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September 3, 2008

Five ways to serve migrants and refugees - Interpreting new U.S. statistics on poverty - The importance of parish ministry to the already married - Homily preparation -- and much more!

In this edition:
-- How important is parish ministry to the already married?
-- Serving couples as their marriages mature.
-- Five ways to serve migrants and refugees: Hope in action.
-- Current words to ponder: Homily preparation takes time; a note on suffering; why work is sacred.
-- Poverty: Confronting the global reality.
-- Interpreting new U.S. poverty statistics: Catholic Charities perspective.
-- How many live in poverty?

How Important Is Parish Ministry to the Already Married?

The church would do more in the area of ongoing education for already-married couples if parishes had a greater awareness of the need for it, Mary Jo Pedersen suggested in an interview with the editors of U.S. Catholic magazine.

In the interview, published in June, Pedersen said that "some parishes are doing a creative job of supporting marriage" through "classes, days of reflection, marriage programs, couple groups and marriage anniversary celebrations." But she thinks it is "difficult to get parishes to establish ongoing marriage education and support because the awareness isn't raised yet that this is a necessary part of a long-term, satisfying marriage."

Pedersen, a leader in Catholic family ministry, retired recently after serving for 25 years in the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb. Her new book, "For Better, For Worse, For God: Exploring the Holy Mystery of Marriage," will be published by Loyola Press this fall.

Priests receive years of formation before their ordination, and new members of religious orders similarly receive a lengthy formation, Pedersen pointed out. But, she said, a couple entering marriage gets between 12 hours and 20 hours of formation "if couples make an Engaged Encounter." She commented: "That's the formation for 50 years of marriage! It doesn't make sense."

One reason marriage formation ought to be ongoing for couples is that "the challenges of marriage change over time," Pedersen said. She explained that over time, a couple will experience important periods of transition - the birth of their first child, for example, or the departure of the last child from home and the start of the couple's empty-nest years.

Research shows that marital satisfaction for many couples declines after the birth of their first child, Pedersen noted. She said, "At each life stage there has to be another opportunity to do an in-service and to be reminded of the meaning of marriage in the Catholic sense." She proposed that baptismal preparation in parishes be related to a marriage-education effort, thus serving as an opportunity "to nurture the marriage after children."

Serving Couples as Their Marriages Mature

"The union that is marriage is not built overnight," the Canadian Catholic bishops' Commission for Theology says in a newly released pastoral message to young couples titled "What Does Marriage Add to Your Love?"

A recognition that marriage involves an ongoing growth process is among the message's key points. One young couple consulted by the bishops' commission said that while love "is the cause" of marriage, love also continues to be a goal sought by the spouses.

The Canadian bishops' conference formally released its message in September. "Modern life presents many challenges to those yearning for a life-long commitment to their spouse," the message states.

According to the message, "a successful marriage means an 'educational growth process,' to use the words of Pope John Paul II. It will take time to grow in understanding and in the maturity that comes from successfully meeting the challenges of marriage."

The message explains that as a marriage "matures, the spouses learn to esteem and love each other ever more deeply and completely. This requires time, patience, humility, self-renunciation and a spirit of service, support and forgiveness!" In fact, the message says, "a couple's fidelity, trust and freedom thrive over time in a committed relationship."

Actually, the message says, this reality about marriage - that it entails a maturing process - is among reasons the church considers the indissolubility of marriage so essential. The message puts it this way:

"The indissolubility of the bond, far from being a prison, is the condition that enables couples to persevere against headwinds and to invest the best of themselves in this lifelong relationship. Remaining together allows a married couple to experience greater inner freedom in the face of all obstacles, in the communion of heart and body that is at the center of this commitment."

Five Ways to Serve Migrants and Refugees: Putting Hope Into Action

Five steps the church and its people can take to give hope to immigrants in the U.S. were outlined by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles when he spoke July 28 to the National Migration Conference in Washington. The conference was co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services.

"The church must remain a source of hope for all those who seek protection or search for a better life for themselves and their families," Cardinal Mahony said. But he insisted that hope "involves action." He said, "Hope is not wishing for something without working for it." Rather, citing Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical on hope, "Spe Salvi," Cardinal Mahony said that hope calls for perseverance and action, and is likely to be accompanied by suffering.

In his five recommendations for action on behalf of immigrants, the cardinal urged the church and its people to:

1. "Speak clearly and often" to migrants and refugees, saying: "You can count on the Roman Catholic Church to stand with you and to walk with you on your journey to legal status in the United States. We will not allow mean-spirited rhetoric to deter us in our commitment to you."

2. "Hold accountable those who are asking for our votes this November," insisting that they "outline a humane plan for reform of our immigration laws, that they refrain from demagoguery and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and that they educate the voters on the need to repair a broken system."

3. "Change attitudes toward migrants through ongoing education. Educating Catholics and others makes them less likely to scapegoat immigrants or to use harsh rhetoric against them."

4. "Provide pastoral care and social services, including legal assistance, to migrants and their families. The church is the first, and sometimes last, refuge for newcomers, many of whom are Catholic. Migrants and their families must be aware that the church will meet their spiritual and material needs, no matter where they are on their migration journey. We must not let attacks on the mission of the church toward migrants - in the form of legislative proposals or rhetoric - deter us."

5. "Work toward the reform of laws impacting migrants, immigrants and refugees. Use the failure of past battles as knowledge to win the ultimate victory."

Cardinal Mahony exhorted those who serve immigrants not to lose hope. Analyzing the meaning of hope, he said: "Hope always moves in three steps. First, what I hope for I do not yet have; hope is always for some future good. Second, what I hope for may be difficult; hope strains, searches, struggles. But third, what I hope for can come to be; it is possible. What we hope for lies in God's hands."

"The only danger we face is losing hope," said the cardinal.

Current Words to Ponder

Focus on Preaching: "Few would deny the importance of preaching the word of God to our people. And while the church emphasizes our duty to preach, we need to remember that it's also a great privilege to preach . Survey after survey indicates that among the primary things people are looking for, longing for, when they attend Sunday Mass are interesting, inspiring and challenging homilies. Brothers, it's critical that we evaluate our commitment to the ministry of the word. Do we devote sufficient time to the preparation of our Sunday homily? Do we immerse ourselves in the word, spending time in prayer and reflection, taking it unto ourselves before we preach it to others? Are our homilies faithful, effective, challenging and joyful proclamations of the saving message of Jesus Christ?" (Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., in an Aug. 4 letter to priests of the diocese)

A Note on Suffering: "Christians don't like suffering any more than anyone else. They certainly don't go looking for it. [But] suffering lived properly is the heart's great tutor in humility, gratitude and understanding of others, because they too suffer." (Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver in his new book, "Render Unto Caesar," from Doubleday)

The Work We Do: What Makes It Sacred? "From our reading of the creation account of Genesis, which depicts God as a creative laborer, we have learned to regard work as sacred. God, the original 'worker,' has bestowed on human beings the capacity to share in God's creativity, thereby making work itself a holy activity. Sadly, many people today face economic uncertainty; and working hours tend to erode leisure, which makes worship impossible for many. As we celebrate Labor Day this year, we recommit ourselves to the values that gave birth to this holiday more than a century ago: respect for the dignity of everyone who works, fairness in the workplace, and national prosperity shared in a just and equitable way." (Bishop John McCormack of Manchester, N.H., in his 2008 Labor Day statement)

Poverty: Confronting the Global Reality

Poverty is the "most dramatic problem" the world faces, "especially the growing inequality between regions, between continents and between countries and within countries," Cardinal Renato Martino said during a late-August visit to Tanzania. The cardinal is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

The council he heads is developing a document on "poverty in the age of globalization," Cardinal Martino said. A Sept. 2 Catholic News Service report said the cardinal described the obligation to work for poverty's eradication as especially binding at a time "when a boundless number of people and even whole populations" are sinking further into poverty, while the world's wealthiest people get richer. The situation, said the cardinal, has taken on "the proportions of a truly global social question."

The document the pontifical council is developing will examine "a Gospel approach to combating poverty" and will attempt to increase awareness among Catholics of the realities of poverty, particularly that women and children form the biggest portion of the world's extremely poor people.

Interpreting New U.S. Poverty Statistics: A Catholic Charities Perspective

The U.S. poverty rate of 12.5 percent "indicates that reducing poverty is not a priority for this nation," Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said Aug. 26, the day the U.S. Census Bureau released new statistics on poverty.

Father Snyder said that Catholic Charities agencies across the nation "are seeing more and more people having to choose between putting food on the table, paying their utility bills or making their rent or mortgage payments." A downturn in the economy is making matters worse for these people, he said.

"Needing help with food, rent, clothing and prescriptions are all symptoms of much larger problems facing the poor and vulnerable in America, such as low wages and the lack of affordable housing and health care," Father Snyder commented.

The Catholic Charities leader said that people must demand that "current and future leaders give a much higher priority to the needs of the poor in their policymaking decisions." He said candidates for public office "must move from rhetoric to action and propose comprehensive plans to address the needs of more than 37 million people living in poverty in the United States over the next decade."

How Many Live in Poverty?

The U.S. Census Bureau said the statistics on poverty it released Aug. 26 indicated that "while the number of Americans in poverty last year rose over 2006 levels, the percentage increase was not statistically significant." But Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA responded that it will be hard to convince the poor about the insignificance of this rise.

"We have 800,000 more people living in poverty, including 500,000 more children" and 200,000 more senior citizens, Hill told Catholic News Service. She added that although overall U.S. poverty rates are up just 0.2 percent, she wished she could say that service requests to Catholic Charities "were up by that small" a percent. She said reports from Catholic Charities affiliates, coupled with her visits to them, indicate that the service numbers for 2008 will be considerably higher than for 2007.

The Census Bureau reported that the official poverty rate in the U.S. for 2007 was 12.5 percent, "not statistically different from 2006. There were 37.3 million people in poverty in 2007, up from 36.5 million in 2006." The bureau said that "the family poverty rate and the number of families in poverty were 9.8 percent and 7.6 million respectively, both statistically unchanged from 2006."

CNS reported that the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and its American Community Survey, both issued Aug. 26, had a margin of error of 0.2 percent; thus, percentage changes in either direction from 2006 to 2007 are regarded as being "statistically unchanged." A Census Bureau official told CNS that changes of 0.3 percent or more are recognized and reported in the surveys.

Some additional statistics reported by the Census Bureau will be of interest to readers of this newsletter. The bureau said that for children younger than 18, the poverty rate increased from 17.4 percent in 2006 to 18 percent in 2007; the poverty rate for Hispanics climbed from 20.6 percent in 2006 to 21.5 percent in 2007; the poverty rate for seniors was considered to have remained statistically unchanged, though the number increased from 3.4 million in 2006 to 3.6 million in 2007.