Saturday, December 15, 2012

Some Thoughts Amid Tragedy

On the weekend of the First Sunday of Advent, I shared a beautiful Advent carol with the congregation.  The first verse goes like this:
Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too.  The chill sets in a little colder; the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.
Little did I know that within two weeks of that presentation, the "verities we knew" would be shaken and seem untrue.  Those verities include the belief that we should all be kind and compassionate to one another, that someday peace may become a reality in our world, and that violence can be curbed and hopefully eliminated in our world.  We know we still live in a world that is broken and troubled; our country is still involved in war in a far-off place called Afghanistan; there is violence and upheaval in parts of the Middle East and we continue to see and hear news stories every day about murder and abuse in our communities.
But tragedy has hit in a very pronounced way in these past few weeks.  A little over a week ago in our area of New York State, four young people - all high school students - were involved in a serious automobile accident that claimed the lives of two of them and left the other two seriously injured.  The outpouring of grief and support was overwhelming as communities tried to come to grips with the loss of these well-loved students.  The cause of the accident seems to have been excessive speed on the part of another young man who struck the students' vehicle causing it to flip over and eject some of the passengers.  I was struck the other day with the sentiment expressed by one of the surviving students who said that he wanted to "forgive the other driver in person because that is the right thing to do."  I wonder how many of us could bring ourselves to offer such forgiveness in the light of the loss of friends and injury to ourselves.  This young man is to be commended for his belief.
If that wasn't enough, yesterday in a small community in the state of Connecticut (our neighboring state), tragedy struck again - this time in the violence of a young, obviously disturbed, man who murdered his mother in their home and then went to the neighborhood elementary school and opened fire within the school; the result was the deaths of twenty children (ages 5 to 10) and several adults including the school's principal.  This tragedy has rocked not only this community but the reverberations have been felt around our country.  Our President said it best when he stated in his statement yesterday: Our hearts are broken today...these are our children.  One person I know compared the slaughter to that found in the Gospel of Matthew when Herod murdered the children in an attempt to rid the world of the Messiah.  We can truly refer to these children as the "holy innocents of Newtown, Connecticut."
Police and other authorities are trying to piece together information to help us all understand what may have motivated this killer (who committed suicide after killing the others) to carry out this tragedy.  Whatever the reason, it has caused everyone to pause and realize what a precious gift life is and many parents I know reached out in a special way to their children yesterday to let them know they are loved.
This weekend in the Roman liturgy, we celebrate Gaudete Sunday - "Rejoice Sunday."  It comes half way through the Advent season as we look forward to celebrating again the coming of the Messiah into our world.  I must admit it is hard to rejoice at this time given the tragedy of yesterday.  What can we make of it?  What is there to rejoice about?  I believe that at times like this, only faith and prayer can get us through it all.  I truly believe that God was present there yesterday in Newtown with the children, the teachers, the parents (who either lost a child or had a surviving child) and community members.
I believe the sentiment that I wish I could express has been expressed best by my friend, Father James Martin, S.J. of America magazine who offered the following prayer.  I leave you with this to that all of us can find some comfort amid all the tragedy.
Where were you, God?
We are crushed with grief, God.
We cannot bear to think of so many people killed.
We cannot bear to think of children being killed.
It is unthinkable to us, the worst tragedy.
Where were you, God?
How could you let this happen?
Why is your world like this?
We are sad and angry and confused.
But God, we know that you know what it means to have a child die.
For your Son died a violent death.
And we know that your Son understands grief.
For he wept bitterly when his friend Lazarus died.
And he was moved with compassion when he saw suffering.
His heart broke like our hearts do.
He cried like we do today.
We know, too, that your Son raised Lazarus from the dead.
And that you raised your own murdered Son from the grave.
As a sign of the eternal life you have planned for us.
The life into which you know place the victims, whom you loved, and love.
We know that you understand our terrible anguish.
You accept our bitterness and our confusion, too.
And we know that your Son is beside us, weeping with us.
We know that you are still with us, God, in the darkness.
In our compassion for the families and friends of the victims.
In the love that moves us to care for one another.
In the anger that drives us to put an end to violence.
As your Son tried to do in his time with us.
Most of all, eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.  Amen.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Roman Journey

On Tuesday, October 16, I began a memorable journey with about 200 pilgrims from the Diocese of Albany, New York to attend the canonization of the first Native American saint, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born within the boundaries of our diocese in a place we now call Auriesville, New York.  It was to be a week full of wonderful memories, great companionship and an uplifting of our spirits as we celebrated with our Native American sisters and brothers this great event.
We left the diocese from various locations and traveled to Rome by way of different airlines with the intention of gathering together as a group for special events including our daily liturgies and dinners.  The group I traveled with flew from the Newark, New Jersey airport for a flight of about seven hours arriving in Rome early in the morning of the 17th (Rome time).  We were then transported by motor coach (several to accommodate our large group) to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi.  We concluded the day there with a celebration of Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis.  All of our local liturgies were celebrated by our bishop, Bishop Howard Hubbard.  The homilist on this occasion was Father James Mackey, a long time friend from my youth.  Following Mass, we joined our group for dinner in Assisi.
The next day we spent in Assisi seeing the various sites and wandering its hilly streets.  We celebrated Mass at Chiesa Santa Chiara - the Church of St. Clare, the young woman who gave up everything to begin a religious order of nuns who would follow the Franciscan rule.  Our homilist on this occasion was Father John Bradley of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Albany.  Our local guide, Paolo, was very informative as he walked us through Assisi, a journey which ended at the site of the Church of St. Mary of the Angels.  Inside this church is the original small chapel which was one of the those Francis began to rebuild after he had heard the call from Christ to rebuild my Church - a call he would later realize would be the call to reform the Church of his day.  We then left Assisi and stopped for dinner in the town of Orvieto on our way back to Rome.
On the third day - October 19 - we began our day at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.  This church is the cathedral church of the pope as bishop of Rome (St. Peter's is his "cathedral" as bishop of the world).  There, on the Feast of the North American martyrs - St. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil and companions - I had the privilege of assisting at the liturgy and delivering the homily (which I will share at the end of this post).  These martyrs met their death within our diocese at Auriesville, where ten years later a child would be born who within a few days would be canonized as the first Native American saint.  I can tell you that it was a great honor and privilege to be able to break open the word on this feast and in this place.
Following the liturgy we went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.  Following lunch, the group was given a tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel.  Since I had been there on a previous trip to Rome, I took the opportunity to pass on this and rest awhile.  My arthritis caused me to be uncomfortable with the great deal of walking that is entailed on a trip like this.  I went by myself with another pilgrim who was also bypassing the museum tour,  to St. Peter's Basilica and then waited at our assigned meeting place to go to dinner.
The following day we traveled in the morning to the Catacombs of St. Sebastian where we got an opporunity to see where the early Christians had to meet during the persecutions of the early centuries and where they buried their dead.  Following this we celebrated Mass at the Jesuit church in Rome, the Church of the Gesu.  Our homilist for this occasion was Father Robert Hohenstein from Schenectady, New York.  The group then went to view the Trevi Fountain - the famous place where legend has it that a coin tossed into the fountain will ensure another trip back to Rome.  Another deacon and I broke off from the group at this point (the group went on to the Spanish Steps) and waited at the Piazza Navona where we relaxed over a delicious dish of gelato - the creamy Italian type of ice cream (which we obtained as often as we could while there).  When the group arrived, we went to dinner to cap off the evening.
The day of the 21st - Sunday - was the crowning reason for which we had come to Rome - to celebrate the canonization of Kateri along with six others who were declared saints by Pope Benedict XVI.  We are fortunate that one of the other saints was also from upstate New York - Saint Marianne Cope - a religious sister who worked among the lepers of Molokai and helped nurse the sainted leper - Father (Saint) Damien - and remained there before returning to her native area around Syracuse, New York.  We had to arrive early at St. Peter's square to obtain good seats for the ceremony.  Four of us were fortunate to be in the front right section facing the papal altar and there witnessed the canonization ceremony followed by the celebration of the liturgy by Pope Benedict.  Our own Bishop Hubbard was one of the concelebrating bishops to join with the Holy Father at the Mass.
Following the Mass and ceremony, we were on our own for lunch.  I took a few friends with me to a small restaurant close to St. Peter's where I had dined on my two previous trips to Rome - in 2000 and 2005.  I went to lunch there again the following day; on all four occasions when I had eaten there (over a span of twelve years), I was served by the same waiter - Carlo.  That is an interesting fact in itself.
Following the lunch, the group traveled to Castel Gandolfo, the location of the pope's summer residence.  Since the main part of the village is at the top of a steep hill, I again declined the arduous walk.  We concluded the day there with dinner by Lake Albano.
Our final full day in Rome began a little later (we were thankful that we did not have an early wake-up call) with a Mass of Thanksgiving for the canonization of Saint Kateri.  We celebrated this at the Altar of the Chair (located just behind the main altar in St. Pater's Basilica) together with Native American groups from around the U.S. (there were several hundred in attendance).  The Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop of Philadelphia - Most Rev. Charles Chaput - who is a Native American.  Our own Bishop Howard Hubbard was the homilist and gave a wonderful homily that was appreciated by all present.
Our afternoon was on our own.  I took the opportunity to do a little shopping and we finally gathered as a group for our farewell dinner at the Villa Via Licio Giorgieri.  We faced an early wake-up call to arrive at the airport the next morning for our return to the United States.  Unfortunately, our plane was delayed by almost three hours leaving Rome.  We returned to Newark and then onto the Albany area where we arrived tired but fulfilled about 9 p.m.
This wonderful opporunity would not have been possible without the work and assistance of many people.  My personal thanks to Father Michael Farano, the Vicar General of our diocese, who coordinated the trip and to our great bishop, Bishop Howard Hubbard for being such an inspiration to all of us and spending his time with us.  Our bus group was also most forunate in the assistance of our bus guide - Cansu Celik - a lovely young woman from Turkey who made us feel most welcome and guided us through all the twists and turns of such a journey.  Our bus driver - Andrea - was a wonder at how he could handle this large bus making turns on a dime on some very windy roads and narrow streets.  May God bless them both.
And so we bid farewell to the Eternal City and returned to our homes and families - tired, as I said, but fulfilled.  May Saint Kateri Tekakwitha continue to be an inspiration for us and intercede for us at the heavenly throne.
The following is the homily I shared with our pilgrims at the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the 19th:
It is an exciting time to be here in Rome - the center of our Catholic Christian faith.  We see in these days a convergence of several important events and celebrations.
I had not realized it before but a few years ago I learned that the geographical center of our Diocese of Albany is a place we now call Auriesville.  It was there in 1646 that Isaac Jogues and companions were martyred for the faith.  Ten years later, a child was born there who this coming Sunday will be raised to the altar of sainthood - an event that has brought all of us here to celebrate.
Last week, the Holy Father and the world's bishops commemorated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and inaugurated the Year of Faith.  Also taking place in Rome at this time is the Synod of Bishops which will be looking at the "New Evangelization" - an effort to reach out to disaffected Catholics - those who have stopped practicing their faith for one reason or another.
Each of these events and celebrations speak to us as we gather here.
It was faith that drew the early missionaries to want ot bring the message of Christ to other lands in keeping with Jesus' challenge to his disciples: Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The martyrs we celebrate today were willing to give totally so that others might hear about Jesus.  And as it has been said:  The blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith.  These holy men were witnesses for Christ.
We are called to do the same today: probably not by shedding our blood but in living lives that can show others that the message of Jesus is important and life-giving.  As one of our men discerning the ministry of diaconate in our diocese recently wrote:  Right now we are on the threshold of a critical time in our history.  It is more important now, more than most any time in our history, for us Catholic Christians to practice our faith....We must be people of prayer, people of conviction, but most of all people of love.
In preparing for the Synod of Bishops, our Holy Father has said that there are two pillars to the New Evangelization: confession or witness, and charity.  Blessed Kateri, whom we come to honor this weekend, showed both of these important facets of evangelization in her own life: she witnessed for her faith even though shunned by her own people, and gave of herself in acts of charity to others before her short life was ended.
The Holy Father, in his remarks at the opening of the Synod said:  The saints are the true actors in evangelization in all its expressions.  In a special way they are even pioneers and bringers of the new evangelization.  He went on to say:  Holiness is not confined by cultural, social, political or religious barriers.  Its language, that of love and truth, is understandable to all people of good will and it draws them to Jesus Christ, the inexhaustible source of new life.
How do we witness today?  By speaking out when the truths of faith and our moral principles are challenged.  And we should do this by not whispering behind closed doors as our Gospel today reminds us, but rather by proclaiming on the housetops.  We witness when we welcome into our midst all peoples without exception.  We especially witness to the love of Christ for all when we show love to others by our acts of service.  It is that service, we recall, that Jesus told us would be that by which we are judged:  did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned....
After returning from France for his second attempt to bring Christ to the natives in upsate New York, and before his last visit to the site of Auriesville, Isaac Jogues wrote this to a fellow priest:  My heart tells me that if I am the one to be sent on this mission I shall go but I shall not return.  But I would be glad if our Lord wished to complete the sacrifice where he began it.  Farewell, dear Father.  Pray that God unite me to himself inseparably.
When we return to our homes after this wonderful week, our challege is to be willing to take on the mission of evangelization" of witness and of charity, so that with St. Isaac Jogues, each of us can then say:  Pray that God unite me to himself inseparably.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Being a Proud Parent (and Some Other Good Things)

In one of my earliest posts (September of 2010) I wrote the following about a disease known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease:
CMT - Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disorder (named for the three physicians who discovered it in 1886) is the most commonly inherited peripheral neuropathy.  It affects over two million persons worldwide and is found in both males and females and all ethnic groups.  It is a disease of the nerves that control muscles (unlike Muscular Dystrophy which is a disease of the muscles themselves).  It is slowly progressive and causes loss of normal function and/or sensation in the lower legs/feet as well as hands/arms.  It is not usually fatal or known to affect life expectancy but can become severely disabling.
I wrote this at the time because it was the awareness month for the disease because it is often not properly diagnosed or understood.  My daughter, Christine, has had symptoms of the disease for over 27 years and as the material noted above states, it has caused a loss of normal function in her arms, hands and legs.  She has had to wear braces for several years and is not able to be gainfully employed.  Yet, with all these setbacks she has maintained a wonderful spirit, a terrific sense of humor and has found other ways of filling her time with a return to her art and with her writing (she also has a blog which I have mentioned in the past and can be accessed by going to 
This September has seen another "awareness month" for CMT and it has also brought my wife and I some reasons to be very proud of our daughter.  To begin with, she was given the national award by the CMT national association for how she has dealt with her disease and what she has been able to accomplish in spite of it.  This award, known as the I'm a Star award, is given to one person each year.  In addition, September's issue of Artists' World Magazine was dedicated to CMT and featured artists who have CMT or know a relative or friend who has it.  My daughter submitted three paintings for consideration; all three were included in the issue (which is sent to all art galleries and museums) and she received an award for each of them: Best in Color; Best Abstract; and Best Mixed Media.  You can readily understand why we as parents are extremely proud of our artist and writer daughter who is using her talents regardless of the handicaps she has.
These achievements by my daughter would be enough to brag about in this post but there are two other items of note that I would like to share.  This week I will be privileged to witness the marriage of one of the altar boys who served in the first parish where I was assigned as a deacon.  I realize I am getting older but it is a true joy to be able to see one of the young people you have known to grow and arrive at this important moment in life.
Later in October, I will be traveling to Rome to witness the canonization of our first Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born in Auriesville, New York in the 1600s.  Her birthplace is located within our Diocese of Albany, New York, and a large contingent of pilgrims is going from Albany to witness this great event.  In addition to attending the canonization, I will also have the privilege to assist our bishop and deliver the homily at a church in Rome on October 19 which is the feast of the North American martyrs who were martyred in Auriesville just ten years before the young Native American maiden was born.  I am looking forward to this pilgrimage with great anticipation.
With all the problems our world faces today (and there are certainly many), it is good to know that we can rejoice when good and wonderful things happen in our lives.  Such has been the case for me lately and I am deeply grateful to God for these blessings.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Some Random Thoughts

It's been some time since I posted a blog entry so I decided to present some thoughts on what is happening in the world, our country and in the Church. 
War and Violence
There seems to be no end in sight to the dangerous places in the world where war continues to be waged.  We are concerned for the people of Syria who find themselves in the midst of a civil war and as in all wars the innocent suffer greatly.  War continues in Afghanistan and our American troops are now being subjected to assaults not only from the Taliban but from supposedly "friendly" Afghan troops.
Here in the United States, there have been a variety of shootings involving the loss of life of innocent people caught in the gunfire propelled by those of an unstable character or those acting out of hatred or revenge.  The most glaring of these was the shooting some time ago in Aurora, Colorado when a lone gunman opened fire in a crowded theater full of theater-goers who had come to see the new Batman movie.
When will all of this violence end?  We have lost sight of the dignity of the human person and life has become expendable.  When preserving our power over the rights of others occur, we have chaos.  Prayers for peace and an end to war and violence must become a must for people of good will so that this vicious tide can be turned.
Extreme Weather
Over this summer, we have seen how drought has affected much of our country leaving farmers to wonder if they can make a profitable living when their crops are shriveling.  Now we enter the hurricane season and the power of Isaac, the most recent one, has been felt especially in those areas most devastated by hurricane Katrina some years ago.  Help is needed to assist communities and families to recover.  A variety of charities will surely be seeking funds to assist the victims and it is hoped that people will respond generously as they have in the past.
Presidential Election in the United States
Voters in the United States are hearing the messages of those contending for the office of President of the United States.  Like many voters, I can find issues to support in both of the camps as well as issues with which I disagree.  My hope is that the final days and weeks of this campaign will be concerned with the important issues facing this country and not be mired in personal attacks.  We are fortunate in this country to be able to vote every four years for the person who will lead the country; there are other countries where this privilege is not available.  I urge everyone who is of age to vote to register and make your voice known - regardless of which candidate you support.  It is a civic and moral duty.
A Trip to Rome
In a little over a month from now I will have the privilege of going to Rome to attend the canonization ceremony for seven saints - two of whom are from my part of the United States.  Blessed Marianne Cope, a religious who worked with Father (Saint) Damien in the leper colony of Molokai and who hails from the Syracuse, New York area will be canonized along with the first Native American saint - Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha - the "Lily of the Mohawks."  Together with almost 200 pilgrims from our Diocese of Albany, I will be privileged to be in attendance as the Holy Father raises these people to the rank of saint in our Church.  It should be a most joyous occasion.
The Church in the World Today
A few days ago, one of the most well known Church leaders passed from this life.  Carlo Cardinal Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, Italy, went home to God.  A few weeks before his death, the Cardinal had an interview in which he pointed out the need for the Church to move with the times and to be more pastoral in its dealings with those it is called to serve.  His interview, published after his death, calls for "transformation" in the Church.  He said "our rituals and our cassocks are pompous."  Known for his liberal approach to matters involving the Church, it remains to be seen how his final message will be received and/or accepted.  Nevertheless, it should give pause to all who hold positions of leadership in the Church.  It is important that those who do not lose sight of the message Jesus gave to his disciples (who would become the leaders in his Church) that he had "not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)."
Those of us who serve in the Church should serve the way Jesus served - not by citing a list of rules to be followed but reaching out to those who need Jesus' healing words and touch.  The Gospel for this past Sunday in the Roman liturgy spoke to this when Jesus challenged his adversaries by telling them:  You disregard God's commandement but cling to human tradition (Mark 7:8).
There is no question that we need rules and regulations to guide us in both our rituals and in our daily lives.  Without law there would be chaos.  But when the law or the rules become more paramount than our pastoral approach to people we are in trouble.  I am reminded here of one of my favorite Gospel stories found in the Gospel of John (John 8:2-11).  It is the story of the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus' critics were going to put him to the test.  They reminded him of the presciptions of the law that called for a stoning of a person caught in adultery.  Jesus merely tells them: "Go ahead but be sure you are without sin when you cast the stone."  All of them quietly went away because they knew they were not guiltless.  It is Jesus' dealing with the woman that I would like to cite.  He asks her if anyone has condemned her and she says none.  Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.  Jesus challenges her to stay away from sin but does so in a merciful and forgiving way.  We must do the same.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Blue Rose

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I came across a very moving story from a man named Bill Rayburn who posted the item penned by an anonymous author on his website.  While it is somewhat long, I believe it is very worth reading.

Why do I always have to be the one that starts to do the laundry and there's no detergent?  I guess it was time for me to do my "dollar store" run, which included light bulbs, paper towels, trash bags and Clorox.  So off I go.

I scurried around the store, gathered up my goodies, and headed for the checkout counter only to be blocked in the narrow aisle by a young man that appeared to be about sixteen years old.  I wasn't in a hurry, so I patiently waited for the boy to realize that I was there...

This was when he waved his hands excitedly in the air and declared in a loud voice, "Mommy, I'm over here."  It was obvious now, he was mentally challenged, and also startled as he turned and saw me standing so close to him, waiting to squeeze by.  His eyes widened and surprise exploded on his face as I said,, "Hey, buddy, what's your name?"  "My name is Denny and I'm shopping with my mother," he responded proudly.  "Wow,"  I said, "that's a cool name; I wish my name was Denny, but my name is Hal."  "Hal like Hallowe'en?"  he asked.  "Yes," I answered.  "How old are you, Denny?"

"How old am I now, Mommy?"  he asked his mother as she slowly came over from the next aisle.  "You're fifteen years old, Denny; now be a good boy and let the man pass by."  I acknowledged her and continued to talk to Denny for several more minutes about summer, bicycles and school.  I watched his brown eyes dance with excitement because he was the center of someone's attention.

He then abruptly turned and headed toward the toy section.  Denny's mom had a puzzled look on her face and thanked me for taking the time to talk to her son.  She told me that most people wouldn't even look at him, much less talk to him...

I told her that it was my pleasure and then I said something I have no idea where it came from, other than by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I told her that there are plenty of red, yellow and pink roses in God's garden, however "blue roses" are very rare and should be appreciated for their beauty and distinctiveness.  You see, Denny is a "blue rose" and if someone doesn't stop and smell that rose with their heart and touch that rose with their kindness, then they've missed a blessing from God.

She was silent for a second, then with a tear in her eyes she asked, "Who are you?"  Without thinking I said, "Oh, I'm probably just a daffodil or maybe even a dandelion," but I sure love living in God's garden.

Blue roses are truly rare, and some feel the only way they can be created is by taking a white rose and having it take in a blue dye.  Whatever the reality, a blue rose would certainly capture someone's attention because of its rarity.  Reading over this beautiful little story, I was reminded of the lyrics of a song called Scorn Not His Simplicity by Luke Kelly.  It also calls on the listener to be mindful of the one who is different because of a special need and I quote just a few lines:

Only he knows how to face the future hopefully surrounded by despair.
He won't ask you for your pity or your sympathy but surely you should care.
Scorn not his simplicity but rather try to love him all the more.
Scorn not his simplicity - oh no, oh no, oh no.

Are there blue roses that you know?  They may be any of those who are different from others because of an emotional, mental, or physical challenge.  When I was discussing this story with my daughter, I told her she was our "blue rose."  Not because she is mentally challenged - no.  She is a well educated and erudite woman, an artist and a writer, but one who has struggled with a physical disability since her teenage years.  This disability has rendered her unable to work any longer even though she has been a teacher in the past.  But she has known the scorn of some who like to make fun of those less able than themselves, a situation that still exists even though she is now a grown woman.

We all need to remember that there are many flowers in God's garden - some with great beauty and others with simplicity.  But all are important and all have a place in that garden.  Reach out and touch those blue roses that come into your lives; you will be richly rewarded for doing so.

As I said before, my daughter is an artist and a writer.   She created the picture of the blue rose found at the beginning of the post, and she has penned the following poem that I now share in closing:

They catch your eye,
they turn your head,
they shine against the normal red.

You may be shocked...
too shocked to see
that what you look at is true beauty!

For beauty comes in many forms...
though some can only see the thorns,
the differences that challenge those
who only accept a red, red rose.

The differences, they are a test..
their beauty shines above the rest.

Who among us will allow
a random blue within the crowd?

For when the blue does catch your eye,
don't turn away, for you will find

Beauty and love, a calm repose...
that lies inside a bright, blue rose.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Love One Another

My son and his family and I were having dinner the other night and he and I got into a discussion about what we believe as Catholic Christians.  He told me he had been asked by someone if, as a Catholic, he believed that anyone who did not believe in Jesus was going to hell.  He told them he did not believe that.  He then said to me that he bases his view of others on a simple passage from the Gospel of John, found in chapter 15, verse 12: This is my commandment: love one another.  Jesus repeats this again in verse 17 when he says:  This I command you: love one another.

Naturally, I felt good that my son has this view of how we should treat others.  It seems so simple: If we could all love one another, there would be no more war or persecution, discrimination, or any number of others ills that befall our society.  Why can we not do it?

I believe there are several reasons why we, as weak and sinful human beings, cannot bring ourselves to love the other.  One reason is that of fear.  We fear that if we love everyone, others will take advantage of us and we might lose something: our good name, our place of power or prestige, etc.  Two others reasons are somewhat connected.  Self-righteousness and pride, I believe, keep us from loving others.  We may feel that we are better than some others because we belong to the right church, the right political party, the right club, etc., and therefore look down upon those who, in our estimation, do not "measure up."  This is a form of pride - pride that we have some talents, possessions, or other things that make us somehow better than others and, therefore, we may look down upon others and not love them as Jesus calls us to do.

Another reason is when we are unable to forgive those who have hurt us in some way.  Because of our anger we would rather seek retaliation for injustice done to us instead of reaching out and forgiving those who have offended us.  They have hurt us; how, therefore, can we ever love them?  Yet, we have a model for how we should behave as we read in Luke 23: 34:  Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

When Jesus spoke to his disciples at the Last Supper as quoted in John 15:12, he did not say: Love one another except...(and here you can put whatever you want:  those of another religion; those of another race; those of another sexual orientation; those of differing political viewpoints, etc.)  Jesus made no distinction when it comes to those whom we should love; we are called to love everyone.  We may not like everyone or what they do but we are called to love them which simply means that we wish them no harm and are willing to assist them whenever they are in need.

This brings me to another point.  Along with love, we must also have compassion.  In this weekend's Scripture readings in the Roman ritual, we hear the Gospel of Mark (5:21-43) in which Jesus shows compassion on first a woman who had suffered with a hemorrhage for a number of years, and then shows compassion to a synagogue official whose daughter lays dying in their home.  The woman is cured simply by touching Jesus' garments and the young girl who has died is raised to life.

In our parish each week, our Parish Life Director places a weekly reflection on the Gospel of the week.  This week she points our that compassion is not pity because pity is something we feel from a distance.  Compassion means we involve ourselves directly in the life of the person who is seeking help.  The word compassion comes from two Latin words meaning "to suffer with."  It means we need to get our hands dirty with the efforts that are required to meet the needs of others.  Love and compassion: two things our world sorely needs in these difficult times.  We look at the strife in Syria, for example, to see how humans can be destructive of one another.  At the same time, we see the valiant efforts of those fighting the wild fires that are now occuring in the western part of our country which have left countless without homes to return to.  Those brave men and women put their lives on the line to protect others.  We see the same valiant effort in those who serve our country in the military, and as we approach the celebration of another Independence Day in the U.S. we should always be mindful of their sacrifices.

We long for peace in our world.  We long for the time when we can live together in harmony.  Such a time will only come when we truly love and have compassion and respect for the other.  May this be our constant prayer.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why I Remain Catholic

How baffling you are, O Church, and yet how I love you!  How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!  I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.  You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is.  I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.  How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely.  And besides, where would I go?  Would I establish another?  I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me.  And if I did establish another, it would be my church, not the Church of Christ.  I am old enough to know that I am no better than anyone else....

These words were written by Carlo Carreto, a leader in Catholic Action in Italy after World War II and later a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus.  Given the number of things that seem to be swelling about regarding the Church these days, these words probably resonate with many people.  Some who have found the Church difficult may have chosen to leave but many still remain understanding that there is nothing new about controversy when it comes to the Church, and in the words of Caretto:  where would we go?

The Church has withstood for twenty-one centuries attacks and criticisms from the outside: persecutions (even into our own day), rebellion against one or another of the Church's doctrinal or moral teachings, etc.  In the past few months, however, the Church has seen a large number of criticisms from within.  To cite a few:  1) an opinion poll in Ireland, for many centuries a bastion of Catholicism, found that two-thirds of those polled do not accept the Church's teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist (this is somewhat higher than the results of a similar poll here in the U.S. in 2010 that found 45 percent of those polled thought the Church's teaching was that the Eucharist was a "symbol" of Christ's Body and Blood); 2) the publication of supposedly secret documents from the Vatican by an Italian journalist that led to the arrest of a member of the papal household (a happening now called "Vatileaks" by the media); 3) here in the United States, a decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to have a commission appointed to oversee and possibly overhaul the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which decision has been strongly criticized by many, as well as calling into question a book published by a leading American moral theologian; and 4) the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) clash between the conservative and traditional wing of the Church and the liberal and progressive wing.

One thing about our Church, however, that I learned sometime ago is that the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church covers many people with differing opinions and ecclesiologies - and there is room for all.  Arguments and controversy, as stated above, are nothing new in the Church; they began with Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.  What we seem to be lacking today, however, is that while we may disagree on certain items, we turn those disagreements into attacks on those who oppose our views.  Where is there room for Jesus' command:  Love one another as I have loved you? 

In a recent edition of our diocesan newspaper, our bishop wrote an article about civility in public discourse.  Regarding how we are behaving in the Church today, he made this important statement:  We must be a Church that hears the voices of Mother Angelica and Sister Elizabeth Johnson; of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; of the Legionaries of Christ and the Voice of the Faithful; of Opus Dei and Call to Action...  If we could all heed the words of this reasonable statement, perhaps some of the sharp edges with which we confront others whose opinions differ from our own would become smooth and we could walk together in our continued journey of faith.

Another point I would make is that all of those who hold leadership positions in the Church need to remember that our model for how we deal with others is that of Jesus who got on his knees to wash his disciples' feet.  Whether pope, bishop, priest, deacon, vowed religious or lay ecclesial minister - all must realize that the primary call of Christ is that of service to others.  Problems occur when this is forgotten.

To the question, then, that I posed in my title :  Why I Remain Catholic.  I remain Catholic because the Church is my home; it is my family.  Families have disagreements and disputes but when love covers all of these we can continue as a family.  It is within this Church that I receive the nourishment I need to continue on my faith journey: nourishment from the word of God and from the Eucharist where Jesus comes to meet me and strengthen me.  I cannot see myself walking away from this Church even with all of its warts and shortcomings because, again, where would I go?

I came across a wonderful prayer recently published in America magazine by Father James Martin, S.J.  I believe it speaks to all that I have been saying and is no doubt the prayer that many of us need to say in these trying times.  With Father Martin's permission, I present it to you now:

Dear God, sometimes I get so frustrated with your church.
I know that I’m not alone. So many people who love your church feel frustrated with the Body of Christ on earth. Priests and deacons, and brothers and sisters, can feel frustrated, too. And I’ll bet that even bishops and popes feel frustrated. We grow worried and concerned and bothered and angry and sometimes scandalized because your divine institution, our home, is filled with human beings who are sinful. Just like me.
But I get frustrated most of all when I feel that there are things that need to be changed and I don’t have the power to change them.
So I need your help, God.
Help me to remember that Jesus promised that he would be with us until the end of time, and that your church is always guided by the Holy Spirit, even if it’s hard for me to see. Sometimes change happens suddenly, and the Spirit astonishes us, but often in the church it happens slowly. In your time, not mine. Help me know that the seeds that I plant with love in the ground of your church will one day bloom. So give me patience.
Help me to understand that there was never a time when there were not arguments or disputes within your church. Arguments go all the way back to Peter and Paul debating one another. And there was never a time when there wasn’t sin among the members of your church. That kind of sin goes back to Peter denying Jesus during his Passion. Why would today’s church be any different than it was for people who knew Jesus on earth? Give me wisdom.
Help me to trust in the Resurrection. The Risen Christ reminds us that there is always the hope of something new. Death is never the last word for us. Neither is despair. And help me remember that when the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples, he bore the wounds of his Crucifixion. Like Christ, the church is always wounded, but always a carrier of grace. Give me hope.
Help me to believe that your Spirit can do anything: raise up saints when we need them most, soften hearts when they seem hardened, open minds when they seem closed, inspire confidence when all seems lost, help us do what had seemed impossible until it was done. This is the same Spirit that converted Paul, inspired Augustine, called Francis of Assisi, emboldened Catherine of Siena, consoled Ignatius of Loyola, comforted Thérèse of Lisieux, enlivened John XXIII, accompanied Teresa of Calcutta, strengthened Dorothy Day and encouraged John Paul II. It is the same Spirit that it with us today, and your Spirit has lost none of its power. Give me faith.
Help me to remember all your saints. Most of them had it a lot worse than I do. They were frustrated with your church at times, struggled with it, and were occasionally persecuted by it. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by church authorities. Ignatius of Loyola was thrown into jail by the Inquisition. Mary MacKillop was excommunicated. If they can trust in your church in the midst of those difficulties, so can I. Give me courage.
Help me to be peaceful when people tell me that I don’t belong in the church, that I’m a heretic for trying to make things better, or that I’m not a good Catholic. I know that I was baptized. You called me by name to be in your church, God. As long as I draw breath, help me remember how the holy waters of baptism welcomed me into your holy family of sinners and saints. Let the voice that called me into your church be what I hear when other voices tell me that I’m not welcome in the church. Give me peace.
Most of all, help me to place all of my hope in your Son. My faith is in Jesus Christ. Give me only his love and his grace. That’s enough for me.
Help me God, and help your church.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Joy - The Fruit of the Holy Spirit

Yesterday, Pentecost Sunday, we brought the Easter season to a close with the celebration of that momentous event in the early Church that brought the message of Christ out into the world.

Pentecost has often been referred to as the "birthday of the Church."  Some theologians would hold that the Church was born from the wounded side of Christ as he hung on the cross.  I don't want to get into a theological argument but I would like to see Pentecost as "the miracle of the Church."

Consider what happened on that day.  The disciples were gathered in that upper room which had become their place of hiding (after the death of Jesus), a place of discernment (as they tried to fathom what the resurrected Jesus was asking them to do), and expectation (having been told to await in the city for the coming of the Holy Spirit).  Then they are disturbed by a "mighty wind" and tongues of fire appear over them.  They then go out and change the world.

Remember that there were none of them who held a master's or a doctorate degree in theology or Scripture.  They were simple people who earned their living with their hands and the sweat of their brow.  Yet, it was to these that the Holy Spirit came charging them and giving them the strength to begin to bring the message of Jesus to the world.  Consider, also, that down through the centuries of the existence of the Church, there have been persecutions, corruption on the part of leaders of the Church, ruptures in the body of the Church, and scandals which exist even in our own day.  Yet, here we are, twenty-one centuries later still joining together to worship that resurrected Christ and coming together as a community of faith.

This is because of the power of the Spirit.  In the seventeenth chaper of the Acts of the Apostles, we read about Paul's discourse with the Athenians in the town square where he comes upon a shrine dedicated to the "unknown god."  Paul proceeds to tell them about Jesus and what his message was for the world.  Sometimes I think that for us Christians, the Holy Spirit is the "unknown God."  We pray daily the Lord's Prayer (the "Our Father") and pray often to Jesus to aid us.  How often do we pray to the Holy Spirit?  Yet it is the Spirit, given to us in our baptism and fortified with his gifts at our confirmation, that guides us in our faith journey.  It is the Spirit who moves us to prayer especially when prayer comes with difficulty.

In chapter five of his epistle to the Galatians, Paul speaks about the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are wonderful attributes and virtues to have and they are gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In my homily yesterday on the Feast of Pentecost, I spent some time speaking about joy.

Did you ever notice that sometimes people who consider themselves quite religious often seem unhappy or even grumpy?  A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the annual Spring Enrichment program sponsored by our Albany Diocese.  The keynote speaker for this event was the Jesuit author, Father James Martin.  He spoke about the need for joy and humor in our spiritual lives.  He commented on how often pictures and statues of the Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints show them to be somber.

I decided to try out this premise.  In my breviary (from which I pray the Divine Office), I have a large number of holy cards that I obtained usually at the time of someone's death.  I have two kinds of these remembrance cards - those that picture Jesus, Mary or one of the saints, and those containing the actual pictures of the deceased person (priest, deacon, religious or lay person).  Father Martin was right on - all the "holy cards" picturing Jesus or the saints had hardly even a hint of a smile.  Those picturing the deceased were overwhelmingly pictures showing their smiling faces.  Obviously they knew that there was something better to come after this life.

The late writer and humorist, Erma Bombeck, tells the story of how one day in church she was seated behind a young mother and her little son (about three or four years old).  Bombeck said the child was not fidgeting or rummaging through his mother's purse; rather he would occasionally turn around and smile at the people behind him.  At one point, the mother cuffed him and said "Stop smiling!  You're in church!"  As Bombeck said: if that little boy couldn't smile in church where else was he to go.

We need to have joy and laughter in our lives.  We need not to take ourselves too seriously or we can become somber and miss all the beauty that God has given to us.

Now, some might say that there are times in our lives when sadness occurs: loss of a job, loss of a loved one, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, etc.  There is no doubt that difficulties and suffering will be part of our lives.  Yet, does that mean that we have to be deprived of joy?

A native son of our Albany Diocese, Bishop Joseph Estabrook (who was a bishop in the Military Archdiocese) passed away a few months ago from the results of pancreatic cancer.  Before his death, he wrote a reflection and I would like to share a few things that he mentioned in that beautiful reflection.  He tells how after receiving the first news about having the cancer, one of the doctors hung back and finally asked him how he could receive such news and remain so positive.  The good bishop thought for a moment and said to him:  Faith and fear cannot live in the same space.  He went on to write shortly before his death:  We must embrace the sufferings of the moment and the fears as they come to us, but, at the end of the day, we must let joy be the victor that Christ alone can give to us.  A beautiful statement of faith because Bishop Estabrook knew that our God is one who loves us intensely.  He clings to us in our moments of difficulty; he holds us tight like a lover.

Let us, then, be people of joy.  Let us echo the words of Psalm 126:  Our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy....The Lord has done great things for us; Oh, how happy we were.

The spiritual writer, Anthony DeMello once wrote:  Look at God looking at you...and smiling.  All we need to do is smile back.  May you all have the joy of the Spirit in your lives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What's Been Happening - Again!

It's been several weeks since I last posted and I would like to bring everyone up to date on what's been happening in my busy life.  In addition to being ill during the first part of the Easter season (see most recent post - The Year I Missed Easter), a number of things have been happening in my life as well as in our country and around the world.

For several months I have been serving as the interim administrator of a parish in Troy, New York while awaiting the return of the pastor who had been on medical leave.  That part of my life has now come to an end with a return of the pastor and my being able to move on to do a number of other things that I do for the Diocese of Albany, New York.

Toward the end of my sojourn at Sacred Heart Church in Troy the parish was able to complete a long-awaited dream of constructing a new playground for the children of the parish school and the neighborhood.  It was my privilege, together with the priests from the parish, to bless and dedicate this new playground a few weeks ago.  The children are now happily playing using this new facility.

Two events happened that have affected us in our country.  One was the announcement by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to review the workings of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States because of what the Vatican felt were possible deviations from Catholic teaching.  This has led to an uproar and cries from various people throughout the country coming to the defense of the women religious.  The secular media in our country, of course, in their usual way, chose to make this sound like an attack on all the good work being accomplished by religious women in our country.  Two things need to be kept in mind: 1) The LCWR was created as a response to the Vatican's call for religious congregations to have a national entity which would be a conduit for various religious orders to maintain a connection to the universal Church; and 2) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is empowered and responsible for seeing that institutions and groups affiliated with the Church are adhering to the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church.  Having said that, if what the Vatican is alleging is a problem within the LCWR, let me say that it is my hope that the commission now charged with looking at the work of the LCWR do so with sensitivity and openness.  Also, in no way should the review of this commission fail to take into account the tremendous work done by the religious women in our country who dedicate their lives to assisting the poor, in teaching, social work, and health care.  The many thousands of these dedicated sisters must not go unnoticed or unappreciated.  My feelings in this matter have been echoed before in one of my previous posts - Women: God's Gift to Today's Church.

The other event occurring in the country was the announcement by our president that he supports the concept of marriage for gays and lesbians.  This is a hotly contested issue and polls show the country evenly divided on whether or not these unions should properly be called marriages.  My own position is that I believe in the traditional concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and in my Church this union is seen as sacramental.  Nevertheless, the fact that this topic is alive today should give us all pause to take a look at how we treat our sisters and brothers whose sexual orientation is different from our own.  All individuals are children of God and are worthy of being shown the respect that is due to all persons regardless of creed, race, gender or sexual orientation.  May we all take a long, hard look at our own views and how we regard those who are different from ourselves.

Getting back to my final days at Sacred Heart Church, I must tell you about one of the last activities I was able to attend.  Our parish school - which has children in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade - held their annual musical show the other night.  The children in the cast were from grades four through six and they performed the musical Annie which was, for this production, entitled Annie, Jr.   These children were amazing and well poised as they performed.  The audience was tremendously pleased and thoroughly enjoyed their efforts.  It was a great mark of excellence for a great school.  I will certainly miss the children.

One thing I do have to look forward to in the near future is a trip to the Eternal City - Rome, where on October 21, I will be privileged to be among the hundreds of thousands who will gather for the canonization of several new saints.  Two of these new saints are from upstate New York:  Blessed Marianne Cope, a religious sister who worked with (St.) Father Damien in the leper colony on Molokai.  The other one is one who was born here within the borders of our own Diocese of Albany - Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha - a Mohawk Indian maiden who will become the first Native American saint to be canonized.  It will be a glorious celebration and one to which I look forward with great anticipation.

Finally, today, here in the United States, we celebrate Mother's Day.  We all owe a great deal to those wonderful women who have borne the sacred name of "mother" be they living or deceased.  As a tribute to them, I would like to quote a passage from the author John Killinger from his book Lost in Wonder, Love and Praise:

I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who was born of the promise to a virgin named Mary,
I believe in the love Mary gave her Son,
that caused her to follow him in his ministry
and stand by the cross as he died.
I believe in the love of all mothers,
and its importance in the lives of the children they bear.
It is stronger than steel, softer than down,
and more resilient than a green sapling on a hillside.
It closes wounds, melts disappointments,
and enables the weakest child to stand tall
and straight in the fields of adversity.
I believe that this love, even at its best,
is only a shadow of the love of God,
a dark reflection of all that we can expect of him,
both in this life and the next.
And I believe that one of the most beautiful sights
in the world is a mother who lets this greater love
flow through her to her child,
blessing the world with the tenderness of her touch and the tears of her joy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Year I Missed Easter

A few weeks ago as we were preparing for Holy Week, I was looking forward to the wonderful celebrations that take place especially during the Sacred Triduum.  Then the unexpected happened.  I became ill earlier in the week and ended up with a diagnosis of acute bronchitis.  This left me unable to participate in any of the Triduum and also Mass on Easter Sunday.  It was the first time since my youth that I had not been able to be a part of this most sacred week in our Church's liturgical year.

It got me thinking back to the Holy Week celebrations when I was a young boy and how much has changed in our liturgy since then.  Prior to the early 1950s when Pope Pius XII began a renewal of the liturgy, the Triduum celebrations were held in the morning.  On Holy Thursday, we would have Mass followed by the procession taking the Eucharist to its altar of repose in another part of the church building.  It was the custom then for people to visit various churches during Holy Thursday to adore the Eucharist as it reposed in a variety of settings almost all of which were highly decorated (it almost seemed like a competition between churches to see which repository was the most beautifully decorated).

On Good Friday we would celebrate the Mass of the Presanctified.  Eucharist that had been consecrated at the Mass on Holy Thursday would be used to distribute Communion to the faithful.  The priest would wear black vestments as a reminder of the death of Christ.  Other ceremonies - which remain to this day - included the veneration of the Cross and special prayers of intercession.  Now we usually celebrate the Lord's Passion sometime during the afternoon or early evening with the celebrants now wearing red vestments.

Then on Holy Saturday morning, we would gather for the Holy Saturday celebration which would include the lighting of the Paschal Candle - a symbol of the risen Christ.  We would then proclaim the "alleluia" which had been silent since the beginning of Lent.  We would go home after the service and continue to observe the Lenten fast until noontime.  Now, of course, we know that Lent officially ends with the stroke of midnight at the beginning of Holy Thursday as we begin the solemn remembrance of the Lord's Last Supper, death and resurrection.

The Easter Vigil, as now celebrated, is the highpoint of the Church's liturgical year.  It must not begin until after darkness has set in and we now refer to it as the Night Watch of the Resurrection.  It is the time when those desiring admittance to our Catholic Christian community receive the sacraments of initiation - baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist.  It is my favorite liturgy of the entire Church year.

Needless to say I was quite disappointed not to be able to be among those who celebrated.  I had been scheduled to preach at the Holy Thursday liturgy at the parish of my former pastor; since my voice was more like the squeak of a mouse, I had to decline that opportunity.  I was also looking forward to proclaiming the Exultet, the great Easter proclamation (even using the new translation in the Roman Missal), and had to forego that opportunity as well.  I was also missing out on the reception of several people into our parish community through the sacraments of initiation (people that I had helped prepare for this special time).  But as it has been often said:  When we make plans, God laughs.

While I was not able to celebrate the great mysteries this year, I am still full of hope that comes with the belief in the resurrection of Jesus who brought new life to the world.  I wish all my readers a most blessed Easter season - and I hope to be back celebrating again next year.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Church in the Public Square

This is a post that admittedly I have been hesitant in writing.  The Lord knows that a great deal has been spoken and written about this issue over the past few weeks in the United States.  The issue came to a head with the announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of the United States that it would be enforcing the provision of contraception (and other medical procedures) as a part of the Affordable Health Care Act which was a hallmark of the present administration in Washington.  This announcement, made on January 20, caused a fire storm of reaction, particularly from the Catholic Church and its leaders because the mandates would require institutions funded and operated by the Church to provide contraceptive services to their employees, including sterilization and certain drugs considered to be those that can cause an abortion.

This announcement caused a response from Catholic leaders, as well as persons of good faith in other religions, because it was felt that this was a violation of religious liberty guaranteed by the United States Constitution.  It would require that church operated institutions, such as hospitals and charitable organizations, to provide access to contraception (and the other items mentioned above) which would violate the basic beliefs of the religious institutions.  Even many who disagree with the Church’s position on artificial birth control were in harmony with the call for a relaxation of these mandates in the name of religious liberty.

In an editorial in its February 13 issue, the editors of America, a weekly Catholic magazine, stated that this decision by HHS represented “a misunderstanding of the Catholic mission in the United States.”  It went on to state that “…serving the broader community through hospitals, clinics, service agencies and institutions of higher learning is not an extraneous activity for the Catholic Church.  It is a civic manifestation of the church’s deep beliefs in human dignity, solidarity with the suffering and forgotten, the importance of learning and commitment to the common good.”

I believe that the Obama administration made a grave miscalculation if they felt that simply by mandating these policies be carried out by such church institutions, those institutions would in turn just “roll over and play dead.”  It was not to be.  Consequently, the President attempted to submit a “modification” by stating that the institutions would not be required to pay for such medical procedures or drugs but private insurers would do so.  At first, this seemed to be an attempt on the part of the administration to quell the uproar that followed the original announcement.

At first, the United States bishops seemed to feel that this was a first step in overcoming the chasm that had erupted.  On further study of the “accommodation,” they found certain things that they felt were unacceptable.  The chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, pointed out three things that were troublesome to the bishops.  (Cardinal Dolan, back in the fall in a private meeting with the President had been assured by him that “he would do nothing to impede the good work of the Church in health care, education, and charity, and that he considered the protection of conscience a sacred duty.”  It was, therefore, a shock to him when the announcement of these provisions was made on January 20.)

The three items, in the Cardinal’s words are:

…(T)here was not even a nod to the deepest concerns about trespassing on religious freedom, or of modifying the HHS’ attempt to define the how and who of our ministry…

…(S)ince a big part of our ministries are “self-insured,” how is this going to help us?  We still have to pay!  And what about individual believers being coerced to pay?

…(T)here was still no resolution about the handcuffs placed upon renowned Catholic charitable agencies, both national and international, and their exclusion from contracts just because they will not refer victims of human trafficking, immigrants and refugees, and the hungry of the world, for abortions, sterilization or contraception.

So, the confrontation between the government and private religious institutions still goes on.  What will happen next?  In a subsequent editorial in America magazine (one, incidentally, criticized by Cardinal Dolan), the editors called for a continued dialogue in a “conciliatory style that keeps Catholics united and cools the national distemper…”   This is a laudable statement, although I would have to say that in my view neither of the principal spokespersons in this debate, Cardinal Dolan or President Obama, has engaged in the kind of divisive and damaging rhetoric that has become too much a part of this year’s presidential campaign.

The America editorial goes on to quote Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est as saying:  …(T)he Church does not seek to “impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to the faith.”  This certainly reflects the Church’s teaching on religious liberty – no matter what religion someone is a part of.  Nevertheless it does seem to me that the government in this instance has seen fit to impose its beliefs regarding health care on others without consideration of the “other’s” religious beliefs.

Where will this go from here?  Some have called for the Church to practice “civil disobedience” and simply ignore the government’s rulings.  Others have called for the shut-down of all Catholic institutions that would be affected by these policies.  Before anyone should rush to make that a reality, let us consider just what the effect would be if Catholic institutions closed their doors because of these mandates.

To quote from a piece written by Ed Morrissey (on his Hot Air site) entitled What If the Bishops Aren’t Bluffing:

The Carholic Church has perhaps the most extensive private health-care delivery system in the nation.  It operates 12.6 percent of hospitals in the U.S…accounting for 15.6 percent of all admissions….Catholic hospitals handle more than their share of Medicare (16.6 percent) and Medicaid (13.65 percent) discharges, meaning that more than one in six seniors and disabled patients get attention from these hospitals, and more than one in every eight low-income patients as well.  Almost a third (32 percent) of these hospitals are located in rural areas, where patients usually have few other options for care….

Imagine the impact if these hospitals shut down, discounting the other 400-plus health centers and 1,500 specialized homes that the Catholic Church operates as part of its mission that would also disappear….(T)he current system…would have to absorb almost $100 billion in costs in each year to treat them.  Over 120,000 beds would disappear from an already-stressed system.

I don’t believe the leaders of my Church would go so far as to close down such a vital part of the nation’s health care system.  While we came together in solidarity behind the bishops when these restrictions were first announced, may we not come together in prayer to ask God to assist all of those involved in this debate to find a way to protect religious freedom and still maintain a viable and needed health care system.

Not everyone agrees with the Catholic position on contraception, and there are a good number of Catholics who admittedly use birth control.  In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the now famous encyclical on this matter entitled Humanae Vitae.  It admittedly was not well received and has been the source of much discussion and critique since it was issued.  There are some statements made in that encyclical, however, that should be looked at again in light of our present discussion.  To counter those who say that the Church just wants people to have more and more children, the pope said this:

With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral principles, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

One of the issues raised by the mandates announced by HHS is that in addition to artificial birth control means, the practice of sterilization and the prescription of drugs that can bring about an abortion are also included.  These latter items certainly fly in the face of the Church’s long-standing belief in the sanctity of human life from the beginning of conception.  The pope’s words on this are:

We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.  Equally to be condemned…is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.

Perhaps the final statement I would cite from Humanae Vitae seems to resonate with today’s situation.  The Holy Father said this:

…Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective?  Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.  It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

Is this what we are seeing now?  I hope that this is not the case.  It should be stated that the Catholic bishops do not have a monopoly on morality.  Many voices in other religions may speak out regarding their own beliefs in this matter.  Yet, the Catholic bishops do have a powerful moral voice that needs to be heard.  I would hope that a meeting between the President and the Chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops (such as was held this past fall) could occur again in hopes of resolving this issue while preserving the Church’s important role in community life.  This would be my prayer and I hope it is yours also.