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September 30, 2008

Church leaders speak out on ethical dimensions of the economic crisis and its harm to ordinary people - A contemporary challenge to spirituality - What Catholic education is for - The dynamics of parish hospitality - and much more!

In this edition:
-- How the economic crisis harms ordinary people: Ethics and financial systems.
-- The dynamics of parish hospitality: A Benedictine perspective.
-- One parish staff that made a stranger welcome.
-- Current quotes to ponder:
1) A perspective on suffering.
2) The Bible is not a dead letter.
3) Can we communicate with the Lord if we don't communicate with each other?
-- A contemporary challenge for nearly everyone's spirituality.
-- Defining "poverty" and learning to recognize who is poor.
-- What is Catholic education for?

How the Economic Crisis Harms Ordinary People: The Ethics of Financial Systems

"Many blameless and vulnerable people have been and will be harmed" by the U.S. economic crisis, Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a Sept. 26 letter to the nation's Treasury secretary and congressional leaders. His letter, forcefully calling attention to the impact of the crisis on the well-being of ordinary people, was sent at a moment when government leaders were attempting to hammer-out a "bailout" bill.

"As church leaders we ask that you give proper priority to the poor and the most vulnerable," Bishop Murphy wrote. He said, "Protection of the vulnerable -- workers, business owners, homeowners, renters and stockholders -- must be included in the commitment to protect economic institutions."

The economic crisis reaches beyond "economic or technical matters," said Bishop Murphy. The crisis also has "enormous human impact and clear ethical dimensions" that deserve to be "at the center of debate and decisions on how to move forward." The bishop wrote: "Families are losing their homes. Retirement savings are at risk. People are losing jobs and benefits."

Bishop Murphy said:

"Economic arrangements, structures and remedies should have as a fundamental purpose safeguarding human life and dignity. The scandalous search for excessive economic rewards, even to the point of dangerous speculation that exacerbates the pain and losses of the more vulnerable, are egregious examples of an economic ethic that places economic gain above all other values. This ignores the impact of economic decisions on the lives of real people, as well as the ethical dimension of the choices we make, and the moral responsibility we have for their effect on people."

The bishop said that "greed, speculation, exploitation of vulnerable people and dishonest practices helped to bring about this serious situation." He added that "those who directly contributed to this crisis or profited from it should not be rewarded or escape accountability for the harm they have done. Any response of government ought to seek greater responsibility, accountability and transparency in both economic and public life."

The principle of solidarity is pertinent to this economic crisis, Bishop Murphy said. He explained: "The principle of solidarity reminds us that we are in this together and warns us that concern for narrow interests alone can make things worse. The principle of solidarity commits us to the pursuit of the common good, not the search for partisan gain or economic advantage."

Issues related to the free market and church teaching were addressed by Bishop Murphy's letter. He recalled that Pope John Paul II (in the 1991 encyclical "Centesimus Annus") referred to the free market as "the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs," while noting that the pope also said "there are many human needs which find no place in the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied."

Bishop Murphy said: "Both public and private institutions have failed in responding to fundamental human needs. A new sense of responsibility on the part of all should include a renewal of instruments of monitoring and correction within economic institutions and the financial industry, as well as effective public regulation and protection to the extent this may be clearly necessary."

The bishop assured government leaders of "the prayers of the U.S. Catholic bishops" in this time of crisis. He said: "As pastors and teachers, my brother bishops and I do not bring technical expertise to these complicated matters. However, we believe our faith and moral principles can help guide the search for just and effective responses to the economic turmoil threatening our people."

The Dynamics of Parish Hospitality: A Benedictine Perspective

No one in pastoral ministry has any control over "who comes to the door," so to speak; but if the conviction that God is present everywhere is nourished and carried over "into our lives and ministry, it will benefit what we do, and we'll welcome anybody who comes across that threshold," Benedictine Father Tom Hart said in an interview with this Web site Sept. 11 on hospitality and ministry.

I mention the interview with Father Hart in part because I want you to know that you can hear it in its entirety by going to the "Hemrick's Digital Symposia" section near the top of this Web site and clicking on the entry titled "A Benedictine Perspective on Pastoral Ministry and Today's Church." The audio postings in this section of the Web site represent its newest feature.

Father Hart, a theologian at St. Vincent's Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., talks in the interview about ways to translate the Rule of St. Benedict into parish life, particularly the rule's insistence on hospitality in a community's life. Among Benedictines, "hospitality" means welcoming the stranger, Father Hart said.

The wisdom of the Rule of St. Benedict is something Father Hart said he would recommend to any parish priest or pastoral minister -- what the rule offers "for your spiritual life," but also what it offers in terms of how to "get along with people." Here Father Hart pointed to what the rule says about the need for a monastery's abbot to deal with a wide variety of temperaments among those he serves -- something that leaders of today's parish communities undoubtedly must do as well.

The Rule of St. Benedict offers a lot of practical advice on how to make sure you are nourishing your spiritual life and internal life, "not in any fanatical way, but in the regular rhythms of life," Father Hart said. Here he stressed the importance of recognizing that God's presence is found everywhere, whether in the sanctuary or while one is out "mowing the lawn." Father Hart suggested that when that belief is nourished and cultivated in an ongoing way, one is ready to exercise hospitality toward people whose temperaments and interests differ. Then, he said, "we'll be ready - no matter who comes" across the threshold.

A Parish Staff That Made a Stranger Welcome

"I ask each of you in our parishes, schools and institutions to be hospitable, interested, excited about what you do. I ask you to reinforce and support each other," Bishop Francis Malooly said in the homily he delivered at his Sept. 8 installation as bishop of Wilmington, Del.

"From [St.] Paul we learn that each person is important," the bishop said, calling attention to the Catholic Church's current, yearlong worldwide observance of a Year of St. Paul.

Bishop Malooly reported in his homily on the welcome he received when he visited a parish about a month earlier. He said:

"Immediately the secretary came out, not knowing who I was, to welcome me and to ask if she could be of help. When I walked into the church, the maintenance man who was working on a project stopped and came over to see if he could be of assistance."

Commenting on all of this, Bishop Malooly said: "Each of us by our own holiness, by our imitation of Jesus, by trying to be the face of Jesus can lead people to the church."

Current Quotes to Ponder

A Perspective on Suffering: "We are free to face the unavoidable with dignity. The ultimate freedom is the attitude with which we face unpleasant challenges. But it is a free response. We can settle for bitter endurance. Suffering, accepted as a challenge, redeems us from our misplaced feeling of uselessness, of meaninglessness, of being dismissible as human beings. In that sense, the experience of suffering is essential. Who would exult in good health, had one never been sick? Who would appreciate living, without a felt realization of death? Who would feel grateful unless all happiness were precarious?" (From "Forgiving God: Can We Make Sense of Suffering?" by Jesuit Father William J. O'Malley in America magazine, Sept. 22, 2008.)

The Bible: Not a Dead Letter: "Sometimes I have the impression we have learned a lot about the Bible, but we have not prayed enough with it. It is not a dead letter, it is a testimony of the living God, who is still speaking through the word." (Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, Quebec, commenting Sept. 22 on the importance of this October's world Synod of Bishops in Rome and its focus on the Bible.)

Can We Communicate With the Lord If We Don't Communicate With Each Other? "St Augustine remarks that through faith people are like the wood and stones collected in the forests and on the mountains for building; then through baptism, catechesis and preaching they are rough-shaped, squared and polished, but they become houses of the Lord only when they are put together with love. When believers are interconnected in accordance with a specific order, mutually close and cohesive, when they are joined by love, they truly become a dwelling of God that is in no danger of collapsing. Thus, the love of Christ is the spiritual energy that unites all who share in the same sacrifice and are nourished by the one Bread, broken for the world's salvation. Indeed, how is it possible to communicate with the Lord if we do not communicate with one another? How can we present ourselves divided, distant from one another, at God's altar?" (From the Sept. 21 homily of Pope Benedict XVI at St. Pancratius' Cathedral near Rome in Albano, Italy, where he dedicated a new altar.)

A Contemporary Challenge for Almost Everyone's Spirituality

To connect with God, "it is sometimes necessary to disconnect," Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said in a speech examining several factors in our contemporary milieu that need to be understood "if we are to nurture our own spirituality and be responsive to the spiritual needs of our people." New technologies that rapidly have taken up residence in people's daily lives were among those factors.

An article taken from Bishop Hubbard's speech appeared in the summer 2008 edition of the CMSM Forum, published online by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. The speech was given in November 2007 to a priests' convocation in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Though the new technologies are "not explicitly opposed to religious faith and belief," Bishop Hubbard said they can "pose a significant threat to people's spiritual well-being." He cited an America magazine editorial that said the new technologies - e.g. the Internet, cell phones, iPods and Blackberrys -- have created a culture of distraction and a culture of constant work in which one is reachable around the clock. The bishop wondered if people now have forgotten how to disconnect from workplace demands.

These new technologies, Bishop Hubbard said, "were supposed to lessen our workloads and free us from menial tasks like phone calls and letters. Instead, they have filled our lives with even more superfluous communication."

It is equally significant, he continued, that "as we spend more time connected to these technologies, we can become more disconnected from one another, from our families and, because of a lack of quiet space, from ourselves and ultimately from God."

Is the dawn of these new technologies, therefore, something to lament? Not at all. Bishop Hubbard said that even he, who has "been a great foot dragger and procrastinator in this regard, must acknowledge and stand in awe of the benefits they can produce." But, he said, "there must be a judicious caution about how these new technologies can affect a relationship with others and our own spiritual life."

The need for solitude and quiet is something that "the great spiritual masters in every tradition have long counseled," Bishop Hubbard pointed out. He said: "We can experience God in many ways, even through Internet sites like Beliefnet or Pray-As-You-Go, but there remains the need for solitude and quiet where God can speak to us in the silence of our hearts."

Concluding his discussion of the new technologies, the bishop said: "As the editors of America note in their commentary on this matter, without silence, without conscious disconnecting from the cares of the day, from ministry, and even from friends and families, it becomes increasingly hard to carve out the space needed to listen to one's own thoughts and to God."

Defining "Poverty" and Learning to Recognize the Poor

"For many, poverty is a constant state of lurching from one crisis to the next," Australia's Catholic bishops said in a statement issued Sept. 17 on the challenge of affluence and poverty. In the statement, the bishops were at pains to spell out the full meaning of the term "poverty."

"In broad terms, poverty means lacking the means to live a fulfilling life and regularly going without essential items. It means worrying constantly about being able to pay bills and juggling these pressures by continually assessing what has to be done without," the bishops said.

However, the bishops said, poverty is "much more than not being able to afford what is needed. In essence, poverty is an assault on the very relationship between humans -- the interconnectedness -- that is at the heart of Jesus' teaching."

The bishops' statement was released for the annual Social Justice Sunday, observed Sept. 28 this year by the church in Australia. The bishops recalled how they described the experience of poverty in their 1996 statement for this annual observance. At that time they said:

"To be poor means:
-- "To have inadequate access to resources and services.
-- "To be unable to do certain tasks that are essential for fulfilling one's human potential and carrying out one's social responsibilities.
-- "To be shunned, denigrated, blamed, patronized and ostracized by others.
-- "To have little opportunity to participate in decisions affecting one's life.
-- "To be and to feel powerless, excluded, marginalized -- effectively, to live 'in exile' in one's own society. This is at least as damaging to human dignity as the actual inability to purchase certain goods and services."

When describing people as poor, one might talk about their appearance, or physical and mental health, or "what they wear and where they live," or "their emotional and social skills," the bishops observed. "This is one way to evoke the face of poverty, but perhaps not a particularly helpful one," they said. Why? Because with this approach to defining "poverty," one "stereotypes people and fails to recognize that much poverty and hardship" is hidden from view.

A reminder is found in Luke's Gospel of "how invisible poor people are and how easy it is to overlook them" in a busy, wealthy society, the bishops said. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, "the rich man is not condemned because of evildoing, but because he just did not notice the plight of the destitute man at his gate, the one who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man's table," said the bishops.

Christians, indeed, are called to recognize that "those who are poor or pushed to the margins" are their brothers and sisters, the bishops said, adding, "We are called to accompany, serve and plead their cause." The challenge for Christians "is to see the face of the poor and oppressed in our society and to stand with them, giving voice to their plight and working for change," said the bishops.

What Is Catholic Education For?

"The threads of the encounter with Christ and his life-giving message are woven into the fabric of our human experience" through the educational efforts of schools, parish religious education programs, adult faith formation, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, sacramental formation programs and the many forms of youth ministry, campus ministry and evangelizing outreach, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington said in a pastoral letter released Sept. 14. He said, "Catholic education in all of its forms has as its primary task the communication of the person and message of Christ to adults, youth and children."

Titled "Catholic Education: Looking to the Future With Confidence," the pastoral letter reported on a comprehensive effort of the Washington Archdiocese to assess its religious education programs and to examine ways of strengthening the Catholic identity, academic excellence, accessibility and affordability of Catholic schools. A Catholic News Service report said that in a Sept. 20 speech to religion writers from throughout the U.S., Archbishop Wuerl said that the church, businesses and governments must work together to finance and keep Catholic schools open.

"Catholics, young and adult, face decisions each day, some critical," said the pastoral letter, adding: "If we work out of a diminished or faulty knowledge of the faith or if we are not fully aware or convinced of what Jesus taught or the wisdom his church provides, such decisions become all the harder to make in a way that brings the Gospel into our lives."

The archbishop said the church's education effort in schools "derives from our conviction that our Catholic faith invites us into dialogue with God and offers us a way of life grounded in his word. Our role in Catholic education is to provide a frame of reference for a life that reflects the words of everlasting life."

And because Catholic schools are shaped by a vision that integrates academic excellence with "a deeply ingrained Catholic identity," they "are able to provide students with the experience of hope -- hope in Christ and hope in the future," said Archbishop Wuerl. "In fact," he added, "many of our urban schools, in particular, are an oasis of hope in a desert lacking intellectual, spiritual and personal support."