Holy See Mission Seminar Day 3- Sharing Our Story

13 Jul

Since its foundation more than 2000 years ago, the Catholic Church has been the world’s foremost institution regarding social justice and the advancement of the common good, which is more than an idea or a lifestyle, but a necessary human response to the love of God. History has seen this loving reply modeled for us by countless saints, and we are driven to follow suit. Today, this role of the Holy See extends to more people than ever, particularly through her Permanent Observer status at the United Nations.

To conclude the Reflections session led by Fr. Bob Meyer of the Holy See Mission on the second day of the seminar, we were asked how we might go about “building a better world”, as per the official title of the gathering. Several suggestions were offered, from sponsoring children in developing nations to participating in a “reverse” collection during Mass, whereby instead of placing money into the basket, one draws from the basket a slip of paper on which is written an item to donate to help those less fortunate. Other students had been involved in organizations that assist single mothers, or that raise awareness against domestic violence, or that send nursing students abroad to improve neonatal health and to increase the safety of childbearing and childbirth. Another attendee remarked on the sculpture of a firearm found outside the UN buildings. The gun’s muzzle is twisted into a knot symbolizing how the destruction wrought by small arms can be turned into beauty and peace. The sculptor hails from notoriously violence-ridden Colombia, where there is hope even amid the darkness of armed conflict.

These are but a few ways that young people are living the message of our faith. In the Eucharist, we receive the consecrated Host that is unleavened. As Fr. Meyer said, “we must be the leaven”; we must “tell the story”. Our story is that of the love and goodness that are our hallmarks as the body of Christ. Thus, we are one body that is sent out into the world to be both “ever-active and ever-present” representatives of Our Lord. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sec. 1577)

(Tuesday, May 22, 2007) As I write this, I’m reminded of the David Haas hymn, “The Song of the Body of Christ”. This is our song that is active and vibrant and unites us. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come…” It is particularly up to young Catholics to build this Kingdom of God on earth. Our song, the sharing of our story, begins by greeting each other in Christ, as said by the first speaker of the third day of the Holy See Mission seminar, Capuchin Franciscan Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. His Grace opened his talk on religious tolerance with the following reflection: that we are all “a creative moment in the imagination of God”… “If God loves you, I love you”. God created us out of love, though none of His creation was obligatory. By being a faithful reflection of God’s love toward others, we undertake a pro-creative mission. Then our will and God’s will, and the Kingdom of Heaven and that of earth, become one.

God created us for this purpose of charity, which entails putting an end to childish ways (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12) and living as adult stewards of the world. Much of our society worships the idols of individualism and of profit. However, these masters to which many are enslaved are “childish fiction” according to Archbishop Chaput. We ought to outgrow these impediments, to become adults. Archbishop Chaput continued thus: “Adulthood brings power…Power brings responsibility.”

Few understood the necessity of an adult response to the gifts of faith and of love as well as St. Edith Stein, who was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on October 12, 1891, Yom Kippur. Her father, Auguste Courant, died before Edith’s second birthday, leaving her mother, Siegried Stein, to raise their seven children. Edith Stein was renowned for her intellect from a young age. She began her studies in philosophy at the University of Breslau, and moved prior to the outbreak of World War I to Göttingen to study under Edmund Husserl. By 1916, Edith Stein held a doctorate in philosophy. She continued to work under Husserl as an assistant, relocating again to the University of Freiburg, but during this time Edith Stein’s faith waned notwithstanding her academic prowess. While on vacation in Göttingen in 1921, though, she pulled the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila off a friend’s bookshelf. She spent the entire night that followed reading St. Teresa’s “Libro de Vida” (Book of Life). The next morning, she exclaimed to a companion, “This is the truth!”

Edith Stein was baptized on January 1, 1922. Shortly thereafter, her direct association with Edmund Husserl ended, yet she became an even more celebrated author, lecturer, and philosopher by the end of the 1920s. Still, Edith Stein longed for a life of prayer and self-sacrifice, a deeper relationship with God afforded by the Discalced Carmelites and exemplified by that Order’s foundress whose autobiography had been Edith Stein’s little spark of truth some years earlier.

Despite her wishes to become a Carmelite, Edith Stein’s spiritual director recommended that she continue to write and to lecture in a university setting. However, she and other persons of Jewish descent were banned from teaching in Germany by a series of anti-Semitic laws passed by the Nazi regime in 1933. In the same year, Edith Stein entered the Carmel of Cologne-Lindenthal, taking the religious name Teresia Benedicta ac Cruce (Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). She quickly became a force against Nazi horrors, eventually writing to Pope Pius XI:

“For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings…Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself ‘Christian.’ For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name.”

The Catholic Church did indeed make herself heard. She fought against repeated Nazi violations of the July 20, 1933 Concordat signed between Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli and Franz von Papen of the Holy See and German President Paul von Hindenburg. The Nazis had never intended to abide by the Concordat, especially sections related to the protection of the religious freedom of Catholics as well as those of other denominations or faiths. The Holy See, well aware of National Socialist intentions, published over forty denunciations of Third Reich policies between 1933 and 1937, culminating in the release of the Encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Anxiety”) on Palm Sunday, March 14, 1937. This document, originally written in German instead of the more common Latin to have a more direct impact on the German people, was read from every pulpit in that country, provoking an irate response from Adolf Hitler on May 1. Besides condemning the frequent Nazi breaches of the Reichskonkordat, “Mit Brennender Sorge” appealed to German Catholics in danger of “(yielding) to the threats and enticements of the enemies of Christ and His Church.” (Sec. 40) In addition, a dying Pope Pius XI penned these words: “Our wholehearted paternal sympathy goes out to those who must pay so dearly for their loyalty to Christ and the Church; but directly the highest interests are at stake, with the alternative of spiritual loss, there is but one alternative left, that of heroism.” (Sec. 21)

The Catholic Church had no shortage of heroes willing to take up the Cross at that time. Cardinal Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII in 1939, was one such hero. He is credited by Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide with saving the lives of over 700 000 Jews during World War II, accounting for about 3 of every 10 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. (cf. Rabbi David G. Dalin, “Pius XII and the Jews”, in the Weekly Standard, 26 February, 2001, cf. also H.W. Crocker III, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2000-Year History, p. 403) St. Edith Stein was another hero, to Jews and Christians alike. She was taken forcibly from the Carmel in Echt in the Netherlands, where she had been sent to live out of Hitler’s genocidal reach, and she died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz along with her sister Rosa on August 9, 1942. Edith Stein was beatified on May 1, 1987, and canonized on October 11, 1998 by Pope John Paul II. She had written her last book, “The Science of the Cross”, in 1938. This Science, a profound knowledge of God’s love, is best summed up as follows: “(One) can only learn the science of the Cross by feeling the Cross in one’s own person.” In 1939, she said, “I asked the Lord to accept my life and my death.”

The Lord has accepted into Heaven those like Pope Pius XII and St. Edith Stein, who acted on what they believed, “even at the expense of (their) reputation or of life itself”, in the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput. Speaking of religious tolerance, His Grace described secularism as a form of intolerance, calling it “a designer experience…cheap pop-culture bigotry” that lacks the binding character of religion. The word “religion”, in fact, comes from the Latin “religare”, meaning “to bind”. This nature of religious life is feared by modern ideologies that set out to absolutize moral relativism. On the contrary, Archbishop Chaput said that since religion shapes our beliefs about “the human person”, it “has social and political consequences”.

Our works matter: St. James reminds us that “faith without works is dead”. (James 2:20) Furthermore, Jesus commands us to “make disciples of all nations”. (Matthew 28:19) We believe in the supremacy and Godhead of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) Yet our relationship toward persons of like or different creeds goes beyond mere tolerance. We do not “tolerate” other religions, as in bearing with them unwillingly. We Catholics must bear witness to all, while still recognizing truth and beauty inherent in other faiths. In so doing, tolerance of evil is to be regarded as failure. Mere tolerance, I add, is bearing false witness against our neighbour. We need to be true witnesses of God’s love, not a “caricature of (Catholicism)” that drives people away from religion. Our mission has “apostolic authority from Jesus Christ”, thus it must spread to where religion is not, or to where Christ’s missionaries and followers are persecuted, for example to North Korea and China. In Europe and North America, where there is more freedom but also more cynicism and increasing attempts to remove religion from public life, the work of the Christian soldier is challenging in a different sense. We who are “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” in the Sacrament of Confirmation are invited to live God’s Science of Love, shown on the Cross. This, said Archbishop Chaput, is our time; it is no more and no less extreme a time as when the saints lived. There is therefore no shortage of heroes for today and for always. There are among us those who “prepare the Way to Jesus with every breath we take”. (cf. Matthew 3:3)

Following the inspirational talk by Archbishop Chaput, the Holy See Mission’s Brother David Carroll spoke about Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. He began with a short history of Israel and the Middle East, from Egyptian control circa 3000 B.C. to the current era of the nation state. Brother Carroll then shared the perspective of one living in Israel: “Everyone I’ve talked to hates one another”. With that assertion the quotation’s author realized that he was standing on the road to Nazareth. Precisely because of the discord created by human evil, “God came to this part of the world and walked its roads…”

Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey, whereas the West Bank and Gaza Strip are collectively about the size of Delaware, though much more densely populated. Jordan, the size of Indiana, has a growing Christian population that now makes up approximately 3% of Jordanians. This small region is a cradle of strife, yet it is a potential source of hope. Optimism is hard to find, though, in a region seemingly fractured by the principle of nations and their inhabitants being “foes forever”. But this current situation does not need to persist.

Political instability in part fuels the “foes forever” mentality in Israel, where according to Br. Carroll the approval rating of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been as low as 9%. Also, little leadership exists to counter the enmity between Fatah and Hamas. The latter group was founded as a social service organization by Sheikh Yassim, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, in 1987. While Hamas’ political wing took power in the Palestinian parliament in January, 2006, its military wing remains dangerous. The group’s charter calls for the destruction of Israel and for Palestinian statehood. Thus many nations reasonably regard Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas quickly became a political rival to Yassir Arafat who, as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization that includes Fatah, was unable to provide essential services to the Palestinian people. Arafat also carried a reputation among some as a violent extremist himself. However, he found a common enemy in Hamas, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of Israel. The co-operation, particularly between Arafat and Rabin, nearly led to peace in the Oslo Accord in 1993 and again at Camp David in 2000, but nonetheless confidence has faded as intermittent violence has resumed, both between Israel and Palestine and between Fatah and Hamas.

Moves have been made toward more lasting peace, including the appointment of former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to head the Sharm el-Sheikh International Fact-Finding Committee in 2000. Mitchell authored that committee’s report, which was presented to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on May 4, 2001. The 12-page report called for the cessation of violence between Israel and Palestine, a resumption of negotiations, and a building of confidence based on the assurance that both Israel and Palestine would condemn incitement and terrorism against each other. Mitchell, a veteran of the Iran-Contra affair who also spent more than two years in Northern Ireland, brought knowledge that peace depended on the people. He once said, “Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.” Mitchell contended that conflict resolution, in Nothern Ireland as in Israel, depended upon speaking directly to the individuals involved, who were often both the problem and the solution, no matter “how dreadful those people (were)”, in Br. Carroll’s terms. This approach minimized the use of mass media for peace negotiations. In Northern Ireland, peace was brokered on Good Friday, 1998, by Mitchell between Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams. Without Sen. Mitchell’s direct presence, these two may have remained bitter enemies.

Brother David Carroll called the Middle East crisis a “scandal to Christians”, who must be active in halting violence. He stated that the term “fratricide” is used to describe a missile destroying another missile, whereas if a weapon destroys an unintended human target, the latter is called “collateral damage”. Br. Carroll urged an end to the intentional ending of human life, which must rather be protected from conception to natural death. Human will can overcome a “foes forever” outlook, said Br. Carroll, who concluded his talk with a prayer asking that violence might be overcome in the Holy Land as in Northern Ireland.

As in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland, Christian charity also has contributed toward progress in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS, and in compassionately caring for those afflicted. This was the focus of the presentation by Franciscan Daniel Sulmasy, MD, Chair of the Bioethics Commission at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, who saw in himself a call similar to that of St. Francis of Assisi, who according to legend embraced a leper who then took on the figure of Christ in a vision. Dr. Sulmasy introduced his topic from a historical standpoint. In June, 1981, the first cases of AIDS-associated pneumonia caused by the fungus Pneumocystis carinii were discovered, followed by observations of an epidemic form of malignant tumours, Kaposi’s sarcoma. By 1982, HIV was seen in children. Three years later, the FDA approved the first antibody test for HIV, followed by approval of the first antiretroviral drug, azidothymidine (AZT), which reduced mother-to-child transmission during childbirth from 28% to 7% when used. Within the last decade, combination drug therapies have become available, as have more efficient tests for viral load- how much of the virus one is carrying.

Technological progress has been superb, turning a “sub-acute lethal disease into a chronic disease” (Sulmasy), but the drugs have important side effects over time and are expensive. There are currently 50 million cases of HIV/AIDS in the world, evenly distributed among both genders, with 95% of these in developing countries, including 6% of those aged 16-49 in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries the last figure approaches 30%. The response is multi-faceted. Firstly, the focus ought to be on prevention and on education. The prevention of sexual transmission depends on combating prostitution and drug abuse and trafficking which often go hand-in-hand with reducing poverty. A safe blood supply must be made more widely accessible, and improvements in nutrition and in water sanitation are keys to increasing the effectiveness of antiretroviral therapies. The prevention of the spread of prominent killers like tuberculosis and malaria needs to be pursued. Also, the availability of multi-drug therapies such as HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy), which currently cost as much as $10 000 US per person annually, cannot be inhibited by the quest for excess profits. Corruption and misuse of aid funds in the worst-affected nations present a problem.

Despite the staggering and sad numbers, though, there has been significant progress against HIV/AIDS, especially where education has influenced poverty levels and lifestyles. For example, a national abstinence chastity-based “ABC” program, which still allows for use of condoms as a distant last resort, has reduced the HIV infection rate in Uganda from 21% in 1991 to just 6% in 2000. As for condoms, they are 80% effective in stopping transmission if used properly, but only 42% effective as a primary treatment and prevention method for HIV. Such barrier methods present a false sense of security, leading to an increase in sexual activity and in the number of partners, thus producing a net increase in HIV prevalence. The role of the Catholic Church on HIV/AIDS, generally much-maligned in western media, has been instrumental. Today, about 25% of people with AIDS worldwide are treated in Catholic-run hospitals.

The final talk of the day was provided by the World Youth Alliance (WYA), an internationally-based NGO created by and for people between 16 and 30 years old, along with the Sisters of Life. Both groups strive to make “intrinsic and inviolable” human dignity “the focal point of policy”. This comes with recognition that powerful segments of our society promote views that are inconsistent with even the majority of youth, such as sexual “rights”, the denial of parental influence, and the furthering of abortion, also misconstrued as a human right.

The WYA speaker lauded the Holy See as “the greatest negotiator at the UN”, which respects “the freedom of other countries” while frequently challenging their positions. Furthermore, the Holy See is independent of economic and nationalistic interests, which adds to the convincing nature of its arguments. The Church stands as a defender of the truth at the UN.

She includes people devoted to Christ like Sr. Agnes of the Sisters of Life, who told the true story of Mimi, Tito, and Claire, from Greenwich, Connecticut. During a routine ultrasound 18 weeks into her pregnancy, Mimi was alerted to a defect in her unborn child. Part of the fetus’ brain was growing outside the scull. Doctors unsuccessfully but unrelentingly pressured Mimi into aborting her child, increasing in their condescension toward Mimi on one occasion when her husband, Tito, was not present. Mimi and Tito prayed just as fervently that their child might be healed and be born healthy. The miracle, Claire, was delivered by caesarian section. Mimi, Tito, and Claire, a “marvel of God’s power in the world”, are a testament to the correctness of the words of Vatican II, paraphrased by Sr. Agnes: “Man can only find himself through a complete giving of himself.” Thus, our response to God is our “vocation of love”, and the Church emulates Christ as “the guardian of the truth and the protector of man’s freedom.” We Catholics have come to tell our story- to “make (ourselves) little in order to connect with one single soul.”

Lord, we are the Body of Christ. You have sent us to tell our story, in the same way You sent the Apostle Paul, who left the Ephesian elders for the last time with his testimony “to the good news of (Your) grace” (Acts 20:24). You prayed, dear Jesus, that we might come to know You intimately, as You know the Father. (cf. John 17:3, 12) You love us and sustain us. May You make Your story ours, and help us to proclaim it responsibly, fearlessly, and joyfully. Amen.



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