Thursday, April 28, 2011

John Paul II: A Pope for Workers

The following is an essay by John Carr, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

From his native Poland to the ends of the earth, John Paul insisted that work is not a burden or penalty, but “expresses the human vocation to service and solidarity” (March 19, 1997). He long maintained that “Human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question” (Laborem Exercens #3).

In his powerful encyclical On Human Work, John Paul II reaffirmed the right to employment, to just wages and to choose to join a union. He called for a priority of labor over capital. He taught us:

· “The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can the society attain social peace” (Centesimus Annus #43).

· “A just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and, in a sense, the key means” (LE # 19).

· Workers have “the right to establish professional associations,” and trade unions have “the Church's defense and approval” (CA #7). “The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive” (CA #15). Unions have a role, “not only in negotiating contracts, but also as 'places' where workers can express themselves. They serve the development of an authentic culture of work and help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment” (CA #15). “The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type [Unions] are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies” (LE #20).

In his vision, unions help workers not simply “get more” for their work, but “be more,” more effective voices on their own behalf, more active participants in economic life and greater contributors to the common good of society.

Pope John Paul looked at economic life from the bottom-up. How do economic choices touch the “least of these” (Matthew 25: 31-46)? In an age of growing globalization, Pope John Paul insisted that all economic life should be measured by how it protects the lives, dignity and rights of workers and the vulnerable. At a time when workers were often treated as commodities, he stood up for their dignity and rights in the shipyards of Poland, the maquiladoras of America, the sweatshops of the Far East and the villages of Africa.

Monday, April 25, 2011

John Paul II, The Pilgrim Pope Who Inspired A Generation

Pope John Paul II keeps filling stadiums and squares years after his death. On April 2, 70,000 Mexicans filled up the Estadio Azteca (the massive soccer stadium in Mexico City) to pay tribute to the beloved pope who visited the country five times. After all, Mexicans don’t forget that his first pastoral visit as a pope in January 1979 was to Mexico, after a stop in the Dominican Republic. And that it was there, in front of their Virgencita de Guadalupe, that he consecrated his pontificate to her and decided that he had to be a pilgrim pope.

In 1999, John Paul II also promulgated the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a feast day of the Church in all the Americas and referred to her as the “Star of the First and the New Evangelization.”

At the recent tribute in Mexico City, the multitude chanted and cheered every time famous phrases from John Paul’s visits were repeated or projected on the screen. Phrases such as “México siempre fiel” (Mexico, always faithful), “Me voy pero no me voy” (I am leaving but I am not leaving [you]), and “Mexico sabe bailar, pero también sabe rezar, y más que todo gritar” (Mexico knows how to dance, but also knows how to pray and above else how to shout.) The man knew how to work a crowd!

It seems everybody has an anecdote to tell about John Paul II. This is a testimony to the impact that the globe-trotting, long-reigning, charismatic pope from Poland had on the lives of so many, particularly those of my generation who grew up not knowing any other pope but him.

In 1989, I was a young journalism student who traveled to Rome to participate at a university congress. I was fortunate enough to get tickets to the Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica. After a beautiful and awe inspiring liturgy, I ran to position myself on the side alley that leads to the sacristy, through which the pope would process out. I was a woman with a mission: to take a picture of the pope as close as possible. As he turned around the corner imparting his blessings left and right, I prepared to shoot as soon as he turned my way. Then, something happened. Through the camera’s lens, I saw him looking directly at me. I lowered the camera and, for a split second, our eyes crossed. He moved on but I was still paralyzed, and ended up not taking the treasured picture. I remember his gaze as if it were yesterday. His eyes irradiated a profound peace but, at the same time, they projected a playful smile, as if telling me “Be good now.” The pope’s eyes captivated me and they opened in me a curiosity about him and what he had to say.

As a journalism student, I was also fascinated by John Paul’s II interaction with media. He knew of the power of media to evangelize and did not hesitate to cultivate a relationship with them. He was, in the words of Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM “made for TV.”

His love for youth, and the way he was able to connect with them were absolutely remarkable too. My husband was a young pilgrim at WYD 1993 in Denver. He often tells me how special it was for him. “No matter how close or far away you were to the stage, you felt like he was talking personally to you,” he says. Of all the pope’s messages he especially remembers his “Do not be afraid!” words of encouragement that meant so much at that stage in his life.

It is difficult to summarize all that John Paul II did and meant to us: his tireless defense of human life and dignity; the way in which he made the Gospel and himself present to the people of every continent and nation; his profound thought about mankind and what troubles it today. In the end, his message was always the same: Christ is the answer!

Perhaps seasoned journalist John Thavis summed it up well in his obituary for the former pope: “Pope John Paul II was a voice of conscience for the world and a modern-day apostle for his church. To both roles he brought a philosopher's intellect, a pilgrim's spiritual intensity and an actor's flair for the dramatic. That combination made him one of the most forceful moral leaders of the modern age.”

No matter what, however, let us remember that the man who canonized more saints that all of his predecessors combined is being declared now “blessed” by the Church not because of his accomplishments, political influence or management style, but because of the sanctity of his life.
His words and actions inspired a generation to open wide the doors to Christ. He made us question ourselves and invited us to lead better lives, to make room for Christ and invite others to do the same.

On May 1, John Paul II will fill St. Peter’s Square again. With all the pilgrims, our heart is chanting in the distance: “¡Juan Pablo Segundo, te quiso, te quiere, todo el mundo!” (John Paul II, we loved, we still love, you).
First published as the April "Entre Amigos" column, the monthly Latino opinion piece from USCCB Media Relations

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Makes a Convert?

First published in the Huffington Post:

Easter is exciting in the Catholic Church as parishes across the United States welcome tens of thousands into their ranks through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Some are not quite newcomers, since they really have been inactive Catholics, sometimes called lapsed Catholics. Many fell away from the practice of the faith or cut short their sacramental life at baptism or First Communion. Others entering the church join Catholicism as already baptized persons from other Christian traditions, such as the Episcopal, Lutheran or Baptist churches. Still others have been atheists with no religious background or have come from a non-Christian tradition, such as Judaism or Islam.

What makes this both exciting and intriguing is that each one has a story of conversion, a mysterious enough touching of a heart, mind and soul to prompt a radical change in a life.

What makes a convert?

Sometimes it is an experience that might make another turn from God. Take the Georgia woman, a native of Cameroon. Her nine-year-old son drowned last summer at a day camp. A Catholic community reached out with comfort. One member even paid for the child’s funeral. Identifying with the immense sorrow at the death of a child, men and women extended themselves to another, not of their religion nor even their country, and they sparked a seed of faith. They didn’t set out to convert another or be examples of good Christians, but their human reaction drew an inconsolable woman to the consolation of the Catholic faith and she learned a lesson of Easter, that in death, life is not ended but changed. Her child’s life was changed and so too was her own.

Sometimes conversion occurs over coffee. That’s what happened in St. Paul, Minnesota, when a 43-year-old former Marine crossed paths with a 79-year-old retired three-star Army general and heart surgeon. Their bonds as military men led to questioning what made each other tick. The younger, a man of science who described himself as an atheist, had lots of questions, and the general had answers that drew his friend into the church.

Some stories have a modern twist. A Maryland man who was a strong Pentecostal found Catholicism through Facebook, and chats online eventually led him to the Catholic Church. He said he found himself looking for a more disciplined structure in a spiritual community. He finished his RCIA program with a priest in Indonesia while working as a volunteer at a Catholic school there.

In Texas a Planned Parenthood clinic director changed when she held the ultrasound probe during an abortion procedure and watched on a monitor as the baby tried to get away. The experience led her to become one with a pro-life coalition group that prayed outside the clinic and had offices down the street. Abandoned by her pro-choice associates she found support with the coalition, who helped her navigate a search for a new job, broken friendships and legal problems with Planned Parenthood. She and her family are set to join the Church this Easter.

Some are drawn by what lies at the heart of Catholicism, the Eucharist. That’s what attracted a worker at Washington’s Georgetown University, who went to Mass at the college with friends. Another Washingtonian, a molecular biologist with a degree in Biblical languages, found the seeds of his belief in teachings on the Eucharist in the New Testament.

Some stories are dramatic; others as commonplace as a conversion can be. Some convert because of a love interest and want to share the same faith. Others have watched their spouse and children head to Mass and now want more oneness with them. Some simply have been thinking about it for a long time.

It’s long been known that faith is caught more than taught. Certainly many people preach the faith without intending to do so, just by the quality of their own lives, as they live human lives in very human ways.

The mystery of Easter that celebrates Jesus rising from the dead is heralded in churches by flowers that come from bulbs and seeds that once looked lifeless. It has a mystical aura about it. So do men and women committing their whole lives to an unseen God, whose presence is so real. That’s exciting. Some mysteries you can never grow tired of.

“I Just Can’t Make It Alone!” Tom Leopold’s Conversion Story

My name is Tom Leopold and I’m a comedy writer (Seinfeld, Cheers, Will and Grace...). I am a Jewish comedy writer, although I always felt saying that was kind of redundant. So much of my humor — practically all of it I suppose— comes from who my people are, what they’ve been through and how they were able to turn it all on its head and find the funny side, even and especially if there was none to find.

I know it sounds odd, but I always liked Jesus. I was never “deep” enough to wrestle with the concept of his being the son of God. For me he had this James Dean-Bob Dylan-daring rebel-hero “thing” about him. Once in a while, I did wonder, had I been nearby when Jesus walked among us, would I have had seen him for who he said he was? And, if so, would I have had the courage to say “Hey, everybody says we’re waiting on the Messiah. Well, the ‘wait’ is over!” Fast forward two thousand years later and I’d follow Jesus anywhere if he’d have me.

Come Easter I’ll still be a comedy writer, but a Catholic one. I consider my upcoming baptism a blessing. One that ranks right up there with the day I met my wife or the birth of our two daughters, to say nothing of having the good fortune to have made a living in a business that I love.

So here is a flashback of how I became Catholic.

We’re a couple of years into my youngest daughter’s life-threatening eating disorder. It also happens to be Christmas Eve and our girl is under doctors’ care at still another rehab center. This one is in the Arizona desert. By the time we had come to this point our ravaged little fourteen-year-old had been too ill to attend any but three weeks of her 9th grade school year, she had spent days locked in a psych ward, and both she and I were nearly run over by a cab as I tried to catch up to her after she’d bolted from a doctor’s office.

So, we’re in the desert, it’s Christmas Eve and my wife, our oldest girl (17) and I are decorating our hotel room with Christmas stuff from the only store still open in the little desert town, the Dollar Store. We are all Jewish, but for some reason we’ve always celebrated Christmas too. There was something kind of sacred about the silly little tree we bought...It reminded me of the tree Charlie Brown dragged back to his gang.

The doctors would only let us have our daughter for Christmas Day, so the three of us went to bed early, each trying not to let the others know how sad we were that one of us was missing. Lying there in the dark that night was the closest I have ever come to breaking — not breaking down, breaking! It’s a whole lot easier to hold your heart together when it’s you who does the suffering, but when it’s your child and nobody can fix her...Well, it would take more than a comedy writer to say it how it feels.

I was praying before the thought dawned on me that I was praying. Maybe begging is the better word... “Please God, give me even the smallest sign you’re up there, I just can’t make it alone!”

The next morning we’d arranged for our girls to go horseback riding, and my wife and I took a walk in the desert. Out of nowhere this cool old guy drives up in a motorcycle he made himself...It had antlers for handlebars and the guy looked like the old Marine that he turned out to be. He skidded up next to us, practically popping a wheelie, and started talking. I’m a New Yorker, so I just figured he was just one more weirdo...But the guy had this great intensity and a mysterious charisma.

He started a long monologue about how he was once married to a woman named “Shepard” and how his present wife brought him to Christ at the age of 33, and all the while he keeps nodding his head towards me and saying to my wife “This one knows what I’m talking about!”

Here we were, on Christmas morning in the desert, and this odd old character is throwing the word “Shepard” around along with the number 33. “Wasn’t Jesus a ‘Shepard’ to his flock and wasn’t he 33 when he was crucified and isn’t this day, his birthday?!” As I’m thinking of this, the old guy keeps telling my wife that I know what he means! And the weird thing is I do, kind of, know what he means! Not what he’s saying but what he means...

My cell phone rings. It’s our kids. They’re through with their ride. Without even knowing who’s on the other end of the phone our desert prophet says “Hang up, they’re fine!” I hung up. After the exhaustion of all we’d been through, it felt nice to be, well, led!

He finally stops talking, guns his engine and peels off only to stop a few yards away, turn back to me and say in a voice somewhere below a whisper and above mental telepathy that “God is watching you!” It wasn’t a threat, it was a reassurance.

There were more things like that. Coincidences? I no longer think so. But the biggest and most rewarding was the day I ran into Father Jonathan Morris.

Thirty-eight years ago I went to a psychic down in Nolita (North Of Little Italy) who pretty much predicted my entire career path...I wasn’t even a writer at the time. Out of the blue I had this idea to reconnect with him and, to my amazement, he remembered me right away. Our daughter had gotten a little better after her last treatment but was falling back again even though she was now strong enough to attend school. I thought I’d go visit Frank (my old psychic) just to check in and tell him how right he had been about all that’s happened to me and to ask if he saw a recovery for our daughter. Frank told me to bring her to him. A few days later we did. Walking up the steps to Frank’s townhouse, a car pulls up right in front of us and out steps Father Jonathan Morris. I recognized him from a picture in his book, “The Promise.” The book dealt with grief and I was getting a great deal of comfort from it. Suddenly the very same, kind, face was right before me.

“Are you Father Morris?”
He nodded.
“Your book is on my bed stand.”
He had already started towards me. He had his hand out.
Why I said what I said next I will never know.
“ Father, do you think you might have a few minutes to talk to me sometime?”

I had seen and admired Father Morris many times on television but thought he lived in Rome. He smiled, holding on to my hand and said: “You can find me right here.” He turned and pointed to Old Saint Patrick’s Church. It was as if I hadn’t even seen the church until he pointed to it. He had just started as parochial vicar there...True to his word he found time for me and room for my family in his prayers. He even met with our daughter.

I don’t think there’s room now to describe all I found “right here” at Old Saint Pat’s. The minute Father Morris took my hand I knew I’d be a follower of Christ. Does my daughter still suffer? She does, we all still do, but now I feel the Lord’s grace. We are not alone.

Happy Easter!

-Tom Leopold
Tom Leopold is one of the elect in the Archdiocese of New York. He has participated in the RCIA program there and will be baptized during the Easter Vigil. Special thanks to Kate Monaghan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Facebook discussion got him started: Kenneth Wingate’s Conversion Story

A discussion on Facebook on God's sovereignty and healings sparked a chain of events that led Kenneth Wingate to think of joining the Catholic Church. An acquaintance he had begun enjoying corresponding with inspired him and challenged him to strengthen his faith. His Facebook "penpal" had been raised Catholic and impressed him so much with Catholics’ devotion to their faith and family, that Ken decided to contact his local Catholic church and discuss how he might join. Seven months later, the 51-year-old Pentecostal Christian is now a candidate for full communion at St. Mary's Church in Rockville, Maryland.

A man of strong Christian faith, Ken also embarked on a Catholic volunteer opportunity overseas before he completed the RCIA process. He spent three weeks in a suburb of Jakarta, Indonesia, performing volunteer work at a Catholic school located in a country with the largest concentration of Muslims in the world.

The RCIA coordinators from the parish worked with Ken providing him with materials related to the lessons he would miss while serving God half-way around the globe. The parish’s RCIA focus from January up to the start of Lent is a systematic examination of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ken made arrangements for an Indonesian Catholic priest to tutor him (along with the reading of the complete sacraments section in the Catholic Catechism for Adults) on the sacraments while he performed his volunteer work.

When asked about why he enrolled on a mission opportunity before completing his Christian initiation, Ken says it was all in God’s plan.

“An opportunity arose for me to do this volunteer work. Having never really been out of this country, the idea of traveling half way around the world interested me,” he says. “Again, God knew what He was doing. I left there with a far greater revelation of my own heart and character than I gave to those I met.”

One surprising outcome of his experience was a deeper appreciation of Islam and of Muslim’s devotion and commitment to prayer.

A faithful and devoted member of the Pentecostal Church since birth, Ken is now days away from becoming a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church, and emotions are running high.

“I could write a book about it. Though I have stayed faithful to my beliefs and the studying of the Holy Scriptures, I had experienced a dark time in my life over the last ten years. I knew I needed a more disciplined structure in my spiritual community and the RCIA program, along with the Catholic Church's solid foundation of faith, has met that need,” Ken said.

A highlight in the process was experiencing the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time.

“I had my first confession on April 13. I cannot express the power of the Holy Spirit’s presence I have felt in my life since leaving the confessional that night. It has been humbling and amazing! I pray that this experience will be the first of many in my continued growth in God through the family of the Catholic Church.”
Special thanks to Georgina Stark, of the Archdiocese of Washington, for the tip.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I was in prison and you visited me: Willie Knight’s conversion story

Our conversion stories for today come from a couple of faith communities in Georgia. Special thanks to Patricia Chivers, of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and RCIA parish directors Cheryl Twickler and Mary Maudlin for facilitating them.

Willie Knight was in prison for 16 years. He befriended the wrong people, and gangs ended up derailing his life. While in prison a Catholic priest would visit him. He got curious about the faith of the visitor who showed him such mercy and began studying about the Catholic Church on his own while still in jail. He learned to pray the rosary by himself.

Upon his release, he inquired and decided to join the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program at St. Peter's Catholic Church, in LaGrange, Georgia. The director of the program, Cheryl Twickler, says he has been a very strong and faithful participant in the classes and that “he has a sweet spirit.” He is also the only black candidate in the class, and possibly in the history of RCIA in LaGrange.

Willie says some of his friends have tried to get him to not join the Church, saying: "Man, that's a white church! Why do you want to join them?" He told them he just felt a strong pull to the Church, and that nothing would change his mind; not even the fact that there have been, at first, a lot of stares by the white participants in Mass, and there are very few blacks in the community anyway. Sometimes he is the only one at that particular Mass. His mother and father (who are divorced and not Catholic) are supporting his decision, and will be with him at Easter Vigil, when Willie makes his profession of faith and receives Confirmation and First Communion.

Komba Kemoh is one of the elect at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, Georgia. He was born in Sierra Leone, where he was raised by Muslim parents and became an assistant police chief. His younger brother became Catholic and eventually became a priest. The brother inspired Komba to become Catholic. He does not have transportation to the Church, so his sponsor picks him up each Sunday. “Komba’s enthusiasm and desire for Baptism are very apparent,” says St. Philip’s RCIA director, Mary Maudlin. “He cannot wait to be baptized.”

In the same community, a woman, Tonya Roque, is married to a Catholic man. She is the mother of four children, ages 17-10.The family did not attend Church, as the husband was an inactive Catholic. As the children grew and were faced with many temptations, Tonya realized that they “needed God in the family to live good lives.” Her four children are enrolled in the youth RCIA process and will celebrate all three Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. Tonya will make a profession of faith, be confirmed and receive her First Eucharist.

Genevieve Mvilongo is from Cameroon. She and her husband and two children came to the United States a year or so ago. Her husband is Catholic, but she is not. Last July their 9-year-old son drowned while swimming at a day camp. The family was devastated. The community of St. Philip’s surrounded them with prayer and pooled resources together to help the family financially. One parishioner’s brother paid for the boy’s funeral. In October, Genevieve attended an inquiry class about how to become a Catholic and joined the RCIA program at the parish. On Easter Sunday she will be received into the Church and her 13-year-old daughter will be baptized. The example of the community inspired them to become Catholic.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pope John Paul II: Calling on the Young

Many owe a lot to Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified on May 1. Perhaps none owe him more than today’s young adults who meant so much to him.

Leaders of all stripes emerged in the 20th Century but only Pope John Paul thought to convene the world’s young people and offer a vision to the leaders of tomorrow. Youth responded to him too, proven when they stunned the world as they packed the streets around St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to bid him farewell on the eve of his death and at his funeral Mass in 2005.

Meetings with youth marked every one of the pope’s many pastoral visits around the world, but when it comes to youth he is most remembered for World Youth Days, the celebrations he launched in 1985, and which continue today. Through these events, which began in Rome in 1985, and continued with him through Toronto in 2002, he touched youth in a unique way. By 2002, he had drawn millions to these international gatherings in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1987), Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1989), Czestochowa, Poland (1991), Denver, Colorado (1993), Manila, the Philippines (1995), Paris, France (1997), Rome (2000) and Toronto (2002). Built on this strong foundation, WYD continues under Pope Benedict XVI, and millions more youth met with Pope Benedict in Cologne, Germany in 2005, Sydney, Australia in 2008, and soon will meet with him in Madrid, for WYD 2011.

Pope John Paul held special appeal for young people. He tapped into their idealism with a message that they are the ones to bring peace to the world. He bantered with them responding to their chants “John Paul II, we love you,” with “John Paul II, he loves you too,” in the language of whatever country in which the event took place. He called them to be holy, brought tears to their eyes; his words touched their hearts and souls.

He reminded young people that there were no limits to what they could do with God.

World Youth Day is for the hardy. It involves hiking for miles to a site of an all-night vigil marked by prayer with the pope, Scripture, community and song. The following day the young people participate in a Mass celebrated for them by the pope himself. Some years it has rained, leaving young people coated in mud. Other years it has been chilly. Other years, hot. Always, the event has inspired both participants and observers.

Pope John Paul II: The Feminist Pope

The following is an essay by Shelia Garcia, Associate Director of the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

In the late 1990’s, the Vatican convened a conference on “Women’s Health and Human Rights.” During an audience with conference attendees Pope John Paul II proclaimed, to the surprise of his listeners, “Io son il Papa feminista,” “I am the feminist pope.”

Throughout his papacy, the Pope backed up his words with concrete deeds. Probably his most significant accomplishment as “the feminist pope” was to lay out the theological and anthropological foundation regarding women's dignity and equality. His 1988 document, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), became the basis for the Pope’s reflections on women’s role in society and in the Church. It was also the first papal letter devoted entirely to women.

Mulieris Dignitatem offered several foundational principles:

• Man and woman, because they are created in God’s image and likeness, are equal in dignity.
• They are relational beings, who come to know who they are through the gift of self.
• The differences between man and woman are complementary, and these differences go beyond the physical.

The Pope also spoke about the “feminine genius,” by which he means an openness to and for others, an openness to receive God’s love and to give it to others.

These principles have ramifications in the Church and in society. The Pope’s insistence on women’s dignity and equality is good news for all women, but especially those in societies that restrict their access to education, employment and full participation in civic life. It is also a clear call to oppose all that denies women’s dignity, including pornography, human trafficking, exploitation in the workplace and a culture that accepts sexuality without moral restraint or accountability.

Pope John Paul II himself applied some of these foundational principles in preparation for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. With the global focus on women, he took the opportunity to speak out on women’s behalf in a series of remarkable addresses and statements. For example, the Pope:

--Applauded the growing participation of women in political life;

--Called on church institutions to pay special attention to the needs of girls, guaranteeing them equal educational access, improving basic health care and giving them priority in the allocation of resources and personnel.

--Acknowledged that history has often overlooked the contributions of women and urged that it be rewritten “in a less one-sided way.”

The Pope also affirmed women’s growing role in the Church. The revised Code of Canon Law in 1983 opened up church positions to lay people that had formerly been held only by the clergy. The Pope asked women “to assume new forms of leadership in service.” He urged their inclusion in consultations and decision-making. It was, he said, a question of making full use of the lay and feminine presence as allowed by church law. As a result, during the papacy of “the feminist Pope” an unprecedented number of women moved into leadership positions at all levels of the Church—parish, diocesan and even the Vatican itself.

Pope John Paul II: Catholic-Jewish Relations

The following is an essay by Father James Massa, Executive Director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

The two essential reference points for understanding Catholic-Jewish relations today is Vatican II’s Decree on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate), paragraph 4 and the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Whereas the former placed the relationship between the people of the first covenant and the followers of Jesus in a context of renewed theological understanding, the latter has become a powerful witness to three key elements in this relationship: healing of memories, walking together as friends and working together for the sake of “healing the world” (tikkun olam).

One of the great moments of Pope John Paul’s pontificate was the visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem during his Jubilee Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Israel (2000). Surrounded by government and religious officials, the Pope chose to use this occasion to ask God’s forgiveness for the sinful words and actions committed by Catholics against the people who endured religiously inspired persecution for many centuries and the unprecedented atrocities of the Holocaust in the last century. The Pope wisely links repentance with a renewed commitment to walk together as members of the one family of God:

"God of our fathers, You chose Abraham
and his descendants to bring the name of
God to all the nations. We are profoundly
saddened by the behavior of those who, in
the course of history, have caused suffering
to these, your children, and for this we
ask Your forgiveness; we wish to commit
ourselves to a genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant (the
Jewish people)."

Friendship between the Catholics and Jews grew out of the pope’s personal experience growing up as Karol Wojtyla in Poland before the Second World War. Many of the future pope’s boyhood friends were Jewish, and one of them would later write a book on their relationship, which endured beyond the war and into Karol’s own career as a priest and bishop. Walking the path of friendship continued into the pontificate of John Paul, finding expression in his visits to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in 1979; the Synagogue of Rome in 1986 (the first pope to visit a Jewish house of prayer since St. Peter!); and the State of Israel in 2000—after having established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel in 1993. The friendship between Catholics and Jews was for the late pontiff based in a deep theological conviction that Jews remain in a living covenant with God and Judaism is a unique religion for Christians because it is “internal” to their own self-understanding as followers of Jesus who was both the Son of God and a Jew.

Each time Pope John Paul met with representatives of the Jewish community, which was a frequent occurrence in Rome and during his many trips abroad, he would encourage his audience to work with Catholics to bring about a more peaceful world based on respect for basic human rights and human dignity. Only in this way can the children of Abraham fulfill the biblical mandate to “repair the breaches” in our society and bring true healing to the world (tikkun olam).

One of the pope’s titles is “Supreme Pontiff”—a title that could loosely be translated “great bridge-builder.” The beloved late pope shared the work of reconciliation that belongs to the Office of Peter not only with his fellow Christians, but also with those whom he called his “elder brothers and sisters” in the faith—who, as the Good Friday prayer of the New Mass reads, “were the first to hear the Word of God.”

Ivan Posthumus Conversion Story

Each day of this week the USCCB Media Blog will bring you conversion stories from around the country. Ivan’s story is one of thousands of baptized candidates in the U.S. that will enter in full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter. Hat tip to Dennis B. McGrath, of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, for facilitating the story.

Ivan Posthumus, a 43-year-old ex Marine from Saint Paul, Minnesota, who spent eight years in the Corps and saw action in the Gulf War, hardly seemed a candidate for conversion to Catholicism. As a man of science, his major in college and his career, he was skeptical of all religion, not just Catholicism. He works in the highly specialized field of electronic verification of medical prescriptions.

“I went from Baptist to hostile agnostic,” Ivan admits. Yet on Easter, he will become a Catholic.

What brought him to a deep and abiding belief in Catholicism? It was a retired general and heart surgeon whom he met in a Russian restaurant near the Cathedral of Saint Paul, and who became his sponsor and inspiration.

Ivan and his wife frequented the restaurant, Moscow on the Hill, because they were friendly with the owner’s wife who, like them, owned Rottweiler dogs. Frequently dining in that same restaurant was Ray Bonnabeau, a 79-year-old former three-star major general and heart surgeon, and his wife. The restaurant owner’s wife felt that, as former military men, Ray and Ivan should get acquainted, so she introduced them.

In the two and a half years to follow, the couples discovered many common intellectual interests and Ray spoke often of his deep Catholic faith, answering the toughest questions from Ivan. Ray shared a number of books on theology and church history with Ivan. Subsequently, on a trip to Rome, Ivan visited the ancient churches and as a minor in art history, felt the paintings were almost speaking to him, reinforcing the conversations from his dinners with Ray.

Ivan investigated some more about the faith then entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program at the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Ray also attended the sessions and then he and Ivan would discuss the teachings over dinner at the restaurant. During the RCIA process, Ivan experienced deep changes and even was able to contact his parents from whom he’d been estranged for many years. “The foundational aspects of the RCIA process were pretty amazing,” he says.

Ivan’s sponsor won’t be there on Easter for his friend’s First Eucharist. Ray passed away on February 28, not long after the discovery of a cancerous tumor in his leg that spread quickly to his lungs. He was, however, there for Ivan’s Confirmation. The rector of the Cathedral received permission to confirm Ivan in Ray’s hospital room where Ray could place his hand on Ivan’s shoulder during the sacrament.

“It is pretty remarkable to find someone who is so strong in his faith that he can lead someone as estranged as I was to the Catholic faith,” Ivan concludes. “My best friend was a 79-year-old former general and heart surgeon. You know that God had to have a hand in our meeting.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pope John Paul II: Champion of the Poor

The following is an essay by John Carr, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

John Paul II was a tireless champion of the “least of these” (Matthew 25: 31-46). Wherever he went, in so much of what he said and did, he stood with the poor and vulnerable.

In Yankee Stadium he insisted that the poor of our country and of the world were our brothers and sisters in Christ saying, “You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table” (Homily at Yankee Stadium, October 2, 1979, #4).

In the streets of Chicago he affirmed the option for the poor and the principle of participation that is at the heart of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty initiative just reviewed and renewed by the Bishops of the United States.

The most prominent opponent of communism, John Paul was a persistent challenger of unrestrained capitalism. In Centesimus Annus, he criticized the socialist system as a form of state capitalism and called for a society that “demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied” (CA #35).

In the face of economic globalization, he passionately called for the “globalization of solidarity,” insisting that believers look at globalization from the bottom up, how it touches the poor, families, vulnerable workers and immigrants.

He was a decisive force for global debt relief and a persistent advocate of development assistance. His words still haunt us, “How can it be that even today there are still people dying of hunger? Condemned to illiteracy? Lacking the most basic medical care? Without a roof over their heads? . . . Christians must learn to make their act of faith in Christ by discerning His voice in the cry for help that rises from this world of poverty” (Novo Millennio Ineunte #50).

For Pope John Paul II, the poor in our midst and around the world were not issues or abstractions, but tests of our faith. He challenged us, insisting if we are disciples of Jesus, we will serve Him and stand with Him in “the least of these.”

For three decades, a central theme of his papal leadership was that the moral measure of our lives, nation and world is how we treat the poor and weak, the vulnerable and the voiceless.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catholic Conversion Process Unwrapped

By Jeannine Marino, J.C.L.

For most parishes, Sunday Mass during Lent has been different as people called “the elect” and “candidates” have been called forth to the altar. As the Easter Triduum approaches, the Church prepares to welcome these participants in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) through the Sacraments of Initiation. RCIA is not only for those seeking full initiation into the Church, RCIA involves the whole Christian community.

RCIA is mainly for two groups of people: the unbaptized and baptized Christians seeking full communion with the Church. Some dioceses also include baptized but uncatechized Catholics. For the unbaptized, RCIA prepares them to receive all three Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Baptized Christians and Catholics will receive Confirmation and/or the Eucharist.

Here are ten important steps in the RCIA process and their significance for the participants and the entire Church:

1. Period of Evangelization: Through baptism every Catholic is called to preach the Good News and share the gift of faith they received with the world; all are urged to invite friends and family members to Mass. Sometimes this invitation inspires people to consider the Catholic Church and RCIA.

2. Rite of Acceptance and Welcome: This marks the first time those in RCIA officially assemble before the parish. After their initial conversion, they declare publicly their intention to enter into a relationship with Christ and his Church. The parish commits to praying for them. From this point on those seeking baptism are called catechumens, and those seeking full communion with the Church are called candidates.

3. Celebration of the Word: After the Rite of Acceptance, the catechumens are usually dismissed from Mass after the Liturgy of the Word to reflect more deeply on Scripture and prepare themselves for their eventual participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This dismissal is not meant to exclude those in RCIA from the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but to help them and the parish joyfully build up anticipation of the Easter Sacraments.

4. Sending of the Catechumens and Candidates: Before the First Sunday of Lent, those in RCIA are called before the parish, which prays for them and sends them forth to present themselves to the bishop. They are presented to the bishop because he is the chief pastor of the diocese and admits them to the Easter Sacraments on behalf of the entire Church.

5. Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion: This rite is usually held on the First Sunday of Lent and marks the catechumens and candidates’ final preparation for the Easter Sacraments. They reaffirm their intention to join the Church. In the presence of the bishop, the catechumens inscribe their name in the Book of the Elect. From this point forward, the catechumens are called the elect.

6. Period of Purification and Enlightenment: This period begins with the Rite of Election and is a season of intense spiritual preparation and reflection on the Paschal Mystery. The elect and candidates are called to deepen their relationship with Christ, and the parish community is called to increase their prayers and support of the elect and candidates.

7. Scrutinies: The Scrutinies are rites of conversion and repentance. They include prayers of intercession and exorcism and are intended to deliver the elect from sin, protect them from temptation and invite them closer to Christ, who is the living water, the light of the world and the Resurrection and the Life. The three Scrutinies are celebrated on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent.

8. Presentation of the Creed and Lord’s Prayer: After the first Scrutiny, those in RCIA are entrusted with the Creed and after the third Scrutiny, the Lord’s Prayer. The Creed professes the faith, and the Lord’s Prayer teaches believers to call upon the Father as Christ did. At the Easter Vigil, those in RCIA will for the first time publicly profess the Creed and participate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

9. Easter Vigil: The “most blessed of all nights,” as proclaimed by the Exsultet, is the night the Church joyfully anticipates Christ’s Resurrection. The elect receive all three Sacraments of Initiation and candidates for full communion receive confirmation and/or the Eucharist. For the first time, the elect and candidates are welcomed to the Lord’s Table as full disciples of Christ.

10. Mystagogy: After receiving the Easter Sacraments, the neophytes (newly initiated) continue their faith formation during the period of mystagogy (which means “interpretation of mystery”). Mystagogy is the time of post-baptismal catechesis. It typically lasts for one year. This time allows the neophytes to reflect on their experience of the sacraments, Scripture, grow closer to Christ through the Eucharist and participate more frequently in the parish. The parish community is called to mentor the neophytes as they begin to live as Christian disciples and fulfill their baptismal vocation to evangelize. One way to support our newest brothers and sisters in Christ is to invite them to join a parish ministry or to dinner!

Jeannine Marino is a program specialist at the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

So Goes Michigan, So Goes Washington

This morning's appointment of Seattle auxiliary Bishop Joseph Tyson as the new bishop of Yakima, Washington underscores just how large a footprint Pope Benedict XVI has made on the U.S. hierarchy. In just under 10 months, he's appointed a new bishop to every diocese in the state of Washington. Granted, there are only three:
  • June 30, 2010 -- Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane retires, succeeded by Bishop Blase Cupich
  • September 16, 2010 -- Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle retires, succeeded by Archbishop Peter Sartain
  • April 12, 2011 -- Bishop Carlos Sevilla, SJ, retires, succeeded by Bishop Tyson
Washington isn't the first state to see a complete turnover in its episcopate under Benedict XVI. States like Utah, Arkansas and Vermont, which contain only one diocese, have received new bishops under this pope.

The most substantial turnover by any one state has occurred in Michigan, where Pope Benedict has appointed a new bishop to head each of its seven dioceses:
  • June 21, 2005 -- Bishop Walter Hurley is appointed to the Diocese of Grand Rapids
  • December 13, 2005 -- Bishop James Garland of Marquette retires, succeeded by Bishop Alexander Sample
  • February 27, 2008 -- Bishop Carl Mengeling of Lansing retires, succeeded by Bishop Earl Boyea
  • January 5, 2009 -- Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit retires, succeeded by Archbishop Allen Vigneron
  • April 6, 2009 -- Bishop James Murray of Kalamazoo retires, succeeded by Bishop Paul Bradley
  • May 20, 2009 -- Bishop Joseph Cistone is named bishop of Saginaw, succeeding Bishop Robert Carlson, who'd been named archbishop of St. Louis
  • October 7, 2009 -- Bishop Patrick Cooney of Gaylord retires, succeeded by Bishop Bernard Hebda
This month brings the sixth anniversary of the pope's election -- a brief length of time for an institution that "thinks in centuries" -- yet of the 178 Latin rite dioceses and archdiocese in the U.S., 86, or 48 percent of them, are headed by bishops appointed by this pope. Take into account the five or so vacant dioceses awaiting new bishops, the eight U.S. bishops currently serving past the retirement age of 75, as well as one coadjutor bishop, and Pope Benedict is poised to jump well past the halfway point.

As bishops reach retirement age and others are transferred to replace retired bishops (and so on), the thread that runs consistently through this narrative is that the pope, assisted by the apostolic nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, seeks to find the bishop who best meet the needs of a given diocese. What's impressive is that in six short years he's met the needs of so many.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pope John Paul II: East-West Relations

The following is an essay by Fr. Ronald Roberson, CSP, Associate Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Building on the legacy of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II spared no effort to heal the thousand-year-old rift between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. One of his first trips outside Rome was to Istanbul, Turkey, to visit His Holiness Dimitrios I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, in November 1979. At the end of the visit the Pope and Patriarch announced the establishment of a theological dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the first official deliberations of this type since the end of the Council of Florence (1431-1445).

In the first decade of his papacy, John Paul emphasized the importance of the Byzantine tradition when he named Saints Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe along with Saint Benedict in 1980, and issued an encyclical about them (Slavorum Apostoli) in 1985. In 1988, he released the Apostolic Letter Euntes in Mundum Universum for the millennium of the baptism of the ancestors of the Ukrainian, Belarusan and Russian peoples.

But in the 1990s relations with the Orthodox went through a difficult period. Many Orthodox in Eastern Europe were suspicious of the Catholic Church, fearful that it would take advantage of the weakness of the Orthodox after years of communist persecution to gain converts at their expense. With this in mind, John Paul repeatedly assured the Orthodox of the Catholic Church’s benevolent intentions. In June 1992 he approved the publication of principles and norms that called upon Catholics in the former Soviet Union to work closely with the Orthodox, and to help them in their struggle to revive after decades of persecution. In his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995), the Pope wrote of the rich heritage of the Christian East that needs to be better understood and treasured by Roman Catholics. In the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995), the Pope wrote that “the Catholic Church desires nothing less than full communion between East and West.”

Nevertheless, Orthodox uncertainties prevented the world-traveling Pope from visiting a predominantly Orthodox country for many years. The ice was broken only in May 1999 when he made a historic visit to Romania. In the meantime, the Pope made a number of further gestures intended to improve the situation. In 2004 he turned over a church in Rome to the local Greek Orthodox community, returned the Kazan icon of the Mother of God to the Russian Orthodox Church, and returned the relics of Saints John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzan to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Perhaps most importantly, the Pope’s visit to Athens in May 2001 provided an opportunity to improve relations with the Orthodox Church of Greece and to ask forgiveness for the injustices of the past, including the Fourth Crusade. (The Church of Greece had been very reluctant to invite the Pope to visit the country.) Exchanges of lower-level delegations with the Church of Greece took place later, as well as a similar exchange with the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Pope’s visit to Bulgaria in 2002 included encounters with the Bulgarian Patriarch and the Holy Synod. Taken together, these events increased the sense of trust among the Orthodox regarding the intentions of the Catholic Church towards them. These efforts would bear fruit after his death with the resumption of the theological dialogue at a meeting in Belgrade in 2006.

Hearing the news of his death in April 2005, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople sent a message of condolence to the Vatican in which he said that Pope John Paul “did not hesitate before pains and sacrifices in order to bring the message of the Gospel to the entire world and to contribute to the establishment of peace. History will also recount his crucial contribution to the fall of atheistic communism. There are not many such brave men of vision, as the departed Pope. During his passage through the Hierarchy and especially through the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, he drew deep his traces on her and on the history of all humanity, and he has left behind the indelible imprint of his strong personality. Many of his initiatives have been inception of developments, which still advance today. He was a pioneer in many issues. For this reason, his death is a loss not only to his Church, but to all of Christianity as well, and to the international community in general, who desires peace and justice.”

It would be hard to find better words to define the legacy of Pope John Paul II as a reconciler of Christians East and West.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pope John Paul II: Diplomacy

The following is an essay by Stephen M. Colecchi, Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Pope John Paul II exercised considerable influence over world affairs. He was a different “diplomat,” one who transformed political situations with moral and cultural leadership. For over a quarter century he championed what he came to call a “culture of life”—a culture that embraced the life and dignity of every person at every age and stage of life.

Some statistics in his Vatican biography hint at John Paul’s extensive diplomatic involvement. Over 26 years as pope, he engaged numerous political leaders in 38 official visits, 738 meetings with heads of state, and 246 with prime ministers. This short essay cannot capture the breath or depth of his diplomacy.

Many believe his election, the first of a non-Italian pope in almost five centuries, and the only from a Communist nation, was critical to the liberation of Eastern Europe from communism. Pope John Paul’s moral and spiritual support strengthened the Solidarity movement in his native Poland and his pastoral visits in 1979, 1983 and 1987 energized Poles in their struggle for freedom. When Poland non-violently threw off communist rule in 1989, it was the first of the communist dominoes to fall in Eastern Europe.

The Pope’s promotion of freedom did not flow from a political ideology; it was rooted in his grasp of the truth of the human person expressed in his teaching. For example, in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis, he critiqued both capitalism and Marxism, and blamed East-West rivalry for contributing to the growing North-South poverty gap.

Pope John Paul II was a prominent critic of the war in Iraq. In his 2003 annual address to diplomats, he admonished world leaders: “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations;” it must be a last resort. He warned of the “consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations” and sent papal envoys to Iraqi leaders and President Bush to try to prevent the war. Sadly Iraqi civilians, and particularly Iraqi Christians, are still suffering terrible consequences today.

In a less well known crisis, the year following his election he agreed to mediate a serious territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile that threatened war. A Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed by the two countries at the Vatican in 1984.

John Paul II took on many causes. In 1979 and 1995 at the UN, he emphasized “universal rights which human beings enjoy by the very fact of their humanity.” To promote nuclear disarmament, he sent a delegation from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to various world leaders in 1981 to share the consequences of using nuclear arms. He sparked a global movement to forgive the debt for the poorest nations as part of the Great Jubilee Year 2000. In the wake of 9/11, he gathered the world’s religious leaders in Assisi for a second Day of Prayer for World Peace, building on the earlier unprecedented gathering he held in 1986. He frequently appealed for peace, poverty reduction, and clemency in death penalty cases, a cause given credibility by his forgiveness of his would-be assassin.