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August 1, 2009

Preaching to the heart, not just the head -
Reflections on the blogosphere's "verbal fratricide" -
Dynamics of Hispanic ministry -
Why it's good for us to be good


In this edition:

1. Why it's good for us to be good to others.
2. On being "Catholic enough"; beyond the blogosphere's "verbal fratricide."
3. Preaching to the heart, not just the head.
4. Current quotes to ponder: reactions to new encyclical; how Christian hope becomes a strength.
5. The dynamics of Hispanic ministry in the U.S.
6. Current statistics on Hispanics in the U.S. and their religion.
7. Patterns of Mexican migration into and out of the U.S.
8. Reflections of a vacationing pope: a) the meaning of "power"; b) Teilhard de Chardin's vision for the world.

Please click on the archive below to bring up the July 15 edition of my newsletter for a special report on "Caritas in Veritate," the new encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI.

1. Why It's Good for Us to Be Good to Others

It is good for us to be good to others - good for our physical and psychological health, according to Stephen Post, professor of preventive care and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Post's article "It's Good to Be Good: Science Says It's So" appears in the July-August 2009 edition of Health Progress, published by the Catholic Health Association.

He writes: "It is good to be good to others. Call it karma, call it the boomerang effect, call it the sea of life; the wisdom of the ages has it that actions on behalf of others have a payback feature: the benefits of unselfish acts revert back to the giver."

After surveying numerous studies over the past few decades "that link a person's benevolent actions and his or her personal happiness and health," Post concludes, "We can say with certainty that it is good to be good."

Nonetheless, Post's article includes the caveat that "an excessive focus on others" can be unhealthy. Research suggests that "'doing unto others' to overwhelming degrees" can turn stressful, resulting in "adverse health consequences" and what has been called "compassion fatigue."

Thus, caregivers who deal with suffering in an ongoing way need respite, Post says. If doing unto others is not balanced with "care of self," caregivers may not be able to "flourish over the long run," he suggests. Post writes, "Balance, rhythm, time away, recreation and perhaps spiritual practices are vital to keeping one's perspective fresh."

But why is it good to be good to others - so good that just thinking about serving others or viewing films of others who serve (like Blessed Mother Teresa) may strengthen the immune system? Post thinks it becomes easier to understand the impact on one's own health of doing good for others when the "destructive effects of negative emotions and self-centeredness" are taken into consideration.

A lot of research has concluded that hostility is a personality trait that damages health, Post writes. If "some studies have shown that certain kinds of stress, at relatively low levels, may be beneficial to human health, the relationship between excessive stress and disease has been well documented," he explains.

Reaching out to others has a way of displacing negative emotions such as hostility, resentment and fear with positive emotions, Post observes. And he notes research suggesting that "when volunteering is combined with religious involvement, the beneficial results are enhanced." It has been proposed that a "reframing of life's purposes" in this context adds to the benefits of volunteering, the writer says.

Furthermore, Post makes a point that youth ministers may value. He cites research lending support to the idea that is good to be good throughout life. Research shows that "volunteering in adolescence enhances social competence and self-esteem, protects against anti-social behaviors and substance abuse, and protects against teen pregnancies and academic failure," the writer says.

Post's full article, outlining the reasons why "the welfare of oneself (self-fulfillment) and of others (self-sacrifice) are inseparable and interrelated components of the healthy human personality in a healthy environment," can be read online at www.chausa.org (click on "Health Progress").

2. On Being "Catholic Enough": Beyond the Blogosphere's "Verbal Fratricide"

"No one of us has the only approach to Catholicism," Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, Texas, said in his commencement address May 17 to graduates at the University of Dallas, an independent Catholic university in Irving, Texas.

Bishop Farrell asked what it means to be "Catholic enough," and he related respect for truth to the "debate over ideas and truth that is carried out in a Catholic university." He focused directly on the Catholic identity of a Catholic university, but it appeared his ideas bore relevance well beyond the university's gates.

The "blogosphere culture" of today's society was criticized by Bishop Farrell. "Dogmatism, closed-mindedness, judgmentalism [and] suspicion, especially of another's motives" often characterize the blogosphere, though none of these characteristics has a place in "a university where debate and the refining of positions are our stock in trade," the bishop said.

Such characteristics of the blogosphere culture "should have no place in this academic community where the search for truth requires hard work, humility and profound mutual respect," Bishop Farrell said.

"If and when others may disagree or have a different approach or have a different slant on Catholic teaching or belief, honest debate, not confrontation, true dialogue where we seek to understand the other, not facile condemnation, should be the overarching way we move forward together," Bishop Farrell said.

"Verbal fratricide," the bishop added, "has no place in an academic community which seeks to know and to live the truth which is Jesus Christ himself." For, said the bishop, "there is a wideness in God's mercy" and "wideness in the Catholic embrace of thought in every age, and in the ways in which Catholic belief can and needs to be expressed."

What, then, "does it mean to be Catholic enough"? Indeed, "it means being proud of the Catholic tradition," said Bishop Farrell - "but never to be smug, dismissive or righteous about it or in the face of others whose beliefs are different."

Recent popes, the bishop said, "have been valiant and prophetic voices for us about what it means to be Catholic."

Among other points, Bishop Farrell said that being "Catholic enough" means:

-- "Adhering to the magisterium of the church and taking very seriously the length, breadth and depth of the Catholic tradition." For a Catholic university it means remaining grounded in "what it has been given from generations before us."

-- "Taking very seriously the challenge which theologians in the church have always taken up - to face into and revere the contemporary culture, and to relate revelation and our Catholic faith to that culture. The way that was done in one age will necessarily have to be different in another age. There is simply no one system that can be considered 'the' systematic reflection of the Catholic tradition. It is too broad and far reaching for that."

-- "Taking very seriously our diversity as a worldwide Catholic Church within a comprehensive unity of people, places and eras in the family album that is Catholicism."

-- "Being a leaven in a society that seeks insight, example and inspiration even as it claims to be post-religion, post-church and post-Christianity."

-- "Being open to new questions, new cultures, new circumstances and being willing to learn from them as well as to reformulate teachings in them."

But to be "Catholic enough," according to Bishop Farrell, "does not mean parroting words and phrases from one or another time and place in the church's history as though that were the only way to speak of things divine and of things Catholic."

It does, however, mean "a very serious study of the sources of our theological tradition with academic rigor and discipline, and applying them to the needs of today in light of questions never asked before in the history of the human family" - questions, Bishop Farrell said, "that you and I need to ask and must ask for credibility - not to say our survival - as a church and as a university."

3. Preaching to the Heart, Not Just the Head

The preacher's goal is not simply to speak to people's heads, but to their hearts, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said in his July monthly message to the diocese. He wrote in light of his recent ordination of four deacons, discussing the deacon's role to serve, preach and minister sacraments. In his discussion of preaching he turned to a message in the recent hit film "Gran Torino," starring Clint Eastwood as Walt.

In a series of interactions between Walt and a young priest in the film, the main character "manifests a disdainful attitude toward the priest," who delivered the homily at the funeral for the older man's wife, Bishop Hubbard noted. He wrote:

"When the priest finally confronts Walt about why he is treating him with such contempt, Walt responds by quoting almost verbatim, but in a mocking fashion, the lofty description of death the priest offered at his wife's funeral. Walt sneers: 'You're just out of the seminary; what do you know about life's cruelty.'"

Bishop Hubbard said that what Walt did was to scold the young priest "for speaking to 'the head' -- pious thoughts about how life ought to be, drawn from theology manuals and spiritual writings, rather than speaking to the hearts of people which have been pierced and bruised by life's vicissitudes."

The deacon, as a preacher of the word, must be not only an exegete, but "must interpret how that word crashes against the cacophony of our present human song," articulating how God's word "resonates with the joys and hopes, the sorrows, fears and anxiety" of people today.

Bishop Hubbard said those who preach need to figure out how the word of God "speaks to a Catholic population that is increasingly well educated but less catechized in the spiritual life and the theological understanding of our rich faith tradition; how that word touches people who are immersed in a lifestyle which is impossibly busy and distracted, and where juggling multiple responsibilities (family, work, civic and social) is a way of life."

This, said Bishop Hubbard - recalling "Karl Barth's famous image" - means preaching "with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other" so that those who listen "may be challenged to discern what the Scriptures are saying to them and asking of them at this particular moment and in this specific context of their life's journey."

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Upon Reading "Charity in Truth," the New Encyclical: "These are serious times that call for serious thinking. In a time when our society is too often preoccupied with the sensational, distracted by the scandals of the moment and overwhelmed by so much information and so little perspective, [Pope Benedict] challenges us to put aside shallow fixations and take up the real issues that require our united attention: 'Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing.'" (From comments on the new encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI by Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., in his July column for the West River Catholic, the diocese's newspaper)

Upon Reading "Charity in Truth," the New Encyclical: "I suspect that many people will have difficulty accepting the analysis of some of the very specific issues confronting us today. If we accept Benedict's assessment that hunger in the world is a 'scandal,' then we will be forced to do something about it. In other areas such as the environment, globalization and international cooperation, Benedict calls us to a new order that corrects the systemic weaknesses of the past that led to this crisis. Ultimately this encyclical attempts to realign our focus to building a society that is truly one founded on charity in truth." (From comments on the new encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI by Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA)

Where Hope Soars: "A Chinese proverb reminds us, 'If you don't scale the mountain, you cannot view the plain.' Hope spreads its wings to the full only over the abyss. Hope is the expectation that the present, despite its fragility, its failures and unfathomability, can give birth to new life. In this sense Christian hope proves to be a strength that enables us courageously and perseveringly to accept the present with all its imperfections, its sufferings, sin and selfishness and, even in spite of them, to push forward in expectation of God's promises, which guarantee true life. Christian hope rescues us from a seemingly absurd suffering that threatens to plunge us into the gulf of our own anguish." (From the homily on hope in difficult times given by Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam, Ireland, during the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain; the 2009 pilgrimage theme was hope)

5. The Dynamics of Hispanic Ministry in the U.S.

In Hispanic ministries, "we must understand that we are preaching the good news to the poor," Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio, Texas, said in a speech June 8 at Jesuit-run Boston College. "Many of our people are poor now, and they are going to be poor for many years," he said.

Archbishop Gomez spoke to the National Symposium on the Present and Future of Catholic Hispanic Ministry in the United States. He is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Cultural Diversity.

Not only must poverty be addressed, the archbishop said, but increased efforts are needed to bring Hispanics into leadership roles in the church and in society. "We still do not have enough successful Hispanics taking on leadership roles in the church or in our communities," and there are "a lot of reasons for this," he said.

First of all, "professional Hispanic men and women are still struggling hard to establish themselves in their fields," Archbishop Gomez explained. Furthermore, these people "still face a lot of racism and institutional barriers to success; it takes a lot of their energy and a lot of their time. There isn't a lot of either left over to 'give back' to the community, to the church."

Nonetheless, "we need to find ways to help them and encourage them to put their time, talents and treasure in the service of our people," the archbishop said. "We have to find a better way to market our organizations and to facilitate the participation of successful Hispanics in our ministries and activities."

Bringing Hispanics into leadership roles within the church will also mean "promoting a sense of discipleship among all our peoples" and reminding them "that all Catholics are called to be missionaries, to be leaders in proclaiming their faith, in preaching the Gospel with their lives," said Archbishop Gomez.

To address "material and spiritual" poverty among U.S. Hispanics, the archbishop encouraged "an intense, practical emphasis on education - education in general and education in the faith." He observed: "Every expert on poverty tells us that education is the one key to getting out of it. That means, in the first place, we need to get those Hispanic dropout rates down. It means we need to find new ways to keep our kids chaste and in school, and to instill in them the value of education."

In general, Hispanics in the U.S. "are following the classic immigrant model," according to Archbishop Gomez. "The second and third generations of Hispanics are much better educated, much more fluent in the dominant language and are living at a higher economic standard of living than the first generation," he said.

The "troubling fact" is, however, that "still about one-quarter of all Hispanics, no matter what generation, are living below the poverty line, and that number does not seem to be improving very much from generation to generation," the archbishop continued. He said:

"Combine that with high school dropout rates of about 22 percent and a dramatic rise in the number of Hispanic children being raised in single-parent homes - both strong indicators of future poverty - and I worry that we may be ministering to a permanent underclass."

6. Current Statistics: Hispanics and Religion

"As Hispanics become more and more successful, more and more assimilated into the American mainstream, will they keep the faith?" In his Boston-college speech June 8, Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio posed that question.

Current statistics indicate that "about 58 percent of Hispanics [in the U.S.] identify themselves as Catholic; about one-quarter identify themselves as some brand of Protestant Christian; and between 10 percent and 12 percent describe themselves as having no religion," Archbishop Gomez said.

These statistics, he pointed out, "represent a big change from 20 years ago - and even from 10 years ago. The number of Hispanics self-identifying as Catholics has declined from nearly 100 percent in just two decades, while the number who describe themselves as Protestant has nearly doubled, and the number saying they have 'no religion' has also doubled."

It remains an open question what the relationship of Hispanics in the U.S. to the Catholic Church will be in the future, Archbishop Gomez said. Among the challenges faced in this area are continued racism "both in American society and unfortunately in the church," and the type of secularization that leads people to believe that the way forward in life does not involve religion or God.

Archbishop Gomez commented that the nation's "ugly, unproductive and unfinished national debate over immigration" has made clear that racism's impact must not be underestimated.

In addition, said the archbishop, when people "feel scapegoated in society and marginalized in Catholic life, it's only natural that they would look around for someplace that might welcome them and treat them with the dignity they deserve." He added, "unfortunately, some people are going to reject Christianity altogether because they experience Christians treating them in ways that are not very Christian."

7. Trends in the Number of Mexicans Entering - and Leaving - the U.S.

"The flow of immigrants from Mexico to the United States has declined sharply since mid-decade, but there is no evidence of an increase during this period in the number of Mexican-born migrants returning home from the U.S.," the Pew Hispanic Center said July 22 in an analysis by staff members Jeffrey Passel and D'Vera Cohn.

The Pew analysis noted that "Mexico is by far the leading country of origin for U.S. immigrants, accounting for a third (32 percent) of all foreign-born residents and two-thirds (66 percent) of Hispanic immigrants." Moreover, it said, "the U.S. is the destination for nearly all people who leave Mexico."

According to the Pew analysis, "the recent downturn in immigration from Mexico has been steep - a conclusion based on data from multiple sources." The pattern of emigration back to Mexico is not as clear, it added, but the evidence "appears to point to a stable outflow." Statistics "indicate that in recent years there has been a large flow of migrants back to Mexico, but the size of the annual return flow appears to be stable since 2006."

Thus, "it remains to be seen whether either trend points to a fundamental change in U.S.-Mexico immigration patterns or is a short-term response to heightened border enforcement, the weakened U.S. economy or other forces," the Pew analysis said.

Various observers recently have suggested that the recession and job shortages have influenced recent migration, as have the increased costs and dangers of crossing borders illegally.

The varied patterns of migration between the U.S. and Mexico were pointed out by the analysis. It said, "Many immigrants come from Mexico to settle permanently, but large numbers also move both ways across the U.S.-Mexico border throughout the year, sometimes staying only for a few months, a pattern known as 'circular migration.'"

There was a surge in the late 1990s in the "immigration flows from Mexico," as there was in immigration from other countries, said the Pew analysis. It said that "immigration flows dropped by 2002 before beginning to grow again in 2004." However, "the slowdown in immigration after 2006 was such that by 2008 flows were down at least 40 percent from mid-decade," a change "driven largely by unauthorized immigrants."

The Pew Hispanic Center based its analysis on population surveys from Mexico and the U.S., as well as U.S. Border Patrol apprehension statistics.

8. Reflections of the Vacationing Pope

Reflections on the perplexing meaning of "power" and the vision of the late Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the world were notable elements of the homily Pope Benedict XVI gave July 24 during an evening prayer service in Aosta, Italy, a city in the Italian Alps near where he was vacationing at the time. He spoke to some 400 priests, religious and laypeople in the little Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.

a) Power. "In our modern-day worldly concept of power, we think of someone who owns large estates, who has some say in the world of economics, who has capital and can influence the world of the market. We think of someone who has military power, who can threaten," Pope Benedict said as he probed the meaning of God's omnipotence.

The question once posed by Joseph Stalin, "How many armed divisions does the pope have?" still reflects "the common idea of power," Pope Benedict commented. Thus, he said, "whoever has power and many worldly effects may be dangerous, as he could threaten and destroy."

Against the backdrop of such thinking, the biblical notion of "power" can be confounding for people today, the pope said. For, "true power is the power of grace and of mercy. In his mercy, God demonstrates true power."

And God's power is not arbitrary, the pope continued. He said, "We must learn that the omnipotence of God is not an arbitrary power because God is good, he is truth, and therefore he can do anything, but he cannot act against good, he cannot act against truth, love or freedom, because he himself is good, love and true freedom." In fact, Pope Benedict said, God also "is the guardian of our freedom, of love and of truth."

What sort of God, then, is "watching us"? The vacationing pope said: "This eye which looks upon us is not an evil eye watching us; it is the presence of love that will never abandon us. It is the eye of love that gives us the air to live." The pope located the "summit" of God's power in mercy and pardon, and in Christ's suffering "with us and for us," and thus not leaving people alone with their suffering.

b) The Vision of Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the World: Later in his remarks July 24 in Aosta, Pope Benedict discussed the role of priesthood, which he said "is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy -- so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy."

This, the pope explained, "is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: In the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy where the cosmos becomes a living host." Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a 20th-century Jesuit paleontologist who wrote "The Divine Milieu" and other widely read works.

After citing Teilhard de Chardin, the pope said: "Let us pray the Lord to help us become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves -- that our lives may speak of God, that our lives may be a true liturgy, an announcement of God, a door through which the distant God may become the present God and a true giving of ourselves to God."