“The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us.” So says the New York Times article by Nicolas Kristof last week.
This, of course, is referring to the painful and difficult situation in St. Joseph’s Hospital, in Phoenix, where the hospital’s ethics committee, faced with the agonizing situation where both mother and child were dying, gave permission for an abortion in order to save the life of the 27 year old mother. When this became known, the Bishop excommunicated Sr. Margaret, the nun on the ethics committee who agreed with the decision. Subsequently, the Catholic hospital association backed Sr. Margaret, and so Bishop Olmsted removed the hospital’s Catholic status. The discussion continues with well-known moral theologians supporting Sr. Margaret and Cardinal George of Chicago, retiring president of the bishop’s confernce, asserting that Bishop Olmsted was within his rights to so act.
Obviously this is a tragic situation for everyone involved, most especially the mother and child. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that some benefit will come from this situation. It is extremely important that bishops, as they exercise their authority, move carefully and cautiously, not making a difficult situation worse. The bishops have the responsibility to teach and to govern. Regretfully, many are prone to teach by governance, and they are not always the same thing.
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January 30th, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Last Sunday, we saw Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee calling a number of simple fishermen to come and follow him in order to “fish” for human beings. Today, he has gone inland and approaches the mountains and begins to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. His ministry has been announced! His disciples have been chosen and it is time to go to work to spread the Good News in a more detailed manner. In order to launch this more structured phase of his ministry, he sits down surrounded by the disciples and begins to teach and the first thing that he unveils is what will turn out to be the basic law of the new Kingdom. We call it the Beatitudes.
At the beginning of chapter five and running through chapters six and seven, Jesus will give his basic teachings on his divine message from God to the human family on the purpose of life, how it ought to be lived and how we ought to relate to one another. It is important that we note that the standards that he places before us are at dramatic variance with the standards of the world. Jesus challenges us to embrace poverty and simplicity, to be concerned about justice and let mercy pour through us into the lives of others, keep our attentions firmly set on our eternal destination, then to be able to be strong in the face of misunderstanding and oppression. It is a tough job description. It is the job description of being a real Christian.
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Tuesday was the Feast of St. Paul who was the outstanding missionary of the first century in the life of the Church. Now comes St. Thomas Aquinas, an extraordinary philosopher and a brilliant theologian who has dominated much of Church thought for the last 700 years. His extraordinary academic productivity is still a powerful influence in theological underpinning and development within the Catholic Church.
Evaluating or categorizing theologians is not easily done. If influence alone is the criteria, most people would agree that Saint Augustine, from the 4th century, and Thomas Aquinas, from the 13th century, are the two dominant philosophers/theologians in the first two thousand years of the Church’s history. I find this to be an interesting reality since each of them was strongly influenced by Pagan authors writing before the coming of Jesus.
Augustine was guided principally by the Greek philosopher, Plato, while Aquinas would be profoundly influenced by Aristotle, one of the greatest Roman thinkers from the 4th century B.C. Arguments still go on today in the 21st century over the influence of one or the other of these two great theologians. Of course, it does not really matter. Both were brilliant, both gave their lives to theology and, thanks be to God, both are still with us.
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It is budget time again. Budgets – budgets – budgets! In school districts, the states and at the national level, there is a scramble to try and produce realistic budgets with almost all of these economic and political entities finding themselves sorely strapped and being forced to cut back on services of every kind and at every level. Most of the time these discussions are carried on in terms of dollars. We have enough dollars for this. We don’t have enough dollars for that. This has to be cut back! This has to be eliminated!
One line item that seldom experiences dramatic cuts is the criminal justice system. The philosophy, “let’s get tougher on crime,” has been in place for more than a quarter of a century and today more than one percent of our population is involved with that system. That’s approximately two million people.
Alex Mikulich, Ph.D., with the Southern Jesuits of Loyola University, is endeavoring to inform all of us about the terrible, devastating human cost under our system of incarceration since incarceration often exacerbates the already dismal economic prospects of family members. Today, 54% of inmates are parents with minor children, ages one to 17, including 120,000 mothers, 1.1 million fathers. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
Research shows that children of incarcerated parents are at a high risk of being incarcerated themselves. Children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled, to experience aggression, hyperactivity, depression, withdrawal and to be suspended from school, thus continuing the terrible cycle of crime, incarceration and broken families. The maladies in the prison system are really one of the worst evils in our society, but as a people, we are hesitant to address it realistically.
In God’s name, can’t we do better? How long will we be blind to the destructiveness of the present system?
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In a couple posts now, I have referred to an organization that gives me so much hope and courage. It is called CURE, an acronym coming from Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants. CURE was started by Charles and Pauline Sullivan in Austin, Texas and, without structural support or any financial support whatsoever, carried forward by their own generosity and dedication, they put together a state-wide organization in Texas to lessen unnecessary burdens that are so often placed upon those incarcerated as society forgets that the punishment is the loss of freedom and the state does not have to add beyond that.
At first CURE tried to make it possible for low-income families to visit their loved ones who were incarcerated. The Texas Department of Corrections does not take into consideration family location when assigning prisoners to one or another of the prison units. Then this brave couple went after an evil part of the Texas system called “prison tenders.” That was a system where the guards picked out the toughest, meanest person in a particular section of the unit and put them in charge of the other prisoners. You can imagine the enforcement system that is in place here while the guards could stay safely outside of the risk area. CURE went to fight the battle in the state legislature and ultimately succeeded in outlawing “prison tenders”, a wonderful break for weaker prisoners.
Finally, CURE was beginning to go so well and the Sullivans were getting inquiries from other states that they moved to Washington, DC to establish National CURE. As I had always been an advisor to Charlie, I explained to him that it was going to be extraordinarily more difficult than establishing Texas CURE and gently discouraged him from an unnecessary failure.
Today, there are about 45 state CUREs scattered around the country. What next? On to worldwide CURE? Stay tuned.
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Today, the liturgy of the Church makes an effort to remember an extraordinary event, the fact that Paul of Tarsus who set out to persecute the Christians, was thrown from his horse and had an intense personal experience with Jesus. Paul moves from being a persecutor to an apostle and what an apostle he was! Once he embraced the faith, Paul was consumed, absolutely consumed, with a desire to tell as many people as possible about the message of Jesus of Nazareth, what had happened to him and his teachings as they were presented in his public life, finally being condemned by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy and executed by the Roman government for allegedly promoting insurrection.
Paul moved around the eastern half of the Mediterranean with great urgency. There is even a tradition that he got as far west as Spain but that cannot be proven. The fact is that wherever he went he received converts into the Church and established local churches. After he moved on to new efforts in other cities and towns, he maintained his ties with the churches that he had established earlier. It is because of this desire to remain in contact with these fledgling churches that we are blessed with so much of the New Testament. Paul’s letters to Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, as well as his pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus are reflections that Paul intended to provide inspiration and supervision over these struggling young churches.
Paul’s work goes on today to a tremendous extent. His conversion was an extraordinary blessing to the Church and we need to celebrate it and thank God for it.
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A few days ago, I briefly touched on the terrible problems that beset our criminal justice system. Sentencing systems are inconsistent, pro bono attorneys are frequently incompetent or indifferent, support and assistance at the time of release are pathetically inadequate, etc., etc. What are we to do? What should we as a society do to improve this situation?
A partial solution, put together by generous volunteers, is at hand but it needs to be strengthened tremendously and expanded. I am talking about CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants). CURE began in Austin, Texas back in the 1970’s. An extraordinarily generous and effective couple, Charles and Pauline Sullivan, became conscious of the fact that in the Texas prison system most prisoners were incarcerated far from their hometowns making it difficult if not impossible for relatives to visit them. Charlie and Pauline began to develop an informal busing and carpooling system that would pick people up in one part of the state and take them to where their relatives were in another part. They had no idea that with this wonderful but thoroughly small initiative they would be launching an international program aimed at improving the day-to-day lives of prisoners.
From time to time, it is necessary that we remember that incarceration is the punishment; that loss of freedom is the punishment. The state should not add to the burdens of those who are incarcerated. Once again, the incarceration itself is the punishment. Society should not add to the punishment already allocated by the judicial system.
More on the good work of Charlie and Pauline later this week. However, if you can’t wait until then, the website address of CURE is www.curenational.org.
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January 23rd, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Any part or any excerpt from one of the Gospels makes for interesting and important reading, but today is really special. Today, Mark’s Gospel captures that magic scene where Jesus, walking by himself along the Sea of Galilee, begins to see people that he will choose and call to be his followers. They are added in three groups and each one with the same literary flourish. Seeing suntanned fishermen working on the Sea of Galilee and busily casting their nets, Jesus invites them, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately abandon their nets.
In two more scenes, the words are repeated. I think that the use of the verb “abandoned” is important. I don’t know what the original Greek would be but abandon accents a dramatic change in their lives. It reflects the fact that they really turned away from the nets, turned away from the sea, turned away from being fishermen and thus began to walk as followers of this mysterious man. Jesus would proclaim the good news of the Kingdom and these new followers would later assume that same responsibility. All but one will die violently for accepting his invitation.
Work still needs to be done and we are the ones who are supposed to do it!
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There are certainly many reasons for the decrease in vocations. Yesterday, we addressed the disappearing influence of Catholic mothers. However, in addition, the world itself has completely changed its approach to sexuality. Not only is the priesthood in the Catholic Church restricted to males, but it’s restricted to males who are willing to take vows to live a celibate life. This was looked upon with respect until the sexual revolution hit us around fifty years ago. Instead of and eighteen year-old boy’s family who hears that he is going to the seminary in September reacting with adulation, praise, joy, and encouragement, honor and pride, the opposite frequently occurs. They say, “He must be crazy. Why is he doing that?”
In the face of that scenario, more courage is required today than yesterday. A young man faces a daunting challenge and risk of entering an eight to ten year period of preparation for a celibate life in Christ’s service. We thank God that there are such men, but there are not enough.
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We started this week talking about the shortage of priests, and now let’s talk more about the “Why”. One reason is the fact that until the recent past, women were the greatest source of encouraging vocations within the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic women, whether you were talking about Ireland, or Germany or Brazil or the United States, took great pride if one or several of their young boys would aspire to being ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
Over the centuries, we don’t seem to see any examples of women being insulted, infuriated, offended, or hostile to the Church simply because they could not be ordained. Since the second half of the twentieth century, though, it’s been a whole new ball game. Women became conscious of the fact that they were being discriminated against. Instead of saying “that’s the way things are”, they began to say, “That’s not right. Why can my son become a priest but my daughter cannot?” This produced a negative reaction among Catholic women, especially in the United States and Western Europe. Now, large numbers of women do not only not encourage their sons to consider the priesthood, they actively discourage it.
I consider this thinking to be a very rational response on their part.
Over the last twenty years, church leaders have struggled to communicate more effectively with women in the Church. It has not been a success story, but the bishops must keep trying. My hope is that the bright new leaders (such as Bishop McElroy, whom I spoke of yesterday) will find a way out of this painful dilemma.
There are certainly other reasons for the decrease in vocations
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