Friday, April 27, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Poverty and Helping People to Flourish

"The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them," Jesus says in Mark's Gospel.

This would, at face value, seem like a fairly open-ended statement. But it gets a pretty heavy degree of specificity from the U.S. bishops in the introductory note to the reissued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, when the bishops cite "an economic crisis ... , increasing national and global unemployment, poverty, and hunger; increasing deficits and debt and the duty to respond in ways which protect those who are poor and vulnerable as well as future generations" as one of their six areas of concern going into the 2012 elections.

If these are issues that are supposed to matter to Catholics, the bishops have certainly led by example in this area. For the Church, political engagement isn't just about what happens in a voting booth in November; it's about consistently bringing one's values and perspective to the public discussion. The U.S. bishops have brought their values to the issues of debt, poverty, unemployment and hunger in numerous letters to leaders in Congress. The Vatican has even tackled the more overarching challenge of financial reform.

Of course, every Catholic is called to engage the political process, as voters, lawmakers, advocates, etc. And all Catholics are called to, as Jesus said, do good for the poor, through whatever means are at their disposal, whether they're a teacher educating the next generation, a banker engaging in responsible lending practices or a legislator shaping public policy that will impact millions of lives. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI called this the "institutional path of charity."

On this path, Catholic teaching places a crowded cast of characters, all with their own responsibilities: government, businesses, churches and other organizations, and individuals. The Church's vision for society involves all of these stakeholders working together in a way that allows people to flourish, living life with a sense of dignity and reaching the potential God intended for them. In Catholic terms, everyone has a responsibility to promote the common good. To keep this from becoming stifling or chaotic, the Church prescribes principles like solidarity and subsidiarity.

Solidarity is the recognition of the responsibility of everyone in society to care for those who are poor and vulnerable. (The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 put this in perspective by saying that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. are requirements for entering the kingdom.) Subsidiarity is the principle that says care for the poor -- and all human problems, in fact -- should be addressed at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. It promotes the robust network of relationships in society, from the individual to the global. It can be seen at work when, for instance, funding from the federal government goes to finance anti-poverty programs that are regulated and administered at the state or local level, often by charities, sometimes by Catholic charities.

The goal is always human flourishing. The tangled, interconnected mess of joblessness, the economy, poverty, etc. is a political concern for the bishops because it impacts the lives and dignity of so many. "Work is more than a way to make a living," the bishops write in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, "it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation." And as so many people struggle in financial hardship to regain that part of their lives, it becomes apparent that "The poor you will always have with you" isn't a license to ignore the poor or assume they will disappear when times improve for everyone. Rather it's a reminder of a duty shared by everyone and articulated by the bishops:  "The economy must serve people, not the other way around."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Strengthening and Defending Marriage is a Matter of Justice

By Bethany Meola

Marriage is clearly a big deal for Catholics.

Even many non-Catholics know that, for instance, the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize divorce and that being married in the Church is important to Catholics. Delving into Catholic teaching itself, Scripture is filled with references to marriage, and the Church presents it as a vocation and as one of the Sacraments, a visible sign of God’s gift of grace.

What might be more surprising is that, for Catholics, marriage is also a key public policy issue, in fact one of six raised by the U.S. bishops when they reissued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, their call to political responsibility. This means marriage is not only something that matters to the doctrine of the Church and the private lives of the people entering into it. It matters to all society.

The reason it matters is because marriage affects the common good. In fact, the two are inseparably intertwined. As the Second Vatican Council put it, “The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and the family.” In fact, because the union of husband and wife is uniquely capable of welcoming new life into the world, the Church describes marriage as the very “condition” for society’s existence.

The family founded on marriage plays a profound educational role in society. Pope John Paul II taught that the family is “the first and irreplaceable school of social life,” where each person “learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person.” This “dynamic of love” emanates from the total self-giving union between husband and wife.

Because of marriage’s unique contribution to society, all people should be concerned with its well-being. In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops write that, in light of the tragic consequences of marriage’s breakdown or disappearance, especially for children, “policies on taxes, work, divorce, immigration, and welfare should help families stay together.” They also advocate for wages that “allow workers to support their families” and for public assistance for struggling families.

In addition to urging policies that strengthen marriages and families, the bishops are deeply concerned with “intensifying efforts” to redefine marriage, namely proposals to remove sexual difference from marriage. This is not “expanding” marriage, as the bishops see it, but rather redefining it and in effect dismantling it. Sexual difference is not an optional component of marriage but rather an essential element, rooted in the nature of the human person created male and female.

Both the bishops of the United States and Pope Benedict XVI have stated that defending marriage as the union of one man and one woman is, as the Pope taught in one ad limina talk, “ultimately a question of justice, since it entails safeguarding the good of the entire human community and the rights of parents and children alike.” Defending marriage does justice to the child by providing him or her with the best possibility of knowing and being loved by both mother and father together. In contrast, redefining marriage asserts that mothers and fathers are interchangeable and denies a child the right to know both a father and a mother. It also obscures the core of marriage, namely the union of husband and wife founded on sexual difference.

Standing up for marriage can be difficult and often uncomfortable in today’s cultural climate, but it’s essential for the good of marriage itself and for the common good, especially for the welfare of children. The USCCB offers resources to help Catholics understand and articulate what marriage is and why it matters. Preserving, strengthening and defending marriage are matters of justice that should matter to everyone.

Bethany Meola is program specialist for the USCCB’s Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

Tips for Welcoming Returning Catholics

Was church a little crowded Easter Sunday?

On the heels of Easter Sunday, a holy day notorious for bringing generally "inactive" Catholics back to church for one day, the bishops' Evangelization and Catechesis committee has released a document, Disciples Called toWitness: The New Evangelization, which is geared toward reawakening the faith of Catholics.

The document never actually talks about “inactive” Catholics and makes this omission intentionally. For instance, people who can’t make it to Mass because they are homebound or because they’re working three jobs to stay afloat may not be regularly  participating in parish and sacramental life, but they haven’t exactly renounced their faith either.

The document instead takes a more universal approach, saying that the bishops want to re-energize the faith of all Catholics. A Catholic who’s lost a sense of the faith can be someone who hasn’t been to Mass in 30 years or someone who comes to Mass every Sunday but experiences no personal growth, who goes through the paces with no internal conviction.

Of course, the idea of energizing Catholics, wherever they may be in their faith journeys, ties directly into the New Evangelization. Popularized by John Paul II and made a major priority of Benedict XVI, the New Evangelization is the notion that every Catholic  must have a relationship with Christ, and have an authentic experience of their faith if they are to in turn draw others to Jesus and the Gospel.

In the final section of Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization, the bishops list areas where parish communities can strengthen their outreach to Catholics who might be returning to the practice of the faith. Some of the specific suggestions include:
  • Since returning to the Church is an act of the Holy Spirit, emphasize personal witnessing to the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the pastor and pastoral ministers.
  • Recognize that each person’s conversion will be unique and unfold at a different pace.
  • Have programs that are flexible, as some people might not be able to participate in an entire program.
  • Extend personal invitations to those who are missing and a spirit of welcome to all who seek assistance.
  • Have pastoral ministers who have the knowledge to share the Gospel message and how have the ability to listen and empathize.
  • Foster a liturgical environment that invites, spiritually fulfills and welcomes full and active participation.
  • Offer encouraging words of welcome, especially at special events such as weddings, funerals, quinceañeras, and Christmas and Easter Masses.
  • Offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation when it is convenient for those with busy work schedules.
  • Utilize multiple languages in every aspect of parish life when dealing with a diverse community.
  • Include links on the parish website to reputable Catholic catechetical websites and social media presences.
  • Ensure the church building is accessible to those with disabilities.
  • Provide resources and training for pastors to give well-prepared homilies that stir the heart.
  • Provide catechetical materials, as well as contact information for marriage tribunals and professionals who can assist those seeking to regularize their marriages or who are struggling with depression, addiction, etc.
  • Provide opportunities for lifelong faith formation.
  • Maintain personal relationships with returning Catholics, bearing in mind that the process of welcoming someone back into the Church is an ongoing one.

 This weekend, if there are a few extra people in the pews, remember the words of St. Paul: “Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you” (Rom 15:7).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hey, I'm Talking to You!

A week ago, the bishops issued a landmark statement on religious freedom, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty."

Along with its assessment of the state of religious freedom in the United States and around the world, one interesting facet of the document is its acknowledgment of the breadth of its audience. This is an issue that touches all faiths:

In insisting that our liberties as Americans be respected, we know as bishops that what our Holy Father said is true. This work belongs to "an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture."
The bishops explicitly lay out for various demographic segmenst how they can make a difference on this issue.

To everyday Catholics engaging in political life:

As bishops we seek to bring the light of the Gospel to our public life, but the work of politics is properly that of committed and courageous lay Catholics. We exhort them to be both engaged and articulate in insisting that as Catholics and as Americans we do not have to choose between the two. There is an urgent need for the lay faithful, in cooperation with Christians, Jews, and others, to impress upon our elected representatives the importance of continued protection of religious liberty in a free society.
To officeholders:

We address a particular word to those holding public office. It is your noble task to govern for the common good. It does not serve the common good to treat the good works of religious believers as a threat to our common life; to the contrary, they are essential to its proper functioning. It is also your task to protect and defend those fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. This ought not to be a partisan issue. The Constitution is not for Democrats or Republicans or Independents. It is for all of us, and a great nonpartisan effort should be led by our elected representatives to ensure that it remains so.
To Catholics in health care and other social services:

We recognize that a special responsibility belongs to those Catholics who are responsible for our impressive array of hospitals, clinics, universities, colleges, schools, adoption agencies, overseas development projects, and social service agencies that provide assistance to the poor, the hungry, immigrants, and those faced with crisis pregnancies. You do the work that the Gospel mandates that we do. It is you who may be forced to choose between the good works we do by faith, and fidelity to that faith itself. We encourage you to hold firm, to stand fast, and to insist upon what belongs to you by right as Catholics and Americans. Our country deserves the best we have to offer, including our resistance to violations of our first freedom.
To priests:

To our priests, especially those who have responsibility for parishes, university chaplaincies, and high schools, we ask for a catechesis on religious liberty suited to the souls in your care. As bishops we can provide guidance to assist you, but the courage and zeal for this task cannot be obtained from another—it must be rooted in your own concern for your flock and nourished by the graces you received at your ordination.
To writers, bloggers and other creative types:
Catechesis on religious liberty is not the work of priests alone. The Catholic Church in America is blessed with an immense number of writers, producers, artists, publishers, filmmakers, and bloggers employing all the means of communications—both old and new media—to expound and teach the faith. They too have a critical role in this great struggle for religious liberty. We call upon them to use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom.
To their brother bishops:

Finally to our brother bishops, let us exhort each other with fraternal charity to be bold, clear, and insistent in warning against threats to the rights of our people. Let us attempt to be the "conscience of the state," to use Rev. King's words. In the aftermath of the decision on contraceptive and sterilization mandates, many spoke out forcefully. As one example, the words of one of our most senior brothers, Cardinal Roger Mahony, thirty-five years a bishop and recently retired after twenty-five years as archbishop of Los Angeles, provide a model for us here: "I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling today. This decision must be fought against with all the energies the Catholic community can muster."
And so there it is, one body, many parts, all with a part to play.

Catholics Care. Catholic Vote: Series Index

Catholics Care. Catholic Vote: an Introduction (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Political Engagement is Every Catholic's Duty (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: The Question of Conscience (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Human Life and Dignity (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Conscience Formation by the Numbers (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Religious Freedom and Ugly Assumptions (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Strengthening and Defending Marriage is a Matter of Justice (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Poverty and Helping People to Flourish (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Untangling the International Knot (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Immigration Reform and a Reasonable Church (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Temptations and Voting (Spanish here)
Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Keeping Love in the Debate (Spanish here)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Religious Freedom and Ugly Assumptions

Religious freedom is the odd duck among the issues.

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops hold up six areas of concern for voting Catholics to weigh while forming their consciences, including abortion and other threats to human life, a broken immigration system, efforts to redefine marriage, domestic poverty and international peace. While all these issues certainly affect Catholics, these involve a dynamic in which the Church addresses what's going on in the rest of society.

Religious freedom, on the other hand, deals with the Church itself and its role in society. Placing this issue alongside such foundational Catholic values speaks to its importance, as does the newly-issued statement, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." In it, the bishops celebrate the value of living in a country founded on respect for the rights of people of all faiths. They also address emerging threats to religious freedom in the United States.

Some of these have garnered media attention in recent years, such as the Health and Human Service mandate that forces religiously affiliated hospitals, charities and others to cover contraceptives in their employee health plans, or Catholic Charities in Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere being driven out of adoption services because they refuse to place children with unmarried couples, either same-sex or opposite-sex.

For others, the religious freedom dimension is more subtle, such as the Alabama immigration law that made it illegal for a priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick or preach the word of God to an undocumented immigrant.

As the bishops draw connections between these seemingly disparate dots, some of the ugly assumptions that underscore them come into focus. For instance...

There's the assertion/assumption that, in order to be a participant in the public square, it's somehow necessary for a group or entity to buy into certain cultural values. This is evident in the Catholic Charities cases: "If you want to provide adoption services, you have to buy into our views of marriage and family." It's evident in the bishops' own Migration and Refugee Services losing human trafficking contracts with the government: "If you want to do this good work, you must provide and/or refer for abortions and contraceptives." It's on display in the HHS mandate: "If you want to serve the common good and have employee health plans..." And so on.

There's the assumption that the government can suddenly dictate what's religious and what is not. In the HHS mandate, churches and houses of worship are exempt, but religiously-affiliated organizations that serve the common good, like hospitals, universities, charities and other social services, are not. Does the government view these organizations as somehow less religious because they specialize in service rather than worship? Catholics know that the Gospel mandate to serve those in need is as much a part of being Catholic as going to Mass.

Related to this is the idea that freedom of religion merely means "freedom of worship." Again, the bishops would view that as a pretty anemic definition of religion. In their new statement, they write, "Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?"

One final, particularly smug and ugly assumption is the cultural dismissal of the importance of the work of the Church and religion in general. "Catholic Charities won't comply with the new marriage law? Fine. Who needs 'em?" "The Church won't provide abortions and sterilizations at their hospitals? Fine. Give us the keys."

It takes a special kind of nerve to be cavalier about the societal contributions of an institution that provided food services to 7,146,490 people in 2010 alone, to say nothing of the housing-related services to 497,732 people, counseling services to 405,848 people, immigration services to 323,312 people, addiction services to 81,866 people, pregnancy services to 93,542 people and adoption services to 38,829 people. (Source: Catholic Charities USA)

Megan McArdle at The Atlantic addressed this beautifully in an article on the HHS mandate, noting, "These people seem to be living in an alternate universe that I don't have access to, where there's a positive glut of secular organizations who are just dying to provide top-notch care for the sick, the poor, and the dispossessed."

The bishops themselves note in their statement, "It does not serve the common good to treat the good works of religious believers as a threat to our common life; to the contrary, they are essential to its proper functioning."

And this is why religious freedom should matter to the Catholic voter, because it's directly tied to the Church's ability to advocate and work for the common good in the public square. In that sense, religious freedom is at the heart of faithful citizenship.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Father Forgive Them

A helpful message on forgiveness from Father John Crossin, executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Forgiveness is a consistent theme in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus forgives his executioners. We pray ‘forgive us our trespasses’. Yet often we feel that we don’t need forgiveness.

We should never underestimate the power of denial. We say to ourselves: ‘Aunt Theresa is not dying’ when everyone else knows she is. Or we say ‘those extra drinks didn’t hurt anyone’ after the minor accident. Sometimes denial can give us a pause to come to grips with a difficult situation such as the death of a beloved Aunt. At other times denial can perpetuate a destructive or self-destructive way of life. We often need to acknowledge the truth of our situation before we realize our need for forgiveness.

Sometimes denial can be communal. It is enshrined in history books and taught in schools. We have seen this in the Balkans and other troubled spots—and even close to home. ‘Our nation, our people, our clan, our family was mistreated, abused, or defeated by this other nation, people or group.’ We will never forget. We have a right to revenge. All the while we can deny in whole or in part—with social support—the obvious evil that our people inflicted on others.

The denial of reality, both by individuals and communities, perpetuates hostility and opposes forgiveness.

When we decide to seek the whole truth, or more precisely to seek the truth with the help of others, then forgiveness and healing can ensue. We have seen this reality in the contemporary search for Christian unity in the ecumenical movement. In seeking the truth together about our past divisions, we are freed to admit our faults and sins and move toward mutual forgiveness and reconciliation.

In our personal lives as well, we can move toward the truth with the help of others. A good friend can gently point out our blind spots and denials. If we can accept that truth we can begin to accept forgiveness from God and share forgiveness with others.

We should never forget how emotional we are. If we have been hurt by others, we may have great difficulty in forgiving. Even when we know the truth of a situation, emotional healing can take time. Forgiveness is a process and it can be hard work.

I think that we need to pray for God’s healing grace every day. We are always in need.

Yet no matter how bad the past-- forgiveness and healing are possible. Jesus love on the cross can heal the deepest fissures between us as individuals and among us as groups.

The call here is to deeper spiritual maturity. We need both humility and modesty—to see ourselves clearly with our need for forgiveness and also with the gifts given us by God. Coming to spiritual maturity involves letting go of resentments, past hurts and previous ways of thinking and acting. This maturity involves embracing something new—a new attitude, a new relationship or a new ministry.

Accepting Jesus’ forgiveness free us to move into a more joyful and positive future.

From China to California, via Mexico City

Special thanks to Michele Jurich for sharing her story with us. The full version, originally published in The Catholic Voice, Oakland, CA, can be found here.

Wendy Jara's three-year journey through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults shows the evolution of her relationship with God.

Her literal journey begins in Guangzhou, China; then to Mexico City, where Jara receives a lift from Our Lady of Guadalupe, and continues in Walnut Creek, California. There's a dash of Korean drama, the Internet and a loving family with Mexican roots. There is love.

In the first year, Sister Dominic Bonnici, OP, who directs the adult faith formation program at St. Mary Parish in Walnut Creek, asked Jara, "What is God like to you?" "God is like Santa Claus in American culture," Jara replied. "I make a wish. I tell him what I want. Praying is making a wish." In the second year, she said, "I feel God is looking at me all the time and He knows what I'm doing and I'd better behave myself." In her third year, Jara, 28, sees God in a different light. "God is a father to me. And he is shaping me, not to what I want. It's what he wants."

Jara’s introduction to the Catholic faith came through her husband, Donato. Wendy and a friend enjoyed watching Korean drama, and went online to chat with others with similar interests. She was interested in chatting with a Korean on the subject. Donato Jara, who was studying international business in Korea, was looking for Korean friends online. "I didn't know he was American," Wendy Jara said.

During a break from school, he went to China. Three months later, they were married in China. A year later, on March 28, 2008, they married in the cathedral of her home city of Guangzhou. Twenty members of his family and friends came to the wedding; 60 came from her side of the family. "It was a beautiful cathedral," she said, "but back then, I didn't know anything."

Her faith began to take shape during a trip to Mexico, to meet her husband's grandmother. In the cathedral in Mexico City, "That was the first time I got something," she said. "Like a little click. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. My husband told me stories. I felt like it was so powerful. Before that, I doubted. The packed church, with all the people so faithful — that really clicked for me."

Her first year in the United States, she started going to church. "Of course, I didn't know what was going on," she said. I started asking, "What am I doing here?"

Her husband introduced her to Sister Dominic. "I started my journey," said Jara, who came to classes armed with an electronic Chinese-English translator and a Chinese-English Bible.

"Three years ago, I felt very helpless and frustrated," Jara said. She found her RCIA instructors to be “like angels to me." But in the first year, she said, "I felt weak in my faith.” In the second year, Jara decided to end the faith journey. "The only thing I ask you," her husband told her, "is please don't give up."

She felt her faith growing stronger. "It was so wonderful to be in RCIA. I still have a stressful life, but I can see it in another way. God shapes you like clay. He shapes you to be the person he wants you to be. I feel that's me. All the obstacles … that's what God used to shape me. It means he cares about me."

The Rite of Election, at the Cathedral of Christ the Light, was a special time for Jara. "I think I will never forget that moment," she said. The rite came on a busy weekend, but the night before, she said, she fell asleep, both at peace, and excited.

"The feeling is like you have been in love with someone for three years and now you're going to get married," she said.

Jara is preparing for receiving the sacraments at the Easter Vigil. "I am really, really blessed," she said. "I knew nothing five years ago. I didn't know religion. I'm hoping I never give up. I want to be what God wants me to be."

In Their Own Words

Hat tip to Denis Grasska, Assistant Editor of ‘The Southern Cross,’ the newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego, where these accounts were first published, for sharing these with us.

At this year’s Easter Vigil, about 370 catechumens and 860 candidates will enter the Catholic Church in the Diocese of San Diego. What inspired them to begin the RCIA process? How has that process benefited them? What are their feelings as they prepare for one of the major milestones in their lives? The following are the reflections and comments of just a few of San Diego’s catechumens and candidates.

Jeanette Lopatka
San Rafael Parish, Rancho Bernardo
I am excited and proud to be a part of a faith that has had such a rich tradition and long history. I feel that one of the best ways for me to be an exemplary Catholic is to have joy. … As my faith has deepened each day, so has my joy. As a former teacher, I found the best way to teach was to lead by example. I want someone who doesn’t know God to look at me and say, “How can I be as joyful as she?” … I am hopeful to continue to grow as a Catholic and, in the words, of St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel, using words only when necessary.”

Robert Richards
St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, Carlsbad
To me, being a member of the Body of Christ means that Jesus Christ is my Savior and I have the hope for eternal life. To be a member of the Roman Catholic Church is important to me, since I believe attending Mass gives me a more holy experience and I believe my relationship with Jesus will grow better for my being a member of the Church. Once a member, I would like to participate in Church activities.

Annette Cook
Mater Dei Parish, Chula Vista
My family has been a part of the Church, and I had also attended as a kid. I felt that becoming an official part of the Church would bring me closer to my faith. I feel that I have a greater understanding of the Church now and that I am more prepared to accept the gift of full communion with the Church. Taking this journey has made me feel a greater connection to my faith.

Tracy Lunn
St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, Carlsbad
I feel that it is a huge responsibility to be a member of the Body of Christ, and I am ready to take it on. I feel that my whole family will eventually be part of the same process, and I am ecstatic that I am becoming a member of the Roman Catholic Church, the true Church of Jesus. I am joyful about my faith and I want to share it with everyone.

Harley Jacques
San Rafael Parish, Rancho Bernardo
My wife attended RCIA last year and was so excited after every function that we would discuss her experiences after every meeting or church event. … After she received the sacraments of initiation, I began regularly attending Mass with her and found I wanted to gain the serenity she was beginning to exhibit in all things. Since beginning RCIA, I have found the Catholic Church – and San Rafael Parish in particular – to be caring and friendly in a warm, family way.

Amelia Cox
St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, Carlsbad
The most challenging thing for me has been understanding the Church's stance on abortion. I always believed that it was a woman's choice, but now I realize that it is really God's choice. His plan for us is much more significant than any we make for ourselves.

Andrea O’Hara
San Rafael Parish, Rancho Bernardo
I was married in the Catholic Church to a wonderful man who is a cradle Catholic. Even though my family and his family are Catholics, I never felt the need to become a Catholic. However, as I become older and wiser, I realize that the challenges and accomplishments I have faced in my life were not by chance but were presented to me by the Lord. Being a mother and a wife gives me a greater purpose to lead a life filled with kindness, patience, honesty, responsibility and love. These character traits are hard to maintain by oneself, so I now look to my God and to my parish to help me lead the life that I was born to live.

Jewel Williams
St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, Carlsbad
I believe I have become closer to God, and I am beginning to live my life the way He wants me to live. I feel there is more peace and understanding with my family since my relationship with God has gotten stronger. … During times of temptation or confusion, I have learned to take a minute to pray for what is best for me to do. For me, acceptance into the Body of Christ means eternal love from God. To be a member of the Church is life for me. It gives me hope, understanding and love.

Meteorologist Fell in Love with the Mass

Special thanks to Jenny Faber and Monica Hatcher from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston for sharing this story with us.

Randall Wilson, a meteorologist who attends St. Michael Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, wrote about his upcoming initiation into the Church:

I had always had an interest in the Catholic Church, but being born and raised Baptist all my life, I never really had any chance to attend Mass. I asked a Catholic woman I was interested in if for our first date, we could attend Mass together. I was shell-shocked! I was confused as to why I was the only one who carried a Bible into church! But for some strange reason, I felt something calling me back to St. Michael’s Catholic Church for a second time. The vast differences between Catholicism and the Baptist Church caused me to go out and read books on Catholicism, and to get a better understanding of why Catholics say and do certain things at Mass. I was drawn in by the history of the Catholic Church; and its deep traditions. A few weeks of attending Catholic Mass had me all sorts of interested! One Sunday, I saw on the bulletin that they were inviting people to something called RCIA, which I found out was the way to becoming Catholic. I took a gamble and signed up. I wasn't completely sure if I was making the right decision, but something was telling me to do it.

This blind leap of faith got me to where I am now, in the process of completing the RCIA class. I can honestly say that joining this class was one of best decisions I have ever made! The information was deep, the questions were challenging, but it made me a more complete Christian. The richness and fullness of the Catholic Church isn't found anywhere else. Looking back, I see how much was missing. I'm not even 100 percent Catholic yet, but I can't imagine my life without the holy sacraments, without praying the holy rosary, without confessions, and without the holy Eucharist.

It is by God and His Holy Spirit that I am here in this process. I know without a doubt, that He was that ‘something’ that called me back to Mass that day. I also know that He was there when I took a leap of faith into the RCIA process. It is by the grace of God and His calling that I am becoming Catholic. I was born and raised Baptist, and most of the people I knew were, too, so I have never had a Catholic connection. I, and my entire RCIA class, are proof that God calls us, and we have answered that call. I anxiously look forward to the Easter Vigil, Confirmation, accepting Gabriel, the Archangel as my patron saint, receiving First Eucharist, and joining the richest, fullest, and greatest Church I have ever known, the Catholic Church!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Conscience Formation by the Numbers

Numbers can be cold and impersonal. They lack the depth and nuance of words and ideas. "I feel like I'm just a number," a person struggling with a large or bureaucratic system might say.

But numbers can also be uncompromising. They force us to confront realities that can be dizzying, unavoidable and downright unwelcome. Someone who's seen the numbers no longer has plausible deniability.

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops similarly hold up six areas that often have unpleasant realities -- and equally unpleasant numbers -- associated with them. These are the issues, they say, that should carry special weight with the voting Catholic's conscience:
  • Abortion and threats to the lives and dignity of the vulnerable, sick or unwanted
  • Efforts to force Catholic health care, education and social services to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need
  • Efforts to redefine the institution of marriage
  • The economic crisis, unemployment, poverty, and addressing debt in ways that protectpoor persons
  • A broken immigration system
  • Moral questions raised by war, terror and violence, and the need for peace, particularly in the Middle East
Each of these areas simultaneously meshes and clashes with different political persuasions and cultural assumptions in the United States. And each of these can be subsequently aggrandized or rationalized away to suit these political and cultural preferences. This is why the bishops call on Catholics to form their consciences -- through prayer and reflecting on Scripture and Catholic teaching, but also by studying the issues.

On that last point, it's amazing what a few numbers will do.

On the direct taking of innocent human life, there's the estimated 53 million abortions that have occurred since Roe v. Wade legalized it in 1973. There's also the rather abrupt zero for the number of treatments for "incurable" diseases that have been developed with stem cells harvested from human embryos that were destroyed to obtain them. (Conversely, the number developed using adult stem cells, which cause no harm to the stem cell donor, is 73.)

On the question of giving Catholic institutions the choice between violating their consciences or going out of business, the number that most vividly illustrates the impact this would have on society is probably 1 in 6, the number of the total people hospitalized in the United States every year who are cared for in a Catholic hospital.

Looking at the care provided by Catholic charities, there's housing services to 497,732 people, adoption services to 38,829, addiction services to 81,866, pregnancy services to 93,542, not to mention 110,268 home delivered meals and 1,420,492 fed in soup kitchens.

On the bishops's promotion and defense of marriage, the most significant statistic is probably that children in single-parent families comprise 27 percent of all American children, yet they count for 62 percent of all poor children.

Bridging into poverty, there's the fact that 16.2 million U.S. children live in homes that can't provide enough food for all their members at some point during the year. There's the official U.S. poverty rate of 15.1 percent, the highest it's been in 17 years. There's the 10 months that the average unemployed or underemployed person spends looking for work.

Speaking of the economy, there's also the estimated $7 billion that undocumented immigrants pay into Social Security annually since it's believed that 50-75 percent of them pay federal, state and local taxes.

Finally, in international justice and peace, there's the fact that 90 percent of people killed or maimed by landmines and cluster munitions are non-military civilians. Additionally, 30-40 percent of landmine victims are children. There's also the 1 percent of the federal budget that goes to international aid or the 0.5 percent that goes to poverty-focused assistance. There are the 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, or 700 launchers, in the hands of both the United States and Russia seven years after the ratification of the New START Treaty. And there are the over 10,000 people killed as a result of violence in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain last year.

After a while, numbers start to run together, and so often they only tell part of the story ("There are lies, damned lies and statistics," the saying goes). However, the issues raised by the bishops in their call to political responsibility have real human dimensions and statistical realities behind them that should prompt Catholics to do their homework and adjust their consciences accordingly.

(Sources by paragraph: 1. Guttmacher Institute; USCCB Pro-Life Activities;; 2. Catholic Health Association; 3. Catholic Charities USA report; 4. Marriage Unique for a Reason; 5. USDA; USCCB Justice, Peace and Human Development; 6. USCCB Migration and Refugee Services; 7. USCCB Justice Peace and Human Development; New York Times; The Economist; UNHCR; Iraq Body Count database.)

Never Too Late

Special thanks to Kate Monaghan, Assistant Communications Director for the Archdiocese of New York, for facilitating this interview, and to the Prebibajs’ daughter, Valentina, for translating.

As youths baptized in Albania while the country was under Communist rule, Lule Prebibaj and her husband Ndoke’s baptisms were literally life-threatening. The Communist regime that took control of the country after World War II essentially banned religion and suppressed religious institutions and observances. Lule recalls as a child how her mother took her out in the middle of the night so a priest could baptize her under the cloak of darkness.

“My mother told me we had to go at night to where the Church used to be,” said Lule. “The priest came and baptized me, and it was the same for my husband. It had to be done at night and in secret.” The couple also recollects how, as children, they had to be secretive about their beliefs. “We both remember every day after a holy day the teachers asking us what we had for dinner or if our parents lit a candle or said a prayer,” said Lule. “We were told by our parents that we should always say ‘no.’ It wasn’t until later on that we understood why they were asking us those questions.”

To help his family escape Communist rule, Ndoke went to Italy for five years and obtained legal documents for Lule and their four children to join him. After two years in Italy, Ndoke was selected in the Green Card Lottery and the couple, along with their children, became permanent residents of the United States in 1999.

After coming to America the couple raised their children in the faith, even though they themselves were never confirmed or received First Communion. That’s all about to change: they are both candidates for full initiation in the Church.

“Our decision to request these sacraments was an easy one because we knew it was long overdue,” said Lule. “While growing up we did not have the chance to do so because the Communist ruler abolished Catholicism and killed anyone who practiced it, including priests and nuns, destroyed churches and executed anyone who stood in his way.”

Describing themselves as a “very religious family,” they said one of their dreams was to receive all the sacraments of initiation, and now that they live in a country where they are free to express their religious beliefs, they’re doing just that. “It’s a wonderful feeling to openly say who we are, and it’s absolutely wonderful to be able to receive these sacraments. Better late than never, right?” said Lule.

This year Lule and Ndoke are two of the 1,470 candidates and catechumens the Archdiocese of New York will welcome at Easter, and living proof that it’s never too late.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Family Affair

Each day this week the USCCB Media Blog will bring you conversion stories from around the country. Hat tip to Jim Accurso of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for alerting us to this story written by Fr. John Ubel, Pastor of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Fr. Ubel, could we see you for a moment?” When I looked up from my desk I saw four students standing in my doorway, each with a smile. It was the Vangs, (Livia ’12, Cesea ’13, Vancelee ’14 and Teedo ’20), new students to our school. “Father, we would like to be baptized.” Nothing like cutting to the chase!

You see, last summer, a gentleman named Pao Her called out of the blue to set up an appointment with me. He explained that his nieces and nephews were coming to live with him, as they were without parents following the death of their mother (his sister), and that he wanted to ensure a solid upbringing for the children. The students were not Catholic, but he was adamant that he desired a faith-based education in a structured environment. I explained that our student body is approximately 90 percent Catholic and 30 percent non-caucasian, and that we would gladly welcome these students. Best of all, the kids would be together under one roof.

I learned that they would see the Onion dome of the Church from the freeway and used it as a landmark for navigation when visiting relatives. One mentioned the engaging religion classes and learning about the truths of the Faith. Another spoke of the powerful experience of walking into our beautiful church every Thursday for School Mass, while a third mentioned the kindness she felt from people who made her feel welcome as a new student.

Classical and Catholic tradition speaks eloquently about truth, beauty and goodness. God Himself is perfect truth, pure beauty and infinite goodness. Education is fundamentally about encouraging students to develop by seeking truth, beauty and goodness. There it was: the truth of the doctrine, the beauty of the architecture and music, the goodness of others who reach out in time of difficulty. Ultimately, this pointed them towards God. It was actually the 4th grader, Teedo, who was the catalyst of it all, who first felt the inklings of grace. His infectious smile manifests a joy that is as undeniable as it is authentic. He began to lead prayers before dinner, and soon his siblings also began exploring the faith. A few months after the start of the school year, they knocked on my door.

At the Easter Vigil, I will proudly baptize not just four, but nine Vang siblings: two who are college age and the three youngest ones, who may well be future Aggies. I can think of no better way to describe all that we try to do here at Saint Agnes, but to reflect truth, beauty and goodness.