Pray for Religious Freedom

Aaron Weldon,  Religious Liberty Program Specialist, USCCB

We come to enjoy true freedom when our restless hearts find rest in the truth. The great twentieth century philosopher, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – or, Edith Stein – discovered truth in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, and sought freedom by entering the Discalced Carmelites.  The convent didn’t stop her from reaching out.  During the rise of Nazism, Stein spoke up. She wrote to Pope Pius XI asking the Church to speak up on behalf of persecuted Jews, and she wrote her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, “as a way to combat racial hatred.”  She was captured in 1942 and taken to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber shortly after arrival.  Stein was executed primarily because she was Jewish, and the Catholic Church considers her a Christian martyr, because she bore witness to her faith in Jesus before her executioners.

Having spent much of my life in the university, I admire Edith Stein. Her intellectual vocation led her to faith, her relationship with God led her to prayer, and her life of prayer was bound up with her outreach to others.  She enjoyed an interior freedom that opened out to service.

We can grow in both interior freedom and solidarity with others through prayer. In prayer, we express our dependence on God, and we take on the burdens of those for whom we pray.  During this Fortnight, here is how I will be praying:

  • For Bishops and all Catholic leaders. Many Christians may not realize religious liberty is an issue, because they don’t experience an infringement on their own freedom. But the issue is real for medical professionals like Cathy Decarlo, a nurse who was forced to participate in an abortion, or for ministries that serve immigrants in states prohibiting the “harboring” of undocumented persons. Pastors and leaders face serious challenges, and they need the wisdom and courage of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for them.
  • For Christians facing violent persecution. In the West, we are dealing with what Pope Francis calls “polite persecution.” Polite persecution is real, but it pales in comparison to the struggles of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, and other places. In the face of this suffering, it can be difficult for most of us to know what we can do. Certainly, we can support organizations, like Aid to the Church in Need, that work to assist Christians under extreme duress in places like Iraq. We can also pray for our brothers and sisters, as well as for the conversion of the persecutors.
  • For non-Christian fellow Americans. Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, rooted in the nature of the human person. So all people must be immune from coercion, free to pursue the truth and live the truth as best as they understand it. Many Americans are impeded in their search. For example, Muslims have faced challenges in recent years. Several states have passed anti-Sharia laws, local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of houses of worship, and the White House has imposed a travel ban that courts have found is aimed at preventing Muslims from entering the country. These actions give rise to a culture in which Muslims are treated as second-class citizens. As Catholics, we should be aware of these challenges, as we ourselves have been the target anti-Catholic bigotry. That bigotry gave us Blaine Amendments that we are still fighting today. Religious freedom for all does not mean we are resigned to relativism; it simply means that governments do not get to coerce people in matters of faith. It means that the state recognizes a space for non-state institutions, and this is the same space we Christians enjoy to propose the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Please join me in praying for our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow Americans, that we all will be free to seek and live out religious truth.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Religious Liberty Program Specialist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Our Border Family: Hope at the Border

During “Hugs Not Walls,” families who live separated by the United States-Mexico border were able to see and embrace each other for a few previous minutes.

The Catholic church is taking a compassionate, non-confrontational approach to the plight of people in three dioceses along the U.S. border with Mexico. It’s also using exquisitely simple, Gospel-based principles to underscore human dignity and address systemic poverty and injustice.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told me his Texas diocese and the contiguous ones in Juarez, Mexico and Las Cruces, New Mexico form the largest bi-national community in the hemisphere, if not the world. “The very nature of our border area is it’s a family. It’s a large community that has had a line drawn through it,” he said. And it has long been this way. People in the area move freely across the border to shop, eat, and be with family. The result is an active community where the unique nature of the towns on either side of the river contributes something to strengthen and improve their neighbors.

Bishop Seitz of El Paso celebrates Mass on the United States-Mexico border.

The longstanding reality of intermingled families and thriving communities is a counterpoint to an increasingly strident national narrative about borders. Bishop Seitz points to the head-scratching portrayal of the border as a forbidding place of confrontation “where the ‘us’ people fend off the ‘them’ people, where the people at home fight off the aliens. That has no resonance here,” he said.

The Hope Border Institute is a new-since-2015 grassroots effort to apply Catholic social teaching principles to immediate and longer-term issues along the border. It sprang from conversations among local clergy in the three dioceses and people in several groups funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). They were looking for a way to address the fall-out from a growing number of policies imposed on the area that frankly made little sense.

When I asked him about it, Dylan Corbett, the group’s executive director, said laws and regulations made in Austin, Washington, DC and Mexico City do not necessarily correspond to realities on the ground. Sometimes they cause new problems without solving the challenges they were intended to fix. He pointed out there is already a wall and a new wall likely won’t do what is promised because it doesn’t address the root causes of poverty and injustice on both sides of the border and won’t stop the flow of illegal drugs.

The Hope Border Institute brings together CCHD-funded groups, activists, and grassroots organizations, low-wage workers and migrants, members of the media, young persons, academics, church workers, and clergy to share perspectives, explore Catholic social teaching, and look through the eyes of others living in the border communities. It helps people work collectively and intentionally across “borders” of geography, race, and ethnicity. And it trains and empowers leaders across both the faith community and civil society to witness the power of unity in diversity and community.

Best of all, it’s working! People who might never have spoken and shared stories now see and begin to understand the experience, perspective, and human dignity of each other.

Bishop Seitz said, “The role of the Church and its teaching is such an important counterpoint to the uninformed reaction people have had to these border questions.” How true.

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

Hope Border Institute is funded by the Strategic National Grant Program of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Read more about their work in the most recent edition of the CCHD Newsletter: Helping People Help Themselves.


Going Deeper!

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Office of Education & Outreach are partnering to foster encounter in other ways.  Our new small grants program seeks to foster Hispanic ministry-social justice diocesan collaboration, and this recent webinar lifted up examples of where this is already successfully happening around immigration, workers’ rights, trafficking, and other issues affecting the immigrant community.

 

All photos courtesy of Hope Border Institute.

Get Ready for World Refugee Day!

Todd Scribner, Education Outreach Coordinator, Migration & Refugee Services/USCCB

Every year on June 20, the international community acknowledges World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the conditions confronting the millions of people who have been forced from their homes and countries under threat of persecution and possible death and to acknowledge their humanity.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of forcibly displaced people globally to be at about 65.3 million, including 21.3 refugees. We are today experiencing the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. This is a troubling fact that deserves careful attention and global collaboration.

World Refugee Day provides us all an opportunity to better understand the international circumstances that give rise to displacement, the various solutions that are in place to respond to the problem, and the important role of the U.S. resettlement system in this process. While important, it is not enough for us to merely learn about refugees; we must also act and advocate in solidarity with them

At a recent audience of Catholic and Lutheran pilgrims, Pope Francis emphasized this point, declaring that “you cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian… It is hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who needs my help.”

Spurred by the Holy Father’s words, we turn to numerous refugee crises around the world about which we can both learn and act upon.

The crisis in Syria and Iraq continues to be a pressing concern for the leadership of the Catholic Church as countless millions of men, women, and children continue to be displaced and persecuted because of the ongoing conflict. The forced migration of children and families from the Northern Triangle in Central America is also a troubling phenomenon.

In both situations, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for expanded protections for the most vulnerable populations in these migrant flows. It is imperative that the international community of nations and civil society, including faith communities, work together in both challenging situations, addressing the root causes of forced migration and putting into place solutions that will provide alternatives to forced migration in both regions.

While both Syria and Central America continue to be a source of troubling refugee crises, we should not forget other parts of the world wherein forced migration is also ongoing phenomenon. The conflict in South Sudan has stretched on for over four years, and is Africa’s largest displacement crisis today. As of October 2016, 1.2 million people had fled South Sudan as refugees to neighboring countries. Other sizable populations have fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, and elsewhere in recent years.

We invite you to download, distribute, and use our World Refugee Toolkit, which contains spiritual-related resources, as well as advice on how to use media to draw attention to the problem, and suggested initiatives that you can use in your local community.

Additionally, a series of other resources is available that highlight various aspects of the refugee resettlement program is available. These publications were created to help you better understand issues related to refugees and other forms of forced migration.

Finally, in addition to learning about these issues, it is important that we act. One way that you can do this is by signing up for the Justice for Immigrants campaign. By doing so, you will receive information about new resources as they become available alongside time sensitive action alerts. By engaging these alerts, you will be in a position to help shape public policy on migration related issues and to help ensure that the human dignity of migrants is respected in the law and in our communities.

Todd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 

Transforming Neighborly, Spiritual Bonds: Teens Empowered in Interfaith Engagement

By Claire Hoffmeyer, Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin

Nine years of youth ministry boils down to one simple, humbling truth: teenagers teach and transform me. I consistently seek to alter their lives by sharing the Gospel message, developing catechetical programming and availing the lived wisdom I believe to possess, yet it’s the teens who challenge me, renew me.

Our community located west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin offers affluence, academia, and an array of faiths to accompany you whether you pray in a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque. I both work and pray at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish located on a busy corner intersection in the heart of our suburb. Less than two miles northeast, a friend of mine leads fellow Muslims in prayer at Masjid Al-Noor—a mosque of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, a new addition to our neighborhood.

Our parish welcomes these new neighbors in a myriad of ways. We opened our church hall prior to the mosque’s groundbreaking so that the community could engage in dialogue. Soon thereafter, Masjid Al-Noor leaders used the church hall to examine the blueprints of their worship space. Annually, we collaborate on a seasonal project at the local farmer’s market. In these ways, we recognize and celebrate our neighborly bonds.

Last April, our community expanded. I welcomed Jewish, Lutheran, Nondenominational Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Mormon, and Muslim teen representatives to our parish. This was not in an effort to evangelize or convert. Rather, this was a response to a request of our active interfaith community for more youth engagement and empowerment.

My mission was to offer space for interfaith teens to explore the graces of interfaith collaboration and dialogue. I sought to cultivate young leaders equipped with training in diversity particularly regarding religious views and practices because interfaith dialogue can give birth to mutual understanding, respect, and friendship of all people, no matter how or where you worship.

These youth delegates commune unlike any youth group. They treat each other with kindness and gentle curiosity about each other’s faith beliefs. They laugh with one another.  Every time we gather, roaring laughter fills the space. They like one another and are genuinely excited to just be in each other’s company. They captivate one another. They leave no room for division, intolerance, or cruelty. The differences they have, they embrace. Impressively, they exercise these behaviors effortlessly.

Youth, they teach you; they transform you.

Challenged by a most recent saint, we aim to “recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together for the benefit of all men, ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values’ as the Council calls upon us to do.” This call by St. Pope John Paul II in an address to our Church in 1979, nearly forty years ago still holds true today, especially as we witness fear, injustice, violence, and hate toward our Muslim neighbors.

How can we combat the cruel attitudes and behaviors toward our Muslim brothers and sisters?

The youth delegates strive for peace and justice through unity. Two young ladies, one a member of St. John Vianney and the other a member of Masjid Al-Noor presented, “Gratitude Unites Us,” the youth delegates’ collaborative video project screened at last November’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service.

The ladies prepared an address, written and rehearsed extensively together, and called us to action. They commanded all to set aside our divisions and instead practice an attitude of gratitude. When grateful, we refuse to let our separateness distract, rule, or divide us. We recognize we share in one humanity in which we have much to be grateful.

Through their powerful contributions, our youth delegates unassumingly displayed transformation from division to unity. They know how to be good neighbors. They love others, their faith, and God fiercely—they find unity in this shared love and gratitude. Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and Mormon teenagers have imparted this wisdom, this truth, upon my heart. I am forever transformed.

I invite you to consider extending a hand to your neighbors in faith. Look to your community’s teens—they’ll model for you just how to preserve and promote the spiritual bonds that unite us all. Enjoy your transformation!

Claire Hoffmeyer is Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In 2007, Claire graduated with a degree in Sociology, Justice and Peace Studies and Writing from Marquette University. Since then, through her work with youth and families at Saint John Vianney Claire has been exploring her vocation in ministry gaining practical wisdom in a faith that does justice.


Going Deeper!

St. John Vianney’s work was recently featured on WeAreSaltAndLight.org, which also includes resources and tools from USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Praying for Conscience and Courage

Bible Group Praying Together Holding Hands With Eyes ClosedI read a prayer recently, titled “Prayer for Conscience and Courage” by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister. I was struck by the title and even more by the prayer. What does it mean to pray for “conscience”?  Isn’t a conscience simply what all of us have, that is, a working conscience that somehow lets us know what is right and what is wrong?

By Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (No. 1784), so we know it is important to learn and form our conscience with Scripture and Catholic teaching.  But prayer for conscience — how does that fit?

Again, in the catechism we read, “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (No. 1785). So, in order to educate our consciences, we need to pray with Scripture. We pray that we can become what it is God is dreaming for us. Right?

The prayer begins with the words, “Loving God, lead us beyond ourselves to care…”  Then, I had a light-bulb moment when I read more of the prayer:

“Give us the conscience it takes to comprehend what we’re facing, to see what we’re looking at and to say what we see so that others, hearing us, may also brave the pressure that comes with being out of public step.”

So, this prayer is written to help us in this difficult time — a time of great uncertainty and change. Sister Joan is suggesting that we pray, asking God to give us wisdom — God’s wisdom — to help us see what is happening around us and in our world as God sees it and act accordingly.

Doing this kind of prayer is not something we automatically do. We pray for someone who is sick, for personal things we need or are worried about, but we do not often pray for a conscience that is awake, open to seeing as God sees and open to acting on that seeing. More often, we see the world through a lens that thinks more of personal needs than of the needs of all, or the common good, as Jesus and our church teaches us.

I think about poverty. Do we have a conscience that helps us see poverty as God does?

Here are a couple of people I believe have a conscience that helps them see as God sees.

Pope Francis says this: “The times talk to us of so much poverty in the world and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children … without an education, so many poor persons.”

Dorothy Day said: “We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it,” and “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Mother Teresa said: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

Is this the way you see poverty?  Maybe each of us has a way to go to think of poverty the way these “saints” do, but it’s important that our conscience is moving us in that direction, one step at a time.

Years ago, I had the honor of meeting a priest who had a parish in the middle of a poverty-stricken, gang-infested part of Los Angeles called Dolores Mission. At the beginning of his work there, a group of mothers came to him, to inform his “conscience” and call him to action as they spoke to him of their fear for their sons’ lives. Gangs had taken over the neighborhood and there was a lot of violence between rival gangs.

Father Greg heard the mothers and let their love inform his conscience, and he has worked in his ministry to gang members for over 30 years.  When I think of someone who has a well-formed conscience and someone who sees poverty and gang members as God sees them, I know it is Father Greg Boyle.

When speaking of the attitude we should have about poverty, he says, that we should  “seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Along with a well-formed conscience, Sister Joan added a prayer for courage. It makes sense considering that we are to follow Jesus and the radical love he showed to all of God’s people, especially those people who others shunned.  We can’t do that on our own. We need God’s help.

Join me in a prayer for conscience and courage as we remember who Jesus was and what he sacrificed for all of creation.

Kathy Langer is director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

This blog post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the Visitor of the Diocese of Saint Cloud.


Going Deeper!

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops remind us that conscience formation is a “lifelong task” (no. 5).  Read this handout (also in Spanish) and read this Scripture reflection (also in Spanish) on the ongoing task of forming our consciences.

Developing Housing and Jobs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Some of the most intriguing and successful CCHD-funded groups are those that surmount the biggest obstacles. The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Porcupine, South Dakota, is one of them.

The group works on the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a huge expanse that takes two hours to cross in a car. It’s no secret that Native Americans have been marginalized and mistreated in the history of our country. Government, church, and private efforts to improve their living conditions and prospects for the future have enjoyed mixed success. To be fair, there have been missteps on all sides, but one of the recurring stumbling blocks has been the attempt by outsiders to determine what the native people need and want.

Three young adults smile in front of a Thunder Valley CDC sign

These young adults were part of Thunder Valley CDC’s Workforce Development Through Sustainable Construction program where they learned construction skills, advanced their education, and developed individual success plans.

We were cautiously optimistic when we heard about Thunder Valley CDC, a relatively new group of young people committed to building sustainable communities in the very tough economy of the reservation. Jobs are scarce. Housing is substandard. Infrastructure barely exists. The reservation is in the poorest county in the country. But the people have hope and determination. The Thunder Valley CDC organizers began by talking to their neighbors and ASKING what they needed to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. Housing and jobs were at the top of the list. They were not asking for charity but the opportunity to create systemic change and achieve self-sufficiency.

A team of people push up a frame of a wall on a cleared lot

Thunder Valley CDC staff raises a wall for the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center where youth and families will be able to learn about healthy local foods.

Two young Lakota girls in athletic gear and holding small basketballs smiling

Through Thunder Valley CDC, Lakota children participate in sports and wellness activities that are run by older Lakota youth in the Youth Leadership Development program.

Thunder Valley CDC identified land near an important crossroad on the reservation. They purchased it, and with CCHD’s help, they are implementing an ambitious master plan that includes infrastructure, home ownership, jobs, education, training, and mentorship.

Thunder Valley CDC takes CCHD’s mission to heart: the group is led by the people it serves and the people who participate have a stake in the outcome. By listening carefully and planning meticulously, Thunder Valley CDC is creating tangible, sustainable change in the community. It has become a force for justice in an area that longs for it. CCHD is honored to support the effort.

Thank you, as always, for your prayers and support of CCHD.

You are a crucial partner in our ceaseless mission to break the cycle of poverty.

Photos Courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC

Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD.


Learn more about Thunder Valley CDC in the latest edition of the CCHD quarterly newsletter Helping People Help Themselves.

See other CCHD groups’ Stories of Hope on PovertyUSA.

Easter: We Encounter Resurrection

When the risen Jesus encounters his disciples on the road to Emmaus, it’s quite clear that their journeying away from Jerusalem is in fact a journeying away from hope. They have witnessed their friend, their hoped-for savior die; they have seen their community scattered; they have understood their trust in God to have been misplaced. What is left for them now?

Jesus, of course, turns them around—quite literally. The encounter with the risen Christ means a renewed encounter with hope; that God is not done yet; that darkness and suffering do not have the final word.

Indeed, this story continues to unfold in our own time. We look out at a world wracked by hunger, poverty, war, injustice and we, too, feel like walking away. Where should we place our hope when the challenges seem insurmountable?

This is the story of resurrection. We encounter Christ daily in the faces of our neighbors, of those we meet in our work, our home, on our streets, those whom we have yet to meet face to face but with whom we are intricately tied as members of God’s one human family. We encounter Christ, too, within ourselves. And in these encounters, we have reason to hope. Because God is not done yet—and so long as we have strength to continue the work of building a culture of encounter, of responding to our Gospel call, neither are we.

Eric Clayton is CRS Rice Bowl Program Officer at Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

This reflection was first published in CRS Rice Bowl’s Encounter Lent: Theological & Scriptural Reflections. Don’t forget to turn in your Lenten alms to CRS Rice Bowl!

Going Deeper

How are you called to join with others to “turn around” and challenge injustice that you see or experience? How can you work with others to be a sign of Christ’s resurrection in your community?

Read about how, in the face of the violence and unrest that followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has served as a witness to God’s love and hope.  Read these recommendations from the USCCB Special Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities for ways your faith community can work to build peace and end racial injustice.