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February 16, 2010

Lenten reflections on faith and social justice --
Catholic social action encompasses both charity and justice -
Lessons of the recession on "neighborly" attentiveness -
The essentials of ecumenism for today and tomorrow.

In this edition:
1. Lent: Pope addresses sweep of Christian justice.
2. Lenten reflection: Recession's lesson about neighbors.
3. Lenten reflection: Caring for others is one of the basics.
4. Lenten reflection: The twin essentials, charity and justice.
5. Lent: The revolution of values Jesus set in motion.
6. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Listen to the dying.
b) Reflection for Lent's second Sunday. 7. Ecumenical essentials for today and tomorrow.
8. What a new ecumenical "enthusiasm" looks like.

1. Lent: Pope Addresses the Full Sweep of Christian Justice

In a just world our neighbors would be assured their due, which indeed encompasses the material necessities of life, but much more than that as well, according to Pope Benedict XVI's 2010 message for Lent.

Human beings have it in their very nature to be "open to sharing freely" with their neighbors - with people who lack life's necessities, Pope Benedict says. The problem is, however, that people find within themselves "a strange force of gravity," leading them to turn inward and affirm themselves "above and against others."

The pull of this strange gravity results in "egoism" and is born of original sin, the pope writes. He insists that conversion to Christ requires that people move away from egoism and leave behind "the illusion of self-sufficiency."

"Justice" is the theme of Pope Benedict's Lenten message. In it he notes that "giving to the poor for the Israelite" meant "restoring what is owed to God, who had pity on the misery of his people." Injustice was founded on a "profound state of closure" associated with a sense of human self-sufficiency.

It should be borne in mind that divine justice is greater than its "human counterpart," the pope proposes. People participate in God's justice when they recognize that they have entered into God's love and, in turn, live according to that love. The justice they then foster includes, and reaches beyond, sharing the material goods of life. Pope Benedict writes:

"Jesus himself was concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds that followed him and surely condemns the indifference that even today forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, water and medicine. Yet, 'distributive' justice does not render to the human being the totality of his 'due.' Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God."

Christian faith impels people to help create "just societies, where all receive what is necessary to live according to the dignity proper to the human person and where justice is enlivened by love," the pope emphasizes.

Basic to a commitment to justice among Christians is the realization that they are to a greater extent debtors than creditors, having received more from Christ in terms of forgiveness and love - in the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist, for example -- "than could ever have been expected."

2. Lenten Reflection: Recession's Lesson on Neighborliness

The global economic recession is drawing us "back to the old awareness of the neighbor," an awareness that our neighbor "is not an inconvenience or a competitor, but a member with us in our communal fabric," the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes in the January-February 2010 edition of Health Progress, published by the Catholic Health Association, based in St. Louis.

Brueggemann is professor emeritus of the Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. His article, titled "The Bible, the Recession and Our Neighbor," can be found online at www.chausa.org.

Viewing the recession as "a big wake-up call" for the U.S., Brueggemann says that in the context of "a generative economy and an atmosphere of prosperity," society "tended toward complacency and self-indulgence inching toward selfishness." It is clear, he indicates, that there are important things individuals and society as a whole can learn from the economic downturn.

He suggests that "in the end, the big learning from the recession may be the fresh awareness that to be authentically human is to have a capacity for empathy and compassion, and to express it in myriad ways, private, personal and public."

Neighborliness is accented in both the Old Testament and New Testament, Brueggemann says. When Jesus had compassion for the hungry crowd in Mark 6, the Greek term employed to describe his reaction "means that he had his innards churned and disturbed" by the plight of the hungry people. "His churning body moved to caring, generous action in his feeding miracles," according to Brueggemann.

God is seen in the Bible to be "bodily, physically moved" by those who are weak and needy, Brueggemann writes. Thus, it is God-like to be "moved and stirred by neighborly need."

When we curb our generosity out of anxiety for ourselves, we show a "reluctance to trust the truth of God," instead falling back on our "own miserly resources," Brueggemann states.

Shifting focus away from personal anxieties is a way to found our lives in the awareness "that life is an ongoing process of giving and receiving in a community of many members" and not "a competition to be won," he says.

For Brueggemann, compassion represents "an alternative to the cynical, selfish practices that have invoked the recession." A key point to learn from the recession is that investment in the lives of others, especially those who "require neighborly attentiveness," is a way of putting our "God-given humanness" into practice.

He says, "The learning now available is a chance in our society to disengage from the frantic drive for more, to break the numbing indifference that besets us, to embrace a vulnerability that refuses fear and violence, and so creates new possibilities for life and well-being."

3. Lenten Reflection: Caring for Others Is One of the Basics

Christians who give care to the sick are not just doing "something extra" in light of their faith. Actually, their actions serve as "symbols of what the church is: a caring community," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said in early February. Those who care for the sick are a reminder of the very "nature of the church," he said in remarks for the World Day of Prayer for the Sick.

Caring for the sick might well communicate a positive sign of what the church actually is to people disillusioned with the church, Archbishop Martin proposed. Noting that many today "have lost their contact and trust in the church," he asked, "How do we reach out to such people and especially to young people?" He responded that "one special place in which we can witness to the true church is through our care for the sick."

The church never should "lose sight of its true mission, which is one of service," Archbishop Martin said. It is service "directed in a special way to those who suffer."

If the church proclaimed "an abstract message" and did not also "witness to the loving kindness of God," it "would not be fully the church of Jesus Christ," the archbishop said. For, while "Jesus preached the good news," he always accompanied that proclamation "with the witness of caring for the sick and freeing those who bore burdens in their hearts."

Of course, those who care for the sick need to receive care themselves. "All of us must take carers into our care as a community," Archbishop Martin said.

He urged every parish to "reach out to carers and ensure that they are supported" both as "persons and in their work." Because giving care to the sick "can be a lonely and burdensome task, especially if one is left on one's own," he said that the church should "embrace and support all those who carry out the Christ-like mission of caring for the sick."

4. Lenten Reflection: Charity and Justice, Social Action's Two Feet

It is essential that Christians practice charity, but "justice goes beyond charity," Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., says in a pastoral message on the Eucharist released for Lent 2010. The message, titled "You Are Living Eucharist," is a supplement to his 2007 pastoral letter on the Eucharist.

He comments at the outset that "the Mass is not static," is "not an end in itself" and "is not an opportunity for me to be with Jesus in isolated union or communion." Rather, "the Mass pushes me out into the world to be Christ for the world."

The worshiping community is transformed by the Eucharist so that is members "may be people of hope and action," says Bishop Lynch. "The fruit of our faith is love, and the fruit of our love is service," he states.

It often is said "that charity and justice are the two feet of social action," the bishop notes. He says that both are "integral to the Christian life."

Discussing the "deep connection between discipleship and charity," Bishop Lynch describes how "charity (or direct service) addresses the painful symptoms of social problems." He notes that "the people of God are usually quite generous with their resources, especially in times of natural or man-made disasters"; charity also is practiced in service to the sick, stocking food pantries, providing "alternatives for women in crisis pregnancies," even comforting people who suffer and are alone.

"Direct service is needed, but justice goes beyond charity," Bishop Lynch writes. It is justice that "addresses the underlying social causes of individual problems and works for long-term social change." This can mean working "side by side and hand in hand with our sisters and brothers who are poor or oppressed," he observes.

The practice of justice calls for an examination of "traditional structures and various models and approaches to ministry," Bishop Lynch adds. For, charitable actions on the part of faith communities are not a "substitute for the more demanding work of justice." The bishop writes:

"We must be willing to leverage our strengths, talents and gifts with all leaders in ministry who are working for a just society. We work to impact local, state and federal legislation that promotes the common good. We support community organizing groups and other efforts to create long-term, sustainable change in our communities."

Bishop Lynch challenges every parish "to embrace ministries that will work to build a more equitable society."

5. Lent: The Revolution in Values Jesus Set in Motion

A "revolution in values" that continues to this day was set in motion by Jesus, Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco said in a Feb. 6 homily that his archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco, described as "a prelude to the start of the 2010 Lenten season."

The Beatitudes, for example, are "as absurd to the world around us as they were on that hillside in Galilee when Jesus first spoke them," said the archbishop. In fact, he added, "kingdom values do not match worldly thinking. They never have and never will."

Stressing the importance in the Christian vision of life of serving others, the archbishop said: "We are the ones Jesus calls to make his new values valid and forceful in the world, in our world."

And from a Christian perspective, Christ is actively present in two, complementary ways when the values of the kingdom he preached -- which include feeding the hungry, caring for and clothing those in need - are acted upon, according to Archbishop Niederauer. He explained:

a. "Jesus Christ comes to us in the hungry, the stranger, the sick person, so that we can love and serve him in them."

b. "Christ comes to those in need through us; he loves them and serves them through us if we let him do so."

Archbishop Niederauer spoke during a Mass for the World Day of Prayer for the Sick, stressing among other factors that the revolution of values set in motion by Christ encompasses a new understanding of human suffering. And what do Christians believe about suffering?

"Make no mistake: Christians are not in love with suffering," neither glamorizing it, nor romanticizing it, nor seeking it out. "However, neither do we run from it, nor do we interpret it as a sign of God's anger or rejection," the archbishop said. Instead, Christians view suffering in a new way "because the Son of God became human with us in Jesus Christ," thus giving meaning, purpose and value to "every human experience except sin."

What else might be said about Christ's revolution in values? Mary's Magnificat, the Gospel reading for the Mass that day, is in its own way revolutionary, according to the archbishop. He urged his listeners to:

a. "Consider the spiritual or moral revolution in Mary's prayer: 'My soul rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness' and has 'dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.'"

b. "Consider the social revolution in values as Mary prays: 'God has thrown down the rulers from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.'"

c. "Consider the economic revolution in Mary's prayer: 'The hungry God has filled with good things; the rich he has sent empty away.'"

6. Current Quotes to Ponder

Listening to the Voices of the Dying: "It is not easy to be with a person in [the process of dying]. Even when we armour ourselves with professional skill, the human in us too is vulnerable. But it is the human as well as the professional that is needed. The skill is not so much in having answers but in being able to listen, and being attentively present, and through that seeking to create a relationship of trust and generosity. In this attentive caring I can also create space and time to receive and honor confidences, help carry fears and doubts, and reassure that a life is valued and acknowledged, whatever its outward appearance. At this moment, the most precious gift is not just the professional gift of competent care, but the human gift of wanting to care." (From a draft text published online this month for purposes of consultation by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales; the text, titled "A Practical Guide to the Spiritual Care of the Dying Person," is being developed as a resource for health care professionals.)

Reflections for Lent's Second Sunday. "The Transfiguration was a unique event in salvation history, but smaller transfigurations happen all the time. Did you ever see a disabled child liberated while at play? Did you every see joy in the faces of the dying? Look for the light. It's under the surface of everything. -- Everything's brilliantly clear on the mountaintop: at the retreat center, during the parish mission or when hearing an excellent homily. Back at home, does Jesus shine as brightly? To be dazzled again, look in the faces of the least of our sisters and brothers." (From a discussion guide for Lent 2010 issued by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference)

7. Ecumenical Essentials for Today and Tomorrow

Many people today are "discouraged or resigned" about the future of the ecumenical movement, but there is no need to be, Cardinal Walter Kasper told a three-day ecumenical symposium sponsored the second week of February by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, which he heads. Participants included representatives of the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Methodist traditions.

Today there is a need for a "people-centered ecumenism," the cardinal said. For, "theological dialogues will bear fruit only if they are undertaken in a wider church context. They must be supported by the faithful."

Also greatly needed now is spiritual ecumenism, which Cardinal Kasper called "the true heart of ecumenism." That is because "dialogue does not take place only through negotiations among the churches, but primarily through a more intensive participation in what is holy," he explained. A "forward-moving ecumenism" that encompasses "a spiritual dynamic of growth toward the fullness of Christ" is essential, the cardinal said.

Recent decades have been marked in ecumenical terms "by growing mutual respect, trust and friendship," Cardinal Kasper told the symposium. In fact, he said, these qualities "are even more important than the fruits we have gathered" in the documents that resulted from formal dialogues.

Furthermore, ecumenism has experienced success by bringing divided Christians to a "consensus on the center and foundation of the Christian message," he said. Additionally, this consensus makes possible the exercise of a "shared witness before the world," Cardinal Kasper said.

Of course, divisions remain, among them divisions over ethical issues, he said; and these kinds of divisions can be found not only between the churches, but within them. The problem with such ethical dividing lines in Cardinal Kasper's view is that they hinder the churches' "common witness to our world, a world which is facing a deep anthropological crisis."

What is the goal of ecumenism? Cardinal Kasper said that for the Catholic Church, "the ecumenical goal is full communion in faith, sacraments and apostolic ministry." It could be said "that the goal is full communion in a communion of communions, which in different ways share in the same faith, the same sacraments and the same apostolic ministry. Thus, the Catholic concept implies at once both unity and diversity -- that is, diversity in unity," he said.

But he acknowledged that the divided churches have, "in some important aspects," different ecclesiologies, meaning that they also have different conceptions about the unity to be achieved." He added, "We cannot therefore start from some neutral point, nor can any church impose its own view on the other churches or criticize them for not accepting its position."

Yet, Cardinal Kasper said, "a reflection on the journey toward the future presupposes that we know both where to go and what is the purpose of the ecumenical journey." Lacking "a shared aim," he said there is a risk that divided churches will move in different directions and end up "further apart than at the start."

The cardinal stressed that "the path to full communion is not a one-way movement." He said: "All the parts must move. All the parts are in need of repentance and renewal."

The Catholic Church, too, "is in need of constant renewal," said Cardinal Kasper. And a strength of ecumenical dialogue is its capacity to foster renewal for all the churches. Cardinal Kasper said that "through dialogue, or rather through the exchange of gifts, all the churches learn to grow and to mature in their faithfulness to Christ."

8. What a New "Ecumenical Enthusiasm" Looks Like

A new "ecumenical enthusiasm" is needed, British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, retired archbishop of Westminster, said in a speech on Christian unity given at Worth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in West Sussex, England.

Ecumenical dialogue has reached an "interim stage" of development when divided Christians share "a real but not complete church unity," the cardinal said in his Oct. 29 presentation. He believes it needs to be recognized "that there are still grave problems which face the ecumenical movement and that despite very encouraging progress, the way ahead still appears difficult and long."

Thus, "it is important for the church to acknowledge that she lives in an intermediate situation between the 'already' and the 'not yet,'" Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor explained. There is, he said, an ecumenism of love and an ecumenism of truth; at this point in time, these need to be "complemented by an ecumenism of life."

What divided Christians ought to do now is to find ways of living out "the already real communion that exists between us all" - ways of doing "what is possible today," he said. He thinks divided Christian communities can come closer together "as they become accustomed to each other, pray together, work together, live together." He described the ecumenism of life as "a process of healing and growing."

The ecumenical process is not a "one-way street," Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor told his audience. It is not as if others simply "have to learn from us." Rather, "ecumenism, it has been said by the last three popes, happens by way of mutual exchange of gifts and mutual enrichment," he said.

For example, "Catholic theology can accept positively what the Orthodox 'communio' ecclesiology has to say because Catholic ecclesiology also maintains that wherever the Eucharist is celebrated the church of Jesus Christ is present." And "from the Reformed churches and theology it learns that the proclamation of the word of God also has the function of establishing church and 'communio.'"

"Conversely," the cardinal continued, "the Catholic Church is convinced that its institutional elements, such as episcopacy and the Petrine ministry, are gifts of the Spirit for all Christians, and therefore it wants to offer them as a contribution in a spiritually renewed form to the fuller ecumenical unity."

The ecumenism of life called for by the cardinal is a spiritual task, he said. "It means prayer, especially common, ecumenical prayer for the unity of Christians, for personal conversion and individual reunion, for repentance and the striving for personal sanctification." Spiritual ecumenism "should be understood as the way Christians, imbued and filled with the Holy Spirit of God, conduct themselves before God."

The ecumenism of life does not begin by accenting what divides Christians but what they have in common, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said. This form of ecumenism "starts with the common Christian experience -- and today, more than in the past, with the common Christian challenges in a more or less secularized and multicultural world."

In addition, he said that "ecumenical spirituality means listening and opening ourselves to the demands of the Spirit, who speaks through different forms of piety. It means a readiness "to bear the 'otherness' of the other, which requires tolerance, patience, respect and, not least, good will and love."

To succeed in ecumenical terms, "trust must be built, friendships established," the cardinal said. It is then "that we begin to understand the different positions that have been reached."