing "requires us to remember our power to bless the life in other people." Most of all, Remen added, healing "requires us to remember that it is compassion that sustains the world."

The Toll of Tough Economic Times: The Church Responds to Hurting People

In these tough economic times, an increase is being witnessed by Catholic Charities agencies throughout the U.S. in the number of individuals and families seeking help with handling the threat of foreclosure on their homes, making rent or mortgage payments, purchasing medical prescriptions and food, paying utility bills and in other ways meeting basic needs.

Among those currently seeking such aid are middle-class families, seniors, immigrants and the working poor, according to results of a "snapshot survey" released in June by Catholic Charities USA. At this time, the working poor "are continuing to become poorer" due to big increases in the cost of "gas, food, housing, utilities, etc.," according to Steve Bogus, executive director of Catholic Charities of Louisville, Ky. Fifty-four local Catholic Charities agencies responded to the online survey.

Catholic Charities agencies are seeing every day "the serious toll that dramatic increases in gas, utility and food prices, and the housing crisis are having on families," said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA. He said that more and more people find they must choose between putting food on the table, paying utility bills and making rent or mortgage payments.

The snapshot survey also found that the current situation is straining the capacity of many Catholic Charities agencies to deliver services. Forty-three percent of the agencies that responded to the survey said their food banks were low. More than 50 percent of these agencies reported having to cut programs or staff because revenues were not keeping pace with costs or demand.

"Needing help with food, rent, clothing and prescriptions are all symptoms of much larger problems such as low wages and the lack of affordable housing and health care," said Father Snyder. These problems must be addressed "if we are ever going to cut poverty in our country and create better economic opportunities for all," the Catholic Charities head commented.

The Foreclosure Crisis and the Church

"We get anywhere from 100 to 150 calls a day from people on the verge of losing their homes or renters who are being displaced," said Karen Wallensak, director of a Catholic Charities Housing Resource Center in St. Louis. She was interviewed for a June 23 Catholic News Service report by Brandy Wilson on the church's response to people who stand to lose their homes as a result of the crisis spawned by subprime home-mortgage loans.

CNS reported that the St. Louis center employs 10 housing counselors, each carrying a caseload of 40-60 families. Wallensak said that these counselors were helping, on average, 500 families at any one time.

Wallensak said she advises homeowners to be proactive. "Generally, when people call they are three months behind and on the verge of losing everything," she said. "We counsel not to wait until you are on the verge of losing your home to ask for help. Call if you are one month behind. Call if you know your rate is going to reset and you're not behind. Lenders are more amenable if they see that people are trying to find a solution."

The CNS report also told of parish- and diocesan-based help for people facing foreclosure on their homes. "Churches such as St. Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway, N.Y., even advertise mortgage and financial counseling referrals in their church bulletin," the report said.

Father James Cunningham, pastor of St. Mary Star of the City, as well as of another parish in Far Rockaway, said: "When the information first came out we'd get a small, steady stream of people wanting it. Now just about every week I talk to two or three families."

The Bread of Salvation History

"Bread plays an irreplaceable role in the story of salvation," Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Ga., said in a homily June 21 as the Atlanta Archdiocese's annual eucharistic congress got under way.

Bread is "a staple of life for almost all people living on earth," and this "common substance," which "exists in many and varied forms throughout the human community," serves in the story of salvation "as a symbol of God's bounty and his compassion for his people," said Archbishop Gregory.

In salvation history, bread is such a symbol from the time of the manna provided by God for the Israelites in the desert, to "the bread that Jesus miraculously multiplied on several different occasions in the Gospels, to the eucharistic bread of the Last Supper," the archbishop explained.

When bread "appears in the word of God," it always is "a primary symbol of life itself," Archbishop Gregory said. He stressed, nonetheless, the importance of recognizing the difference between ordinary bread and the Eucharist. For the Eucharist "is not an ordinary food." He said, "This bread does not merely sustain human life" or enhance it; "it is life itself."

An additional point about eucharistic bread is essential, the archbishop indicated: The Eucharist is "a covenant that we enjoy with Christ who feeds us and then requires us to become his very presence in the world in which we live." Thus, "those who dine upon the Eucharist are charged to respond to the needs of those who are still hungry, still neglected, still confused about what really nourishes the heart and the spirit."

Archbishop Gregory said that "if we fail to accept that charge -- that responsibility -- we deny the real presence because we deny the obligations that flow from this cherished treasure that the church enjoys from Christ himself."

Current Quotes and Insights to Ponder

Where in the World Do the People of the Church Live? In 1900, 75 percent of all Catholics were concentrated in North America and Europe; by 2000, about 65.5 percent of the 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide were South American, Latin American, Asian and African, John Allen told the Catholic Health Assembly in San Diego June 22. A CHA report on Allen's address said he projected that by 2025, 75 percent of Catholics will reside in the Southern Hemisphere. Allen, a noted Catholic journalist, lecturer and author, said the Catholic Church's changing global demographics have resulted in a "world church" built on an expanding base of Hispanic and Asian followers. Due to this globalization, church officials are going to need to focus much more greatly on world issues, the speaker predicted.

Priests and Religious of the Future: "The Congregation for Catholic Education in the Vatican has noted that there are more men studying for the priesthood now than at any other time in the church's history. Vocations are booming, but not in the wealthier nations. This is not to disparage the role of the wealthier nations in the Catholic Church of the future. But we will not be providing the bulk of future priests or religious. The center of the church's dynamic growth and focus will no longer be on us. We will have to adjust to this new reality. The church's skin will mostly be brown and it will be black. Nevertheless, we, I believe, will have an important role to play. Like elder sons and daughters, our Western churches will not have the numbers or the vibrancy of youth. But we will have the patience, insight and wisdom of maturity. Our role will be no less important. We must engage in this role with all the energy and enthusiasm we can muster." (Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., speaking on priesthood June 21 in Dublin, Ireland)

Getting the Message Across: A Memory of the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress: "One bishop from the Philippines caught everyone's attention [at the eucharistic congress] when he held up, in turn, a frozen steak to illustrate how a mind frozen in indifference may hear the Gospel but fail to respond since it lacks the fire of the Holy Spirit; a diet soft drink to show how we often imbibe the Gospel message but without gaining from it (I'll never look at my lunchtime Diet Pepsi in quite the same way); and a map to demonstrate how we ask God to show us the way and then point out to him -- on the map we've drawn for our lives -- a map that shows where we want to go." (From the June 23, 2008, blog by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., reporting on the June 2008 International Eucharistic Congress held in Canada's Quebec City)

The Makings of a Good Leader

A good leader "specializes in turning lemons into lemonade," according to Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York. He said:

"When trouble befalls an organization, as it inevitably does from time to time, the leader finds ways to convert challenges into something positive for the organization. Leaders do not whine. Instead, they roll up their sleeves and work to change the situation."

Msgr. Sullivan discussed leadership in an article he contributed to the spring 2008 edition of Charities USA, the magazine of Catholic Charities USA. (Find the entire publication online at www.catholiccharitiesusa.org.) As one might expect, he focused on qualities needed by leaders in Catholic Charities organizations, but much of what he said applies to leaders more broadly.

He cautioned against a tendency in a church organization such as Catholic Charities "to overestimate the value of good intentions and good will." These, he said, "should be seen as only the starting point. They do not feed the hungry or shelter the homeless." A good leader helps his organization turn "good intentions into actual meals served and people housed."

Details - and how to handle them - were a concern that Msgr. Sullivan addressed. "Details can become overwhelming; a good leader must focus on the big picture," he said. At the same time, he added, a good leader "cannot overlook essential details. They can become the cornerstones around which everything else is built or the critical flaw that takes the whole project down."

Good leadership calls for "the ability to see and analyze issues at hand and develop and execute strategies to effectively address them," the Catholic Charities leader wrote. Yet, good leadership "is far more complicated than" that implies.

A leader needs to "build operational consensus," Msgr. Sullivan believes. What is "consensus"? It is "neither unanimity nor majority, but consensus," he wrote, adding: "To put this in terms of numbers, a leader must achieve between 75 percent to 80 percent agreement within a working group to effectively proceed." In the writer's experience, action tends to proceed when eight out of 10 people in a meeting agree upon something.

To be a good leader, a person "must be able to figuratively 'pull the trigger," according to Msgr. Sullivan. He said:

"Inevitably, the right time comes before all the data can be collected and analyzed, and before the window of opportunity fades. Somewhere in that scary abyss between 'rash judgment' and 'paralysis by analysis,' the leader must be able to say, 'Go!'"

And Finally: A Note on the High Cost of Fear

"Fear, in varying degrees, is a constant in our lives and in every life on earth. It can act as a stimulant for positive action, but it can also be one of the most debilitating aspects of our human experience," Bishop John Fleming of Killala, Ireland, said in a June 22 homily he delivered in Dublin.

Fear "saps our energy, limits our vision and undermines our confidence," said Bishop Fleming - and "the list of the reasons for being afraid is as long as a piece of string."

The bishop took note of the fear experienced by those gathered in the Upper Room just before Christ's Ascension. But, the bishop said, when Christ appeared to his disciples there, "he transformed their fear into courage and gave them two gifts: his peace and the strength of the Holy Spirit."

Yet, "the church, which began behind closed doors in a room filled with fear, has grappled with the issue of fear ever since," Bishop Fleming observed. "History has shown us that the circumstances which surrounded its birth have remained with it, in varying degrees."

There is, for example, "fear of a world which is often indifferent and sometimes hostile to the message of faith which we preach." Accompanying this fear is the continuing "temptation to seek refuge behind the security of closed doors and a closed system."

Yet, Bishop Fleming said, "the presence of the risen Lord is still always in the room, opening doors for those ready to walk out into the light of freedom."