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October 2, 2010

How much do Americans know about religion? - Understanding our world from the inside out - What made Archbishop Helder Camara an effective communicator? - Rising poverty level termed "staggering" by Charities leader

In this edition:
1. How Archbishop Camara communicated so effectively.
2. Building candor; strengthening church communications.
3. Rise in poverty termed "staggering" by Charities leader.
4. The Catholic Charities centennial.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Understanding our world from the inside out;
b) Manner of manifesting faith to others makes a difference.
6. How much do Americans know about religion?
7. Will possessing a strong identity render a person intransigent?
8. Final note: John Henry Newman's pastoral ministry.

1. Why Archbishop Helder Camara Communicated Effectively

"Dom Helder Camara was a powerful communicator who captured the attention not only of those who were inspired by his message, but also those who despised him for it," Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., said in an Aug. 12 address in Australia.

What made Archbishop Camara an effective communicator?

Bishop Kicanas spoke in the Dom Helder Camara Lecture Series sponsored by the Newman College, a Catholic college affiliated with the University of Melbourne. A printed text of his speech was distributed to those in the audience, which he encouraged them to read. His spoken comments, as he said, were "about" the written text, but both departed from and expanded upon it. I am working here mainly from the written text.

Focusing on what is needed if the church is to communicate effectively in these times, Bishop Kicanas examined the reasons Archbishop Camara of Recife, Brazil, known worldwide for his social justice ministry and love of the poor, managed to make a message heard so broadly by so many. Archbishop Camara died in 1999.

Archbishop Camara "spoke for the poor," Bishop Kicanas said. The archbishop "communicated their struggles and their dreams," and he "passionately voiced what they were not able to say, were not allowed to say. He made people listen to their voice."

For Bishop Kicanas, Archbishop Camara was someone who "embodied what he taught, which made his voice relevant and audible amid the 20th century's "noise and dissonance."

The Brazilian archbishop "taught us that words make their impact when they are spoken through actions. He connected his passion to his words, his words to his passion," said Bishop Kicanas.

Archbishop Camara "acted in alliance with his words," which is "what the church must strive to do," Bishop Kicanas commented. The church needs to do this, he added, "so that God's word in our modern technological world will continue to be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path."

Bishop Kicanas said that Archbishop Camara:

-- "Spoke of real people possessed by real dreams and faced with overwhelming difficulties."

-- "Made people listen and spoke with candor."

The Tucson bishop also cited Xaverian Father Tony Lally, who has written that Archbishop Camara was a poet who knew how to say things in ways people could understand. "This is critical for the church to do today," Bishop Kicanas said.

Archbishop Camara "dedicated himself to preaching," and Bishop Kicanas said that "as a priest and bishop," the archbishop was in the street, convinced that we cannot be a 'museum church,' but a church engaged and in solidarity with the people. He brought the faces and voices of his people into his message, and it was heard."

At this point in his text, Bishop Kicanas said, "We need to grow more comfortable and skilled in the church to communicate our message for a world that has little patience for the abstract theoretical language that we are accustomed to speak."

2. Building Candor; Strengthening Church Communications

Bishop Kicanas titled one part of his text "Building a Climate of Candor." He noted that in a June 2009 article in Harvard Business Review, James O'Toole and Warren Bennis, two widely recognized commentators on leadership and management, described what is involved in building a culture in which members of an organization communicate honestly with one another for an institution's well-being. "Surely in the body of Christ, open, honest and direct communication should be the norm," the bishop said.

Eight characteristics of a culture of candor were identified by O'Toole and Bennis, the bishop noted, and they are: tell the truth; encourage people to speak truth to power; reward contrarians; practice having unpleasant conversations; diversify your sources of information; admit your mistakes; build organizational support for transparency; set information free.

If O'Toole and Bennis had met Archbishop Camara, Bishop Kicanas believes "they would have found him to be the personification of their characteristics that mark a culture of candor."

Telling the truth, telling truth to power, admitting our mistakes and diversifying our sources of information were accented by Bishop Kicanas in the actual delivery of his address. Our understanding of important matters risks becoming too narrow if we never reach beyond just the few sources of information we've come to rely upon, he suggested.

Bishop Kicanas concluded his written text with 10 suggestions for strengthening communication within the church. I think they are worth quoting here:

"1. Be transformed by God's word, live it, become the word preached. Everything else is of secondary importance.

"2. Help communicators in the church to speak and write more effectively.

"3. Help the church at every level to acquire and become proficient in communications and information technology.

"4. Don't back off from proclaiming a message that may go against the grain. Speak the truth in love even when challenged or critiqued.

"5. Find ways to highlight and hold up the church's message. Make it heard amid all the competing voices.

"6. Help the church develop interactive forms of communication that engage others, especially the young.

"7. Survey bishops and diocesan communication directors to determine what they most need to better communication in the church. From the results of that survey help develop affordable resources.

"8. Identify best practices and provide models for effective communication strategies.

"9. Provide workshops for bishops and communication directors to enhance their knowledge (and skills) of techniques by which to communicate more effectively.

"10. Create a climate of candor throughout the church"

3. New U.S. Poverty Level Termed "Staggering"

New U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing sharp rises in the number of the nation's people living in poverty and the number who lack health insurance were termed "staggering" by Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA. But he said that the national poverty level reported by the Census Bureau comes "as little surprise to those who have been working closely with the growing population for whom poverty has become a daily reality."

Father Snyder commented: "We have not seen numbers like these since President Lyndon B. Johnson waged his 'War on Poverty' and, frankly, are astounded the nation has done so little to address the poverty crisis that is sweeping our country."

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Sept. 16 that the number of Americans living in poverty rose to 43.6 million in 2009 (14.3 percent of the population), from 39.8 million in 2008 (13.2 percent). The bureau also announced that the number of Americans without health insurance rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009 -- the highest number of uninsured people since the bureau began compiling such data in 1987.

Catholic Charities USA said that in 2009 its agencies served more than 9 million people. Alarmingly, it said, it witnessed a 10 percent increase in the need for basic nutritional, housing and financial services.

"These numbers are further proof that as a nation it is time to re-examine our failing system of safety nets. With nearly 4 million people thrust into poverty since 2008, we continue to add strain and pressure to an antiquated system that demands restructuring," Father Snyder said. He added:

"Catholic Charities USA sees every one of the 43.6 million people who lived in poverty in 2008 as members of a growing chorus who are begging our nation to think and act anew to solve this tragic epidemic affecting tens of millions throughout the country."

The total number of people served by Catholic Charities agencies in 2009 represented a 7.5 percent increase over the numbers served in 2008, the national charities office reported Sept. 21. It said the largest increase was seen in requests for food services, "with over 1 million more people visiting food banks/pantries."

4. Catholic Charities Centennial

Catholic Charities USA celebrated the centennial of its founding Sept. 25-28 in Washington. Some 1,000 representatives of Catholic Charities agencies gathered for the centennial convention.

"The conditions facing those we serve today are strikingly similar to those of 1910," said Father Larry Snyder, Catholic Charities USA president. He addressed the convention Sept. 26, noting that the number of Americans living in poverty increased by more than 4 million over the past two years.

Catholic Charities USA was established "at a time of great social transformation," Father Snyder told the gathering. In1910, the U.S. was moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy, "but the progress came at a cost," he said. Included in this cost was "a loss of recognition of the importance of human beings and a national sense of community."

Father Snyder criticized attitudes that reflect "intolerance, division and a lack of compassion" for those regarded as the "undeserving poor.'" Such attitudes, he said, are based on "a refusal to see in the faces of the poor the image and likeness of God." The Charities leader added, "No matter how well disguised, we must still see the beauty of the image and likeness of God in each person."

Candy Hill, Catholic Charities' senior vice president for social policy and government affairs, also addressed the convention Sept. 26. Poverty, she said, is "too complex, too personalized to be solved by a 'one-size-fits-all' approach."

Hill said that what is needed by the nation is "a system that has as its first priority the desire to guide people onto a path of self-sufficiency and dignity." That, she insisted, "is not charity; it's justice, and we must demand it."

It "has been more than 40 years since this country has experienced a truly transformative moment for social change," Hill said. She believes that "now is the time for a new conversation on what it means to live in poverty in the United States in the 21st century."

The economic crisis of the past three years should be used "to create a new economy that does not leave out millions of people," said Hill. Pointing to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released in September showing a large increase in the number of the nation's people living in poverty, Hill exclaimed: "Forty-three million! That number is neither acceptable nor sustainable."

Hill wants her "commitment to this work" to be "measured by seeing less people each year, not more," she said.

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

Understanding Our World From the Inside Out: "Students need to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of the people for whom the world does not work well. We're never going to solve the problems if we're not aware of the problems: the widening gap between rich and poor, the wide disparity of lifestyles between Southern Africa and San Francisco." (Jesuit Father Stephen Privett, president of the University of San Francisco, speaking in late July on his role as new chairman of the California Campus Compact, a coalition of colleges and universities working to advance civic and community engagement on behalf of a healthy, just and democratic society)

The Manner of Manifesting Faith to Others Matters: "We witness best to the splendor of the truth of our faith when we follow the example given by Pope Benedict. In speaking of our faith he was always so gentle and courteous, so sensitive to the achievements and anxieties of his listeners, so clear and reasoned in presenting difficult points, so humble and openhearted. We must strive for these same qualities when speaking about our faith, in witnessing to its truth." (From a pastoral letter by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, reflecting on Pope Benedict's Sept. 16-19 visit to Britain and read in parishes the weekend of Sept. 24-25)

6. How Much Do Americans Know About Religion?

Americans, on average, correctly answered half of the 32 religious knowledge questions on a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. The center released the results of its U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey Sept. 28 at a Washington symposium on religious literacy.

Catholics as a whole and Protestants as a whole were near or at that 50 percent score. Atheists and agnostics did better, coming up with an average of 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons followed closely behind, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers respectively.

The survey inquired about such matters as knowledge of the Bible, other world religions, doctrinal teachings and U.S. laws related to religion. On the plus side, the survey reported that "many Americans are devoted readers of Scripture: More than a third (37 percent) say they read the Bible or other holy Scriptures at least once a week, not counting worship services."

And the Pew center reported that most Americans correctly answered at least half of the survey's questions about the Bible. The survey report said that "roughly seven in 10 (71 percent) know that, according to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. More than six in 10 (63 percent) correctly name Genesis as the first book of the Bible. And more than half know that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments."

However, the survey also revealed that Americans as a whole are much less inclined to read other books about religion. The Pew center said: "Nearly half of Americans who are affiliated with a religion (48 percent) say they 'seldom' or 'never' read books (other than Scripture) or visit websites about their own religion, and 70 percent say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about other religions."

Catholic leaders may not be happy to hear that more than four in 10 U.S. Catholics (45 percent) apparently did not know their church teaches that the bread and wine at Mass become the body and blood of Christ. At the same time, about half of Protestants (53 percent) did not answer that Martin Luther's writings and actions inspired the Reformation. And the Pew report said that roughly four in 10 Jews (43 percent) do not know that Maimonides, "one of the most venerated rabbis in history," was Jewish.

Fewer than half of Americans (47 percent) knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Moreover, only about one-fourth of Americans (27 percent) correctly answered that most people in Indonesia, "the country with the world's largest Muslim population," are Muslims.

But at least two-thirds of those surveyed knew that Blessed Mother Teresa was Catholic, that Moses was the biblical figure who led the exodus from Egypt and that Pakistan is largely Muslim. And about half knew that Ramadan is the Islamic holy month (52 percent) and could name the Koran as the Muslim holy book (54 percent).

The Pew center commented that while previous studies it has done showed "that America is among the most religious of the world's developed nations," with nearly six in 10 U.S. adults saying that religion is "very important" in their lives, the current survey "shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own."

What's more, many people appeared wrongly to think that U.S. "constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are." The Pew center noted that "among the questions most often answered incorrectly is whether public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature."

On that point, the report said that fully two-thirds of people surveyed (67 percent) answered this question in the negative, "even though the Supreme Court has clearly stated that the Bible may be taught for its 'literary and historic' qualities, as long as it is part of a secular curriculum."

On the other hand, the report said that "the single question that respondents most frequently get right is whether U.S. Supreme Court rulings allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. Nine-in-10 (89 percent) correctly say this is not allowed."

It is perhaps not astonishing, though it may still be a welcome finding, that religious practice contributes to religious literacy. The Pew report on this survey said, "People with the highest levels of religious commitment -- those who say that they attend worship services at least once a week and that religion is very important in their lives -- generally demonstrate higher levels of religious knowledge than those with medium or low religious commitment."

The report said also that "having regularly attended religious education classes or participated in a youth group as a child adds more than two questions to the average number answered correctly, compared with those who seldom or never participated in such activities."

7. Must a Strong Identity Make People Intransigent?

A person who "unashamedly defends identity and principle" differs from someone characterized by "intransigence and fundamentalism," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said in a speech in Ireland Sept. 23. He spoke to what is called a Breathing Spaces conference, which brought together civil leaders and members of diverse Christian denominations.

Archbishop Martin acknowledged that the distinction between fundamentalism and the strong defense of one's identity is "not a watertight one." However, he said, pluralism "does not mean eliminating difference. It means fostering diversity." Furthermore, pluralism "requires concrete dialogue and simple conversation between people of different backgrounds who share a concern for the future, but who too often in the past have done their breathing in separate compartments."

A democracy in which no groups "unflinchingly espouse and defend values and principles could easily slip into a dangerous relativism of constant compromise," Archbishop Martin said.

He commented that "ownership of social change is vital if change is to be accepted and fully embraced" in a society attempting to forge its future. But, he added, "ownership of a social process does not mean exclusive private possession of the process. Each sector of society must be able to find ownership within the terms of its own heritage."

For him, Archbishop Martin added, ownership "means owning not just my views, but accepting ownership of the rights and traditions of others. In this sense, ownership must be collective and differentiated. Neither does ownership mean what, in business circles, would be called aggressive takeover by one or the other side. It means living together without threatening the other."

Archbishop Martin noted that Pope Benedict XVI had emphasized during his September visit to Great Britain that "all religious groups need each other in the face of the challenge of secularism." He said:

"I believe that we could talk in an analogous manner as we reflect on the future of Ireland. We who are concerned need to face the challenge of indifference about the future. We need to understand each other so that we can come together to address common goals."

What about the role of churches? A countercultural witness by the churches is called for today, the archbishop suggested. But, he said, "countercultural" does not imply "opposition or opting out of society." What "countercultural" implies is "a cogent and convincing presence, a presence untarnished by compromises with dominant visions or political correctness."

The archbishop acknowledged the "many differences and divisions" within his audience. Yet, he said, "we need to be united, even though divided. There are many Christian tasks that we can carry out even in the midst of division."

He said: "We need to be together in a space - as we are this evening -- in which each of us can breathe our own identity and flourish in that identity, and be embraced and enhanced by the other in our identity."

The archbishop expressed this hope: "If we can develop a process of coming together in such terms, perhaps then, through our process of overcoming division, we will together be able to make a real contribution to healing a world which is torn and divided, culturally economically, politically and religiously."

8. Final Note: John Henry Newman's Pastoral Ministry

Toward the end of his Sept. 19 homily for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham, England, Pope Benedict XVI turned attention to the British church leader's pastoral ministry. "While it is John Henry Newman's intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls," the pope said.

He called attention to "the warmth and humanity underlying [Cardinal Newman's] appreciation of the pastoral ministry." This, the pope said, was beautifully expressed in one of his famous sermons in which he said:

"Had angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you" ("Men, Not Angels: The Priests of the Gospel," "Discourses to Mixed Congregations," 3).

Pope Benedict continued: "[Cardinal Newman] lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the oratory he founded -- visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison. No wonder that on his death so many thousands of people lined the local streets as his body was taken to its place of burial not half a mile from here."