Thursday, July 28, 2011

Not Just the Emergency Sacrament

The Sacrament of the Sick may be the most misunderstood of the seven sacraments, probably because of its informal name from years past, “Last Rites.” When you hear “Last Rites’ you see a movie scene of a somber priest who made it just in time standing beside someone gasping his last breath. It’s scary.

However, the Sacrament of the Sick is not just the emergency sacrament, though the dying should not hesitate to call a priest. Contemporary theology suggests more emphasis on sick than dying. It also stresses spiritual, psychological and emotional consolation as well as health in mind and body. It’s appropriate before someone goes into the hospital for surgery, for example. It is for serious illness, but not just when one is in the throes of one. It can be administered at the onset of illness or when the elderly indicate failing health.

Here are some suggestions for understanding the sacrament:

1. Concentrate on what it is, a sacrament to offer comfort not to foreshadow the grim reaper. Pope Benedict XVI spoke most humanly when he said that this sacrament that emphasizes “God’s unlimited goodness, must first of all bring healing to broken hearts.”

2. Make it a community experience. Even if the sacrament is administered somewhere other than at a service at church, others, such as family and friends, can be present. Allow those present to be part of the ceremony, offering some way to connect those present in their prayer for the sick person. Common prayer comforts everyone. Knowing people are praying with you and for you is a source of strength.

3. Include a symbolic gift in the service, such as a prayer shawl, a candle or card, to stand as a reminder of the sacrament and God’s grace afterwards. Some parish groups make shawls for their sick, have the pastor bless them and give them to people after they are anointed.

4. Prepare a liturgical aid for those in attendance, even just a typed out prayer or words to a favorite hymn to facilitate everyone’s participation.

5. Facilitate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since confession is confidential, provide a way for the recipient of the sacrament to be alone with the priest for confession.

6. Prepare for reception of Holy Communion. When given to a person who is dying, it is called “Viaticum.” “Viaticum” means food for the journey and is a vivid reminder that the sacrament gives inner strength. All Catholics present can join in receiving the Eucharist.

7. Receive the sacrament anywhere, at church, at home in the living room, in a sickroom, in the hospital. While the sacrament is not an everyday event, it is not a once in a lifetime one either. It is available at any time of serious illness. In the case of long-term or chronic illness, it is appropriate to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick regularly, particularly at significant moments such as before a major medical procedure or at times of particular struggle.

8. Understand that the rituals are about inner strength. Confession is for the forgiveness of sin and the grace to resist sin in the future; anointing with blessed oil by a priest is a rite of strengthening, a rite so sacred the church reserves administering it to the priest. Not even a deacon can anoint with blessed oil. The Viaticum is nourishment, spiritual food to help us be strong.

9. The sacrament also includes the minister’s touching the recipient, reminiscent of the healing touch of Jesus. Others can offer healing touch too, for example, by extending their hands in blessing or tracing a cross on the person’s forehead.

10. Include comforting music, perhaps of the Psalms. The church recommends several psalms for the Sacrament of the Sick. Among the more popular ones are Psalm 91, which emphasizes security under God’s protection; Psalm 116, which offers thanksgiving to God who saves from death; and Psalm 121, which emphasizes the lord as my guardian.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where’s the religious freedom in birth control mandate?

As seen at On Faith, the religion website of The Washington Post:

The hallucinogenic drug peyote is not for me, though I respect the right of Native Americans to use it in their religious rituals. Blood transfusions are not verboten to me, but I respect Jehovah's Witnesses’ right to refuse them. Health insurance programs fit into my lifestyle, yet I respect the rights of the Amish to work out non-insurance medical care programs with the hospitals they use.

Abortion, however, is horrifying to me and I shudder to think that money I pay for health insurance should fund abortion in any way at all. I shudder even more to think that the U.S. government would force me to subsidize abortion and other services in order to get health insurance from a private company. This is Big Brother at his worst and I cringe at the thought that anyone, including a church organization, might be told by government to fund a procedure through private insurance plans for their own employees. Having government decide such questions is a clear violation of conscience.

Some contraceptives, such as the morning-after pills, can cause abortions. The church objects to them because they involve taking an innocent life, however tiny it is. Some ridicule the church’s stance on contraception but the spiritual truth is that contraception deliberately deprives human sexual intimacy of an essential part of its depth and meaning. A man and woman through their sexual union express total commitment and openness to each other, including openness to conceive and nurture a new human person.

The church’s position can be supported even from a secular point of view. It is hard to deny that broad promotion of contraceptives and sterilization has made sexuality more “casual” and less meaningful for millions, or that hormonal contraceptives have had serious and sometimes life-threatening effects on some women. Others don’t have to understand or agree with this perspective; but until now, the federal government has generally been careful to allow individuals and religious organizations to purchase and provide health care without being forced to violate it.

Respect for freedom of conscience and religious liberty has a long history. Thomas Jefferson, who was not especially religious himself, said it best in 1809, when he declared that “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.”

That position is under threat as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) prepares to list “preventive services for women” that must be included in most private health plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as the Healthcare Reform Act. HHS called on the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to list such services that should be mandated in private health plans (PPACA). IOM said July 20 that everybody’s health plan should cover contraception, sterilization and patient education and counseling promoting these for all women with reproductive capacity. IOM offers no talk of religious exemption for those with moral or religious objections to some of these practices, including those that effectively abort tiny children.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) defines itself on its Web site as an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public. As it claims independence, one can ask “independent of what? Constitutional history? American government? Basic human rights?”

Fortunately, two members of Congress, Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Dan Boren (D-OK), saw it coming, and introduced the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act 2011. They and the bill co-sponsors recognize that it is wrong for government to force institutions and persons to provide procedures and drugs that violate their conscience. That includes drugs that can take innocent lives under the guise of “treating” what IOM apparently sees as a disease, i.e. pregnancy. The Fortenberry and Boren bill would prevent new mandates under PPACA from being used to discriminate against persons and institutions for acting according to their conscience on these matters – as it already respects the consciences of the Amish, Christian Scientists and adherents of Native American beliefs.

Rights are important, and citizens need to be wary of threats against them. The freedom to follow one’s conscience and to practice one’s religion is under assault today and concerned people need to push back. St. Thomas More, who was heralded in the play “A Man for All Seasons,” faced a conscience problem when England’s Henry VIII demanded an oath of allegiance to him as a self-declared head of the church. Thomas More, the king’s Lord Chancellor and a brilliant lawyer, refused to sign. He squared off against his government, albeit reluctantly. Before his execution at the chopping block for such treachery the husband and father voiced his allegiance to his king, but with one caveat: “The King’s good servant,” More declared himself, “but God’s first.”

It was more than 400 years ago when More said the government had gone beyond what his conscience could bear. The right to follow one’s conscience trumps other obligations, even rights claimed by the government. The message still stands today.

Housekeeping Notes

Yesterday's double retirement-appointment of the bishops of Philadelphia and Savannah prompted at least one person following USCCB on Facebook to ask why these two bishops -- Philadelphia's Cardinal Rigali and Savannah's Bishop Boland -- resigned. The answer is pretty simple: both had reached, or rather passed, the mandatory retirement age for bishops, 75. Both men are 76 years old and were the senior active bishops heading U.S. dioceses.

USCCB offers a resource on the process of naming a successor to a retiring bishop here.

The moves yesterday in Philadelphia and Savannah (and Denver) certainly impacted the national list of dioceses with bishops serving past the retirement age (reducing it from
9 to 7) and, thanks to Archbishop Chaput being pulled out of Denver, increased the number of U.S. dioceses currently vacant -- that is, not headed by a bishop-ordinary -- from 7 to 8.

For a snapshot of where this stands, the dioceses with bishops serving past the retirement age are currently (from oldest to youngest):
  • Manchester, New Hampshire -- Bishop John McCormack turns 76 next month
  • Lincoln, Nebraska -- Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz turns 76 in September
  • Bismark, North Dakota -- Bishop Paul Zipfel also turns 76 in September
  • Rockford, Illionois -- Bishop Thomas Doran turned 75 in February
  • Buffalo, New York -- Bishop Edward Kmiec turned 75 in June
  • San Francisco -- Archbishop George Niederauer turned 75 in June
  • Erie, Pennsylvania -- Bishop Donald Trautman turned 75 in June
Vacant dioceses -- from longest vacancy to most recent -- are:
  • Pittsburgh (Byzantine) -- since June 10, 2010 death of Archbishop Basil Schott, OFM
  • Fresno, California -- since December 5, 2010 death of Bishop John Steinbock
  • Salina, Kansas -- since December 16, 2010 appointment of Bishop Paul Coakley as archbishop of Oklahoma City
  • Baker, Oregon -- since January 24 appointment of Bishop Robert Vasa to Santa Rosa, California
  • Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida -- since March 11 retirement of Bishop John Ricard, SSJ
  • Steubenville, Ohio -- since May 17 appointment of Bishop Robert Conlon to Joliet, Illinois
  • Tyler, Texas -- since July 6 appointment of Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio, SJ to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
  • Denver -- since July 19 appointment of Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap. to Philadelphia
As always, hat tip to David Cheney.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Catholic by any other name…

Bill Keller, soon to be retired managing editor of The New York Times, recently outed himself as a “collapsed Catholic.” Writing readers Keller said that being a “collapsed Catholic” was even further removed from being a “lapsed Catholic” because, he said, “you never really extricate yourself from your upbringing.”

Keller’s note related to his review of “Absolute Monarchy—A History of the Papacy” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Perhaps it was meant as a disclaimer to say he had no bias for or against the church or to cite his years of Catholic education as qualifications for opining on popes.

Keller’s remark bears on how we define Catholics and Catholicism. For sure the times are a-changin.’ Whereas once we spoke of a “good Catholic” as a “daily communicant,” today a “good Catholic” is a “church-going Catholic.” People who seldom go to Mass at all amount to cultural Catholics, whose spiritual identity is Catholicism but who have given up on sacramental practice. Such a position once bore a stigma in society, now less so, though the Church still requires attendance at weekly Mass for its members.

Many cultural Catholics have a fondness for their roots. A young woman I met on an elevator a few years ago typified such people. When she discovered I am a nun she gushed “I used to be Catholic.” She had no idea of the emotional pain she evoked as I encountered one more member of America’s second largest religious body, the former Catholics.

Her identification with Catholicism suggests something about its sticking power. The Irish playwright Brendan Behan knew it, despite constantly railing against the church. Friends advised him to stop complaining, join another church and be happy. Behan thought the idea absurd and replied (this is the cleaned-up version), “Look, I’m a lapsed Catholic, not a (expletive) eejit,” an eejit being the Irish term for idiot.

Part of this hold stems from how the Church defines those who leave or gradually fall off. The Church doesn’t refer to them by the name of whatever religion they choose subsequently, say Lutheran or Episcopalian. It doesn’t even refer to those who declare non-belief as atheists or agnostics. Instead, the church calls them as “former Catholics,” “lapsed Catholics” or “ex-Catholics.”

The hold may lie in the definition of the adjective “catholic,” which means all-embracing and wide-ranging. The Catholic Church doesn’t totally give up anyone. Even if you’re excommunicated, it expects you to attend Mass each week, though not to participate in the sacraments. James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake defined the Catholic Church as “here comes everybody,” giving a blunt, yet poetic expression to a Church with room for all.

One also suspects this hold comes from something more. Is it based in the image of Mother Church, emphasis on “mother,” who loves her children and doesn’t give up on them even when they don’t deserve it or don’t merit the affection, except for the accident of birth or in the Church, of baptism?

Is it the lifelong impact of prayers and other rituals, such as guardian angels to protect you, the Blessed Virgin to care for you, the rosary to guide your prayer, the Eucharist to sustain you, the soaring cathedrals to amaze you? Is it rooted in emotion laden events such as First Communion Day celebrations of purity and innocence or the deep comfort in a funeral Mass imbued with the conviction that we’ll meet again in heaven? Is it a wish to connect to a parent’s or grandparent’s Catholicism that provided a moral compass in facing life’s many challenges?

Is it grace? Is it this inexplicable gift of God’s presence, recognized not enough to stop us daily in our tracks, but sensed on occasion to make us pause at God’s creation, the gift of human life, the message in Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”?

Whatever it is, this Catholicism, this grace, is real, and because of it Bill Keller and others, be they lapsed, collapsed, befuddled or bemused, are part of it. They are family, even if they no longer come by for dinner.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Confession: It puts you straight with everyone

Penance, aka confession, is the sacrament of the forgiveness of sin. You can’t beat it for convenience. It’s available practically whenever. Tell a priest you want to go to confession and you’ll get his attention. One bishop I know was cornered on an airplane. Another passenger figured out what was going on and asked if he could confess too. It must have been an interesting game of musical seats. An interesting question for priests might be: Where was the strangest place you ever administered the sacrament of penance? The answers I’ve gathered include “in a sports bar, at a graduation party” and “on the golf course, walking up the fairway.”

Confession has benefits. Here are ten:

1. Confidentiality guaranteed. There’s nothing like confessing your sins to someone guaranteed not to tell anyone else. Sometimes you need to talk in absolute confidence. Even under subpoena, a priest can’t tell anyone what’s said to him in confession. He can’t even hint at it. Now that’s confidentiality.

2. Housekeeping for the soul. It feels good to be able to start a clean life all over again. Like going into a sparkling living room in your home, it’s nice when clutter is removed – even if it’s your own.

3. A balm for the desire for revenge. When you have been forgiven you can forgive others. If the perfect Jesus forgives me, who am I to want to avenge the slights in my life. Think: “Why did they promote him over me?’ or “Mom played favorites!”

4. Low cost therapy. It’s free, which makes it cheaper than a psychiatrist for dealing with guilt.

5. Forced time to think. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. To examine our lives and acknowledge failings marks the first step of making things right with God, others and ourselves. Life can be more worth living when you ponder the meaning of your own life.

6. Contribution toward world peace. Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, said that the imbalances in the world that lead to war and tensions “are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man.” Peace of soul leads to peace of heart leads to peace beyond oneself.

7. A better neighborhood. Confession leaves you feling good about yourself, thereby cutting back the inclination to road rage and aggressive shopping cart driving. With the grace of the sacrament you’re energized to, as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “go and sin no more.”

8. Realistic self-perception. Confession helps overcome arrogance when you have to admit you’re as much of a sinner as anyone else. It helps build tolerance for others’ perceived shortcomings.

9. One more benefit of being Catholic. There are lots of benefits, including a sense of community, liturgical rites to help us encounter God in prayer, and the wonderful sense of humanity exemplified in the saints, from Mary, the loving Mother of God, to Augustine, the exasperating son of Monica. The sacrament that leads us to inner peace is among the greatest boons.

10. Closeness to God. Confession helps you realize that you have a close connection to God and receive his grace through the sacraments. What can be better than knowing God’s on your team, or, to be less arrogant about it, that you are on God’s.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Whac-a Mole Immigration Policy

The U.S. government and Congress play their own version of Whac-a-Mole when it comes to immigration. The results are about the same as when people play with mallets and pop-up moles at an arcade: lots of noise, mindless excitement and no productivity. Smack a mallet in one place and up pops a mole elsewhere. The players can toss dollars at the game and pound themselves into a frenzy but never really win.

Whac-an-Immigrant has been through many incarnations. There has been -- whack! -- the border blockade strategy begun in the 1990s. The effort, known as Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas, and Operation Safeguard in Arizona, concentrated border patrol agents in cities, driving migrants into remote regions of the desert. Travel became harder, smuggling networks became stronger and thousands of migrants died in the American desert. The visceral drive for a better life exceeded the will to keep the stranger out, and the immigrants still came.

Then -- whack! -- came the border enforcement expansion of the past decade, in which the number of Border Patrol agents tripled, a failed high-tech monitoring system was deployed and a border fence built. A fence built between the United States and Mexico caused ecological havoc but barely slowed the immigrant flow. The immigrants still came, and those already here were deterred from returning home.

Then -- whack! -- there were employment raids, with hardworking men and women corralled in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, known as ICE. That created a chilling trauma not only for the workers ensnared but also their children waiting for supper. The ICE raids tear families apart, deport parents and effectively create orphans of babies born in the Land of the Free. Yet, heart-wrenching as the raids might be, ICE still could not dissuade desperate people from seeking a better life. The immigrants remained and still others came.

Then -- whack! -- came efforts to get at the children, many of whom grew up in the United States and know only the language of their adopted homeland, English. They may be hardworking and bright, and the nation may have wittingly or unwittingly invested in 12 or more years of schooling in them, but the government still deports them, and the law still opts to keep them from college by rejecting the legislative proposal known as the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which some still promote, would give permanent residence to certain undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools, show good moral character, came to the U.S. legally or illegally as minors and have been here continuously for at least five years before the bill's enactment. Going after these children is cruel, but they courageously came out of the shadows and now walk the halls of Congress advocating for a chance to become citizens.

Now comes E-Verify -- whack! -- a proposal to mandate that employers check Social Security numbers against federal databases, to ensure that potential employees are authorized to work. E-Verify currently is a failing voluntary system, where it misses more than 50 percent of the people it is supposed to catch. Make it mandatory and its error rate likely will rise. And immigrants will remain in the workplace, working off the books in an underground economy. Meanwhile, where are we while the government plays Whac-a-Mole?

Congress spent $117 billion on immigration enforcement initiatives from 2000 to 2010, and the number of undocumented immigrants grew from 7 million to 11.2 million. About 8 million, or 70 percent, of them are in the U.S. labor force, many working in low-skilled jobs that Americans won't pursue. Each year an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 more enter the country. As the country cracks down, the immigrants go further into the shadows. They still are in the workforce but open to inhumane exploitation by unscrupulous employers. This degradation demeans our nation and its people and flies against the fairness we Americans believe is part of our national character.

It is clear that we need immigration reform, but we need a reform that acknowledges the reality we face. There are millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce now. We need them. There are young students with potential and drive. We need them, too. As a nation where immigrants historically have had a fair chance and been treated humanely, we need to give up Whac-a-Mole and devise one comprehensive policy, including a legalization plan, born of our current reality and sense of decency. Whac-a-Mole doesn't get results anywhere. It just creates a lot of noise and frustration.