Sharing a Common Border and Responsibility

Coll headshotGranado headshotThe Church in Mexico, with deep faith in Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe, searches valiantly with the Church in the United States for ways to collaborate and to respond to the crisis affecting Mexican society. The Church does so despite the threats of violence targeted against her priests, religious and lay workers.

Travelling to Mexico from June 15 through June 19, Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Bishop Oscar Cantú heard of the crucial pastoral work of the Church in Mexico, and offered their support. The visit included significant discussions with key bishops and staff members of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference (CEM). Pertinent U.S. and other governmental officials and members of Mexican civil society were consulted as well.

The bishops visited a migrant assistance facility in Huehuetoca, where refugees are provided food, clothing and medical care. They also journeyed to the historic cathedral in Cuernavaca, learning first-hand of the assistance provided to the poor and marginalized by the Diocese. Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the beautiful tilma, or shawl, worn by Saint Juan Diego, bearing the miraculous imprint of the Blessed Mother, is preserved and venerated. An earlier visit to the home of this saint in Cuatitlán provided perspective on the profound religious and cultural prominence of the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe for Mexico and all the Americas.

The bishops heard of the impressive work undertaken on behalf of the Archdiocese of Acapulco in providing support to victims of violence and their relatives. One mother movingly described the tragic loss of her teen-aged daughter, murdered by neighborhood friends corrupted by the culture of cruelty and impunity that pervades much of Mexican society. She and other grieving parents eloquently testified to the crucial role of the Church in providing counseling, community and compassion in these sorrowful circumstances.

Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantú participated in a press conference held jointly with key bishops from the CEM, where hopes for continued dialogue and collaboration were discussed. As a result, a new relationship has dawned between the committees and offices of the USCCB and of the CEM that address topics of justice and peace. Many issues need to be considered in a collaborative manner between the two respective Conferences. A visit to the United States by a delegation of bishops and staff from the CEM is expected to continue this process of collaboration. Permanent communication between the two bodies will also be realized, using Skype, telephone, e-mail and the electronic sharing of documents. In this way, analyses and reflections on issues, problems or matters of common interest will be exchanged.

Pastoral challenges remain great in Mexico, but the courageous actions of the Church in that country merit the unhesitating support and diligent efforts of the Church in our country. A clear lesson derived from this journey was the importance of the Church’s accompaniment of her people in Mexico, through her many charitable activities, educational outreach and pastoral services. Greater collaboration on policy recommendations and effective governmental communication will be a component of this dialogue. Our peoples share a common border and history, bearing mutual responsibility to enhance the life, dignity and humanity of our citizens. United in this endeavor, and guided by Our Savior and His Blessed Mother, we can strive, through our prayers and our actions, to bring these efforts to a blessed and successful conclusion.

Anthony Granado is a policy advisor for the Office of Domestic Social Development and Richard Coll is a policy advisor for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Ukraine’s Struggle for Dignity

HeavenlyHundredinMaidan20150623_153523Maidan is the busy, central square of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.  It is also a place of solemn remembrance.

On a sunny day recently, I walked the length of Maidan.  The day was bright, but shadows of loss were also evident.  Small personal shrines honoring the “Heavenly Hundred” lined the square.  They had died in the Maidan protests of early 2014.  The shrines included pictures, flowers, candles and often rosaries or crosses.

Maidan was not just a political protest; it was a prayerful event in which people of faith sought human dignity.  More than 100 protestors were killed in connection with the Maidan demonstrations.  Most of them were young.  The Church and people of Ukraine continue to honor their sacrifice, especially as they face conflict fomented by Russia in the eastern part of their nation.HeavenlyHundredinMaidan20150623_152937

Archbishop Malchuk, Bishop of Kyiv-Zhytomyr, told our U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) delegation that half of his Cathedral was turned into a hospital during the Maidan demonstrations.  He noted that prayers were regularly offered from the central Maidan stage and participation was multi-confessional.  Maidan’s quest for freedom and dignity brought people of diverse religions and ethnicities together as people, as Ukrainians.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Archbishop Blase Cupich, the leaders of our USCCB delegation, consistently reminded the leaders and people of the Church in Ukraine that we are in solidarity with them.  Having just celebrated our own Independence Day on the Fourth of July, I am reminded the Maidan is literally Ukraine’s “Independence Square.”

We visited a military hospital where Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, many expelled from Crimea and the occupied areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, minister to the wounded and their families.  One man had lost an arm and thanks to the intervention of our Archbishops with the U.S. Embassy is now headed to Chicago for medical treatment and an advanced prosthetic.

DisplacedFamilies20150621_154440The experience of Ukraine was too rich to be captured in a short blog, so let me summarize what I learned.

  • The Church in Ukraine is a vibrant witness of faith and a tremendous resource to Ukrainian society as the nation seeks to defend human dignity and freedom and to build a transparent and accountable democracy. It deserves encouragement and support, especially for education and humanitarian outreach.  The Church faces challenges to religious freedom in the occupied territories of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.
  • Church, civil society and government officials view the crisis in eastern Ukraine as a Russian incursion and occupation, not a civil war.
  • The conflict in Ukraine has displaced over 1.2 million people and there are tremendous unmet humanitarian needs that require additional aid. We visited displaced families who need help. The Church through Caritas (with the support of Catholic Relief Services) is providing assistance.  More is needed.
  • Ukraine also needs additional international assistance to improve its economy, reduce high unemployment and meet social needs. Current assistance does not even equal debt payments.  Russia hopes Ukraine becomes a failed state; this must not happen.
  • Ukraine’s debt needs to be restructured. Over half of the debt was incurred under the three-year rule of Ex-President Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in the wake of the Maidan protests.
  • Aid should be provided to Ukraine in ways that reduce corruption, strengthen transparency and accountability to the people, and simultaneously build up governmental and civil society capacity. Ukrainians yearn for a government respectful of human dignity.  Don’t we all?

Colecchi headshotStephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop Kurtz on Charleston

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), responded to the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with “grief and deep sadness,” June 19. He said the Catholic community “stands with all people who struggle for an end to racism and violence, in our families, in our places of worship, in our communities and in our world.” He made this statement:

It is with grief and deep sadness that we learned of the tragic murder of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. There have been far too many heartbreaking losses in the African-American community this year alone. Our prayers are with all those suffering from this heinous crime.

We join our voices with civic and religious leaders in pledging to work for healing and reconciliation. Our efforts must address racism and the violence so visible today. As the U.S. Catholic Bishops said in our pastoral letter on racism, “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.”

The Catholic community stands with all people who struggle for an end to racism and violence, in our families, in our places of worship, in our communities and in our world. We must continue to build bridges and we must confront racism and violence with a commitment to life, a vision of hope, and a call to action.

Africa: A Tale of Two Elections

Hilbert headshotLast week the world witnessed two important elections that demonstrate Africa’s struggle to instate and protect the rule of law and accountable democratic governance. The recent elections in Nigeria and the upcoming process in Burundi are a study in contrasts.

On May 29 Nigeria inaugurated President Muhammadu Buhari. It was the first time in Nigeria’s 55 year history that it had conducted a peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one ruling party to another. The 2015 elections were peaceful and relatively free of fraud despite the real fear of post-election violence. Throughout the election, the Church in Nigeria was a constant voice for the common good. Church leaders met with both Presidential candidates to urge them to conduct a free and fair election.

President Buhari faces a host of serious challenges. The terrorist-insurgent group Boko Haram continues to attack mosques, villages and towns in the northeast of the country despite some recent successful operations by the Nigerian military and neighboring countries. Oil revenue makes up 53% of Nigeria’s federal budget and the fall in the price of oil has forced the government to make drastic budget cuts. The country ranks an abysmal 136 out of 175 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. And although Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter, 62.6% of its population lives in poverty. Life expectancy is only 52 years. Despite these challenges, the election gives Nigerians renewed hopes for positive change.

The successful elections in Nigeria contrast sharply with recent events in Burundi. For ten years Burundi has lived in relative peace under a democratically elected government, a unified national military, and a new constitution that provides for majority rule (demanded by the majority Hutu population) with solid safeguards against repression of the minority Tutsi ethnic population.

Recently, President Pierre Nkurunziza has intensified repression of political opposition leaders, independent radio stations and the press. He has created and armed a political youth group that attacks political opposition members, resulting in about 100,000 people fleeing the country. In 2014 the Parliament foiled the President’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. This year the President announced his candidacy for a third term arguing that the parliament had elected him in 2005 for his first term and not the people. Demonstrations and riots broke out, leading to 20 deaths. Tensions led to a failed coup d’état against the President in May.

Throughout the past year Church leaders have spoken out repeatedly to oppose a third term an action that would violate the constitution and the Arusha peace accord that brought an end to the bloody civil war. After the coup attempt, the Church urged an end to the violence and the start of political negotiations to end the impasse. When the President launched his bid for a third term, the Church called for the elections to be postponed until peace was restored, radio and media outlets were reopened, and all civil and political rights were restored. The government has failed to reinstate the rule of law, prompting the Church to withdraw its clergy from the election monitoring teams and the local electoral committees.

In response, the government did not renew the tenure of a Catholic priest who was the head of the country’s national human rights commission. On May 31 the Archbishop of Bujumbura, the capital, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt. The Church now seems under attack because of its opposition to the President’s actions.

In April, Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote a letter of solidarity to the Church in Burundi and another letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice to urge the United States to support the positions that the Church in Burundi had taken to restore stability to the country.

The tale of two elections in Nigeria and Burundi demonstrates the challenges of fostering unity among diverse ethnicities and religious communities, building stable democratic governments, and establishing the rule of law. In both cases, the Church played a prominent role in lifting up the common good. The Church can be proud of its work to ensure fair elections.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.