Thursday, March 29, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Human Life and Dignity

A funny thing happened on the way to Mexico.

As John Allen reports, while speaking to the media aboard the papal plane at the start of his visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI had some strong words for certain Catholics:

"Personally, in the individual square, they're Catholics, believers," the pope said. "But in public life they follow other paths that don't correspond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society. It's essential to educate people in order to overcome this schizophrenia, educating not only about individual morality but also public morality."

Allen points out that U.S. Catholics are probably used to this kind of rhetoric, mostly aimed at Catholic politicians who don't uphold the Church's teaching on abortion in public policy. He then notes that Pope Benedict was actually fielding a question about social justice and the gap between rich and poor and, in effect, had taken a principle associated with the Pro-Life movement and applied it consistently across a broader spectrum of issues.

The U.S. bishops do essentially the same thing in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, stating that every Catholic has a duty to bring the truth of the dignity of every human person into the public square and to guide their civic actions by assimilating what the Church teaches.

When it comes to what those teachings are, the bishops offer a complete, interconnected moral framework with the right to life and the dignity of the human person at its center. When the bishops apply this principle to the political issues of the day, they, like Pope Benedict, cast a broad net:

Human dignity opposes direct attacks on human life, whether that's the unborn baby or a civilian in a combat zone.

It opposes unjust discrimination, whether it's denying jobs, housing and other opportunities based on skin color or deciding that, due to age or illness, someone should be deliberately killed.

Human dignity says that people aren't to be used as a means to an end, whether that's cloning or destroying human embryos in the name of science, going to war without sufficient cause and subsequently torturing people in the name of national security, or deliberately snuffing out a life in the name of justice or compassion.

Finally, a belief in human dignity means no one can remain oblivious to widespread human suffering, whether it's genocide abroad or poverty at home. All of these are covered when the bishops call on Catholics to speak out consistently for human life and dignity.

Doing so, of course, isn't without its share of complications and grief, especially when it collides head-on with the traditional ideological divides of U.S. politics.

Addressing a Washington gathering in 2008, Archbishop Charles Chaput, then archbishop of Denver, mused that it seemed, "The people who attack me when I speak out against abortion are the same ones who praise me when I speak out in defense of immigrants." And vice versa. The archbishop wasn't demonizing immigrant supporters as pro-abortion or suggesting that pro-lifers are anti-immigrant, but rather illustrating the widespread need for greater consistency on human life and dignity issues.

John Carr, USCCB's executive director of Justice, Peace and Human Development, has noted that any Catholic who tries to live out Catholic teaching consistently in the public square is bound to feel "politically homeless" pretty quickly. The difficulty Catholics have dealing with this quandary is reflected in the fragmented, disparate political allegiances they settle for, often giving voice to a few concerns of the Church, but diluting or dulling its moral voice on others.

While it might be tempting to throw in the towel on this mess, that approach is too simplistic and turns its back on the duty of every Catholic to get involved. Just because Catholics are often as divided as the rest of the country doesn't mean they can't be a force for good. Just as Catholics are called to form their individual consciences, they can also serve as a voice of conscience to the entire political process. The key is not to speak from mere partisan or ideological agendas, but from the conviction that sees, in the words of the bishops, "all human beings as children of God."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Holy Thursday, Dolores Hart and the Mystery of Love

HBO explores the mystery of love April 5, when the network airs “God Is the Bigger Elvis.” It is the story of Dolores Hart, a young starlet of the fifties and sixties who became a cloistered nun. The little more than half-hour documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012, reflects the mystery of God in the actress’s life and the power of two loves.

Dolores Hart is now the prioress of Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. The story reveals the film and Broadway star’s enduring commitments to her one-time fiancé Don Robinson and to God. In 1963, Dolores Hart left Robinson, an architect, for life in the cloister. The stage lights yielded to chapel candles, and curtain call to the convent bell that announce the hours of the Divine Office. Their deep friendship remained, however; so too, her commitment to God.

“God Is the Bigger Elvis” celebrates lasting love. Don, who never married, visited Mother Dolores annually and helped support the rural 400-acre monastery with its working farm. He died last November. Mother Dolores, meanwhile, now celebrates almost 50 years as a Benedictine nun.

The actress, who gave Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss in “Loving You” and starred on Broadway in “The Pleasure of His Company,” knew romance-full Hollywood. Yet she chose the most romantic life of all when she entered the monastery. What can be more romantic that giving your life to the unseen God and responding to a stirring of the heart evoked by Someone who offers no sweet nothings?

In the documentary, Mother Dolores does not explain the call that has sustained her half a century. But who of us really can explain love, even the spark that launches a couple's decades-long friendship, even marriage? “It was her smile,” some say. “His laugh.” “His eyes.” “The way she walked into a room.” “He was so much fun.” “She was so pretty.”

Even harder to explain is the love that a nun has for a church and a religious community through its human and, sometimes, inhumane moments. Who can explain her steadfast love for an itinerant preacher who walked in Galilee 2,000 years ago?

HBO will air the program on Holy Thursday, the commemoration of another love story, that of the Man Who gave up His life for His friends. It is the story of the ultimate sacrifice that underlies the faith of Christians around the world. Like other loves, it holds an element of mystery, and we accept it, without complete understanding.

Speaking to NBC-TV last January, Mother Dolores said that when she broke off her engagement, she told Don Robinson, “Every love doesn’t have to end at the altar.” On the Hollywood level, theirs did not. His obit said they were “close, close friends.” Yet, on the level of abiding friendship, perhaps it did.

For great loves do lead to an altar, the altar of sacrifice that is celebrated especially every Holy Week. It is a solemn love, intangible, yet real; more passionate than even swivel-hipped Elvis, and powerful enough to hold us to Him, never seen yet felt within our very souls.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pope Shenouda III: Pioneer of Christian Unity

Fr. Ron Roberson, CSP, Associate Director of USCCB's Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, reflects on the passing of Pope Shenouda.

Last Saturday His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, passed away. At the helm of his church since 1971, his death is a huge loss not only for his own community but for Christians everywhere. Tributes to the late Patriarch came from church leaders around the world, including Olav Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict wrote “the entire Catholic Church shares the mourning of Coptic Orthodox and, with fervent prayer, asks the One who is the resurrection and the life to welcome His faithful servant to His side.”

Who was Pope Shenouda and why does is his death matter to Catholics?

First, the Coptic Orthodox Church is among the most ancient in the world, tracing its origins to the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt as described in the Gospels. The Christian community in Egypt, where Christian monasticism originated, gave rise to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, one of the great centers in the early Christian world. For centuries it was ranked second only to Rome itself. The Alexandrian tradition of theology, spirituality, and canon law are precious aspects of the Christian patrimony.

Unfortunately, the great majority of Alexandrian Christians broke with the Church in the Roman Empire when they rejected the Christological teachings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Alexandrian Christians eventually become known as “Coptic,” which means “Egyptian” in the ancient Coptic language. Along with several other churches that rejected Chalcedon, the Coptic Church is known today as “Oriental Orthodox.”

The Coptic Church flourished for many centuries. But Arab invaders conquered Egypt in the 7th century, and by the end of the 12th century Islam had become the faith of the majority of Egyptians. Copts experienced alternating periods of persecution and well-being depending on the policies of their Arab rulers. Today Coptic Orthodox, ninety-five percent of Egyptian Christians and ten percent of the Egyptian population, still struggle to find their place in a sometimes hostile Egyptian society.

Yet during his four decades in office, Pope Shenouda presided over a church renewal that continues today, including a remarkable and inspiring upswing of monasticism in Egypt. Emigration of Copts to other parts of the world has also made the vibrant Coptic tradition better known in areas far beyond the boundaries of Egypt.

Pope Shenouda III was also known for his commitment to ecumenism and served as a president of the World Council of Churches from 1991 to 1998.

His role was key in the improvement of relations between the Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Churches after the Second Vatican Council. In a visit to Rome in 1973, he and Pope Paul VI signed a Common Declaration that finally put to rest the fifth-century Christological disputes. Despite some remaining disagreements they wrote, “we are rediscovering ourselves as Churches with a common inheritance and are reaching out with determination and confidence in the Lord to achieve the fullness and perfection of that unity which is His gift.” An official dialogue between the two churches was established that year, superseded by a dialogue between the Catholic and all Oriental Orthodox Churches in 2003. Pope Shenouda hosted the first plenary meeting of this dialogue in Cairo in 2004.

There can be no doubt that Pope Shenouda III will be considered a giant in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

But he will also be remembered as a promoter of Christian unity, especially with the Catholic Church. May he rest in peace, and may his legacy live on in the hearts of the faithful.

Health and Human Services’ Sacrosanct Mandate

Reams of paper emanate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about how to “accommodate” religious groups that are upset by the recent HHS mandate. Yet for all the fallen trees, HHS ignores a neuralgic point: the government has overstepped its boundaries when it defines what constitutes religious ministry.

The mandate, for the few who do not know it, would force employers, even religious ones, to accept contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization as part of their health coverage for employees. It offers a narrow religious exception that, among other things, defines a religious organization as one that hires primarily its co-religionists, serves primarily its co-religionists, and has as its purpose the inculcation of religion. In short, it dismisses the work of the Good Samaritan, who modeled helping another because of his or her need, not creed. The mandate seems to declare as non-religious hospitals that do not ask for a baptismal certificate in the E.R., soup kitchens that ask “Are you hungry?” instead of “Are you Catholic?”, and shelters that do not teach the Apostles’ Creed before giving a stranger a bed for the night.

This miserly definition of a religious ministry was devised by the American Civil Liberties Union for a law related to contraceptives in California, and HHS has adopted it as if it were wisdom from the Oracle of Delphi.

Until now the federal government has respected the church’s role in defining its ministries and has not tinkered with doctrine. Despite this history, however, HHS and the rest of the Administration now are digging in their heels on the neuralgic point. They stick to the ACLU definition unreasonably, even while saying it’s only for this health care regulation and won’t apply to others. They turn a blind eye on those of us who shudder at Caesar’s defining what constitutes a church ministry.

Why President Obama seems to have chosen this moment to become theologian-in-chief is a mystery. Why should Caesar weigh in on theological questions such as what ministry is religious enough? Distributing Holy Communion at the altar? Yes. Distributing bread in the soup kitchen? No. He might have to meditate on where the loaves and fishes on the hillside would fit, in this theological framework.

HHS seems to be torturing itself to facilitate ways to apply the mandate while circumventing religious freedom. On March 16, it floated some ideas to which it wants the public to respond. Here’s hoping they do.

In the past, numerous health care laws have refrained from defining how religious the objecting entity was – they simply said, for example, in the federal employees' health plan, that an insurer was exempt from the mandate if it had "a religious objection," or in that program and others, that health care providers, whether individual or institutional, didn't have to take part if that would violate their "religious beliefs or moral convictions." The emphasis was on the nature of the objection, rather than on what kind of other ministries the entity engages in to make it "religious."

Perhaps it is time to de-sanctify the ACLU definition of religious ministry and find an approach with which the country can live peacefully. The Administration, HHS, and the bishops, as well as the hungry, the hospitalized and the homeless, would sleep better for it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Expressing Solidarity with Our Holy Father and the Church in Cuba

Bishop Richard E. Pates reflects on his upcoming trip to Cuba for Pope Benedict's historic visit to the country:

As Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I have the privilege of traveling to countries where the Catholic Church faces great challenges in proclaiming its mission of reconciliation and dialogue. My journeys have taken me in the past year to Côte d’Ivoire and Venezuela---nations in which the Church courageously serves as one of the few institutions in civil society able to mediate among conflicting elements of the local societies. Perhaps no better example exists of this unique and challenging calling of the Church than the witness of the bishops, priests, religious and Catholic faithful who act with such courage and determination in Cuba, serving as a bridge among conflicting factions in Cuban society. We support efforts of the Church to strengthen religious freedom, defend human rights in Cuba, and promote civil society. We share the view of the bishops of Cuba that the best way to promote greater respect for religious freedom and human rights is through increased dialogue and contact, not isolation of the Cuban people.

For this reason I am eagerly anticipating my visit to Cuba this month. In union with the whole Church, we celebrate and look forward with great joy to the historic visit by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, to Cuba, scheduled for March 26 through 28 of this year.

The situation in Cuba is of great concern to the Church in the United States. The delegation of which I am a member wants to express the solidarity of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with the Holy Father and with the Church and people of Cuba. We make our own the pastoral vision that is inspiring the Holy Father to reach out to the faithful in Cuba at this time of great religious joy in celebrating the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Patroness of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity. In addition, as Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the Conference, I hope to learn first-hand about the current situation in Cuba in order to influence U.S. policy toward Cuba in positive ways.

We pray that the blessings occasioned by the visit of the Holy Father, in his role as Universal Pastor of the Church, and in his concern for the spiritual and social well-being of the people of Cuba, will strengthen peace, reconciliation and dialogue among all elements of Cuban society. In this way, we unite ourselves with our Holy Father and the Church in Cuba in speaking for the dignity and value of each human life, safeguarding religious freedom, and promoting human rights for all the citizens of this nation at this time of great joy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: The Question of Conscience

"We don't tell them who to vote for. We don't want to tell them who to vote for!"

That's what one Midwestern bishop said following the USCCB's November 2007 meeting in Baltimore, where the bishops had overwhelmingly approved the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship on political responsibility. His comment reflected the fact that the document, at its heart, is a call for Catholics to get involved in the political process, not a voting guide. It also reflected the Church's practice of not endorsing political parties or candidates.

Of course, this doesn't remove the Church from the political arena entirely. A person would have to live in a concrete bunker to miss the fact that the bishops have plenty of positions on political issues and public policy -- from battles over religious freedom and the definition of marriage to the perennial advocacy against abortion and for immigration reform and peace in the Middle East. Surely the bishops must have some inkling of what issues should be important to Catholics when they vote.

They do. But they also recognize that voting is a moral choice. And the responsibility for that choice ultimately falls with the individual. To help Catholic voters in this task, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship emphasizes two principles: a well-formed conscience and the virtue of prudence.

The bishops are quick to point out that conscience is not the freebie it might initially seem to be. It's not "something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere 'feeling' about what we should or should not do." They call conscience "the voice of God resounding in the human heart" (nothing intimidating about that), something that "always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments."

Being a faithful citizen requires a well-formed conscience. This concept is so central to Church teaching that the bishops made it the title of their document. Forming one's conscience is an ongoing process aided by reading Scripture, reflecting on Church teaching, studying the issues and, of course, praying.

Prudence is the virtue that enables people to discern the right thing to do in specific, everyday circumstances and then act. Like a well-formed conscience, this comes with some caveats. For instance, Catholics must recognize that there are morally unacceptable ways of pursuing moral goals (i.e. the ends don't justify the means). The bishops readily acknowledge that there are different ways to respond to various social concerns, but they also say no one is excused from helping to build a more just, peaceful world.

The bishops also strongly note that certain intrinsically evil acts -- such as abortion and racism -- must always be opposed.

And then there's the fact that voting is essentially the most morally imperfect act one can ever engage in within the political process. The moral certainty of principle gets boiled down into these messy, unreliable things called candidates, who are prone to contradictions and swayed by public opinion. Nor does the voter have the luxury of saying, "I'll take Candidate A's positions regarding human life, but Candidate B's positions on human dignity."

In the face of this, it would be difficult to blame the bishops for throwing up their hands and saying to lay Catholics, "You figure it out!" However, the truth is not a surrender of responsibility, but rather a recognition of it.

Holding up conscience and prudence in the political process sends the message that the bishops take the U.S. Catholic faithful seriously by giving them this challenge. It recognizes that they play a unique role in the ongoing interplay between Church and society and that no one, not even the bishops, can do it for them.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reaching out to our Cuban Neighbors

Bishop Gerald Kicanas, chair of Catholic Relief Services’ Board of Directors, reflects on Pope Benedict's upcoming trip to Cuba:

Later this month, I have the privilege of traveling with several other brother bishops from the United States to join our Holy Father on his visit to Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI follows in the footsteps of his predecessor John Paul II, the first pontiff to visit Cuba, in 1998. This time, Our Holy Father comes to Cuba as a "Pilgrim of Charity" to celebrate with the Church in Cuba the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.

Pope Benedict is reaching out to an often isolated island nation that has a history of discord with our country. His presence in Cuba will send a message that we are all one human family, called to live in peace, despite our political differences.

Over the years, the Church in the United States has quietly reached out to the Cuban people through the humanitarian work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and to the Church in Cuba through the Collection for the Church in Latin America. I serve as Chairman of the Board of CRS and know a little of the fellowship between CRS and the Church in Cuba.

All too often Cuba has borne the brunt of the Atlantic hurricane season. CRS has stood with its Church partner, Caritas Cubana, with the shipment of food, medicine and other emergency supplies. Caritas Cubana also supports some of society’s most vulnerable such as the elderly and children with disabilities. CRS has quietly but consistently strengthened its ability to meet the needs of these groups through heartfelt acts of charity.

For me the spirit of this Cuban and American partnership are reflected in the words of Mario Gonzalez, the director of Caritas Cubana in Camaguey. In 2006, this part of the island was hit by severe flooding and CRS worked with funds from Archdiocese of Indianapolis to ship vital supplies. “Only God knows how deeply grateful we are for this gesture of brotherhood from those sisters and brothers who, although far from us, are united with us through the same faith and love of Jesus Christ,” Gonzalez said at that time.

I believe that the Holy Father’s visit to Cuba will strengthen these bonds. Please share my prayer that from the beginnings in humanitarian outreach Cuban and U.S. Catholics come to more closely share bonds of friendship, enrich each other’s lives and faith, and come to enjoy the openness that good neighbors are called to.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Political Engagement is Every Catholic's Duty

"Why is the Catholic Church getting involved in politics?"

When uttered aloud, the gut-level revulsion is clearly audible in that question.

It's a fair question, one that comes up frequently. It's grounded in history. People ask, "Didn't the Church get burned time and again through the centuries when it got too cozy with various medieval kings and secular powers? Isn't that how, at one time, it became so corrupt that it sparked the Protestant Reformation?"

The question comes up today, almost regardless of the issue being addressed by the pope, the bishops or even a parish priest. Sandra Day O'Connor once quipped that the definition of an "activist judge" is "a judge who disagrees with me." Similarly, the complaint about the Church meddling in politics can fall conveniently along political fault lines. But there's still something to be said for people being wary of a Church that seems too wrapped up in secular matters and power.

The bishops recognize this and draw several key distinctions. To name a couple, the Church's focus is on moral principles and how they should influence policy positions. The Church stakes out strong positions on issues, but does not endorse parties or candidates. It recognizes that lay people play a complementary role of more direct involvement in politics that the hierarchy cannot and should not play.

Pope Benedict XVI made this clear in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, stating, "The direct duty to work for a just ordering of proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity."

The pope uses the word "called," meaning not just a role, but a duty. Still one could ask, "Doesn't political involvement seem kind of peripheral compared to my other obligations to the faith like participating in the Sacraments and helping the poor?"

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops respond with a vision of the Church providing society a great service.

"Because we are people of both faith and reason, it is appropriate and necessary for us to bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square," the bishops write. "We are called to practice Christ's commandment to 'love one another' (Jn 13:34)."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it another way, that it's necessary for everyone to participate in promoting the common good (#1913-15). Either way, political participation, at its best, is an expression of faith lived out in the world.

The bishops, as pastors and teachers, apply the Church's moral voice to issues affecting human life and dignity in the public square, and Catholics as a whole engage in the political process through such means as voting and, according to the bishops, "running for office; working within political parties; communicating their concerns and positions to elected officials; and joining diocesan social mission or advocacy networks, state Catholic conference initiatives, community organizations, and other efforts to apply authentic moral teaching in the public square."

This is a year-round deal, but not in the sense of the perpetual campaign that poisons so much political discourse. Catholics aren't called to be hyper-partisans waging a scorched Earth campaign for permanent political dominance. In fact the bishops offer the admonition that Catholic shouldn't let their parties lead them to "neglect or deny fundamental moral truths."

Instead, Catholics are called to be leaven. The duty of the politically-engaged Catholic isn't just to take sides in the political debate, but to transform it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

United in Charity Around the Successor of Peter

Ahead of the March 23-29 visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico and Cuba, the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibáñez of Santiago de Cuba, offers the following reflection, in English and Spanish, to share with U.S. Catholics just what this visit means to the Church in Cuba.

With great joy we are preparing to receive to His Holiness Benedict XVI for a visit we have anticipated ever since we started preparing for this Jubilee Year four years ago. It was then that we invited the Holy Father to come visit our local church and our country as a pilgrim; for the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the finding of the image of Our Lady is a very significant date for all Cubans, for the faith of Cubans, for our history and also for our national identity.

We give thanks to God and to the Holy Father that he accepted the invitation to visit us in the midst of his many obligations as pastor of the universal Church. He is the successor of the apostle Peter, to whom Jesus told: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it…Shepherd my sheep. From that moment on, Peter remains the first among the apostles, the first in charity and in communion of all. The mission of the Holy Father is to be the rock that guides us and sustains us in our journey towards Christ; in this role he exercises his charity and as a caring Father he accompanies us.

Every time Benedict XVI visits a country, it is a pastoral visit to that particular church to encourage them in their faith, confirm them in hope, and encourage them to be generous in charity. And this is the fundamental meaning of his upcoming visit to Cuba. In this case, for the Jubilee Year, he comes as Pilgrim of Charity. The theme of charity is central. God is love, God is charity, and the pope comes to confirm us in the love of the Father and to assure us that the love of God is with us always.

For us Cubans, this word has a great and beautiful meaning because it is the name of our Mother and Patroness. Our Lady of Charity, as an image, is symbol of the “cubanía” (that which pertains to all things Cuban) that unites all Cubans, believers and unbelievers alike; but charity, love, is the only virtue that can make possible that all Cubans be brothers and sisters to one another. The opposite of charity is hate; hate doesn’t build anything, division doesn’t build anything. The devil is the father of lies and disunion, but charity is what unites us, and it always comes from God. That’s why the Holy Father comes to visit.

He is also the head of a very small state, the Vatican, and that allows him to establish one-on-one relationships with other states. So, when the Holy Father visits the local church, in this case the Cuban church, it is also because the Cuban State has invited him. It is a pastoral visit, but in the eyes of the government and the people, it also is the visit of a Head of State.

However, we cannot miss that the primary meaning of the visit is pastoral. That is how we have to look at it, both the Government and ourselves as pastors as well as the members of the Church.

This is why we are preparing. Everyone can see streets are being worked on and houses painted. The archdiocesan building is also getting ready, for he will come to rest for a few hours here; we have hurried to finish the house in El Cobre, which will be for elderly priests. It is logical. When we receive a visit we try to make them comfortable and try to make sure things are beautiful. But for this visit the most important thing is the spiritual preparation.

It is not just a question of welcoming the Holy Father with unction and joy, and of participating in the Mass, but of living a profound spiritual renovation. Thank God this visit coincides with the season of Lent, a time in which we are invited to internal conversion, to a desire to change the heart; but we are also given some practical tasks: we hear about prayer, fasting and mercy, about helping others.

The Cuban church has chosen this time of Lent, Holy Week and Easter to launch a campaign in which we invite the Cuban people to solidarity, to live charity, to be compassionate… knowing that every man and woman are my brother and sister, because they are sons and daughters of God; and that I can never be indifferent in the face of the suffering of others. The visit of the Holy Father is, therefore, an added grace.

I invite you and I so that we may take advantage of this time. The readings of Ash Wednesday reminded us that this is the day that the Lord has made, a time of mercy. This is the time of the Lord, let’s make the most of it.

Unidos en torno a la Caridad y al Sucesor de Pedro

Por Mons. Dionisio García Ibáñez

Con alegría nos estamos preparando para recibir a Su Santidad Benedicto XVI, visita esperada y deseada desde hace cuatro años cuando nos comenzamos a preparar para este Año Jubilar. Desde entonces invitamos al Santo Padre para que viniera a visitar a nuestra iglesia y a nuestra Patria como peregrino, pues los cuatrocientos años del hallazgo de la imagen de la Virgen es una fecha muy significativa para todos los cubanos, para la fe de los cubanos, para nuestra historia y también para nuestra identidad nacional.

Damos gracias a Dios y al Santo Padre que ha decidido aceptar la invitación y visitarnos, en medio de sus muchas ocupaciones como pastor de la Iglesia Universal. Él es el sucesor del apóstol Pedro, a quien Jesús le dijo: Tú eres Pedro, y sobre esta piedra edificaré mi Iglesia, y las puertas del abismo no podrán vencerlaApacienta mis ovejas. Desde ese momento quedó Pedro entre los apóstoles como el primero, el que tenía la primacía en la caridad y en la comunión entre todos. La misión del Santo Padre es ser la roca que nos guía y sostiene en nuestro ir hacia Cristo, es quien ejerce la caridad y como padre solícito nos acompaña.

Cada vez que Benedicto XVI visita un país, es una visita pastoral a esa iglesia particular para animarla en la fe, confirmarla en la esperanza y animarla a ser generosa en la caridad; y es este el sentido fundamental de su próxima visita a Cuba. En este caso, por el Año Jubilar, viene como Peregrino de la Caridad. El tema de la caridad es central. Dios es amor, Dios es caridad, y él vendrá para confirmarnos ese amor del Padre y para asegurarnos que el amor de Dios siempre está con nosotros.

Para nosotros los cubanos esta palabra tiene un sentido muy hermoso, muy grande, porque es el nombre de nuestra Madre y Patrona. La Virgen de la Caridad, como ícono, es símbolo de cubanía que une a los cubanos, a los creyentes y a los no creyentes; pero la caridad, el amor, es la única virtud que puede lograr que los cubanos verdaderamente seamos hermanos. Lo opuesto de la caridad es el odio, y el odio no construye nada, la división no construye nada. El diablo es el padre de la mentira y la desunión, pero la caridad es lo que une y siempre viene de Dios. A eso viene el Santo Padre.

Él también está al frente de ese minúsculo estado del Vaticano, lo cual le permite tener relaciones de igual a igual con otros estados. Por tanto, cualquier visita que el Santo Padre realice a otro país, no solamente lo hace porque es invitado por la iglesia local, en este caso la cubana; también la hace porque el Estado Cubano le ha invitado. Es una visita pastoral, pero ante el estado y pueblo de Cuba, es también una visita de un Jefe de Estado.

Sin embargo, no podemos perder de vista que el sentido primario, fundamental de la visita es su sentido pastoral. Así es como tenemos que verlo tanto el Estado, como nosotros mismos los pastores y miembros de la Iglesia.

Por eso nos estamos preparando. Todos han visto que están arreglando las calles y pintando las casas; el Arzobispado se está preparando pues él vendrá a descansar unas horas aquí; la casa de El Cobre que será para los sacerdotes ancianos, hemos corrido para adelantarla y poder tenerla terminada. Y esto es lógico, pues cuando recibimos una visita tratamos de darle las mínimas comodidades, tratamos de que todo sea hermoso. Pero para esta visita lo más importante es la preparación espiritual.

No se trata sólo de recibir al Santo Padre con unción y alegría, participar en la misa, sino también de vivir una profunda renovación espiritual. Gracias a Dios coincide esta visita con el tiempo de Cuaresma, tiempo en el que se nos invita a la conversión interior, se nos llama a querer cambiar el corazón; pero además se nos dan tareas prácticas: se nos habla de oración, de ayuno y de misericordia, de ayudar al hermano.

La Iglesia cubana ha escogido este tiempo de Cuaresma, Semana Santa y Pascua, para lanzar una campaña en que invitamos a todo el pueblo cubano a ser solidario con los demás, a vivir la caridad, a ser compasivos… sabiendo que todo hombre es mi hermano, porque es hijo de Dios, y que no puedo pasar nunca indiferente ante el sufrimiento del otro. Por tanto es una gracia añadida la visita del Santo Padre.

Les invito, para que ustedes y yo, sepamos aprovechar este tiempo. Las lecturas del miércoles de ceniza nos recordaron que este es el día del Señor, este es el tiempo de la misericordia. Este es el tiempo del Señor, vamos a aprovecharlo.


Mons. García Ibáñez es Arzobispo de Santiago de Cuba y presidente de la Conferencia de Obispos Católicos de Cuba

Friday, March 9, 2012

Amish, Ok. Catholics, No.

The Amish are exempt from the entire health care reform law. So are members of Medi-Share, a program of Christian Care Ministry. Yet, when the Catholic Church asks for a religious exemption from just one regulation issued under the law – the mandate that all employers, including religious institutions, must pay for sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs – the Administration balks.

The government respects the First Amendment that guarantees the right to freely exercise one’s religious beliefs, but only to a point. In the health care law it picks and chooses which beliefs it respects. The Amish do not believe in insurance, and the government understands. Christian Care Ministry believes people should form a religious community and pay medical bills for one another, and the government says okay. Yet when the Catholic Church opposes being forced to pay for services that violate its beliefs, the Administration says “tough.”

What is so special about this mandate that it cannot be touched? It was added after Congress passed the health care law and offers no exemption for religious charitable or educational institutions. It will not accept Catholic charities and schools as “religious enough” unless they hire only Catholics, serve only Catholics, have the narrow tax exempt status granted to houses of worship, and teach religion as their purpose.

Amazingly, this mandate has more force than the overall health care law. In fact recent regulations allow states to decide which “essential health benefits” to require in health plans, such as hospitalization, prescription drugs and pediatric services. At the same time, all insurance plans must include the objectionable services mentioned above. Here federal law trumps state law and threatens to fine into submission institutions that dare oppose it. The going rate is at least $100 per day per employee.

What has the government got against the Catholic Church? Has it forgotten the contributions the church has made to the poor and needy for centuries?

Catholic elementary and secondary schools provide the only real alternative to public schools in many parts of the nation. Catholic colleges offer outstanding education, be it at the university or the community college. The contribution has a long history, back to 1789 when Georgetown University was founded by the Jesuits. Yet under the health care law, if these schools and colleges wish to remain faithful to their religious principles the government will fine them into submission. There’s a thank-you note.

Many Catholic hospitals were founded by religious orders of women, and today one out of six persons seeking hospital care in the United States goes to a Catholic hospital. Until now, religious background of the patient has not been an issue. “Where does it hurt?” is the first question, not “Where is your baptismal certificate?” This approach threatens to deny hospitals any real protection as “religious employers” under the new rule. Yet their Catholicity means many of these hospitals have an added benefit. At Providence Hospital in Washington, DC, for example, patients not only get medical care, they can get clothing too if they need it. It comes through the Ladies of Charity, an auxiliary of the Daughters of Charity who founded the hospital in 1861.

Catholic social service agencies, including adoption and foster care agencies, parish food banks, and soup kitchens, meet human concerns. Services depend on need, not creed. Church sponsorship means the services have a little extra, be they volunteers from parishes, financial donations through diocesan appeals, or the dedication that comes from working for God as well as paycheck.

A Catholic might take personally the Administration’s dissing their beliefs. Lucky the Amish, who have their basic constitutional rights respected. If only we objected to health insurance generally, we might be able to enjoy the same protection. Seems odd that the Administration is more inflexible on contraception than on services that actually treat disease.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholic Vote: an Introduction

With Super Tuesday now behind us, more and more Americans are turning their attention to politics, specifically, to the local, state and federal elections on November 6, and as they do so, one in four of those Americans is Catholic.

In the 2008 election, Catholics comprised a quarter of the electorate, by far the largest single religious denomination. They achieved this statistical feat in spite of making up less than a quarter of the total population. So not only are they a formidable demographic, but an over-represented one at the polls. We'd like to think this is a sign that U.S. Catholics tend to be civic minded and informed when it comes to the issues that affect them, their country and the rest of the world. In short, hopefully it's because they care.

To feed this demand, this blog is entering the election year fray with a weekly series, "Catholics care. Catholics vote," which will run from now through May. As the politicians and pundits ramp up their rhetoric, this series will unpack and explore the themes addressed by the U.S. bishops in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, their document on political responsibility. This will include everything from issues affecting human life and dignity, to hot-button social concerns in our country today, to the principles that shape the conscience formation and civic involvement of Catholics.

This series will be freely available to diocesan and parish leadership for use circulation/re-posting in newspapers, bulletins, websites, workshops, etc.

Stay tuned!