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September 1, 2010

Pope examines meaning of "heaven" -- Archbishop speaks on proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero -- Declining wages in America -- On ignoring the Jesus who ate with sinners

In this edition:
1. A funeral for Katrina.
2. How Katrina reshaped Catholic Charities' identity.
3. Archbishop weighs-in on proposed Islamic center.
4. Addressing the causes of interreligious violence.
5. Fewer jobs, lower wages in America.
6. Current quotes to ponder:
a) The Jesus who ate with sinners;
b) humility's real strength. 7. What "heaven" means: Pope Benedict's analysis.
8. Recalling the pope's thoughts on purgatory.
9. John Paul II on heaven, hell and purgatory.

1. A Funeral for Katrina

A funeral service for 2005's Hurricane Katrina, complete with casket, was hosted Aug. 28 by Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church in Chalmette, La., a New Orleans suburb that was ravaged by the storm's effects. "It is time to move on with our lives and put Katrina to final rest," the parish said in announcing plans for the funeral. The parish said that "many of us have already moved on, and the community is experiencing renewal and much growth."

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans was principal speaker during the funeral. "It was a very moving experience," he said. Archbishop Aymond pointed out that people participating in the event "had the opportunity to put notes about Katrina [into the casket], which I'm sure said things like, 'Never come back,' but they also included some of their own hurts and memories and emotions and wounds."

The archbishop described how, when the Katrina casket was closed -- filled with these personal prayers and notes by individuals -- people spontaneously broke out in cheers and applause, a first for funerals he has witnessed!

Archbishop Aymond had written Aug. 21 in the archdiocese's Clarion Herald newspaper that he was "very glad" the service was planned. "While some of Katrina's destruction remains, it's important that we symbolically bury her and move on to a new life," he stated.

The Katrina-related damage to Chalmette was severe, and the suburb today has a greatly reduced population compared with that prior to the storm. Six months after the storm, Catholic News Service reported that the St. Bernard jurisdiction where Chalmette is located "looked as if the hurricane just occurred." A report by CNS' Carol Zimmermann said at that time:

"There was no longer standing water, but the businesses, homes and shopping centers in the small towns and neighborhoods were completely in shambles. Houses, moved by the 20 feet of water that submerged the area after storm surges toppled the levees, sat at odd angles in the streets. What were once yards contained piles of debris or uprooted trees. Shopping centers with boarded-up storefront windows were closed. Fast-food restaurants appeared to have collapsed, and their metal signs remained twisted."

Archbishop Aymond has written that he still sees signs of stress related to Hurricane Katrina. "I still hear people talk not only about the destruction of buildings, homes and churches, but also about their emotional harm and fears," he explained.

For many people, "those wounds have been reopened with the [Gulf oil-spill] tragedy, which reminds us of our own limitedness as human beings," the archbishop said. "We still need to be very attentive to those who are experiencing stress," he urged, adding that "without a doubt, the number of suicides has increased."

One of the biggest challenges Archbishop Aymond said the church faces five years after Katrina is "to find those individuals who are hurting and be present to them, and extend to them the charity of Christ." He said, "When one member of the family suffers, we all suffer."

2. How Katrina Influenced Catholic Charities' Identity

The hurricanes of 2005 - Katrina and Rita - influenced the very identity of Catholic Charities today, said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA.

Writing in a five-year, Catholic Charities' report on the 2005 hurricanes, Father Snyder said, "If you ask anyone who lives in the region or who volunteered to assist with the cleanup, their lives are defined by an imaginary line in the sand: before Katrina and after." He indicated, similarly, that in the work of Catholic Charities there is a before and after that is hurricane related.

"Before Katrina and Rita, Catholic Charities agencies were respected for their commitment and expertise in our work with vulnerable and disenfranchised people," Father Snyder noted. And "prior to Katrina and Rita, our agencies were secondary responders in times of disaster or emergency."

But with the hurricanes, things changed. "In the instance of the storms of 2005, Catholic Charities reacted immediately," he said. "We've now garnered a reputation as early responders to crisis, while maintaining our position as the community resource who also will be the long-term responder."

Gordon Wadge, co-president and CEO of Catholic Charities New Orleans, commented in the five-year report on the posture now assumed by Charities agencies in the face of disasters. "We call ourselves the early responders," Wadge said. "And on top of that, we're the forever responders."

Corinne Knight Levy, associate director of communications for Catholic Charities New Orleans, said that Katrina "directly or indirectly affected each of our programs and the populations we serve, and prompted us to focus on creating new programs that are models of excellence."

Levy said, "Since Katrina, we have focused on being prepared for future disasters." The agency's Office of Emergency Management works with each of its 45 programs "to incorporate disaster preparedness planning," according to the report.

Father Snyder discussed another lasting lesson of the 2005 hurricanes. "Before Katrina and Rita, our country seemed content to believe that people only lived in extreme poverty in other countries. We couldn't imagine faces of desperation and struggle existing right here in America."

However, Father Snyder continued, "after Katrina and Rita, and the overwhelming loss left in their wake, we've all been awakened to the reality that poverty is right here, not only on other continents." He said that before these hurricanes, "we knew that poverty in America needed to be addressed. After them we realized that the time is now."

3. Archbishop Speaks on Proposed Islamic Center Near Ground Zero

Weighing-in Aug. 20 on the national controversy surrounding a proposal to construct an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York, Archbishop Timothy Dolan urged that ways be found to accord the entire conversation a tone of civility. The New York archbishop said in his "The Gospel in the Digital Age" blog that "civility and regard for the dignity of others must be our priority" in the present discussion.

The dual needs to continue healing from the terrorist attacks of 9-11, while also honoring the demands of religious liberty were highlighted by the archbishop. He said New Yorkers today know that they still are "healing from the wounds of 9-11, so poignantly symbolized at Ground Zero" where so many "died tragically at the hands of extremists diametrically opposed to every ideal that has made us great."

Yet, he wrote, "we want to be careful not to frame our discussion about the proposed Islamic center in New York as a choice between religious freedom, on the one hand, and completing our own healing, on the other. Both of these duties are good and both are equally necessary."

He urged his readers to consider that "sometimes how we do things is as important as what we do." He cautioned that "presuming the worst in others always puts dialogue at risk." Mutual respect, he said, is basic to all good listening.

Archbishop Dolan wrote: "Although I have no strong sentiment about what should be decided about the eventual where of the Islamic center, I do have strong convictions about how such a discussion should be reached: civilly and charitably. The hotheads on either side must not dominate."

The life of Pope John Paul II was recalled by the archbishop as an example of how "good will can resolve centuries-old hatreds, building new bridges between Christians, Jews and Muslims." He said that in the same spirit, the Archdiocese of New York hoped "to cooperate with other religious leaders in laying the groundwork for a long-term relationship with the city's diverse Islamic groups, extending the hand of friendship long overdue between both of our communities."

At the same time, he said that "now is the time for all of us to rededicate ourselves to binding up the unhealed wounds of 9-11 and to consoling the ongoing suffering of its survivors."

4. Addressing the Causes of Interreligious Violence

The president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has called upon the world's Catholics and Muslims to find ways of overcoming the violence inflicted today by the followers of different religions. In a message to Muslims for the end of Ramadan, a monthlong fast, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran noted that Christians and Muslims often enjoy close relations. Nonetheless, he said violence between people belonging to different religious communities remains an urgent concern in some parts of the world.

The Vatican released Cardinal Tauran's message Aug. 27. It recalled the conclusions of a Feb. 23-24 meeting this year in Cairo of the Joint Committee for Dialogue, established by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and al-Azhar University's Permanent Committee for Dialogue Among the Monotheistic Religions. The Cairo meeting was devoted to the role religions can play in either causing or preventing religious violence.

The Cairo meeting's concluding statement urged that greater attention be paid to the violence that can result when religion and religious beliefs are manipulated for political or other ends. The meeting also pointed to the harmful effects of discrimination based on religious identity and called for civil laws guaranteeing the "fundamental equality" of all people, regardless of religious affiliation.

Noting all this, Cardinal Tauran said that "ignorance, poverty, underdevelopment are also direct or indirect sources of violence among, as well as within, religious communities."

The Cairo meeting recommended that people of different religions recognize what they have in common and learn to respect their differences. This, it suggested, is basic "for a culture of dialogue."

Anti-religious commentary distributed by media outlets can create tensions and incite violence, the Catholic and Muslim participants at the Cairo meeting insisted. They said attacks against religion in the mass media, especially via satellite TV channels, must be opposed, considering "the dangerous effect" these broadcasts can inflict on society and on peaceful relations between religious communities.

The dialogue group addressed the roles of homilists, teachers and textbook writers. It urged them to be respectful of other religions and not make "statements or references to historical events that directly or indirectly can arouse a violent attitude among followers of the different religions."

5. Fewer Jobs, Lower Wages

Workers in America "need a new 'social contract,'" the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in its 2010 Labor Day statement. This has been a difficult year for many workers, given America's continuing, high rate of unemployment, it said.

As economic recovery is pursued in the nation, it is necessary to recognize that "currently, the rewards and 'security' that employers and society offer workers in return for an honest day's work do not reflect the global economy of the 21st century in which American workers are now trying to compete," the USCCB stressed. Its annual statement was issued by Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Problems linked to the economic crisis and the jobs shortage could persist for some years to come, the statement said. It explained: "Reports indicate an 8 million jobs 'deficit' -- jobs that existed when the recession began but have since disappeared. And with employers adding only about 100,000 jobs per month, it could take nearly seven years just to get back to where we were."

With an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent in America, the statement said, "there seems to be no quick fix or lasting remedy" to the challenges workers now face.

Yet, it stated, "more than ever, the dignity of the worker is a foundation upon which we should measure much of what is good, and not so good, in the financial, industrial and service sectors of our economy and our world."

Three actors - the market, the state and civil society - have vital roles to fulfill in forging an economic future in which workers are treated as valued, productive persons, according to the statement. But the present interaction of these forces "may well be in need of reassessment and re-evaluation."

The statement commented that "the state has played and continues to play an important, perhaps increasingly important, role in the economy and in the regulation of markets." However, it said civil society may be "the most undervalued and overlooked" of the sectors that have key roles to play in forging a future that honors the contributions of workers.

The USCCB statement asked, "Could a reawakening and new development of the roles of intermediary institutions, including voluntary associations and unions, be a force to call the market to a greater understanding of the centrality of the worker? Could they be a means to restrain, mediate or hold accountable both the state and the marketplace?"

The statement pointedly asked whether workers in America sometimes are shortchanged or exploited on the job. "In too many places across America, workers are not being fully paid for their labor," it said, adding: "National reports tell of factory workers whose time begins with the start of the conveyor belt not their arrival; of retail workers who are 'clocked out' and then required to restock or take inventory; and wait staff whose employers do not give them their tips."

In such cases, "weak and inadequate laws" forbidding such practices are ignored, the USCCB statement asserted. But it said that "families struggling to make ends meet cannot have wage earners shortchanged on overtime or not get paid for all the hours they work."

Whenever "poor or middle-class people are denied their full wage or just compensation for their hard work," human dignity "is diminished," the statement said. It stressed that "workers need to have a real voice and effective protections in economic life."

6. Current Quotes to Ponder

Forgetting the Jesus Who Ate With Sinners: A consistent accusation "was leveled against Jesus, a charge that probably led to his death: that he shared table fellowship with those beyond the pale. 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners' (Mk 2:16)? It is easy for the church to overlook this action of Jesus. I was a member of the 2005 Synod of Bishops that was concerned with the Eucharist. The synod lasted nearly a month, and you might imagine the number of speeches that were shared and the vast range of Scripture that was reviewed. To my shame, it was only afterward that I realized that in no debate was reference made to any verse that spoke of Jesus sharing table fellowship with sinners. Before pointing the finger at other members of that synod, I accuse myself of a scandalously bad memory. The 'place' for consecrated people today is the space where people are excluded from their full dignity as sons and daughters of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. This possibility is the 'tiny, whispering sound' that urges us to leave the cave of our securities, be they material goods, social esteem, comfortable prejudices or cultivated cynicism." (From the Aug. 7 speech in Long Beach, Calif., by Archbishop-designate Joseph W. Tobin to the annual assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. The archbishop-designate recently was appointed secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.)

Humility's Real Strength: "Those of you in church this weekend know that two of the readings (the first and the Gospel) focused on the thematic of humility. Both Sirach and Jesus in his parable in the Gospel make it clear that only after we have imitated his love and concern for our brothers and sisters can we expect a place at the heavenly banquet table. Humility suggests that those who work in the shadows seeking neither fame nor acclaim have a better chance in heaven than those who puff themselves up and proclaim, 'Look at me and what I do for others.' Sirach suggests that humility is not something one assumes in order to become a 'Caspar Milquetoast,' but there can be genuine strength in humility. Certainly there is strength of character." (From an Aug. 30 entry by Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., on his "For His Friends" blog)

7. What "Heaven" Means: Pope Benedict's Analysis

What is heaven like? Furthermore, where is heaven located? This year, in a homily for the Aug. 15 feast of the Assumption, Pope Benedict XVI responded to those questions.

Recent popes on a number of occasions have discussed the afterlife - specifically, what the church teaches on heaven, hell and purgatory. I'll return later to the 1999 talks in which Pope John Paul II spoke of heaven, hell and purgatory not as physical places, but states of being. For the moment, allow me simply to mention that his talks proved highly influential in the decade that followed, shaping countless conversations and homilies on life after death.

So it seems important to take note of Pope Benedict's Aug. 15 thoughts on heaven. "All of us today are well aware that by the term 'heaven' we are not referring to somewhere in the universe, to a star or such like. No. We mean something far greater and far more difficult to define with our limited human conceptions," Pope Benedict said.

With the term "heaven," he continued, "we wish to say that God, the God who made himself close to us, does not abandon us in or after death but keeps a place for us and gives us eternity. We mean that in God there is room for us."

In order to understand this better, Pope Benedict suggested taking a "look at our own lives." He said:

"We all experience that when people die they continue to exist, in a certain way, in the memory and heart of those who knew and loved them. We might say that a part of the person lives on in them but it resembles a 'shadow' because this survival in the heart of their loved ones is destined to end.

"God, on the contrary, never passes away, and we all exist by virtue of his love. We exist because he loves us, because he conceived of us and called us to life. We exist in God's thoughts and in God's love. We exist in the whole of our reality, not only in our 'shadow.' Our serenity, our hope and our peace are based precisely on this:

"In God, in his thoughts and in his love, it is not merely a 'shadow' of ourselves that survives, but rather we are preserved and ushered into eternity with the whole of our being in him, in his Creator love. It is his love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity, and it is this love that we call 'heaven.'"

So, God in his greatness "makes room for us. And Jesus the man, who at the same time is God, is the guarantee for us that the being-man and the being-God can exist and live, the one within the other, for eternity."

The pope's discussion cast light on the importance of what is happening in a person's life today, here and now. Pope Benedict said that what will "continue to exist" after death is "not only a part of each one of us," while other parts of us "fall into ruin." Rather, "it means that God knows and loves the whole of the human being, what we are. And God welcomes into his eternity what is developing and becoming now, in our life made up of suffering and love, of hope, joy and sorrow. The whole of man, the whole of his life, is taken by God and, purified in him, receives eternity."

This is a truth "that should fill us with deep joy," Pope Benedict said. For, "Christianity does not proclaim merely some salvation of the soul in a vague afterlife in which all that is precious and dear to us in this world would be eliminated. Rather, God "promises eternal life, 'the life of the world to come.' Nothing that is precious and dear to us will fall into ruin; rather, it will find fullness in God."

The pope commented that "the definitive world will also be the fulfillment of this earth, as St Paul says." And the world to come "will surpass all that we ourselves have been able to build," he said.

8. Recalling Pope Benedict's Comments on Purgatory

His Aug. 15 exploration of the meaning of "heaven" did not represent the first time Pope Benedict XVI has dared as pope to explore the afterlife. For example, in his late-2007 encyclical on hope, "Spe Salvi," he took up the topic of purgatory.

Is purgatory a place? Is it an experience? What is the "fire" of purgatory? Does purgatory encompass a passage of time? The pope's discussion responded to such questions.

"Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the judge and savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves," Pope Benedict said in his encyclical.

He added: "All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation." Christ's "gaze, the touch of his heart, heals us through an undeniably painful transformation 'as through fire."

This pain, however, "is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of [Christ's] love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God," said the pope. To speak of purgatory is not to suggest that how people have led their lives before dying is "immaterial," the pope said. However, he added, our "defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out toward Christ, toward truth and toward love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's passion."

In this discussion, Pope Benedict suggested that "at the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of [Christ's] love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy."

As for a purgatorial passage of time as humans understand "time," Pope Benedict said: "It is clear that we cannot calculate the 'duration' of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming 'moment' of this encounter eludes earthly time reckoning -- it is the heart's time, it is the time of 'passage' to communion with God in the body of Christ." (The pope followed this discussion in "Spe Salvi," No. 47, with a discussion in No. 48 of why it still makes sense to pray for those who have died.)

9. John Paul II on Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

"The 'heaven' or 'happiness' in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity," Pope John Paul II said July 21, 1999.

Pope John Paul encouraged "a certain restraint" when describing the "ultimate realities" of heaven and heavenly happiness, since "their depiction is always unsatisfactory." He suggested that "today, personalist language is better suited to describing the state of happiness and peace we will enjoy."

Speaking a week later of hell, Pope John Paul said that a human being is called to respond to God freely, but "can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself forever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life."

In a theological sense, the pope said, hell is "the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father's mercy, even at the last moment of their life." He urged that scriptural images of a fiery hell "be correctly interpreted." He said: "They show us the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God."

Damnation is possible, though "we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it," Pope John Paul said. He recommended that thoughts of hell "not create anxiety or despair," but serve instead as a healthy reminder of what Christian freedom truly implies.

Pope John Paul discussed purgatory in an Aug. 4, 1999, talk. Purgatory "does not indicate a place but a condition of existence," he said. "Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification are already in the love of Christ," he explained. Their state of purification does not prolong "the earthly condition, almost as if after death one were given another possibility to change one's destiny," he added.

The pope said that "just as in their earthly life believers are united in the one mystical body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity, which works through prayer. ... Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude."