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December 17, 2010

World Day of Peace message: Accent on religious freedom -
Notes on Christmas -
Life's dignity, before and after birth -
Advent and the entire liturgical year

In this edition:
1. Securing Advent's place in the liturgical year.
2. John the Baptist's message for our times.
3. Keeping the name of Jesus alive.
4. Notes on Christmas.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Does a funeral in church still matter?
b) Life's dignity, before and after birth. 6. World Day of Peace message accents religious freedom.
7. Education for a world of brothers and sisters: Day of Peace.

1. Securing Advent's Place in the Liturgical Year

"Once Christmas comes, the season stretches far beyond the 25th of December. It continues until the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 9, 2011," Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, Utah, noted in a 2010 Advent pastoral letter. He urged Catholics to leave their decorations up for the entire Christmas season as "testimonies to our joy," but first to take seriously the "necessary time of waiting and of preparation" known as Advent.

With its focus on Advent, Bishop Wester's pastoral letter also called attention to the meaning and importance of the church's entire liturgical year. "If we truly believe the church is the sacrament of Christ in the world, then we must authentically celebrate the story of salvation as it unfolds in the liturgical year so that we can witness God's profound love and mercy to the world," the bishop wrote.

"We are very lucky," he said, that the church "has provided us with seasons to bear witness to the great mysteries of our faith." For Christians, "these celebrations and our observance of time help us witness the truth and beauty of the risen Christ."

The bishop urged the church's people and its institutions "to strive to enter into the spirit" of Advent and neither to displace the season by commencing Christmas celebrations too early nor to lose sight of the season in the rush and busyness of Christmas preparations and errands.

"Our reckoning of time is itself a sacramental witness to the fullness of the paschal mystery. If we were to skip the Advent season or any other season, we would impoverish that witness," said Bishop Wester.

Advent "is not just about preparing for the birth of Christ at Christmas, but for the Christ who is continually being born in our midst and transforming the church ever more into his body in the world," said the bishop. Describing Advent, he wrote:

"In the late autumn of the year, as the world darkens, the church is called to gather and quietly wait in hope for the coming of Christ, her bridegroom, the Light of the world. In the darkness we watch for the coming Lord. We must not let our busyness distract us from that."

During Advent's four weeks, "we prepare for the Light which comes into the world both in Christ's birth and as we await his final return in glory," Bishop Wester said. In Advent, he added, darkness covers "this hemisphere, and the world itself is quiet. Because we know that Christ reigns over all of creation, we strain in the darkness to see the light of Christ."

2. John the Baptist's Message for These Times

John the Baptist, so closely identified with the spirit of Advent, "serves as a warning to us today, to all believers, to the church and to church organizations of every age of our need to draw our strength from Christ alone," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said in a Dec. 12 homily in a Dublin parish.

The archbishop spoke against the background of the conviction for child sexual abuse of a former priest who served in the parish and also spoke against the background of the many calls for church renewal being heard in Ireland at this time.

The church is meant "to proclaim and live out the message of Jesus. It is not there in any way to be inward looking and self protecting," Archbishop Martin said. He added that "the church is called to renewal, to tear itself away from conventional expectations, attitudes and superficialities" and that "the church in every age must become like John the Baptist, an uncomfortable reminder of how we must repent and allow the truth of Jesus to break into and enlighten the darkness that can at any moment enter into our lives or the life of the church."

Archbishop Martin said John the Baptist's "task was to announce the coming of Jesus. He was called to reawaken a sense of expectation among a people that had grown tired and distant from God."

In fact, said the archbishop, John the Baptist "was called to bring renewal to institutional expressions of religion which, at the time, had so often become fossilized into mere formulae or external ritual. John's work was extraordinary. He attracted thousands to come out into the desert to see him. He wrought conversion on a vast scale."

John the Baptist's message "spoke of rising above conventional ways of thinking, conventional expectations and attitudes," Archbishop Martin said. Thus, John the Baptist "shunned the external amenities of a comfortable life because he wanted to show his absolute dependence on God. His detachment from life's comforts gave him the freedom to truly recognize the message of Jesus."

Two thousand years later, John the Baptist's message is that "preparing for the coming of Jesus means that we have to convert, to change our lives. It calls on us to interpret correctly the meaning of Christ's coming for our lives and for the society in which we live," Archbishop Martin said.

The parish in which the archbishop spoke, Ballyfermot, was one in which he grew up. He said, "I come to bring my apology to a parish to which I owe much." Archbishop Martin recalled that in the years he lived in the parish he was "exactly at the age of many of the children who were abused" there.

He said, "I apologize unreservedly," and he commented on the meaning of renewal for the church in this context. "Renewal is not about going back to business as before. As a diocese and as a parish we have to sustain and develop our robust child safeguarding procedures. We must renew our efforts at evangelization, making the message of Jesus known and making it the norm for the way we live and interact."

While he came to apologize, Archbishop Martin said he wanted also to "recognize the great work that was done through the church in this parish by its religious, its priests, its committed lay men and women." But sadly, he said, "short-sighted attempts by some to avoid scandal for the church have inflicted scandal and tarnished the good name of many good people."

The church's message remains one of hope, the archbishop said. He stressed that "the Christian message has the ability to fascinate and challenge in every age." Today, he said, "young people need to hear Christ's message in its clarity and in all its demands," and "we need to help young people to see that the true foundation of meaning and hope comes in the message of Jesus."

3. Keeping the Name of Jesus Alive

"We would not be the church were we to be bashful about proclaiming Christ," Archbishop J. Peter Sartain said in a homily during his Dec. 1 installation as the Archdiocese of Seattle's new archbishop. He is the former bishop of Joliet, Ill.

The name of Jesus ought to be heard continuously in the church, Archbishop Sartain thinks. "The name of Jesus should be on our lips in every homily, at every meeting, in every counseling session, at every moment of prayer. His name should be in every parish and school mission statement," the archbishop said.

He commented, moreover, that in "praying the name of Jesus, we take our place among the leprous and the grieving, the blind and the lame, the sinful and the searching who cried out to him for help."

"God is never stingy" with grace, Archbishop Sartain commented. Recalling St. Paul's words to the Ephesians, the archbishop said that "among us are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, administrators, caregivers, social workers, bookkeepers, housekeepers, cooks, secretaries, counselors, youth ministers, coaches, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, doctors, nurses - disciples all - and all called to build up the body of Christ, the church, by living the truth in love."

He continued, "In other words, we are in this together because together we are in Christ Jesus."

Archbishop Sartain called it "especially important" that Jesus remain in the minds and hearts of bishops, priests, deacons and consecrated religious "at all times" and that they "recognize he is always before us and we are to follow." The archbishop said:

"We bear his image, his mystery, as our gift to those we encounter in the course of the day. Conscious of our awesome call to serve in the name of Jesus, we will continue to ask pardon for the times we have not been faithful to that call."

The followers of Jesus "should pray his name silently" as they go through the day in order to remind themselves "of his nearness and seek his protection," Archbishop Sartain said. He added:

-- "In moments of transition from one task to another, we should pray the name of Jesus, who accompanies us to the next one."

-- "At times of confusion and anxiety, we should pray the name of Jesus, who calms every storm."

-- "At times of distraction we should pray the name of Jesus, who brings recollection and order by his love."

-- "At times of temptation we should pray the name of Jesus, for Satan does not like to hear his name."

4. Notes on Christmas

"The mystery of our redemption began with the incarnation. The wood of the manger pointed to the wood of the cross," Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said in a Dec. 14 column for Christmas. He pointed out that "in Christian art the crib is often shown in relation to the cross. In Byzantine icons of the Nativity, the swaddling clothes resemble the shroud in icons of the resurrection. In icons of the Nativity, the stable is a cave with a black interior that recalls the empty tomb and the jaws of hell."

Bear in mind the "intimate bond between the mystery of the incarnation and the paschal mystery," Bishop Rhoades urged. He said the famous hymn in St. Paul's letter to the Philippians (2:7-8) "speaks of both these mysteries in the context of humility, the humility of the incarnation pointing to the humility of the death on the cross."

Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Ore., noted in a column for Christmas that while this feast is observed "to acknowledge the birth of Jesus in time and in our own lives through grace," as well as "to share the gift of Jesus with all around us," it is worth remembering "that the incarnation is a scandal to some, one which many people from the very beginning had a hard time believing." They asked, "How could an all powerful, all holy and all loving God so abase himself as to become one with us in all things, except for sin?"

The archbishop added that Christians know God did this "to save us from our own sinfulness and show us his great love." But, the archbishop observed, there are many who think that "surely God could have found another, easier, more pleasant way to do this."

Among the first "to challenge the faith of Christians were those who denied that Jesus was truly human," proposing instead that the incarnation must have been just "the appearance of humanity, not the reality," Archbishop Vlazny wrote. His Dec. 14 column appeared in the Catholic Sentinel, Portland's archdiocesan newspaper.

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

Do Funerals in Church Still Matter? "We are able to face the end of our earthly existence without fear or despair because of him who declared: 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me shall never die.' The funeral of a Catholic is to be celebrated in a church, preferably the parish church of the deceased, and not in a mortuary or any other place, with the rare exception when the pastor judges that the congregation will be too large for the church. Let our funeral celebrations show to the entire world that we indeed believe 'in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.'" (From a pastoral letter for All Souls Day in 2010 by Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M.)

The Dignity of Life Before and After Birth: "The human person is a good in himself, and his integral development must always be sought. Love for all, moreover, if it is sincere, tends spontaneously to become preferential attention to the weakest and poorest. This explains the church's concern for the unborn, the frailest, those most threatened by the selfishness of adults and the clouding of consciences. The church continually reasserts what the Second Vatican Council declared against abortion and against every violation of unborn life. Unfortunately, even after birth the lives of children continue to be exposed to neglect, hunger, poverty, disease, abuse, violence and exploitation. The many violations of their rights sorrowfully wound the conscience of every person of good will. In the face of the sad view of injustices committed against human life, before and after birth, I make my own Pope John Paul II's passionate appeal to the responsibility of each and every individual: 'Respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!'" (From the Nov. 27 First Vespers homily of Pope Benedict XVI on the first Sunday of Advent)

6. World Day of Peace Message Accents Religious Freedom

"Religious freedom is an authentic weapon of peace," Pope Benedict XVI says in his message for the Jan. 1, 2011, World Day of Peace. Titled "Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace," the message was released at the Vatican Dec. 16.

During the press conference at which the message was released, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, explained that the pope views "the safeguarding of religious freedom in our multicultural, multireligious and secularized world as one of the ways to safeguard peace."

"It is painful to think that in some areas of the world it is impossible to profess one's religion freely except at the risk of life and personal liberty," Pope Benedict states in the message. He cautions that some of the "more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility toward believers and religious symbols" witnessed today "foster hatred and prejudice."

The message, quoting Pope John Paul II, refers to religious freedom as "the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights." Governments cannot deny religious freedom "without at the same time encroaching on all fundamental rights and freedoms," Pope Benedict says.

Among its key points, the message says that -

-- "To deny or arbitrarily restrict [religious] freedom is to foster a reductive vision of the human person."

-- "To eclipse the public role of religion is to create a society which is unjust, inasmuch as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person."

-- Losing sight of religion's public role will "stifle the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the human family."

-- "Religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning and purpose of the person are fully understood."

In the pope's discussion of religion's role in the public realm, he says that "religion should not be marginalized or prohibited, but seen as making an effective contribution to the promotion of the common good." After all, the pope says, religious communities contribute in undeniable ways to society -- through charitable and cultural institutions, as well as through "religion's ethical contribution in the political sphere."

Pope Benedict's message invites "all those who wish to be peacemakers, especially the young, to heed the voice speaking within their hearts and thus to find in God the stable point of reference for attaining authentic freedom, the inexhaustible force which can give the world a new direction and spirit, and overcome the mistakes of the past."

7. Education for a World of Brothers and Sisters

a) The importance of religious education is underlined in Pope Benedict's 2011 World Day of Peace message.

"Religious education is the highway which leads new generations to see others as their brothers and sisters, with whom they are called to journey and work together so that all will feel that they are living members of the one human family, from which no one is to be excluded," the pope says.

Pointing to the essential roles played by the family and parents in the education of children, Pope Benedict insists that the family "remains the primary training ground for harmonious relations at every level of coexistence -- human, national and international." Parents always must be "free to transmit to their children, responsibly and without constraints, their heritage of faith, values and culture."

He adds: "Wisdom suggests that this is the road to building a strong and fraternal social fabric, in which young people can be prepared to assume their proper responsibilities in life, in a free society and in a spirit of understanding and peace."

b) Dialogue between the members of different religions "represents an important means of cooperating with all religious communities for the common good," the peace day message says. It emphasizes that the church "rejects nothing of what is true and holy in the various religions."

While the church does not intend to foster "relativism or religious syncretism," it also does not intend to exclude "dialogue and common pursuit of truth in different areas of life," the message observes. It recalls the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace held in Assisi, Italy, describing that major interreligious gathering as testimony "to the fact that religion is a factor of union and peace, and not of division and conflict."

c) Religious minorities in the world's nations represent another key concern of the World Day of Peace message. "The leaders of the great world religions and the leaders of nations should renew their commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom, and in particular to defending religious minorities," the pope writes.

He says that defending religious minorities "is the ideal way to consolidate the spirit of good will, openness and reciprocity which can ensure the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in all areas and regions of the world." In a variety of nations, Christians are a religious minority today, the pope reminds readers.

The message opens with a discussion of Iraq and "the recent sufferings of the Christian community" there, particularly "the reprehensible attack on the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad, where on Oct. 31 two priests and over 50 faithful were killed." Attacks on Christians in Iraq spread fear and cause "many to emigrate in search of a better life," the pope notes.

Today, "many Christians experience daily affronts and often live in fear because of their pursuit of truth, their faith in Jesus Christ and their heartfelt plea for respect for religious freedom," the pope writes. He calls the situation "unacceptable" because "it represents an insult to God and to human dignity; furthermore, it is a threat to security and peace, and an obstacle to the achievement of authentic and integral human development."