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November 16, 2009

Accenting the relationship of religion and science -
Compassionate recognition of those who grieve -
Taking stock of life's realities
for a rapidly expanding population of the aged -
Migrants experience dehumanization firsthand

In this edition:

1. Strengths of religion for a conflicted world.
2. The aged: numbers grow, society's denial continues.
3. Baby boomers start turning 65 in one year.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Disturbing common denominator for people who migrate.
b) A church serving those who suffer the wounds of war.
5. Relationship of religion and science in America.
6. Science and faith in focus: Pope Benedict XVI.
7. Reflections on compassion: those who grieve.
8. Reflections on compassion: the Gethsemanes of daily life.

1. Strengths of Religion for a Conflicted World

What would you say if you were asked to discuss the strengths of religion? What is religion's "raison d'etre"?

The Vatican ambassador to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, listed numerous strengths of religion in a Nov. 10 statement to a session of the U.N. General Assembly. Speaking on "the culture of peace," the archbishop focused on the reasons interreligious dialogue is important for humanity's future.

But along the way to his main point, Archbishop Migliore stressed many, though surely not all, of the strengths of religion itself. "A century and a half ago, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, religion was described as the 'opium of the people'; today, in the context of globalization, it is increasingly regarded as the 'vitamin of the poor,'" he commented.

The "unique contribution" religions can make to the world is anchored "in their 'raison d'etre,'" Archbishop Migliore stated. And their raison d'etre "is to serve the spiritual and transcendental dimension of human nature." In addition, he said, religions endeavor to:

-- "Raise the human spirit."
-- "Respect life."
-- "Empower the weak."
-- "Translate ideals into action."
-- "Purify institutions."
-- "Contribute to resolving economic and noneconomic inequalities."
-- "Inspire their leaders to go beyond the normal call of duty."
-- "Permit people to attain a fuller realization of their natural potential."
-- "Traverse situations of conflict through reconciliation, peace-building processes and the healing of memories scarred by injustice."

Of course, Archbishop Migliore continued, "it is well known that throughout history individuals and leaders have manipulated religions. Likewise, ideological and nationalistic movements have taken religious differences as an opportunity to garner support for their own causes."

The archbishop noted, moreover, that in recent times "the manipulation and misuse of religion for political purposes have given rise to debates and deliberations at the United Nations."

Nonetheless, interreligious or interfaith dialogue aimed at "investigating the theological and spiritual foundations of different religions in view of mutual understanding and cooperation is becoming more and more an imperative, a conviction and an effective endeavor among many religions," the archbishop told the General Assembly.

Among its goals, interreligious dialogue "seeks to foster greater respect, understanding and cooperation among believers of various denominations, encourage the study of religions and promote the formation of persons dedicated to dialogue," he explained.

2. The Aged: Numbers Set to Grow, While Society's Denial Continues

Society's perception of its aged members has changed over the years, according to Msgr. Charles Fahey, chairman of the board of the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington.

In an interview with Health Progress, published by the Catholic Health Association (www.chausa.org), Msgr. Fahey said, "We've become very nondiscriminatory" toward the aged. But he suggested that at the same time there is "a tendency to mass denial" of the realities of life for the aged and what this will mean for their family members and society.

The interview with Msgr. Fahey appears in the November-December 2009 edition of Health Progress, which features a special section on senior services. The editors state by way of introduction that health care leaders in America "are bracing for the so-called 'age wave,' when baby boomers will enter the health care system in increasing numbers, potentially causing stress at all points."

Msgr. Fahey was interviewed for an article by Margot Patterson. Today, those in the Third Age, the time after retirement, represent a challenge to both individuals and society as a whole, the priest indicated. He noted, for example, that people increasingly live in four- and five-generation families, though social and civic structures are geared to just three generations, as well as to having relatively few people in retirement.

"The dependency ratio is inverting" in society, he pointed out. Thus, "we have relatively few workers vis--vis those not working - yet for whom resources must be transferred formally or informally." It is a situation that presents numerous challenges in terms of love, or friendship, or resources, or tasks, as well as in terms of the transfer of wealth between the generations.

According to the article, questions to face as the number of aged people increases include: "Can people accumulate enough wealth in the productive years of their lives to pay for a long old age? How should the burden of supporting a greater number of frail elderly be shared? Do great-grandchildren have an obligation to support great-grandparents?"

Msgr. Fahey remarked, "We've never had this problem before." But families of the future will include many four-generation families, as well as some five-generation families, he said.

3. Mark Your Calendars: Baby Boomers Are Turning 65

"On Jan. 1, 2011, the date at which baby boomers begin to celebrate their 65th birthdays, 10,000 people will turn 65 every day, and this turnover will continue virtually every day for two decades," according to James Higgins, who contributed an article titled "New Needs Represent New Opportunities for Catholic Health Care" to a section on senior services in the November-December 2009 edition of Health Progress.

Higgins noted that 10 years ago, just 6,000 people turned 65 each day in the U.S. Thus, what is about to be witnessed is an increase -- compared with the rate of growth a decade ago -- of 4,000 people every day entering the Third Age. Higgins is CEO of Bon Secours New York Health System in Riverdale, N.Y., and Bon Secours St. Petersburg Health System in St. Petersburg, Fla.

According to Higgins, by 2030 "the number of people over the age of 65 will double to 70 million" in the U.S. He wrote: "Each generation presents demographic challenges, albeit of different natures. For the baby boomers, their sheer numbers will produce unprecedented demand for health care services."

Higgins noted that "in 2005, over half of those over the age of 65 lived at or below 300 percent of the poverty line - an income level that places them at risk of need and public assistance." He immediately added that "nearly 50 percent of those over 75 years old live alone."

The children of baby boomers commonly are known as the "echo boom," Higgins said. The echo boomers "face challenges of their own," he wrote. They face "the challenge of funding the care demanded by their baby-boomer parents."

However, Higgins explained, "for the echo boomers, a much smaller group, their lack of numbers presents problems, especially as it relates to the beneficiary-to-worker ratios that determine the tax revenues on which most health care funding relies."

For those in Catholic health care, the challenges posed by the expanding number of aged people represent "a tremendous opportunity," Higgins said. It is an opportunity "to lead the way, transforming institutional care to holistic person-centered care, helping seniors to maintain their independence by placing them in the least restrictive settings necessary and advocating for the resources needed to effectively meet their wants and needs."

Catholic health care needs to manage care for seniors "across a complicated health care delivery system in ways that offer choices, uphold dignity and ensure compassion and respect," Higgins said.

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

A Disturbing Common Denominator Among Those Who Migrate: "We read in the first creation account that human beings are created in God's image and likeness. No text is more foundational or more significant in its implication for the immigration debate. It reveals that immigration is not just about a political 'problem' but about real people. The 'imago Dei' is the core symbol of human dignity. Listening to stories of immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the borders between Slovakia-Ukraine, Malta-Libya and others, I have discovered that a common denominator around the world among all who migrate is their experience of dehumanization. The insults they endure are not just a direct assault on their pride but on their very existence. Their vulnerability and sense of meaninglessness weigh heavily on them; they often feel that the most difficult part of being an immigrant is to be no one to anyone. The 'imago Dei' brings to the forefront the human costs embedded in the immigration equation, and it challenges a society more oriented toward profit than people to accept that the economy should be made for people and not people for the economy. The 'imago Dei' insists that we see immigrants not as problems to be solved but people to be healed and empowered." (From "Dying to Live: Theology, Migration and the Human Journey," an article by Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody of the University of Notre Dame in the fall 2009 online edition of CMSM Forum, published by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men)

A Church That Serves Those Suffering the Wounds of War: "We are saddened to hear of men and women who are suffering from the wounds of war. Daily they are served by our parishes and Catholic Charities agencies. According to studies by the Journal of the American Medical Association, one-third of the men and women returning from Iraq are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. For every combat fatality, 16 soldiers return from service suffering from long-term disabling injuries. In 2008 the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that there were over 8,000 homeless veterans in Washington state. Our parishes and schools are often the first place where veterans and their families can be made to feel welcome and supported. Regretfully, there are also men and women who suffer the effects of war for years. In each of our arch/dioceses we are becoming more aware of the needs of veterans, and have established some specific programming to serve them." (From the pastoral statement on veterans issued Nov. 11, Veterans Day, by the Catholic bishops of Washington state; the statement appears in the Nov. 19, 2009, edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service)

5. The Relationship of Science and Religion in America

In a special report Nov. 5 on the relationship of religion and science in America, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said that "religion and science usually strive to answer different questions," but "also sometimes tread on each other's turf." Still, the report projected, "if the past is any guide, the United States will likely continue to be a nation of both high levels of religious commitment and high regard for scientific achievement."

The Pew report was written by David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew forum. Americans tend to "respect science and the benefits it brings," Masci wrote. But, he said, "strong religious convictions can affect" the willingness of some people "to accept certain scientific theories and discoveries, such as evolution and new, life-changing technologies, such as genetic engineering."

History has known its battles between scientists and religious authorities, Masci pointed out. And "there have been and still are scientists who are hostile to religious belief."

What's more, according to Masci, "scientists tend to be much less religious than the public overall." He said a spring 2009 Pew poll of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science "found that 51 percent of scientists believe in God or a higher power," a statistic "far below the 95 percent of the America public" that in a 2006 Pew survey professed such belief.

Even so, Masci said, there are prominent scientists who profess strong religious faith. Among them he noted Francis Collins, founder of the Human Genome Project, who considers his Christian faith and his scientific endeavors compatible.

And, said Masci, "many scientists, including many who are not personally religious, tend to view science and religion as distinct rather than in conflict."

Religion and science often have operated "in tandem rather than at cross-purposes," Masci said. Down through the centuries, "religious institutions have actively supported scientific endeavors."

However, he noted the divide between some religious Americans and the scientific community over issues such as evolution or embryonic stem-cell research. In light of such areas of tension, he asked how majorities of Americans can continue to say they respect science.

The answer, Masci said, may be that many people "choose not to believe scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict religious or other important beliefs." Such an answer was suggested to him, for example, by a 2006 Time magazine poll in which people said they would continue to hold "what their religion teaches rather than accept a contrary scientific finding."

Thus far, faith and scientific endeavor have survived their clashes, at least in the U.S., said Masci. And each continues to command great respect from the general public.

6. Science and Faith in Focus: Pope Benedict XVI

The relationship of faith and science was Pope Benedict XVI's topic in remarks at the Vatican Oct. 30 to astronomers who participated in a colloquium sponsored by the Vatican Observatory in connection with the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope to observe the cosmos.

"Who can deny that responsibility for the future of humanity, and indeed respect for nature and the world around us, demand -- today as much as ever -- the careful observation, critical judgment, patience and discipline which are essential to the modern scientific method? At the same time, the great scientists of the age of discovery remind us also that true knowledge is always directed to wisdom, and, rather than restricting the eyes of the mind, it invites us to lift our gaze to the higher realm of the spirit," the pope said.

The International Year of Astronomy "invites us to consider the immense progress of scientific knowledge in the modern age," said Pope Benedict. He added that the observance invites people to turn their gaze "anew to the heavens in a spirit of wonder, contemplation and commitment to the pursuit of truth, wherever it is to be found."

Pope Benedict noted that the history of the Vatican Observatory is linked "to the figure of Galileo, the controversies which surrounded his research, and the church's attempt to attain a correct and fruitful understanding of the relationship between science and religion." The pope thanked "all those committed to ongoing dialogue and reflection on the complementarity of faith and reason in the service of an integral understanding of man and his place in the universe."

Recalling the "exultation felt by the scientists of the Roman College, who just a few steps from here carried out the observations and calculations which led to the worldwide adoption of the Gregorian calendar," the pope commented: "Our own age, poised at the edge of perhaps even greater and more far-ranging scientific discoveries, would benefit from that same sense of awe and the desire to attain a truly humanistic synthesis of knowledge which inspired the fathers of modern science."

His hope, Pope Benedict said, is that "the wonder and exaltation which are meant to be the fruits of this International Year of Astronomy will lead beyond the contemplation of the marvels of creation to the contemplation of the Creator and of that love which is the underlying motive of his creation - the love which, in the words of Dante Alighieri, 'moves the sun and the other stars.'"

7. Reflections on Compassion: Those Who Grieve

"Grief is one of the most painful and terrible emotions we can experience. It can crush us like a ton of bricks or loom over us like a dark cloud," said Msgr. Charles Pope, a priest of the Washington Archdiocese.

Why do people grieve? Writing Nov. 3 in the archdiocese's "Maybe It's God" blog, Msgr. Pope said, "We grieve because we love." He added:

"I have often thought the gift that grief gives us is love. We who love do cry and grieve. And it is precisely the grief that can deepen our love."

While grief's intensity "may lessen over the years," Msgr. Pope said that "most of us know it never completely departs." He asked, "Why should it?" For, he continued, "if we love there should always be a part of us that cannot bear to be apart from those we love. We grieve because we love."

Recalling how grief at the time of his sister's tragic death in a fire not only intensified his love for her, but yielded a new understanding of her on his part, he wrote: "If we let it, our grief will bring us gifts in strange packages. Because of it our love and respect for those we have lost is intensified."

Msgr. Pope said he often tells people "that you can't get around grief, you just have to go through it and experience it to its top. It seldom lets us off the hook. It has something to say to us, something to give us."

Grief is experienced in stages, Lorene Hanley Duquin, the author of several books, indicated in an April 2006 presentation titled "What to Do When Bad Things Happen" given during a National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors workshop in Atlanta. She said that "there is no timetable" for the stages grieving people go through, according to a Catholic News Service report on her remarks.

Duquin's remarks related to people grieving various kinds of losses such as the death of a loved one, a divorce or the loss of a job, according to the CNS report.

"When dealing with a grieving person, you have to remember that you are not going to be able to take away the pain and that the pain is part of it. They have to go through it," Duquin said.

She spoke of "four tasks of grieving" a loss: accepting reality; experiencing pain; adjusting to life after a loss; and finding new meaning in life, which involves "emotional and spiritual transformation."

8. Reflections on Compassion: The Gethsemanes of Daily Life

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa spoke of the interior pain experienced by people suffering a loss in a March 2006 homily he presented to Pope Benedict XVI and other church leaders in Rome. "God takes the pain of the heart seriously, and we should too," he said.

Father Cantalamessa, known as the preacher of the papal household, was discussing the "Gethsemanes" of different kinds -- the agonies and griefs -- that are a reality in people's lives. Among the people he mentioned were:

-- "Those who have had their strongest bond in life broken and find themselves alone."

-- "Those who are betrayed in their affection."

-- Those who are "anguished in face of something that threatens their lives or a loved one."

-- Those who, "unjustly or rightly see themselves pointed out, from one day to the next, for public derision."

Father Cantalamessa stated that "human life is strewn with many little nights of Gethsemane." Often, he said, the Gethsemanes in people's lives are hidden - "perhaps under our own roof, next door or in the next work desk!"

But while the world "is very sensitive to bodily pains" and easily is "moved by them," it is much less sensitive "in face of moral pains, which at times it even derides," Father Cantalamessa commented. Nonetheless, the Gethesemanes in people's lives recall the Gethesemane of Jesus' last days and are a call to compassion for his followers, according to Father Cantalamessa.