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March 2, 2010

Privatized religion won't achieve aims
of new evangelization, archbishop says --
What being truly human means for priests -
Families taking children out of Catholic schools due to recession --
Building bridges within local communities on issues of life.

In this edition:
1. A story of lessons learned in a California barrio.
2. New evangelization demands understanding of culture.
3. New communications technology and new evangelization.
4. Reaching Hispanic immigrants through new evangelization.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Cooperative action in local communities to oppose capital punishment.
b) Lenten exercise centered on gratitude.
c) On becoming authentic persons.
6. Families taking children out of Catholic schools due to recession.
7. Pope Benedict: What it means for priests to be truly human.

1. A Story: Lessons Learned in a California Barrio

You might enjoy hearing a personal story that Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck told in a speech Feb. 7 to the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.

Recalling his first assignment as a priest, Father Deck commented that "faith has to be nurtured by a growing, personal relationship with God, and the means for doing that is prayer." But he added, "There is another kind of personal relationship that nurtures one's relationship with God as well" -- a "personal relationship with the poor."

Father Deck's theme was that action by Catholics on behalf of social justice finds its roots in faith and prayer, not in a political party or an ideology of the left or right. Father Deck is executive director of the Cultural Diversity Secretariat at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

His first assignment stands out as "a key moment" in his life as a priest, Father Deck said. He told of serving "a community of Mexican immigrants in a barrio called Delhi in Santa Ana, Calif." There he "was blessed to come to know the poor existentially," Father Deck explained.

His experience in this barrio was the one "so often mentioned by those who commit to serve or evangelize among the poor, that of getting more out of this relationship, receiving more, than I put into it," said Father Deck. In fact, he continued, "the people, their friendship and being invited into their lives, homes and families ended up being one of the greatest graces of my life."

He "found God in them," Father Deck said. He "came to grasp what it means to say that the poor are the face of God." And "the theoretical, speculative, analytical, rationalizing, politicizing aspects of justice ministry melted in the face of real people who surprisingly had so much to give despite their poverty."

If he is "ever tempted to forget what social justice ministry is about," Father Deck said he then goes "back to those early years of ministry" when "the poor stopped being more a socioeconomic category" for him and became "real flesh and blood."

For Christians, Father Deck said, "life in Christ has to be the starting point and inspiration of social action, not the ideology of left or right, nor a merely intellectualized, sophisticated understanding of the social, political, economic implications of Christian faith. That is not enough."

Christians need to ask themselves whether they are really in love with God and their neighbor, and whether their commitment flows from compassion and love more than from their "ideological comfort zones and passing social trends and bandwagons," he told the Catholic social ministry leaders.

But "yes, we should be professional as we go about our work, be practical and pragmatic, and worldly wise, but do so without making it about our ability to get results and thus create the illusion of 'success' based on what we do rather than on what God is doing," Father Deck said. He cautioned against action that "becomes self-promoting, an activism that ends up being more about us than about the poor."

What, then, does linking faith to justice mean? It is "not so much about ideas but about practice," according to Father Deck - "that is, developing the daily habit of prayer whereby our thoughts and actions are linked with the deepest of all motives, which is the loving, free choice to follow Christ, who loved all, but preferentially loved the poor."

In Christian action on behalf of social justice, this type of understanding "is not a question of denying the proper autonomy of the secular and its competence in addressing many worldly realities and needs. Nor is it about denying the truths that can and do come from whatever quarter in a pluralistic world," Father Deck explained.

However, it does mean that "the faith of Christians has something to offer that qualifies what love in action concretely means socially, economically, politically and culturally." (Father Deck's speech appears in the March 4, 2010, edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service)

2. New Evangelization Requires Good Understanding of Culture

"In order to carry out the church's mission of evangelization, we need to be better students of our culture," according to Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio, Texas. In a Feb. 15 pastoral letter titled "You Will Be My Witnesses," he said that to meet the demands of the new evangelization, "we need to understand our culture from the inside out - its values and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses, its positive and negative aspects."

For example, it is necessary always to "be on the lookout for new inroads, new avenues and openings for the Gospel, new ways to communicate Christ and to infuse the spirit of Christianity into our culture," the archbishop said. He added, "We need to always be looking for the 'language' that best communicates the Gospel."

The new evangelization is a task for every member of the church community; it depends on "Catholics who are living their faith and proclaiming it in every profession and walk of life," Archbishop Gomez said. Thus, he urged the church's people to "resist every pressure to practice a 'privatized' religion."

He noted, however, that the Gospel that is proclaimed is neither a political program nor an ideology. Furthermore, proclaiming Christ in all the fields of life "does not mean 'proselytizing,'" he wrote.

Archbishop Gomez said that "there are many ways to proclaim Christ, and not only with words," though clearly he believes appropriate words often are needed. Still, he wrote, "it is not only a matter of speaking, or preaching, or what is negatively considered 'proselytizing.' Proclaiming Christ includes everything that we do, in word or in deed, to bear witness to our faith in him. We proclaim Christ by our way of life."

Baptized Catholics who no longer practice their faith were among groups that Archbishop Gomez said he is "deeply concerned about." He wrote, "We must make it a priority to reach out to these brothers and sisters of ours, and invite them to come home."

Archbishop Gomez exhorted readers of his pastoral letter to talk with baptized, nonpracticing Catholics "about what is keeping them from the church." He urged that "a compassionate call" be issued for the return of these people to the Catholic community.

3. New Communications Technology and New Evangelization

In discussing the thorough knowledge of culture that the new evangelization requires, Archbishop Gomez turned attention to understanding "the revolution in human communication" that has resulted from the advent of the new communications technologies. "In terms of evangelization, we need to understand that these new digital media have their own logic, their own values and their own 'psychology,'" said the archbishop.

While noting the positive potential of the new technologies, including social networking, texting, e-mail and cell phones, Archbishop Gomez said he had some questions about their roles in people's lives - questions whose answers he did not want to prejudge. For example, he asked:

-- "What does it mean for people to be always 'plugged in,' always accessible to others through e-mail, text-messaging, social-networking sites and cell phones?"

-- "What does it mean if we begin to text people more than we talk to them?"

-- "With the rise of social networking media, do we risk reducing ourselves to a 'face' that we present to others, as if we are creating advertisements for ourselves?"

-- "In a culture of so much media, do we risk becoming people who can no longer stand to be alone with our thoughts, a people with an almost compulsive need to be distracted or entertained?"

Archbishop Gomez said it is "vital" to evangelization that "we in the church begin asking" these questions. He asked: "How are we to proclaim Christ in a culture that is awash in so many powerful, competing 'messages'? Is the sheer volume of information in our culture crowding out our capacity for contemplation, for prayer and conversation with God, for true community?"

What is needed -- "as a church and as individual believers" -- is to discover ways of using the new communications technologies "to help our friends see that Jesus Christ is the 'message,'" Archbishop Gomez said.

4. Reaching Hispanic Immigrants Through the New Evangelization

"I am deeply concerned that growing numbers of our Hispanic brothers and sisters are in danger of drifting from the Catholic faith to other religions or to no religion at all," Archbishop Gomez wrote in "You Will Be My Witnesses." He said that there are "many complicated reasons for this situation."

After all, "it is very difficult under any circumstances to begin a new life in a foreign country," the archbishop observed. And for Hispanics "it is even harder," since they often come to the U.S. "in poverty and under great personal stress, and facing other pressures." And so often Hispanic immigrants "experience discrimination and misunderstanding as they try to assimilate into American society," he said.

It is not even easy for Hispanic immigrants to "fit in" at Catholic parishes, "and their lack of faith formation can make it difficult for them to distinguish between the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities that aggressively try to reach out to them," the archbishop commented.

But Archbishop Gomez thinks a more profound problem faced in the case of Hispanics in the U.S. results from a tendency under secularism "to reduce religious identity to a kind of 'cultural Catholicism.'" He said he is concerned that the Catholicism of Hispanics "not simply become a kind of cultural background, a personality trait, a part of their upbringing that shapes their perspective on the world but compels no allegiance or devotion to the church.'"

His pastoral letter issued a direct appeal to Hispanics, urging them, as they become "more and more successful, more and more a part of the American mainstream" to keep their faith. And the archbishop said to the larger church community:

"The task before all of us is to find new ways to evangelize the Hispanic population, which has always been a people of strong Catholic faith and identity, a people of prayer with deep values of family, friendship and the culture of life."

A re-evaluation of "our ministries and our approach" is needed when it comes to Hispanics and the new evangelization, according to Archbishop Gomez. And this, he said, "is not only a matter of effective pastoral programs," but is "also a matter of personal witness and charitable assistance, especially to families and children."

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

Building Bridges to Oppose Capital Punishment and Support Life: "I believe in building bridges. We have other churches and groups that agree with us that capital punishment is wrong. The New Mexico Conference of Churches, mostly mainline churches, stood with us at the Legislature and in letters to the editors of local papers in favor of the repeal [of the death penalty in New Mexico]. On the other pro-life issues, and on traditional marriage and family life, we got the Evangelicals and Baptists to work with us to defeat same-sex unions and embryonic stem-cell research. Bridge-building enabled us to succeed in these areas. It is important to use op-ed pieces in the diocesan and secular papers, and to use the Internet to build support too." (From an address on opposing capital punishment given Feb. 23 by Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., to the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a University of Notre Dame law school student organization. New Mexico repealed the death penalty in March 2009.)

Lenten Exercise Centered on Gratitude: "Remember this message from Deuteronomy , 'All that we have and all that we are is a gift from God for which we should be grateful. As a Lenten exercise you might list the gifts God has given you. (i) "Think of the people in your life who have been there for you, inspired you, supported you. If you can, call or write or talk to them and express your gratitude for what they have meant to you. If you can't reach them, or if they are deceased, pray for them in gratitude for what they have shared with you. (ii) "Think of the talents and abilities that you have. Name them, and give thanks to God for them. They, too, are blessings given to you, entrusted to you. (iii) "Think of the opportunities you have been given and that have happened for your family. Give thanks! (iv) Think of the times you struggled, failed, suffered, and how the Lord was there at your side, loving, supporting, accompanying you. Give him your thanks by loving and serving others." (From the Feb. 22 online Monday Memo by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.)

On Not Abandoning Ourselves, But Being Authentic in Ourselves: "The battle between good and evil continues in the hearts of each one of us still today. The fundamental temptation to act just on our own without God can never be overcome just on our own. The message of Jesus is not a program of response to the details of the battle between good and evil. It is about opening our hearts to something new and different: allowing Jesus to be the true protagonist of our lives. This does not mean abandoning ourselves, but being authentic in ourselves through a life of greater simplicity, detached from what is not essential and not true or good in our lives." (From the homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, Feb. 21, during the Rite of Election)

6. Families Taking Children Out of Catholic Schools in Recession

Many Catholic families have taken their children out of Catholic schools as a result of the economic recession, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in a message for Lent. As families struggle to pay tuition at Catholic schools, they struggle at the same time to pay rent and put food on the table at home, the cardinal pointed out.

Lent in 2010 began much as it did a year earlier, with "enormous financial realities" taking a toll on families, "especially with the continuing loss of jobs and no immediate prospects for a renewed and favorable job market," Cardinal Mahony observed. He said:

"Countless thousands of our poorest people work two or more minimum-wage jobs in order to sustain their families. But when one or more of those jobs terminates, the financial burdens are many and burdensome."

Regrettably, the problems these families confront are compounded by taking their children out of Catholic schools. For, Cardinal Mahony said, "a sound and integral education is the only and best hope for the children and young people of these families."

Cardinal Mahony asked Catholics to "consider making a donation during Lent" to their own parish school to enable a family to continue a child's enrollment. But if their own school does not have this need, he said there are many parish schools in each sector of the archdiocese that indeed could benefit from this form of Lenten charity.

The situation confronting undocumented immigrants in the U.S. was the second of two concerns accented by Cardinal Mahony's Lenten message. "My own personal Lenten practices this year will be totally devoted to achieving meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform," he said.

"The majority of our immigrant families are 'mixed families,'" said the cardinal. By that he meant that some members of these families "are legal U.S. citizens, and some are not." In this situation families are going to try to stay together. As a result, he said, "we will continue to have some people living in the shadows of legality."

The U.S. Congress and the president "have the responsibility to help bring an end to these people living in the shadows of our society -- often deprived of basic human rights and exploited by employers -- and onto a path which would eventually bring them into full legal residence," Cardinal Mahony insisted. He said that the U.S. "would benefit greatly from taking this step forward."

7. What It Means for Priests to Be Truly Human: Pope Benedict

"A priest must really be a man of God," and he "must be man, human in all senses," Pope Benedict XVI said when he spoke Feb. 18 to the priests of the Diocese of Rome. Speaking without a prepared text, the pope explained in part of his address what it means for a priest to be human.

Viewing the priest as a bridge between God and humanity, Pope Benedict stressed at the outset that "the priest must be on God's side," must "know God intimately and know him in communion with Christ." At the same time, the pope said the priest must succeed in "being truly human in the image of God," which "is a lifelong process."

Basically, "two things go hand in hand" for the priest: "being of God and with God, and being true man, in the true sense meant by the Creator when he formed this creature that we are," Pope Benedict said.

His address to Rome's priests came as part of a meditation, a "lectio divina," focused on sections of the Letter to the Hebrews related to the priesthood.

The way people commonly speak suggests a degree of confusion about what it means to be human, the pope indicated. For example, people will say something such as "He lied," adding that this is only human. But "this is not really being human," the pope said. Being human actually means, for example, "being generous, being good, being a just person."

If the priest is to live his "true humanity," that means "he must be educated, have a human formation, human virtues; he must develop his intelligence, his will, his sentiments, his affections," the pope stated.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, "the essential element of our being human is being compassionate, suffering with others: This is true humanity," Pope Benedict continued. And the solidarity with others implied by all of this requires living life not for oneself, but giving it.

"True humanity" for Pope Benedict means a "real participation in the suffering of human beings. It means being a compassionate person." The Greek word used for this in the Letter to the Hebrews indicates that to be compassionate is to bear the burden of the suffering in others' lives, the pope said. He suggested that a compassionate priest grasps the suffering underlying the question of those who wonder, "God, where are you in this world?"

In the pope's vision of things, a priest's humanity will not prompt him to step aside from the realities of life in order solely to contemplate beautiful things. Rather, the priest will "enter, like Christ, into human wretchedness, carry it with him, visit those who are suffering and look after them, and -- not only outwardly but also inwardly -- take upon himself, recapitulate in himself the 'passion' of his time, of his parish, of the people entrusted to his care."

This, said the pope, "is how Christ showed his true humanity." Pope Benedict encouraged priests to immerse themselves "in the passion of this world" and, in communion with Christ, to "seek to transform it, to bring it to God."