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April 1, 2009

Strong words of the pope in Africa on women's rights - Reflections on resurrection and on the claims Jesus made about himself - Who is entitled to baptism or marriage in a parish? - and more

-- Reflections for Easter:
a) The claims Jesus made and the difference the resurrection makes.
b) God's personal presence is what turns life around.
-- Speaking in tongues: Thoughts on cultural diversity.
-- Current quotes to ponder:
1) New Mexico repeals death penalty.
2) Budgeting with the poor in mind.
3) In this economic downturn, respecting those who have little.
-- Who is entitled to baptism or marriage in a parish? Austin diocesan norms.
-- Church and government: Learning to identify possible trafficking victims.
-- Who the victims of human trafficking are.
-- Strong words from the pope on women's dignity and rights: the Africa visit.

Reflections for Easter

1. The Claims Jesus Made and the Difference the Resurrection Makes

The reason some religious leaders charged Jesus with blasphemy becomes clearer when the claims Jesus made about himself are understood, Jesuit Father Gerald O'Collins said in a March 25 speech at Westminster Cathedral Hall in London.

Father O'Collins, who long taught theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, titled his speech "Who Is Jesus? Does It Matter?" The Australian theologian examined the biblical claims Jesus made for himself and their relationship to faith in the 21st century.

During his public ministry, Jesus "made, or at least implied, some extraordinary claims about who he was personally and what he was doing to save human beings. Those claims go far beyond his being a mere teacher of spiritual wisdom or simply his being a very great prophet," said Father O'Collins.

Most of the theologian's speech explored the claims Jesus made. Father O'Collins said, "St. John, St. Paul and other witnesses from the New Testament make it quite clear that at the start of Christianity, right there in the first century, believers did not view Jesus as merely a prophet or merely a great and powerful man."

Father O'Collins told his audience that "Jesus repeatedly claimed, or at least implied, a personal authority that set him on a par with God. Since he gave such an impression during his public life, one can understand why at the end some religious authorities charged Jesus with blasphemy."

However, Jesus' life "ended abruptly in humiliating failure and a disgraceful death on a cross," Father O'Collins noted. Jesus "was executed on charges of being a false Messiah and a blasphemer." Crucifixion, said the theologian, "was understood to be the death of a criminal and godless person, one who perished away from the presence of God and in the company of irreligious persons."

Yet, his disciples then "met him gloriously alive and risen from the dead. Some women among them discovered his tomb to be open and empty. They realized that Jesus was in fact the Messiah vindicated by God," said Father O'Collins. He added, "God had acted to vindicate Jesus and the unique claims he had made during his preaching."

The theologian then examined how the claims Jesus made and his vindication by God in the resurrection relate to faith today. Father O'Collins explained:

"I have sketched some of the evidence that one can point to. Yet believing in Jesus as divine Lord and Son of God is not merely the conclusion of a rational argument. There is evidence, but in faith we go beyond the evidence."

If faith does not result merely from rational arguments, does that mean faith is irrational? Not at all, according to Father O'Collins. What always happens "when we enter into a deep personal relationship with anybody or when we make any other radically important decision about the course of our life" is that, with faith, "we go beyond the evidence."

He explained, "We are not behaving irrationally when we commit ourselves to someone or something that can shape our lives forever. But it is only in the commitment itself that we experience how such faith and commitment bring us peace, life and the deep satisfaction of an existence based on love."

With this in mind, Father O'Collins turned attention to how, with the incarnation, God drew "near to us," how God is present to people, having crossed the "gap between heaven and earth." It is this presence, the theologian suggested, that matters most.

Father O'Collins asked, "If all the New Testament had to tell us was that God sent another prophet or some other kind of merely human representative, would we really believe in God's infinite love for us?"

True, he said, "love also shows itself through messengers, messages and gifts of various kinds." But he challenged those in his audience to ask what they really desire when they "are sick and lying in a hospital bed." During such times, he said, what people really want is the presence of those who love them. "It is their presence at our bedside that really makes their love believable," Father O'Collins said.

2. God's Personal Presence Turns Life Around

In a lament years ago, a friend of Jesuit Father Gerald O'Collins expressed discouragement at "what he took to be the decline and fall of Catholic faith and life" in France. Father O'Collins, in his March 25 speech in London, told about this incident, recalling how his friend said the French "used to go in for action; then they endorsed witness; and now they are content to be merely committed to presence." Father O'Collins continued:

"For my friend, that was all a slide down hill - from action, to witness, to presence. At the time I had no answer to give him. It was only later that I realized he had a very weak idea of what presence really is. Presence is a very powerful reality and force. The personal presence of someone can change our lives radically."

Father O'Collins told his audience, "I'm sure that every one of you here this evening could tell me a story of how on some occasion the personal presence of some friend or relative turned your life around." He said:

"When I come to die, by definition there will be no more room for action - for anything that some doctor could do for me. I don't think that on my death bed I will want any witness. But I certainly would like to be blessed with the presence at my bedside of those whom I love dearly and by whom I am dearly loved."

Father O'Collins' friend, in that conversation years ago, spoke of action, witness and presence. Reflecting on this, Father O'Collins said that "in the case of God, one can spot a scheme of action, witness and their climax, presence.

-- "In creating the whole world and human beings, God acted.

-- "Then the Old Testament prophets and other religious figures brought us God's witness.

-- But with the conception and birth of Christ, we reached a unique high point: the personal presence of God."

Father O'Collins said that this "personal presence of the Son of God is the high point in the story of God's love for us -- 'God's love story,' as Pope Benedict XVI called that story" in his first encyclical, "God Is Love." Father O'Collins concluded:

"In the birth of Jesus, God drew near to us in person. God reached out, crossed the enormous gap between heaven and earth, and came as the personal gift that goes beyond all other gifts. No longer was there any 'loving from a distance,' but rather a love that brought the Son of God to be with us and to be one of us."

"Speaking in Tongues": Reflections on a Culture's Diversity

Sallie Tisdale shares her reflections on cultural diversity in the spring 2009 edition of Portland, the magazine of Portland University, run by the Holy Cross order. Tisdale, author of numerous books, calls attention to the actuality of diversity, to the sense people may have that welcoming the stranger is a challenge and to the potential for people who are different from each other to live as neighbors.

"Today the sidewalks and cafes of Manhattan, Buenos Aires and Hong Kong are crowded with people from all around the world, and you can hear a dozen languages in the course of a block. We can meet people from countries we've never heard of, speaking languages we didn't know existed," Tisdale writes.

She says the U.S. may be the most heterogenous culture in history." And while "Portland and Dubuque and Providence may not seem like paragons of diversity," in fact "the strangers we meet are not tourists; they aren't coming to pay homage to a foreign court or following their goods along the road. They live here, and there are no government interpreters on the streets." The writer adds:

"We're just neighbors - we're just standing in line at the bank or the post office, beside each other. Maybe culture is only what happens after a lot of different people bang together for a long time and come up with a compromise."

Some may wonder about the past and where it has gone, Tisdale suggests. She says: "There is a tension between traditional cultures and groups and the global culture that is not easily solved. Call it globalization, call it Disneyland, but it is a usurping of what has been."

Tisdale acknowledges that she likes her "part of the world" and may not always feel ready to have "a lot of strangers coming in and making their own kind of place out of mine. I don't want to move over and make room." She points to "a reflexive urge to protect - to defend and protect the precious qualities of culture that are fragile against the global tide."

At the same time, she states, "sometimes the whole planet seems poisoned by fear of itself." Tisdale writes of her belief that "every human conflict is a story of fear" - a fear that "is a kind of xenophobia: fear of the other, hatred of the other, misunderstanding of the other, the one who is not like me."

In America, "economic disparity, racism and intolerance of immigrants are part of everyday life." However, says Tisdale, "they aren't our heritage. Our heritage is entirely one of migration and blending and shifting, of slipping in beside each other, erasing lines, living next door to someone you never expected to meet."

Current Quotes to Ponder

Repealing the Death Penalty: "Gov. [Bill] Richardson has made New Mexico a leader in turning away from the death penalty with all its moral problems and issues of fairness and justice. We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill. That one more day a prisoner lives may be the one day that he arrives at repentance, finds redemption, asks for forgiveness or, if innocent, is rendered justice. Life without parole renders the prisoner harmless to society, and that is part of what our teachings tell us that we should strive for - protection for society and respect for all life. We ask that all New Mexicans not forget, and keep in prayer, the victims of heinous crimes and their families, especially their parents. There is a second piece of legislation being considered by our state lawmakers that calls for restitution and support for victims' families." (From a statement by the Catholic bishops of New Mexico March 18, the day the state's governor, a Catholic who was long a death penalty supporter, signed legislation repealing the state's death penalty)

Budgeting With the Poor in Mind: "We are not policy-makers, but pastors and teachers. Our faith and moral principles call us to measure economic decisions on whether they enhance or undermine the lives of those most in need. Too often the weak and vulnerable are not heard in the budget debate. While they do not have powerful lobbyists, poor children and their families have compelling needs that have a priority claim on our consciences and our choices as the nation allocates limited federal resources." (From a March 26 letter on the federal budget to both houses of the U.S. Congress by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairmen, respectively, of the U.S. bishops' International Justice and Peace Committee and Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee)

Respecting Those in the Economic Downturn Who Gained the Least in Boom Times: "Everyone fears the effects of the [economic] downturn and would prefer not to have to endure it. It would be an immense source of hope if steps were taken to ensure that those who gained least from the [economic] boom will not be asked to pay most in the downturn. Those who are better off need to be aware that there are others who have a greater moral claim to be helped right now; otherwise the climate necessary for policy responses, which may be difficult and unpopular but which are just in the interest of the common good, will not exist." (Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, preaching March 29 in Sligo, Ireland)

Who Is Entitled to Baptism or Marriage in a Parish?

The relationship between parish membership and eligibility to receive the church's sacraments is among questions addressed in new norms promulgated in February by the Diocese of Austin, Texas. Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin discussed the norms in an interview published in the March 2009 edition of the Catholic Spirit, Austin's diocesan newspaper.

Bishop Aymond said, "For several years now, I and many clergy, as well as diocesan staff, have heard from the laity questions like: What does it mean to be a parishioner in a particular parish? What are the requirements for baptism, confirmation, marriage? How much should a stipend be?"

The bishop said "canon law cannot address these specific questions because of the wide variance in countries around the world. In our own diocese there is much inconsistency from one parish to another." He added, "It is possible in a given city where there are five or six parishes near one another, each could have different guidelines for the sacraments and a different understanding of what it means to be a parishioner in a particular parish."

With such concerns in mind, "it was suggested that, based on canon law, we make particular law for the Diocese of Austin," Bishop Aymond explained. He reported that the process "involved the consultation of canon lawyers, the priests of our diocese and our deacons, religious and laity."

Bishop Aymond characterized the new norms as "extraordinarily pastoral." The norms "offer good instruction on the sacraments and help with setting specific requirements of spiritual openness to the sacraments," he said. They also "help parishes in accepting people where they are and encouraging them to grow in faith."

The interviewer noted that "the norms cover nearly every sacrament as well as some practices that every parish deals with," and that the norms "extensively cover baptism and marriage." The interviewer asked why it was important "to address these sacraments."

Bishop Aymond replied that "very often the first question that comes up with baptism, marriage and religious education is, 'Are you a parishioner?'" He said the norms "clarify the answer to this question." Any member of the faithful "physically living within the boundaries of a parish is automatically considered a parishioner, whether the person is registered in the parish or not."

Thus, "the person has full rights to all the services rendered by the parish in terms of pastoral care," the bishop said. He explained: "If a person lives outside the geographical boundaries of a parish and wishes to join another parish, he or she may register in that parish. Therefore, the full membership of any given parish is all of those who live within the geographical boundary and any others who wish to register." For members of the faithful "who live in the geographical area of a parish, registration is not necessary."

Bishop Aymond said that "a child has a right to baptism. The only requirement is that the parents must be willing to do their best to make sure their child has instruction in the Catholic faith." Of course, the bishop continued, "we would hope that if parents want to have their child baptized in the Catholic Church that they would be practicing Catholics and would be in a marriage recognized by the church. At the same time, we cannot require that they be practicing Catholics and be married in the church."

The bishop said he sees these questions "as opportunities to meet with the parents and to talk to them about their faith life, or lack thereof, and how this will affect their child."

When it comes to baptism and marriage, Bishop Aymond commented, "there are varying requirements throughout the diocese: Some parishes have minimal requirements, while others have extraordinary requirements." He said, "In asking people to prepare spiritually for a sacrament, we should invite them to grow in faith, but the requirements should not become an obstacle preventing them from sharing in the sacramental life of the church. Church law should not make it difficult for people to be Catholic and to practice their faith."

Learning to Identify Possible Victims of Human Trafficking

The church is "working to raise awareness within the Catholic community about the problem" of human trafficking and to train diocesan staff members to "identify and assist victims of trafficking," Anastasia Brown said March 19 in testimony in Washington before the House Committee on Homeland Security's subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism. Brown is director of refugee programs in the Department of Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Through education and training, the church wants "to help people to identify victims when they see them, and to empower them to act on what they see."

Brown presented an overview of human trafficking, urged that special attention be given to children who are trafficked and said government employees on all levels need training that enables them to identify victims of human trafficking when they see them.

"Although as many as 17,500 persons are trafficked into the United States each year, approximately 1,500 have been identified and certified since 2000," Brown said. This, she said, "is primarily because of the lack of awareness among law enforcement agencies, the general public and community organizations."

The federal government, said Brown, ought to "provide more education and guidance to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies on their authority to recommend that trafficking victims be referred for services and on the identification of trafficking victims."

Brown applauded Homeland Security efforts to improve training in the screening and identification of possible victims. But she expressed concern that "due to the inherent law enforcement functions of Homeland Security immigration enforcement officers, as a country we may miss the identification of child victims of trafficking at our borders."

Who the Trafficking Victims Are

The USCCB's Anastasia Brown said in her March 19 testimony in Washington that "at least 700,000 persons are trafficked annually within or across international boundaries. They mostly come from less-developed countries and regions such as India, the former Soviet Union, Central and South America, and throughout Africa. Their destinations span the globe; they often end up in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States."

The U.S. State Department estimates that "as many as 17,500 human beings each year are trafficked into the United States to work in the sex trade or as slave labor," Brown said. She explained that "women and children have been forced to work in prostitution and child pornography rings, while men, women and children have been forced into different types of manual labor, without pay or protection."

Often, human trafficking victims are people seeking "to escape life in a dreary village or oppressive slum" in hopes of "finding opportunity and a brighter future in a more developed land," said Brown. Human traffickers flourish in such environments, she said. To unsuspecting victims, the traffickers promise "an opportunity to travel to a foreign land, at no immediate expense, for employment and housing."

But at their journey's end, trafficking victims "find coercion, abuse, entrapment and exploitation in a brothel, a massage parlor, an illicit factory or an agricultural outpost. By the time they are rescued, if ever, they are shattered by physical, mental and psychological abuse in the roles of prostitutes, domestic servants or manual laborers," Brown told the subcommittee.

When and if they are freed, trafficking victims "need access to a continuum of services over a period of time which allows them to attain self-sufficiency and restored mental and physical health," said Brown.

But "first and foremost," Brown said, these victims need "safety and security. Many are terrified of the traffickers who brought them to the United States and show signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder, among other mental health problems."

Strong Words From the Pope on Women's Dignity and Rights: The Africa Visit

In a noteworthy speech during his March 17-23 visit to Cameroon and Angola, Pope Benedict XVI defended and promoted "the dignity and rights of women." Speaking March 22 in Luanda, Angola, to groups working on behalf of women, the pope called attention to "the adverse conditions to which many women have been - and continue to be - subjected."

The pope's remarks on women deserve reporting here because the barrage of news coverage related to remarks he made about AIDS and condoms while enroute to Africa virtually drowned out what he said on other topics once he arrived.

Particular attention should be given "to ways in which the behavior and attitudes of men, who at times show a lack of sensitivity and responsibility, may be to blame" for the adverse conditions in many women's lives, the pope said. Society, said the pope, "must hold husbands and fathers accountable for their responsibilities toward their families."

John Thavis, who heads Catholic News Service's Rome office, traveled aboard the papal plan to Africa. He said in a March 22 report that many of those present when the pope spoke on women's rights belonged to a group called PROMAICA, the Apostolic Movement for the Promotion of Angolan Women in the Catholic Church. "It fights discrimination and advances women's rights by offering micro-credits and teaching skills in cooking, sewing, agriculture and office work," said Thavis.

During the event, Thavis reported, the pope not only spoke, he listened "to two women describe their work to help women break free from domestic violence, illiteracy and other forms of injustice."

Thavis reported that discrimination against African women often continues in property and marital rights. He said reports in recent years from the United Nations and the World Health Organization have indicated that in many African countries the notion is deeply ingrained "that husbands have a 'right' to physically punish or intimidate their wives."

Pope Benedict insisted that "the equal dignity of man and woman" must be recognized, affirmed and defended. He said, "They are both persons, utterly unique among all the living beings found in the world."

Women and men should work together "for the common good" in a complementary manner, Pope Benedict said. "In a world like ours, dominated by technology," women help the human race to live "without completely losing its humanity," the pope said.

In situations "afflicted by great poverty or devastated by war," and in "all the tragic situations resulting from migrations, forced or otherwise," women almost always are the ones "who manage to preserve human dignity, to defend the family and to protect cultural and religious values," Pope Benedict said.

Urging recognition of women's accomplishments within society, the pope commented that "history records almost exclusively the accomplishments of men, when in fact much of it is due to the determined, unrelenting and charitable action of women."

Both women's roles in the public square and the home were accented in the pope's speech. "Since the dignity of women is equal to that of men, no one today should doubt that women" are fully entitled to become involved actively in public life. This right must be affirmed and guaranteed - through legislation when necessary, said the pope.

At the same time, Pope Benedict said the public role of women should not "detract from their unique role within the family," where they make a "truly incalculable" contribution to society's "welfare and progress." A mother's presence within the family "is so important for the stability and growth of this fundamental cell of society that it should be recognized, commended and supported in every possible way," he said.