Friday, November 27, 2015

Quote of the Day

"Globalization is a phenomenon that challenges us, especially in one of its principal manifestations which is emigration. It is one of the 'signs' of this time that we live in and that brings us back to the words of Jesus, 'Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?' (Luke 12:57). Despite the large influx of migrants present in all continents and in almost all countries, migration is still seen as an emergency, or as a circumstantial and sporadic fact, while instead it has now become a hallmark of our society and a challenge.

"It is a phenomenon that carries with it great promise and many challenges. Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often, die tragically; many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes.

"Faced with this situation, I repeat what I have affirmed in this year’s Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: 'A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.'"

--Pope Francis

Monday, November 23, 2015

Our Shepherd Among Us: Reminiscences and Reflections (Part Three)

by Justin Soutar

After making the short flight from New York to Philadelphia on Saturday morning, September 26, Pope Francis found himself standing in front of historic Independence Hall that afternoon, where he delivered an important address on the topic of religious liberty to the substantial crowd gathered on the Mall. While following his prepared text, the Holy Father also inserted a number of impromptu remarks to help flesh out his thoughts. He began by observing that the truths enshrined in our Declaration of Independence--that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights—“must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” The pontiff then highlighted a key aspect of religious liberty. "Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate,” Francis acknowledged. “But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.” Then the pope underlined what he had just read by adding off-the-cuff: “Because the religious reality, the religious dimension, is not a subculture. It is part of the culture of any people and any nation.”

As American Catholics and Christians whose religious freedom is increasingly threatened by the tyranny of radical secularism, these were important words for us to hear. We needed to be reminded that the Christian religion is inextricably woven into the fabric of our national culture, and that we should take pride in this fact rather than allowing militant secularists to intimidate us into being ashamed of it. “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality,” Francis proclaimed, “it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”

That evening at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Pope Francis participated in the Festival of Families, a spectacularly beautiful celebration of Catholic family life that marked the ceremonial climax of the World Meeting of Families. Here he laid aside his prepared text for the occasion, choosing instead to speak off the cuff about the beauty of family life to his on-site audience of about one million people from all over the world. Thanking the assembled families for their testimonies and their presence, the Holy Father assured them “that it is worthwhile to live as a family, that a society grows strong, grows in goodness, grows in beauty and truly grows if it is built on the foundation of the family.” He reminded them that when God sent His Son into the world to redeem fallen humanity, he came to live among us in a family through the loving obedience of Mary and Joseph.

“God always knocks at the door of hearts,” Francis said. “He likes to do this. It comes from His heart. But, do you know what He likes best? To knock on the doors of families and find families that are united, to find families that love each other, to find the families that bring up their children and educate them and help them to keep going forward and that create a society of goodness, of truth, and of beauty.” As usual when discussing this subject, the pope did not gloss over the difficulties of family life: “In families, we argue; in families, sometimes the plates fly; in families, the children give us headaches. And I’m not even going to mention the mother-in-law. But in families, there is always, always, the cross. Always…But, in families as well, after the cross, there is the resurrection. Because the Son of God opened for us this path.” Francis concluded his remarks to the tens of thousands of families present by reminding them to take special care of their children and their grandparents--whom he referred to respectively as the “strength” and the “memory” of a family--as “a sign of love that promises the future.”

“All of Us Need to Be Cleansed”

Around 11 AM on Sunday morning, September 27, after meeting with bishops, priests and seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Pope Francis went to visit more than one hundred male and female inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. This was one of the most memorable parts of our Holy Father’s visit to the United States because it gave such vividly personal expression to the theme of divine mercy that has defined his pontificate from the very beginning. The pope sat in a large wooden chair that had been handcrafted for the occasion by a team of male prisoners skilled in carpentry work. His address to the inmates was strikingly heartfelt and poignant, full of Christ-like compassion and encouragement for these men and women who had committed various crimes in the past. Francis acknowledged that their period of incarceration was “a painful time” not only for them but for their families and society, and then warned that a family or society "which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.”

The Holy Father himself was offering a different example that morning, an example of compassion and solidarity, by personally identifying with these wounded children of God who had been relegated to the outskirts of society and who are often forgotten and marginalized by their free brothers and sisters. “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” the pope told the inmates. Recalling the Gospel scene in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, Francis reflected that life is a journey along different roads that leave their mark on us. “Life means ‘getting our feet dirty’ from the dust-filled roads of life and history,” he said. “All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed.”

“We know in faith that Jesus seeks us out,” the Holy Father continued. “He wants to heal our wounds, to soothe our feet which hurt from travelling alone, to wash each of us clean of the dust from our journey. He doesn’t ask us where we have been, he doesn’t question us about what we have done. Rather, he tells us: ‘Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me’ (John 13:8)…Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God. He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust.” These encouraging words revealed the pastoral heart of Pope Francis—a compassionate and charitable heart that reaches out to everyone regardless of their background or their situation, offering hope for redemption through a personal encounter with Christ. The pope then criticized prison systems that carelessly neglect to heal the wounds of their inmates or to offer them hope for a better life. “It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said. “It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society.”

After finishing his address, Pope Francis took time to greet most of the seated inmates individually. In a particularly poignant moment, he warmly embraced a male inmate who stood up to greet him, drawing a smattering of applause from the others. As the pontiff made his rounds and then bade the prisoners farewell, I was a bit disappointed that the commentary of Raymond Arroyo, Fr. Gerald Murray and Robert Royal on EWTN was mainly confined to the awful crimes these people had committed, the duty of those responsible for the common good to protect society from unjust aggressors, and the moral licitness of the death penalty as just punishment for murder. While everything they said may have been true, their rather clinical and juridical attitude towards this deeply moving, authentically Christian personal encounter of Pope Francis with the least of Christ’s brethren seemed to evince just a bit of the rigorist tendency, persistently decried by Francis, of those who are so caught up in their knowledge of Church doctrine and legal matters that they cannot see the person in front of them. By zeroing in on the justice aspect, on doctrinal and criminal details, Arroyo and his fellow guests essentially missed the point of what the pope had just said and what he was now doing right in front of their eyes on the TV screen—performing two works of mercy, visiting prisoners and comforting the sorrowful. As Mother Teresa would remind us, these people sitting behind bars are Christ in his distressing disguise, and whatever we do for them we do for Christ himself (Mt. 25:34). “’I was…in prison and you visited me’” (Mt. 25:35, 36).

Furthermore, the EWTN commentators neglected to affirm that these incarcerated men and women, like themselves, were made in the image and likeness of God and that they retained their innate human dignity regardless of what they had done that had necessarily led to their confinement within these walls. Nor did they hint at the corruption and related issues affecting the current US criminal justice system, including the urgent need for prison reform and the sad reality that some of those incarcerated and executed each year are actually innocent of the crimes of which they have been convicted. Finally, mention could have been made of the fact that human justice is never perfect and that everything will be satisfactorily sorted out for all parties only by Christ Himself at the Last Judgment, where each of us Christians will be judged based not on our knowledge of the faith, but on how well we have put that faith into practice. May our prejudices not hinder us from following Pope Francis’ Christ-like example in this regard and encouraging others to do the same.

Faith and Love in the Family

That Sunday afternoon, under mostly cloudy skies, the Argentinian pontiff celebrated the much-anticipated Closing Mass for the World Meeting of Families at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, another spectacular event which drew nearly 900,000 participants according to the official host, Archbishop Charles Chaput. In an apparent oversight, the pope’s homily was delivered in Spanish without translation of any kind, and I felt sorry for the English-speaking majority of the vast congregation present who essentially missed it. The Mass readings for that Sunday focused on how the Holy Spirit can act outside the visible confines of the Church or the community and how we should recognize and affirm such divine activity even when it is manifested in unlikely places. In his homily, Francis alerted his hearers to “the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Mt. 5:45), bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles”; such a temptation, he warned, “threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.” Explaining why Jesus’ condemnation of scandal was so harsh, the Holy Father added: “For Jesus, the truly ‘intolerable’ scandal consists in everything that breaks down and destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!”

Turning to the subject of faith, Pope Francis next spoke of the importance of “little gestures” of tenderness and affection that are learned in the family, such as a warm meal or a hug or a blessing. “Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home,” he said. “Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love.” Francis urged us to be open to these “little miracles of love,” these “prophetic gestures” that point the way to God’s unbounded love. He then asked whether we are living this way in our families and societies. The pope exclaimed, “Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of our own family and all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others!” Here he inserted an off-the-cuff remark, asking us family members whether we yell at each other or speak with love and tenderness.

In keeping with his theme of care for creation, Francis also asked what kind of world we are leaving to our children. “Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions,” he proclaimed. “The urgent challenge of protecting our home includes the effort to bring the entire human family together in the pursuit of a sustainable and integral development.” Affirming marriage as “the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God,” the Holy Father concluded by praying that God may “grant to all of us, as the Lord’s disciples, the grace to be worthy of this purity of heart which is not scandalized by the Gospel!” At the end of the Mass, Francis thanked the assembled worshipers in English for their witness of family life and, as always, reminded them to pray for him.

A Stunning Success

Pope Francis clearly scored a massive hit with American Catholics and the general public during his unforgettable visit to our country late last month. Perhaps more strikingly than any other foreign voyage he has yet undertaken, the pope’s whirlwind tour of America showcased the genius of Francis at its classic best. In both word and deed, our Holy Father proclaimed the truths we needed to hear with clarity and conviction, yet in an attractive way, while consistently manifesting an accurate understanding and sincere appreciation for our unique history and cultural heritage. He knew his audience more intuitively and was better prepared to visit the United States than most of us expected. In short, Francis surprised us once again with a brilliant performance—although it wasn’t surprising to see an increase in the respect and esteem of American Catholics and the general public for our beloved Shepherd in Christ following his brief but intense sojourn among us. Although decades will be required to fully assess the impact of this latest papal visit on the American Catholic Church and on our country in general, as well as to place it within an accurate historical perspective, we can safely conclude for the moment that Pope Francis’ Pastoral Visit to the United States was a stunning success, and that we will continue to reap its fruit for years to come.

Copyright © 2015 Justin D. Soutar. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Reflection for Solemnity of Christ the King

"Divine authority is not a power of nature. It is the power of God's love that creates the universe and, incarnating itself in the Only Begotten Son, descending into our humanity, it heals the world corrupted by sin. Romano Guardini writes: 'Jesus' whole existence is the translation of power into humility … it is sovereignty that here abases itself in the form of servant' (Power and Responsibility, Regnery, 1961).

"Often for man authority means possession, power, dominance, success. For God, instead, authority means service, humility, love; it means entering into the logic of Jesus who stoops to wash the feet of his disciples (cf. John 13:5), who seeks man's true good, who heals wounds, who is capable of a love so great that he gives his life, because he is Love. In one of her letters, St. Catherine of Siena writes: 'It is necessary that we see and know, in truth, with the light of faith, that God is the Supreme and Eternal Love, and he cannot will anything if not our good' (Ep. 13 in: Le Lettere, vol. 3, Bologna 1999, 206)."

--Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, January 30, 2012

Thursday, November 19, 2015

On Welcoming the Stranger

I would like to offer a few reflections on the Middle Eastern refugee crisis, which is currently absorbing much of the attention of our government and news media.

First of all, I believe that the position of our Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators on this issue--namely, that the U.S. should categorically refuse to grant asylum to any innocent refugees from Syria or Iraq whatsoever--is sadly misguided, as it is based on fear and unhealthy nationalism rather than facts and clear rational thinking. Those who hold this position are painfully aware of the ongoing violence being perpetrated in Syria by anti-government rebels and terrorist guerillas affiliated with the notorious organized crime ring known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and they are rightly concerned to protect our national security by ensuring that such violent and lawless fanatics do not find their way onto U.S. soil. However, their jingoistic and exclusionist approach of "Just say NO" to allowing any Syrian or Iraqi refugees into our country is a simplistic and inadequate solution to a complex and far-reaching problem.

To begin with, it is worth reminding ourselves that the vast majority of the so-called "Syrian rebels" belonging to ISIS who are engaged in conflict with the Assad regime are not native to Syria at all, but are actually foreign fighters who have been recruited by ISIS from neighboring countries. Secondly, by its outrageously immoral and recklessly dangerous foreign policy strategy of arming and funding these ruthless "Syrian rebels," the Obama administration is directly responsible for the growth of ISIS into a powerful totalitarian guerrilla terrorist organization that has spread all over the Middle East, seizing control of large portions of Iraq and Syria and wreaking such terrible havoc in those areas. Thirdly, by gratuitously feeding the ISIS monster, our own government is indirectly responsible for the resulting mass exodus of refugees from the heartland of the Middle East. The least we can do to make amends for such madness is to offer safe haven to some of these innocent refugees who have lost their homes, their possessions, their churches, and their homelands at the hands of U.S.-sponsored terrorists.

Opponents of allowing Iraqi and Syrian refugees into our country assert that we should help resettle them elsewhere in the Middle East. Easier said than done. The entire Middle East is about half the size of the continental U.S. and ISIS cells are all over the place, including North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Where can four million refugees go? Several million Iraqi and Syrian refugees are already packed into UN-administered camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the two friendliest countries in the region, and these nations' already strained resources simply cannot accommodate another vast influx of refugees. Some could perhaps find refuge in Israel, but that nation's population density is already high so only a few if any would be allowed in there. Religious freedom is under attack in Turkey and Iran. Egypt has its own issues to deal with. And forget about Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal to be a Christian. Thanks to the misguided and foolish foreign policy of Presidents Bush and Obama, the Middle East is now an unstable and dangerous place. Trying to convince and help the refugees to stay there would not be wise and would not yield positive results. Most of them would prefer to relocate to Europe, Canada, or the United States. And who can blame them?

Fears that ISIS terrorists will take advantage of a Middle Eastern refugee influx to sneak into this country legally through our refugee system are groundless. Under current law, all refugees seeking to enter the United States must go through a lengthy and rigorous one and a half to two year screening process involving extensive background checks for the sake of our national security. No ISIS terrorist suspect disguised as a refugee would ever make it all the way through this stringent system. As proof of this, it should be pointed out that of the 750,000 refugees who have entered the U.S. through our refugee process since September 11, 2001, not a single one has been arrested on charges of domestic terrorism. We can admit Iraqi and Syrian refugees into our country without compromising our national security one iota.

These millions of refugees are not terrorists, and they do not pose a credible threat to our national security. On the contrary, they are innocent victims of terrorism--ordinary men, women, and children who have lost everything at the hands of godless ISIS fanatics and who are simply looking for a place where they can live decent and normal lives in peace, security, and freedom. Many of them share our Christian faith, which was originally brought to their lands by the Apostles themselves. They keep alive a rich and ancient cultural heritage. Like most immigrants from Mexico and Central America, they are willing to work hard to support their families and would make a significant contribution to our nation's economy if given the opportunity to do so. Some would probably want to stay here only temporarily and then return to their homeland in a few years or so once conditions improve there, while others would wish to settle here permanently and eventually become full-fledged American citizens. And we have a large country with plenty of room, lots of opportunities, freedom and security, a secure refugee admission process, and a long and proud history of welcoming and assimilating millions of immigrants and refugees who fled unfavorable conditions in their home countries. It would be the height of arrogance and a repudiation of our national heritage to simply shut and lock the doors of our borders in the faces of these desperate refugees without a second thought. That is not how a Christian country like ours should act in response to a refugee crisis like this.

As Pope Francis reminded us in his address to Congress this past September, the Golden Rule should guide our nation's policy toward those innocent human beings seeking to enter our nation. We should treat the Syrian and Iraqi refugees as we would want to be treated if we were in their place. If we want security, we should provide security for those at risk who face an uncertain future. If we want opportunities, we should provide opportunities for those whose options are limited. It's a matter of basic justice and respect for human rights. Where justice and human rights are not recognized and respected, peace cannot flourish. Furthermore, we should bear in mind that these refugees are actually Christ Jesus in a distressing disguise, and that whatever we do for them, we do for Christ himself. "'"I was...a stranger and you welcomed Me"'" (Matthew 25:35). This doesn't mean we have to admit all four million refugees into our country in the next couple of years, which would be impossible to do in any case given the necessary rigors and limitations of our refugee admission system. Besides, many will no doubt find refuge in Europe and Canada, where quotas are already being set. However, as part of the world community, we can and should be open to helping these other countries shoulder and absorb part of this massive refugee burden.

We should commit to admitting a certain number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees over the next two to three years--50,000 at the very least, perhaps even 100,000 to 150,000. While the exact quota to be determined by our government is a matter for healthy debate, we should all agree that zero is not an acceptable number. We must not abandon hundreds of thousands of our fellow brothers and sisters to homelessness and deprivation without expecting the negative consequences to affect our own country sooner or later. Such a foolish rejectionist policy reeks of callousness, prejudice, xenophobia, and indifference.

Welcoming a certain number of refugees from Syria and Iraq into the U.S. through the appropriate official channels will have great benefits not only for the refugees themselves, but for our country as well. In addition to the boost they will give our struggling economy, their presence here will present an opportunity for mutual cultural exchange and friendship that will enrich the lives of  Syrians, Iraqis, and Americans, building lasting bridges for a better future for everyone. By providing a friendly safe haven to these marginalized individuals, we will have made a significant contribution to building a more just, more humane, and more peaceful world. And by acting in a truly Christian manner towards these people, we will win the favor of Divine Providence and earn the heavenly reward promised to those who care for the least of Christ's brethren. In short, while there are many good reasons to admit Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States, there are no good reasons whatsoever to keep them out.

Copyright 2015 Justin D. Soutar.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Quote of the Day

"Hope: this virtue that is so hard to live. The smallest of the virtues, but the strongest. And our hope has a face: the face of the Risen Lord, who comes “with great power and glory,” and this will manifest his love, crucified and transfigured in the Resurrection. The triumph of Jesus at the end of time will be the triumph of the cross, the demonstration that the sacrifice of oneself for love of neighbor, in imitation of Christ, is the only victorious power, the only stable point in the midst of the upheavals of the world."

--Pope Francis

Monday, November 16, 2015

Our Shepherd Among Us: Reminiscences and Reflections (Part Two)

by Justin Soutar

The Prayer of the Church

After leaving the White House, Pope Francis headed to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington, a beautiful and historic church whose unusual Romanesque architecture evokes an earlier era of Christianity. This was the parish of America’s only Catholic president to date, John F. Kennedy, during his administration (1961—1963); his remains are buried beneath a circular marble slab in front of the cathedral’s main altar. Here the Holy Father joined Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and several hundred bishops from around the United States for midday prayer. Francis then delivered an hour-long address in Italian in which he shared with the bishops his own experiences as a pastor, focused on the basic qualities needed in a shepherd, and praised their defense of the unborn and their assistance to immigrants and refugees. After greeting a few of the bishops personally, the pope had Cardinal Wuerl tell them in English that he was sorry he couldn’t greet each of them individually. He tapped his watch and looked at them with an expression of wide-eyed regret. They understood and applauded.

Later that sunny Wednesday afternoon, Pope Francis proceeded to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and officiated at the canonization Mass of Father Junipero Serra, the famous eighteenth-century Franciscan priest who founded many of the California missions and who was beatified by Pope John Paul II. The Mass took place outside the basilica to accommodate the large and remarkably diverse crowd of bishops, priests and thousands of lay faithful from across the nation who took part in this historic ceremony--the first canonization ever performed on US soil. In his homily, Francis urged his listeners to guard against the apathy that often creeps into their hearts through the monotony of daily routines by going outside of themselves to proclaim the joy of the Gospel to others, following the missionary example of Father Serra. Early that evening, before retiring to his quarters for the night, the Holy Father paid a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor at their home in northeastern Washington; the religious congregation's ongoing legal fight against the HHS mandate has been making national headlines for several years.

Francis Makes History

On Thursday morning, September 24, Pope Francis headed to the US Capitol for another historic event: the first-ever papal address to a joint session of Congress. Respectfully welcomed and escorted into the packed semicircular House chamber, the 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff took the podium and slowly delivered his lengthy, masterfully written prepared text in his heavily accented English. As I joined millions of viewers across our country and around the world watching the unprecedented event live on EWTN, I was pleasantly surprised at how remarkably well Francis’ address was received by these members of Congress. He was interrupted over and over again by vigorous applause, receiving at least a dozen standing ovations from the entire assembly. I think this impressive reception was due not only to the respect which most of these senators and representatives already had for Pope Francis, but also to the power of the religious and moral truths which he was proclaiming authentically and with conviction. As human beings fashioned in God’s image, we are made for truth, so when we hear it faithfully proclaimed, it resonates deep within us; this holds true even for corrupt politicians who routinely ignore and betray such truths in the daily business of government. The thread of Francis’ speech was brilliantly woven around four great Americans whose anniversaries are being celebrated this year: Abraham Lincoln, “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom’”; Martin Luther King, Jr., who marched as part of a campaign “to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans”; Dorothy Day, “who founded the Catholic Worker Movement” and whose “passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel”; and Thomas Merton, “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.”

Francis began his address by reminding the assembled lawmakers of the fundamental truth—-often obscured these days by corruption and partisan rhetoric—-that the real business of politics is the pursuit of the common good. Next, turning to the grim situation of a contemporary world marked by hatred and violent conflict, the Holy Father urged vigilance in combating the dangers of religious and ideological fundamentalism. He also warned against the temptation of “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners,” a temptation to which certain Americans often succumb in the realm of foreign policy. Francis added some welcome words of wisdom: “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” The pope encouraged a different response to evil, “one of hope and healing, of peace and justice…We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”

Turning to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and the ongoing phenomenon of mass migration across our nation’s southern borders, Pope Francis began to quote the Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12 but was interrupted by a full standing ovation from the overwhelmingly Christian assembly. “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated,” said the Holy Father. “If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.” Indeed, the pope was right: this core teaching of Christ should be the main reference point guiding our nation’s approach to these complicated and controversial issues. Of course, allowing this teaching to guide our immigration policy doesn’t mean we should leave our borders entirely unsecured or grant unconditional amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants who are desperate to feed their families, but it does mean we should treat these people with basic respect for their humanity and concern for their welfare while working to reform our bureaucratic immigration system and address the root causes of mass migration to the US. While on the topic of the Golden Rule, Francis did not fail to remind the legislators of their responsibility “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” a clear reference to the rights of the unborn that drew vigorous applause from this largely pro-life Congress.

Seizing the Moment

After briefly discussing the need to address poverty, hunger, and “environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” Pope Francis tacitly lauded the recently restored diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba—a rapprochement in which he himself played a critical role behind the scenes. "When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all,” he said. The Holy Father pointed out that such a reconciliation between formerly estranged peoples “requires courage and daring,” which he distinguished from “irresponsibility.” In this context, Francis defined a good political leader as “one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” I find it telling that the pope used the word “pragmatism” in this sentence instead of the word “idealism” that one might have expected him to use. Clearly, he was warning us against the dangerous tendency to view reconciliation between enemy nations simply as an idealistic dream that is not practical or attainable in the real world. The pope realizes that such a defeatist mentality would discourage us from sowing and patiently nurturing the seeds of dialogue that can, with time, ultimately yield the abundant harvest of reconciliation. Francis was pointing out that tearing down a wall of division between two peoples should rather be viewed as something of practical urgency, something that should be done as soon as circumstances permit, a concrete response to a profound human need for social communion, something with positive real-life consequences for millions of people on both sides. The pontiff then urged Congress to stop the global arms trade and work to end the many armed conflicts around the world—again, not as idealistic dreams, but as practical goals to be accomplished as soon as possible for the good of the entire human family.

Francis concluded his historic address to the Senate and House of Representatives by turning to the subject of the family. He reminded his audience how essential the family has been to the building of this country and expressed his concern about contemporary threats to marriage and family life. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” said the Holy Father, apparently referring to attempts to redefine marriage based on gender ideology and to equate deviant homosexual relationships with traditional marriage. Focusing mainly on the challenges young Americans currently face, the pope lamented that many “seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.” “At the risk of oversimplifying,” he continued, “we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.” The pontiff’s diagnosis is accurate: we live in a highly secularized materialistic culture that glorifies individualism and eschews long-term commitment, while an unfavorable economic climate makes it difficult for many young Americans to start a family and prosper. Francis declared that we need to face these problems “together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions.”

After leaving the House chamber and briefly greeting an enthusiastic crowd of some 50,000 people gathered on the Mall in front of the Capitol, Pope Francis paid a midday visit to the homeless and poor of Washington in Saint Patrick’s Church. Before leaving the city later that afternoon, His Holiness made another unscheduled visit that eloquently underscored his heartfelt concern for religious liberty. He stopped by the Vatican embassy to meet with Kim Davis, the Christian county clerk from Kentucky whose refusal to issue marriage licenses for homosexual couples based on her religious convictions led to her arrest and imprisonment earlier in the month. “Thank you for your courage,” the pope told her in English. “Stay strong.” President Obama had made his point at the White House the day before; now Pope Francis had made his.

New York and Philadelphia

Partly cloudy and windy conditions greeted the Holy Father as he arrived at JFK Airport in New York City around 5 PM. Under heavy security, he was transferred from the American Airlines jet to a police helicopter, from helicopter to the Fiat, and then from Fiat to popemobile. Surrounded by dozens of police vehicles, Francis made his way up an empty stretch of Fifth Avenue to pray Vespers in the historic and magnificently renovated Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. On Friday morning, September 25, he became the fourth pope to visit the United Nations headquarters and address the General Assembly. In his long and well-written speech, Francis commended the organization for its important work for world peace during the last seventy years, condemned the gender ideology that blurs the differences between men and women, and urged respect for the human rights and dignity of all peoples and families. Afterward, the Holy Father participated in an inter-religious memorial service at the former World Trade Center site, where he reiterated his predecessors’ forceful condemnation of violence against innocent human beings and prayed fervently for peace.

That evening, Francis presided over a spectacular Mass at the iconic Madison Square Garden arena, which was filled to capacity. Near the end of the liturgy, when Cardinal Dolan thanked him for coming to visit, the throng of at least 20,000 worshipers gave the pope a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. It was a moving and unforgettable moment to witness live on television. America’s Catholics had truly embraced Pope Francis. He was their loving Shepherd who had gone beyond his comfort zone to reach out to them, and they, his loyal flock, were now responding with love and gratitude. “Thank you, and please, don’t forget to pray for me,” the Holy Father added with a smile as the liturgy concluded.

(To be continued)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Quote of the Day

"As sailors are guided by star to the port, so are Christians guided to Heaven by Mary."

--St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

Monday, November 9, 2015

Our Shepherd Among Us: Reminiscences and Reflections (Part One)

by Justin Soutar
(NOTE: Here is the first installment of a three-part article series recapping Pope Francis' unforgettable visit to the United States earlier this autumn. This series was originally published on the popular website Catholic Online and can be read there as well. God willing, I will post Part Two next Monday and Part Three the following Monday. J. S.)

Towards the end of September 2015, our Holy Father Pope Francis made his eagerly anticipated Pastoral Visit to the United States. Like those of his saintly predecessors—the cerebral trailblazer Paul VI, the energetic actor John Paul II and the scholarly gentleman Benedict XVI—Francis’ visit to America was an historic and memorable occasion that was shared and experienced by millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, both here at home and around the world, thanks to extensive national and international media coverage and the power of modern communications technology. Like his three predecessors who came to this land over the course of the last fifty years, Pope Francis was afforded a personal glimpse of the vitality and vicissitudes of his substantial flock here in America—and, conversely, we American Catholics experienced the blessing of encountering our Shepherd in person and the opportunity to renew our love for and allegiance to the Successor of Saint Peter.

Of course, each papal visit to this country has been unique. That of Blessed Paul VI in 1965 was confined to New York City, where he became the first pontiff to address the United Nations Organization. The great Saint John Paul II crisscrossed America like no other pope before or since, touring nearly all of our major cities during his five pastoral visits in 1979, 1987, 1993, 1995 and 1999. With his rock-star charisma and passionate fidelity to the truth of the Gospel, these spectacular visits sparked a much-needed revitalization of the Catholic Church in America at a time of profound doctrinal and liturgical confusion resulting from erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council. During his single pastoral visit in 2008, which was restricted to Washington, D.C. and New York, Benedict XVI was respectfully welcomed by President George W. Bush and endeared himself to the American people with his humble and genial personality; that, along with his firm condemnation of priestly sexual abuse, took many of his critics by surprise.

Groundless Apprehension

In the weeks and months preceding this latest papal visit, a good deal of discussion in both Catholic and secular media revolved around the question of whether Pope Francis would really click with American Catholics and the American people in general, and there was some apprehension that he might not, for several reasons including the following: 1) he didn’t speak English, our official language and that of the great majority of American Catholics; 2) he was largely ignorant of our country’s unique history and culture; 3) he was highly suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, the capitalist free-market economic system through which our nation has achieved unrivaled wealth and prosperity. Polls showing Francis’ favorability ratings among US Catholics dropping somewhat in advance of his visit seemed to confirm this sense of apprehension. Based on these assumptions, some observers even ventured to assert that Pope Francis himself was not at all eager to visit the United States, dismissing the Holy Father’s own statements to the contrary as merely exercises in formal courtesy.

Thankfully, however, all of these fears turned out to be groundless, due in large measure to the efforts of the pope himself. Of course, Francis has by now amply demonstrated his ability to transcend language barriers by speaking the universal language of Christ’s love to everyone through his simple lifestyle and deeply meaningful gestures. But he knew that gestures alone would not be enough to fully connect with the American people. So despite his advanced age and the difficulties involved, Pope Francis took it upon himself to learn the American language so that he could communicate verbally with us in our familiar native tongue. It must have been a great sacrifice for him to do this, but the result was definitely worth the effort. It was truly wonderful to hear our Argentinian Holy Father speak directly to us Catholics and Americans without the need for an interpreter in his brief prepared remarks at the White House and in his lengthy, well-written address to Congress; hundreds of thousands of English-speaking worshipers also appreciated that he said parts of the Masses at Madison Square Garden and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in their language. And then there were those brief spontaneous remarks he ventured in English at key moments that added extra flavor to many of the gatherings, which usually concluded with “Please don’t forget to pray for me” and “God bless America!” that endeared him to us all the more.

It is true that until recently, Francis could boast only a passing knowledge of American history and culture. However, during an in-flight press conference on his return trip from South America to the Vatican back in July, he promised to read up on these subjects in preparation for his visit here. He obviously kept that promise, for in his addresses and homilies given during this visit, he demonstrated a good working knowledge and understanding of, as well as a keen appreciation for, our nation’s rich historical and cultural heritage. This was quite evident in his masterfully written address to Congress, in which he acknowledged that we are a nation of immigrants and discussed in some detail the different contributions of four well-known Americans to the political and spiritual development of our country. Francis’ grasp of our history and culture was even more clearly evident in his address at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, in which he reminded us that the inalienable God-given rights enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, especially our fundamental right to religious liberty, must be protected and defended.

And finally, there was the claim that Pope Francis regards free-market capitalist economics in general with suspicion and hostility. The Holy Father deflected this inaccurate criticism in his address to Congress by clearly affirming the important role played by entrepreneurship and the creation of wealth in the fight against poverty. He underscored his point by quoting a brief passage from, of all places, Laudato Si' (Praise Be to You), his lengthy encyclical on the environment: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” Like his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is not opposed to business or capitalism per se; he is only opposed to the selfishness and greed that can, and often do, transform them into destructive forces that negatively impact human society and the natural environment.

By learning our language, getting acquainted with our history and culture, and affirming the proper role of our free-market capitalist economic system, Pope Francis dissolved all remaining psychological barriers between himself and the American people, enabling him to seamlessly connect with his immediate flock and his wider audience. Having first won us over and gained our full trust, we were then receptive to his message, which was the authentic message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—a message of truth and love, a message of faith and hope, a message of mercy and forgiveness, a message of personal responsibility, of respect for human rights and dignity, of peace and justice, of care for creation, of the beauty of marriage and family life according to God's plan. The three overarching themes of Francis’ visit were the centrality of religious freedom, the importance of caring for the natural environment, and the critical role of the family in the life of the Church and civil society. I followed EWTN’s live coverage of this remarkable papal visit as it unfolded, and I appreciated the faithful Catholic commentary offered by news director Raymond Arroyo and his guests Father Gerald Murray and Robert Royal.

The Personal Touch

Pope Francis arrived on schedule at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., his American Airlines jet touching down shortly before 4 PM on Tuesday, September 22. Overcast skies and windy conditions seemed to reflect the general sense of apprehension surrounding this particular papal visit. However, that anxiety almost immediately began to dissipate a little. As the pontiff disembarked and set foot on American soil, closely shadowed by his security detail, he was warmly greeted on the tarmac by a brightly smiling President Obama and his family, Vice President Biden and his family, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and other dignitaries, as well as by an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,000 people who were completely fenced in. The unusually high level of security at Andrews was maintained with remarkable uniformity throughout the pope’s stay in America, and it was reassuring to see our Holy Father so well protected at all times. After exchanging a few words of welcome with President Obama in a nearby building and then briefly greeting the crowd, Pope Francis boarded a small four-door silver Fiat and was driven under police escort to the papal nuncio’s residence, where he stayed during his visit to Washington.

Sunshine greeted Pope Francis as he emerged from the nunciature around 9 AM the following morning; he proceeded to personally greet several of the three hundred lucky Catholic schoolchildren assembled nearby. Then he was driven to the White House for the official welcoming ceremony accorded to him as a head of state. Although the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 9:15, Francis did not arrive until ten minutes later because of the time he spent with the schoolchildren. Running a little behind schedule for most of the public events, with the notable exception of the Masses, was a pattern throughout his visit which is typical of his quaintly slow personal style. Although some might be annoyed by this lack of strict punctuality on the Holy Father’s part, I find it charming and even somewhat refreshing. Unlike so many in our excessively fast-paced and self-centered world today, Francis is never in a hurry regardless of the importance of the appointment awaiting him. Of course, he does take his appointments very seriously, but he believes that taking sufficient time to encounter persons along the way is more important than maintaining rigid adherence to predetermined schedules at the cost of avoiding contact with people around him or gruffly brushing them aside. In this regard, Pope Francis gives us a valuable lesson in Christian charity that many of us need to hear, bombarded as we constantly are by the selfish ideas and attitudes of modern post-Christian secular society.

Two Speeches

A chorus of cheers from a crowd of some 15,000 people gathered on the south lawn of the White House greeted Pope Francis as the Fiat came rolling up. In his eloquent yet highly propagandistic welcome address to the Holy Father, President Obama stated that the pontiff’s visit “reveals how much all Americans, from every background and every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America.” Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s approach to the role of Catholicism in our national life has been dictated by its own radically secularist agenda. This was manifested by the fact that, for this very occasion, the President had deliberately reserved choice seats on the White House lawn for a slew of notorious Catholic dissidents and homosexual activists. Continuing his polished speech, Obama remarked to Francis, “You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the ‘least of these’ at the center of our concerns…to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity—because we are all made in the image of God.” True enough words, but here again they rang quite hollow; under the elitist Obama administration, the US poverty rate has soared to 19 percent, the wealthiest 1 percent are richer than ever before, and taxpayer funding of abortion is the order of the day. But the worst hypocrisy came a little later when President Obama turned to the subject of religious freedom, declaring, “Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty.” I cringed when I heard that. By forcing its unprecedented HHS mandate on our country and repeatedly refusing to rescind it, the Obama administration has clearly exhibited its utter disdain for the religious liberties of Catholics and other Christians in America.

In his brief address thanking President Obama for his welcome—-his first public speech given in English on US soil—-Pope Francis emphasized that religious freedom “remains one of America’s most precious possessions…all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” This was a clear reference to the Obama administration’s egregious assault on our religious liberties with the HHS mandate. In his subsequent remarks, which were dedicated to the need to take responsible care of the Earth, “our common home,” Francis approved of President Obama for offering a proposal to reduce air pollution and highlighted the need to address the pressing concern of global climate change. “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” the pope declared. “We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about ‘a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change’ (Laudato Si’, 13).”

Initially I was somewhat put off by the fact that our Holy Father devoted nearly half of his introductory remarks to the topic of the environment, partly because I am convinced that global climate change is due principally to changes in solar activity and is thus largely beyond our human ability to control, partly because the global warming hypothesis which Pope Francis accepts does not square with the scientifically documented fact of declining global temperatures in recent years, and partly because I felt that His Holiness could have used the occasion to talk about an even more pressing issue such as abortion or radical secularism or the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. However, a close reading of what Pope Francis actually said reveals that the pontiff carefully avoided making explicit political or scientific statements. He was essentially laying out the Church’s perennial teaching on good stewardship of creation within the context of the present situation as he perceives it. He was apparently inferring that climate change is primarily a human-generated problem, but even if it is not, we do need to develop a strategy to deal with it because of its negative impacts on millions of people around the world. And even if increased carbon dioxide levels are not actually fueling a rise in global temperatures as the pope believes, we should still work together to reduce air pollution for the good of the planet and its inhabitants. Then too, it is the Holy Father’s prerogative and even his duty to speak about and emphasize whatever he believes is important for us to hear and think about, and it is clear from Francis’ choice of name, the length of his encyclical on the environment, and many of his addresses and homilies as pope that the responsibility to protect creation is a major theme of his pontificate. And while we Catholics are not obliged to agree with everything the Holy Father says on a matter of prudential judgment such as climate change, we should still listen respectfully to what the Vicar of Christ has to say to us on the matter, and we must not allow our prejudices to prevent us from accepting the Church’s basic teaching on the issue.

(To be continued)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Quote of the Day

"I assure you, dear families, that if you are capable of walking ever more decisively on the way of the Beatitudes, learning and teaching to forgive one another mutually, the capacity will grow, in the whole great family of the Church, to give witness of the renewing strength of God’s forgiveness. Otherwise, we might engage in very beautiful preaching, and perhaps even cast out a devil, but at the end the Lord will not recognize us as his disciples because we did not have the capacity to forgive and to be forgiven by others!"

--Pope Francis