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March 18, 2009

Pope urges efforts to relate God's word to people's actual lives - Bishop announces Lenten apology service - U.S. Catholic population shifts from Northeast to Southwest -- Lenten focus on listening skill - and more

In this edition:
-- Listening: More needed than ever for prayer and relationships.
-- Bishop announces service of apology.
-- Survey reports U.S. population shift from Northeast to Southwest.
-- Survey reports fewer in U.S. call themselves Christians.
-- Current quotes to ponder: 1) Innovation, prompted by difficult economy; 2) Conscience protection supported in health care; 3) Death penalty opposed.
-- Protections urged for immigrant caregivers.
-- The devaluation of caregiving.
-- Bring Gospel into people's actual life experience, pope says.

Listening, More Needed Than Ever in Prayer and Relationships: Lenten Focus

"Not to anthropomorphize God too much, but I wonder how God feels when he's trying to answer our prayers, but we won't give him a chance because we're too busy doing all the talking," Benedictine Father Thomas Hart said in a March 12 interview with this Web site. "You know how frustrating it is when you're trying to talk to someone and you know they're not listening to you," he added.

You can hear the entire interview with Father Hart in the "Digital Symposia" section of www.jknirp.com.

Father Hart teaches theology at Benedictine-run St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, Pa. He focused in the interview on listening as a skill for life -- listening to God, listening to others. He asked, "How many people want someone to listen to them?" So many husbands and wives complain that their spouse does not listen - and this yields many problems in marriage, he observed.

"Listening is very hard to do in our culture because we've created this culture of noise - we can't get away from it," Father Hart commented. "I don't think we're raised in our culture to be good listeners," he said. Even when people retreat within the walls of their rooms, they tend to remain bombarded by noise, whether from a TV, radio or some other source.

But listening more than ever is needed, said Father Hart. And while listening begins with the ears, St. Benedict also encouraged listening with the ear of the heart. That's because what is communicated to us may involve more than words. There is a need, in other words, to listen interiorly, to listen for everything that is conveyed, Father Hart suggested.

While listening comes in more than one form, silence also is multidimensional. Father Hart said silence in the old monastic spirituality involved more than quieting the tongue. Of course, "at some point you have to shut up in order to listen," Father Hart stated. But growing silent also meant getting rid of external noise so that one could "be more focused."

Silence may involve quieting the eyes - something difficult to achieve in a visual culture where people constantly are exposed to advertising, televised programming, text messaging and so forth. Then there is the quieting of the body - a dimension of silence that is difficult to achieve in a culture where people are "so on the go," said Father Hart.

He agreed that in relationships, listening is a form of commitment to the other person, a way of "being there" for that person. He also emphasized the goal in prayer of listening "to what God has to teach us."

People, "in our culture anyway," are raised to do the talking, Father Hart said. They're accustomed to being "put on the spot to say something, to know everything." But St. Benedict thought people ought to develop "a posture to accept what God has to teach us," which requires that they quiet down and listen.

Bishop Announces Apology Service

People who feel that on any occasion they were hurt by a representative of the church were invited by Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik to come to "a special service of apology, a service of prayer" on Tuesday of Holy Week. The service will be, he explained, "a moment for me as shepherd of this local church to say those three very important but oft-forgotten words 'I am sorry' and in so doing to seek forgiveness of anyone hurt by the church."

In his column for the March 13 edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper, Bishop Zubik said:

"We know that the church as the body of Christ is divine. But we also know that the church is very human. We also know that over the years the church in its humanness has been the cause of harm or pain to some of the faithful. It has happened anywhere in the world. It has happened in our diocese."

Such harm "could have been from anyone representing the church. That certainly includes me by my actions or inaction," Bishop Zubik said.

He recalled that Pope John Paul II, in the Jubilee Year 2000, "led a moving service of public apology for the mistakes that had been made in the past and for anyone harmed in the name of the church by its 'sons and daughters.'" The bishop noted that the late pope asked how many times Christians had not recognized Christ in the hungry, thirsty and naked, in persecuted and imprisoned people, and in people unable to defend themselves. The pope, Bishop Zubik wrote, asked "forgiveness for 'all those who have committed acts of injustice'" by placing their trust in wealth and power or showing contempt for the "little ones."

Bishop Zubik asked: "Were you ever hurt by a brusque or sarcastic comment from a leader in the church? Have you stayed away from the sacrament of penance because some priest decades ago 'yelled' at you in confession? Was there some disagreement while employed with the church that unjustly ended with you losing your job? Were you, in any way, harmed by any representative of the church? Did you feel picked on by a teacher in one of our religious education classes or in one of our schools?"

Bishop Zubik said, "If you have been harmed by the church in any way, I invite you to come. All that I ask is that you and I open our hearts to the grace of forgiveness."

There are two "wonderful moments" in life, one "when we realize the forgiveness of God" and another "when we can forgive," Bishop Zubik wrote. After people forgive those who harmed them, forgive "the sins of the past," they can "live for the future," he said.

The bishop said, "When we forgive and are forgiven, then we are healed." Because he wants the church and its people "to be as strong as possible," he is "committed to honor the instruction of Jesus that we ask for forgiveness," he said.

Survey Reports U.S. Catholic Population Shift From Northeast to Southwest

The Catholic population in the United States is shifting away from the Northeast toward the Southwest, according to a new study - the third American Religious Identification Survey - conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Survey results were released March 9.

"California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than New England," thanks to immigration and growth among Latinos, said Barry Kosmin. He conducted the Religious Identification survey with Ariela Keysar between February and November 2008. The survey questioned 54,461 adults in the U.S. Kosmin and Keysar are director and associate director respectively of Trinity's Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.

Kosmin commented, "The decline of Catholicism in the Northeast is nothing short of stunning."

Though the survey indicated that the number of U.S. adults identifying themselves as Catholics increased by 11.1 million since 1990, their percentage of the wider U.S. population dropped by about one point to 25 percent. Still, Catholics continue to represent the largest U.S. religious group, with about 57 million people identifying themselves as Catholics.

Survey Reports Fewer in U.S. Population Call Themselves "Christians"

Trinity College's new American Religious Identification Survey revealed a rather rapid growth in the number of U.S. adults who claim no religious affiliation. The percentage of Americans claiming no religion -- which Trinity's two earlier religious identification surveys showed had jumped from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.2 percent in 2001 -- increased to 15 percent in the new survey.

Northern New England has taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the nation's least religious section, the survey indicated. However, the number of adults who say they have no religion has increased in every state.

The survey showed that the nation's percentage of Christians, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, now has edged down to 76 percent, Trinity reported. Ninety percent of this decline came from outside Catholicism, largely from mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans and the United Church of Christ.

Those groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines in the current decade and now constitute 12.9 percent, according to the survey. It showed that most growth in the Christian population occurred among those who identify themselves simply as "Christian," "Evangelical/Born Again" or "nondenominational." Nondenominational Christians, associated with the growth of the megachurches, increased from fewer than 200,000 in 1990, to 2.5 million in 2001, to more than 8 million today.

The survey showed that 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now identify themselves additionally as evangelical or born again. Mark Silk, director of the Program on Public Values at Trinity College, commented: "It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism -- mainline versus evangelical -- is collapsing." He said, "A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States."

And here is a survey finding that will prove thought-provoking: Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral when they die.

Current Quotes to Ponder

Innovation in Tough Economic Times: "The economic downturn is forcing not-for-profit organizations to innovate just to survive. In comfortable economic times, we have all seen organizations grow too comfortable, stop innovating and coast. In tight economic environments, the great organizations, as in the business sector, find new ways to deliver results, and those are the innovators. I believe social innovation is the product of individuals within organizations who are constantly acquiring deep knowledge and understanding about the needs and wants of their client base. If we're doing our work properly, we're confronting the most difficult problems out there and solving them - not just producing the lowest denominator to keep the problem from boiling over, but actually solving it. That is the heart of social innovation. It is about the individual doing the work and every day thinking, 'How could I do this better or differently to solve the problem?'" (Tom Sheridan speaking in an interview in the spring 2009 edition of Charities USA magazine, published by Catholic Charities USA; Sheridan founded the Sheridan Group, which works for social change with nonprofit organizations, social entrepreneurs and others, and describes its mission as helping "the good do better.")

Conscience Protection in Health Care: "On Friday afternoon, Feb. 27, the Obama administration placed on a federal Web site the news that it intends to remove a conscience protection rule for the Department of Health and Human Services. That rule is one part of the range of legal protections for health-care workers -- for doctors, nurses and others -- who have objections in conscience to being involved in abortion and other killing procedures that are against how they live their faith in God. Respect for personal conscience and freedom of religion as such ensures our basic freedom from government oppression. No government should come between an individual person and God -- that's what America is supposed to be about. This is the true common ground for us as Americans. We therefore need legal protection for freedom of conscience and of religion -- including freedom for religious health-care institutions to be true to themselves. Conscientious objection against many actions is a part of our life. I ask you please to let the government know that you want conscience protections to remain strongly in place. In particular, let the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington know that you stand for the protection of conscience." (Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a message March 16)

Death Penalty Opposed: "Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have called for the end to the use of the death penalty, as a sign of greater respect for all human life. In 'A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,' the [U.S.] bishops wrote [in 2005], 'Even when people deny the dignity of others, we must still recognize that their dignity is a gift from God and is not something that is earned or lost through their behavior. Respect for life applies to all, even the perpetrators of terrible acts. Punishment should be consistent with the demands of justice and with respect for human life and dignity.' The legislation before you would help to begin building a culture of life in our country." (Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a March 16 letter to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson urging him to sign legislation adopted by the state's legislature repealing the death penalty)

Protections Urged for Immigrant Caregivers

Many immigrants today, particularly women, serve as caregivers in homes and need social support and protection from exploitation, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Vatican ambassador to the United Nations, said in a March 9 speech. In remarks to the U.N. Economic and Social Council's Commission on the Status of Women, he addressed a "globalization of caregiving" that affects, in particular, "poor and immigrant women."

Archbishop Migliore noted that "in many parts of the world, a true market has emerged in the area of home-based caregiving." Due to this development, women, above all, often "are found in situations of vulnerability" that are reflected in "social isolation, difficult working conditions and at times exploitation of every kind," he said. These women care for children, the sick, people with disabilities and the aged, he noted.

Governments should address the realities this globalization of caregiving involves, the archbishop suggested. Laws are needed that both protect immigrant caregivers and foster their social integration, he added. Furthermore, he said, appropriate professional formation offering "home-based caregivers basic knowledge of health and psychology would upgrade their invaluable activity and eventually shield them from easy and reprehensible types of exploitation."

Turning attention to women's rights more generally, Archbishop Migliore called it "more and more untenable" that women anywhere "are discriminated against and their contribution to society is undervalued simply because they are women." He said, "Recourse to social and cultural pressure in order to maintain the inequality of the sexes is unacceptable."

Devaluation of Caregivers

Societies throughout the world tend to devalue caregivers, along with those who depend on them, panelists said during a March 11 program sponsored in New York by the Vatican's U.N. Observer Mission, the Path to Peace Foundation, Franciscans International and the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y.

One panelist, Marilyn Martone, said: "The need for care is part of the human condition. We need to emphasize that those who need care are as fully human as those who provide it." Martone, a moral theologian and associate professor at St. John's University, said the fact that "the market does not value this labor does not make it less important."

Social structures work against those who care for children, the elderly and the disabled, according to Martone. For example, because men tend to earn more than women who work, usually it is the wife who remains at home when a couple decides that one spouse is needed as a caregiver. Martone noted that as a result of this, the woman does not build up pension or Social Security benefits. She said:

"The structures of society need to be better organized so that all can give and receive care in a dignified manner so that no one, especially women, is subsumed by this work."

Bring Word of God Into People's Experience of Life: Pope to Priests

Pope Benedict XVI urged priests to be cautious about the use of lofty terminology that few people understand when preaching and evangelizing. During a question-and-answer session March 26 with more than 400 priests who minister in Rome, the pope encouraged priests to make parishes places of welcome and to find ways of relating faith to the lives people actually lead.

It is important that people "truly find in their parish priest a pastor who loves them and helps them to hear the word of God today, to understand that it is a word for them and not only for people of the past or of the future," said Pope Benedict.

Some "great words" of the church's tradition, like "expiatory sacrifice," "redemption of the sacrifice of Christ" and even "original sin" are "almost incomprehensible" to people today, the pope stated. He said:

"We cannot simply work with lofty formulas, though true, without placing them within the context of today's world. Through study, and what our theology teachers and our personal experience with God tell us, we must concretize and express these great words in such a way that they form part of the proclamation of God to the people of today."

Pope Benedict urged priests "not to lose the simplicity of the truth." For example, he said: "God exists. God is not a distant, hypothetical being. Rather, God is close; he has spoken to us, he has spoken to me. And thus we simply say what he is and how our understanding of him can and must be naturally explained and developed."

What priests propose to people, the pope said, are not "reflections" or "a philosophy." Instead, what they offer is "the simple proclamation of God who has acted" and who works within people now as well.

Proclamation of the Gospel, evangelization, involves "two elements: the word and witness," Pope Benedict said. He added, "It is a question of evangelization in the present," in which one "expresses the words of the past in the world of our experience today." Pope Benedict called it "absolutely indispensable, fundamental" that credibility be given "to this word through witness so that it does not only appear as a lofty philosophy or a fine utopia, but as reality, a reality with which it is possible to live" - a reality, moreover, "that is life-giving."

It is important, while remaining in communion with church teaching, that avenues be opened up for people who are seeking God to experience faith, the pope advised. In the ancient church, he explained, the catechumenate was constituted not only of "catechesis, something doctrinal," but also was "a place for a gradual experience of the life of faith in which the word is opened up and understood when interpreted through life experiences, made concrete by life."

The hospitality needed in a parish was discussed by Pope Benedict at one point in his responses to the priests' questions. Here he singled out for mention people "who have no experience of normal parish life." The parish, he said, "must not be a circle closed in on" itself.

A parish may well have its own customs, but must nonetheless "be open and endeavor to create 'vestibules,' that is, places which will draw others closer," the pope said. Someone new to a parish, he said, "cannot immediately enter parish life, which already has its own practices. For such a person everything is novel, far removed from his own life."

What is needed in such cases is "to create what the early church created with the catechumenates: spaces in which one begins to live the word, to follow the word, to make it understandable and realistic, corresponding to forms of actual experience," Pope Benedict said. This may encompass "the witness of a just life, being for others, opening oneself to the poor, to the needy -- and also to the rich who need to have their hearts opened."