Schools provide strength to communities

Forming our Future
By Catherine Cook
This year our celebration of Catholics Schools Week marks 170 years of continuous Catholic education in Mississippi. No other school – public or private – in our state can make that claim. Six of our Catholic schools/centers trace their beginnings to the 1800s and have continued throughout the educational history of our state.
Each year Catholic schools across the United States set aside the week that begins with the last Sunday in January as Catholic Schools Week. It is a time to reflect upon and celebrate what each school provides to its students, families, parishes, cities, states, and the nation.
January 29th – February 4th, the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Jackson join the national celebration with activities that highlight and thank the many persons who contribute in large and small ways to make our schools what the 2017 Catholic Schools Week theme proclaims: Catholic Schools – Communities of Faith, Knowledge, and Service.
This theme speaks to the heart of what our schools strive to be – communities that at their core are rooted in the love of God that is lived out in service to others – educational communities in which students learn academic lessons and life lessons. This is what sets our Catholic schools apart from other educational institutions across the state. It is why throughout the 170 year history of Catholic schools in Mississippi families have made sacrifices to provide a Catholic education to their children. This Community of Faith, Knowledge, and Service is why teachers and administrators commit themselves to carrying forth the tradition of a quality education marked by faith and service – an institution begun and sustained for much of our Catholic school history by women and men religious.
I encourage you to take a few minutes to read the comments from students, parents, faculty, administration, and alumni included in the Catholic Schools Week insert. There is little I can add to what they say about their experiences in the Catholic schools in our diocese. I ask that you take the opportunity during Catholic Schools Week to visit the Catholic school in your area and see first-hand what Catholic education in the 21st century is about.
Consider taking a friend and or neighbor to help share with community stakeholders what a Catholic school provides to students, families, and the community. Vibrant Catholic schools enhance the faith life of their parishes and the social-economic-cultural life of their civic communities. You don’t have to be a parent to be invested in your local Catholic school as it has an impact on your parish and your local community. Catholic schools always welcome persons who wish to support their mission with time, talent, and/or treasure.
Finally, this is a time to say “thank you” to the many Catholic school stakeholders – employees, volunteers, patrons, alumni, and friends. “Thank you” to pastors and parishioners – your support is essential to the life of our Catholic schools. “Thank you” to faculty, staff, and administration for your commitment to the education and formation of students – your dedication continues the legacy left by the religious sisters and brothers on whose shoulders we stand.
“Thank you” to volunteers – your service in endless ways and groups, such as, advisory councils, committees, parent associations, booster clubs, fund-raising events, etc. is vital to operation of our schools. And, “thank you” to parents for choosing to place your children in our Catholic schools. We exist to partner with you to provide a community that teaches, leads, and develops your children into persons of faith, knowledge, and service. Congratulations to each Catholic school in our Diocese on your celebration of Catholic Schools Week 2017! We are proud of your efforts and accomplishments.
(Catherine Cook is the Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Taking the time to renew benefits ministry, church

Kneading Faith
By Fran Lavelle
I was fortunate enough to participate in the Catholic Leadership Institute’s (CLI) program Tending the Talents, which is a program for lay leaders. The program began in May and just completed its work earlier this month. The cohort consisted of Lay Ecclesial Ministers, youth ministers, directors/coordinators of religious education programs, pastoral council leaders and diocesan staff. We represented nearly every deanery in the diocese and included diversity of ethnicity, age, parish size and background. The group met five times over the course of these eight months.
Our time together varied, but usually included two or three days. When Bishop Joseph Kopacz introduced the idea of CLI bringing Tending the Talents to the diocese, I was very excited. I knew it would be an opportunity to strengthen some existing friendships and develop new ones. Being someone who values interpersonal relationships I knew this was right up my alley. What I did not expect was how quickly the cohort would come to feel like family. Our scheduled meetings began to feel like mini-family reunions in addition to being awesome learning opportunities. If a member of the cohort was not in attendance his/her absence was immediately felt.
As the end grew closer in sight I started to ask myself those deeper reflection questions about the experience. I thought about how accustomed I had become to visiting with these folks every six weeks or so. I thought about how much I would miss our late night discussions on the deck where robust conversation mixed seamlessly with laughter and sometimes even tears. I thought to myself, “This is Church.” Our cohort truly reflected the Body of Christ. We prayed together, broke bread together (boy howdy, did we eat well), shared stories of frustration, affirmed one another’s successes and encouraged one another to remain faithful to our vocational call to serve Christ and his church. I am certain that some of you have had a similar experience going through a master’s degree program, a parish faith formation program or certification of some kind. We create ties that truly bind us to one another.
These experiences are good, no they are great because they can lift us up out of the status quo and ask us to look at ministry with fresh eyes, a renewed spirit or a less judgmental attitude toward those we serve. Most importantly, they keep us grounded in relationship with others. I cannot serve the church if I work out of my own agenda, my own needs and my own ego.
Growing, learning, praying, discerning with others allows one to take on the perspective of another person. I can better see the challenges and opportunities that I face when I see how others respond to similar challenges and opportunities. I am grateful for every member of our cohort. They reminded me of the good men and women who selflessly serve God’s people. I will miss our time together.
The completion of this program happened the week after many members of our formational ministry teams met in Kenner, La., for the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference. Looking back on both of these opportunities I am reminded of the value of a change in venue. In contrast to Tending the Talents, the conference lasts only three days. However, those three days can be effective in getting us out of our regularly scheduled lives and opening ourselves up to hearing, seeing and experiencing something new and/or different. It’s a new year. If you have been in full-time ministry or a volunteer for several years and have not taken the opportunity to do continuing education/formation or you have not gone to a conference, what are you waiting for? Go! It is in the practical day to day living of our faith that we express it best.
Taking time out to go on a personal retreat, conference, enrichment opportunity is one of the best ways you can ensure that you have the inspiration and energy to continue to serve God’s people. Proclaim your faith from your abundance. It is hard to give what you do not have. So the next time you see an opportunity to renew and refresh your ministry-take it!
I am relishing the time I had with conference attendees and cohort members of Tending the Talents. The ultimate gift in all of it is knowing that we are all a phone call or email away from a friendly response. If you would like ideas on possible professional development, retreat or educational opportunities shoot me an email at fran.lavelle@jacksondiocese.org.
(Fran Lavelle is the director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Taking our wounds to the Eucharist

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Recently a man came to me, asking for help. He carried some deep wounds, not physical wounds, but emotional wounds to his soul. What surprised me initially was that, while he was deeply wounded, he had not been severely traumatized either in childhood or adulthood. He seemed to have just had to absorb the normal bumps and bruises that everyone has to absorb: some belittling, some bullying, never being the favorite, dissatisfaction with his own body, unfairness within his family and siblings, career frustration, unfairness in his workplace, the sense of being chronically ignored, the sense of never being understood and appreciated and the self-pity and lack of self-confidence that results from this.
But he was a sensitive man and the combination of all these seemingly little things left him, now in late mid-life, unable to be the gracious, happy Elder he wanted to be. Instead, by his own admission, he was chronically caught-up in a certain wounded self-absorption, namely, in a self-centered anxiety that brought with it the sense that life had not been fair to him.
Consequently he was forever somewhat focused on self-protection and was resentful of those who could step forward openly in self-confidence and love. “I hate it,” he shared, “when I see persons like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul speak so with such easy self-confidence about how big their hearts are. I always fill with resentment and think: ‘Lucky you!’ You haven’t had to put up with what I’ve had to put up with in life!”
This man had been through some professional therapy that had helped bring him to a deeper self-understanding, but still left him paralyzed in terms of moving beyond his wounds. “What can I do with these wounds?” he asked.
My answer to him, as for all of us who are wounded, is: Take those wounds to the Eucharist. Every time you go to a Eucharist, stand by an altar, and receive communion, bring your helplessness and paralysis to God, ask him to touch your body, your heart, your memory, your bitterness, your lack of self-confidence, your self-absorption, your weaknesses, your impotence. Bring your aching body and heart to God. Express your helplessness in simple, humble words: Touch me. Take my wounds. Take my paranoia. Make me whole. Give me forgiveness. Warm my heart. Give me the strength that I cannot give myself.
Pray this prayer, not just when you are receiving communion and being physically touched by the body of Christ, but especially during the Eucharistic prayer because it is there that we are not just being touched and healed by a person, Jesus, but we are also being touched and healed by a sacred event. This is the part of the Eucharist we generally do not understand but it is the part of the Eucharist that celebrates transformation and healing from wound and sin. In the Eucharist prayer we commemorate the “sacrifice” of Jesus, that is, that event where, as Christian tradition so enigmatically puts it, Jesus was made sin for us. There is a lot in that cryptic phrase. In essence, in his suffering and death, Jesus took on our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities and our sins, died in them, and then through love and trust brought them to wholeness.
Every time we go to Eucharist we are meant to let that transforming event touch us, touch our wounds, our weaknesses, our infidelities, our sin and our emotional paralysis and bring us to a transformation in wholeness, energy, joy, and love.
The Eucharist is the ultimate healer. There is, I believe, a lot of value in various kinds of physical and emotional therapies, just there is immeasurable value in 12-Step programs and in simply honestly sharing our wounded selves with people we trust. There is too, I believe, value in a certain willful self-effort, in the challenge contained in Jesus’ admonition to a paralyzed man: Take up your couch and walk! We should not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by hyper-sensitivity and self-pity. God has given us skin to cover our rawest nerves.
But, with that being admitted, we still cannot heal ourselves. Therapy, self-understanding, loving friendsand disciplined self-effort can take us only so far, and it is not into full healing.
Full healing comes from touching and being touched by the sacred. More particularly, as Christians, we believe that this touching involves a touching of the sacred at that place where it has most particularly touched our own wounds, helplessness, weaknesses, and sin, that place, where God “was made sin for us”. That place is the event of the death and rising of Jesus and that event is made available to us, to touch and enter into, in the Eucharistic prayer and in receiving the body of Christ in communion.
We need to bring our wounds to the Eucharist because it is there that the sacred love and energy that lie at the ground of all that breathes can cauterize and heal all that is not whole within us.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com or on Facebook www.facebook.com/ronrolheiser)

Lawmakers should focus on tax, wage reforms

Millennial reflections
By George Evans
The Mississippi Legislature began its 2017 session last week. It is now time for all of us to contact our legislators and let them know our wishes. Democracy does not work well if our senators and representatives do not know what we, the electorate, want from them and what we think are the right decisions for them to make.
A significant number of bills have already been filed in both the House and Senate and many more will follow. The vast majority will die in committee and never get to the floor for a vote in the house in which they originate. Some however are very significant and will affect our state and its people in very important ways. Our representatives need to hear from us on these. If they don’t we have no right to complain when it’s all said and done.
Because of space constraints, I will bring only several to your attention and urge you to follow closely what transpires so you can play your role as adviser. Pope Francis and our bishops urge us to be involved in the public square. It is part of living the gospel, following Christ and being a disciple while building the church on earth.
Mississippi has enormous economic problems. Everyone agrees on this point but there is great difference on what to do about it. We are last or nearly so in every economic ranking from personal income to support for education, infrastructure, mental health services, child care services, etc. The list goes on and on. The legislature tells us that they do the best they can but don’t have the money to do more. There is truth in that statement, but if we don’t educate our people, spend money on our three and four year-olds, challenge our gifted students and train others for meaningful work and trades in an ever-changing work environment, we will never break out of the cycle of poverty that bedevils us year after year.
Creative solutions must be found and courage to implement brought to bear so that health care is not compromised, schools are not failing to the extent that children are left stranded in hopelessness and the child poverty rate in the state falls from an outrageous 2014 level of nearly 30 percent based on a federal poverty line of $23,850 for a family of four, breaking down to 15 percent of white children and 47 percent of African American children.
What can be done about just this one terrible fact. House Bill 8 (H8) would raise the minimum wage in Mississippi from $7.25 to $9.00 per hour. H366 would raise it to $10.00 per hour. Many states have already raised their minimum wage. If passed, either of these bills would help relieve poverty among the children of the working poor. Senate Bill 2082(S2082) would expand Medicaid health care benefits to approximately 200,000 additional persons with approximately 75 percent of the cost being paid by the federal government.
There will be serious opposition to these pending bills. In my opinion these and all the other economic problems need to be addressed for the good of the state and particularly for the poor and disadvantaged. Unless we at least face the issues and begin to grapple with solutions, we will remain stagnant.
Costs to improve funding of needed programs can be raised by tax increases. No one likes to pay more taxes, including me, and politicians run when they hear the words. At the same time we know more money is needed to do the right thing for those suffering with problems in education, child care, medical care and deadening poverty. Our state taxes are regressive (low income households pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than high income households). State sales taxes are 7 percent and apply even to groceries. Only Mississippi and Alabama apply full state sales taxes to groceries. This hurts the already poor more than anyone else. There should be some reduction to help the poor with groceries.
The fairest growth in tax revenue must be focused on the highest income earners and corporations. Contrary to this, the legislature in 2016 passed an across the board income tax cut estimated at $145,000,000 to take effect in 2018, disproportionately benefitting wealthy taxpayers. At the same time it eliminated the state’s franchise tax which eliminated another $260,000,000 in general revenue. In a state so challenged to find payments for living essentials, I would oppose any such tax cuts particularly those increasing the inequalities between rich and poor which exacerbates an existing problem.
I have touched on only several questions and problems before the Legislature. Specific information has come from the “State of Working Mississippi 2016” report by the Jesuit Social Research Institute, Loyola University New Orleans. It is an extraordinary publication I recommend to all. As we educate ourselves on the issues and communicate with our legislators by personal contact, phone calls, letters and emails, we enhance what is good for our state and its people and continue our growth of discipleship.
(George Evans is a retired pastoral minister and member of Jackson St. Richard Parish.)

New Year offers chance to dedicate time to service

Reflections on Life
By Father Jerome LeDoux, SVD
Ideally, just as Thanksgiving Day should motivate us to give thanks to God every day for everyone and everything, so should Christmas Day inspire us to give unselfishly year round, just as God so generously gave us on Christmas Day all that even God had to give.
We hear Philippians 2:6-7, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be clung to. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.”
Is service typified in anyone more strongly that in a slave? Of course not. But because of its ugly history, not a single one of us wants to be a servant, let alone a slave.
Yet, as a grown man of thirty years, Jesus himself gave us the ultimate reason for his birth, the unvarnished mission statement for the purpose of his life, and the clear reason why the bereaved, the afflicted and the brokenhearted have every reason to take heart and feel forever united to their dear ones here and in heaven.
Imagine that! We poor, often hapless humans do everything we can to evade being called “slave.”
Yet, God, the Creator of all, who owed nothing to anyone, gave his Son as ransom for all of us who seem more lemming-like bent on self-destruction than on prizing those persons and things that will lead us to the Land of the Living.
All those realities are wrapped up in Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Following Jesus, Paul states in 1 Corinthians 9:19, “Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.”
Turning to the new year, we cannot give/serve for 365 days, but only one day at a time – only today. Most glaring of all is the fact that not one of us is guaranteed any day beyond today. The new year begins not only on January 1, for each day of the year is a new beginning.
As Alice Morse Earle puts it, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.”
I never tire of quoting the recovering alcoholics of Alcoholics Anonymous, “Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. But today is ready cash.” And, “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”
Nor do I grow weary of quoting Rev. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays’ take on the profound relevance of every single minute of each day. Dr. Mays’ source for this quote is an unknown sage who speaks to our grandiose Happy New Year!
I’ve only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me – can’t refuse it,
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give an account if I abuse it,
Just a tiny little minute –
But eternity is in it.
If we resolve to treat the 60-second intervals of each day in such an urgent and reverential fashion, every day would bring us endless riches far beyond gold, platinum, silver, precious stones or the most extreme earthly values imaginable.
But, instead of caressing time and making the best use of even its smallest components while they are still within our grasp, we myopic humans tend to view time as taking too long to pass or being draggy and thus causing boredom. Beyond credibility, many actually pursue pastimes in an effort to make the time pass faster.
They seem to be hastening to conclude Andy Rooney’s untidy little simile, “Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.”
Instead of squandering the irreplaceable treasures and benefits of a New Year, and, much more importantly, of each priceless moment of our allotted days, we would do well to remember the meditation of Henry Van Dyke,
Time is too slow for those who wait,
too swift for those who fear,
too long for those who grieve,
too short for those who rejoice,
but, for those who love, time is eternity.
“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)
(Father Jerome LeDoux, SVD, has written “Reflections on Life since 1969.)

Theologian recommends books for 2017

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
So much of life, particularly today, constitutes an unconscious conspiracy against reading. Lack of time, the pressure of our jobs, and electronic technology, among other things, are more and more putting books out of reach and out of mind. There is never enough time to read. The upside of this is that when I do find time to pick up a book this becomes a precious, cherished time. And so I try to pick books that I read carefully: I read reviews, listen to colleagues, and keep track of my favorite authors.
I also try to make sure that my reading diet, each year, includes some spiritual books (including at least one historical classic), some biographies, some novels, and some essays.
Among the books that I read this year, these are the ones that touched me. I cannot promise that they will touch you, but each of them left me with something.
Among books in spirituality:
Gil Bailie, “God’s Gamble, The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.” Bailie again takes up Rene Girard’s anthropology to shed some new light on how the cross of Christ is the most monumental moral and religious event in history. The text is very dense and (truthfully) a tough read, but its insights are exceptional.
Heather King, “Shirt of Flame, A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux.” This book will make for a very good, private retreat for anyone struggling with an addiction or obsession, or just with mediocrity in his or her spiritual life.
Christophe Lebreton, “Born From the Gaze of God, The Tibhirine Journal of Martyr Monk, 1993-1996.” This is the diary of one of the Trappist monks who was martyred in Algeria in 1996. It is the intimate journal of a young man which chronicles how he moves from paralyzing fear to the strength for martyrdom.
Kathleen Dowling Singh, two books: “The Grace in Dying” and “The Grace in Aging.” According to Singh, the process of aging and dying is exquisitely calibrated to bring us into the realm of spirit. In these two remarkable books, she traces this out with the depth that, outside of the great classical mystics, I have not seen.
Christine M. Bochen, Editor, “The Way of Mercy.” This is a series of remarkable essays on mercy, including some by Pope Francis and Walter Kasper.
“The Cloud of Unknowing.” I finally had the chance to study this classic in some depth and it is, no doubt, the signature book on contemplation and centering prayer.
Among biographies and essays:
Marilynne Robinson, “The Givenness of Things, Essays.” These essays are dense, deep, robustly sane, and are Marilynne Robinson, the gifted novelist, at her religious best.
Michael N. McGregor, “Pure Act, The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.” This is the biography of the man who was Thomas Merton’s closest soul-friend, lived out his life as a secular monk, and who carried his solitude at a very high and noble level. It will help re-awaken your idealism.
Fernando Cardenal, “Faith and Joy, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest.” This is a great read about an exceptional man, a priest and a Jesuit, who played a leading role in Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua and was commanded by John Paul to step down. It is a private journal that tells the other side of what much of history has one-sidedly recorded about the struggles for justice in Latin America.
“Daniel Berrigan, Essential Writings,” Edited by John Dear. Daniel Berrigan died in late April of this year. His writings set the compass for what it means to be a Christian prophet, and this is an excellent selection of his writings.
Three books that deal with facing aging and dying:
Michael Paul Gallagher, “Into Extra Time, Living Through the Final Stages of Cancer and Jottings along the Way.” A man of faith and letters, Gallagher shares the journal he kept during the last nine months of his life, when he already knew he was dying.
Katie Roiphe, “The Violet Hour, Great Writers at the End.” How did a number of great writers, including Sigmund Freud, John Updike and Susan Sontag face terminal illness? This book tells us how.
Paul Kalanithi, “When Breath Becomes Air.” This is a remarkable journal of a young doctor facing a terminal diagnosis that documents his courage, faith, and insight.
Three novels that I recommend:
Paula Hawkins, “The Girl on the Train.” This didn’t make for a great movie, but the book is a page-turner.
Ian McEwan, Nutshell and Edna O’Brien, “The Little Red Chairs.” The pedigree of these two authors alone is enough of a recommendation, but neither will disappoint you here.
A wildcard:
Kenneth Rolheiser, “Dreamland and Soulscapes, A Prairie Love Story.” Full disclosure, Kenneth is my brother and I lived through many of the stories he shares, so there is admittedly a huge bias here. But the book delivers on its title and will give you a more realistic sense of what it was like to grow up in a Little House on the Prairies. Happy reading!
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com or on Facebook.)

Our Churches as Sanctuaries

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Whenever we have been at our best, as Christians, we have opened our churches as sanctuaries to the poor and the endangered. We have a long, proud history wherein refugees, homeless persons, immigrants facing deportation, and others who are endangered, take shelter inside our churches. If we believe what Jesus tells us about the Last Judgment in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, this should serve us well when we stand before God at the end.
Unfortunately, our churches have not always provided that same kind of sanctuary (safety and shelter) to those who are refugees, immigrants and homeless in their relationship to God and our churches. There are millions of persons, today perhaps the majority within our nations, who are looking for a safe harbor in terms of sorting out their faith and their relationship to the church. Sadly, too often our rigid paradigms of orthodoxy, ecclesiology, ecumenism, liturgy, sacramental practice and canon law, however well-intentioned, have made our churches places where no such sanctuary is offered and where the wide embrace practiced by Jesus is not mirrored. Instead, our churches are often harbors only for persons who are already safe, already comforted, already church-observing, already solid ecclesial citizens.
That was hardly the situation within Jesus’ own ministry. He was a safe sanctuary for everyone, religious and non-religious alike. While he didn’t ignore the committed religious persons around him, the Scribes and Pharisees, his ministry always reached out and included those whose religious practice was weak or non-existent. Moreover, he reached out especially to those whose moral lives where not in formal harmony with the religious practices of the time, those deemed as sinners. Significantly too, he did not ask for repentance from those deemed as sinners before he sat down at table with them. He set out no moral or ecclesial conditions as a prerequisite to meet or dine with him. Many repented after meeting and dining with him, but that repentance was never a pre-condition. In his person and in his ministry, Jesus did not discriminate. He offered a safe sanctuary for everyone.
We need today in our churches to challenge ourselves on this. From pastors, to parish councils, to pastoral teams, to diocesan regulators, to bishops’ conferences, to those responsible for applying canon and church law, to our own personal attitudes, we all need to ask: Are our churches places of sanctuary for those who are refugees, homeless, and poor ecclesially? Do our pastoral practices mirror Jesus? Is our embrace as wide as that of Jesus?
These are not fanciful ideals. This is the gospel which we can easily lose sight of, for seemingly all the right reasons. I remember a diocesan synod within which I participated some 20 years ago. At one stage in the process we were divided in small groups and each group was given the question: What, before all else, should the church be saying to the world today?
The groups returned with their answers and everyone, every single group, proposed as its first priority apposite what the church should be saying to the world some moral or ecclesial challenge: We need to challenge the world in terms of justice! We need to challenge people to pray more!
We need to speak again of sin! We need to challenge people about the importance of going to church! We need to stop the evil of abortion! All of these suggestions are good and important. But none of the groups dared say: We need to comfort the world!
Handel’s Messiah begins with that wonderful line from Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” That, I believe, is first task of religion. Challenge follows after that, but may not precede it. A mother first comforts her child by assuring the baby of her love and stilling its chaos. Only after that, in the safe shelter produced by that comfort, can she begin to offer it some hard challenges to grow beyond its own instinctual struggles.
People are swayed a lot by the perception they have of things. Within our churches today we can protest that we are being perceived unfairly by our culture, that is, as narrow, judgmental, hypocritical and hateful. No doubt this is unfair, but we must have the courage to ask ourselves why this perception abounds, in the academy, in the media and in the popular culture. Why aren’t we being perceived more as “a field hospital” for the wounded, as is the ideal of Pope Francis?
Why are we not flinging our churches doors open much more widely? What lies at the root of our reticence? Fear of being too generous with God’s grace? Fear of contamination? Of scandal?
One wonders whether more people, especially the young and the estranged, would grace our churches today if we were perceived in the popular mind precisely as being sanctuaries for searchers, for the confused, the wounded, the broken and the non-religious, rather than as places only for those who are already religiously solid and whose religious search is already completed.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas)

Consensus shows us way forward on immigration

By Archbishop Jose H. Gomez
Catholic News Service
The Catholic bishops of the United States have designated Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as a national day of prayer for migrants and refugees.
This day of prayer comes at a time of fear, unrest and uncertainty in our country – especially for our immigrant brothers and sisters who are undocumented and their children and loved ones.
Everyone agrees that our immigration system is broken – and it has been for more than a decade. The blame cuts across party lines and we cannot find many examples of moral leadership or political courage to point to.
We are deeply concerned about the president-elect because of his drastic campaign promises regarding deportations.
But we also know that the outgoing administration has deported more than 2.5 million people in the past eight years – more than any other administration in history. And the vast majority of those deported are not violent criminals. In fact, up to one-quarter are mothers and fathers that our government is seizing from ordinary households.
That is the sad truth about immigration policy in America today. Our system has been broken for so long, our politicians have failed to act for so long that the people we are now punishing have become our neighbors.
Most of the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. have been living here for five years or more. Two-thirds have been here for at least a decade. Almost half are living in homes with a spouse and children.
In addition, there are an estimated 1.8 million young people who were brought here as children by their undocumented parents. They are living in a kind of limbo – in many states they cannot enroll in college or get jobs.
This is the human reality of being undocumented in America. We have millions of people living on the edge of our economy and society, living in constant fear that one day without warning they will be deported and never see their families again.
And when you look into the eyes of a child whose father has been deported – and I have done that – we realize how inadequate our politics is.
Undocumented immigrants have become a kind of “scapegoat,” an easy target to blame for broader problems in our economy and society.
Many of our neighbors today rightly feel vulnerable and unprotected – they are worried about jobs, wages, the decline of their communities, the threat of terrorism, the security of our borders. We cannot simply dismiss their concerns or label them as nativists or racists, as some have. What our neighbors are worried about is real and we need to take their concerns seriously.
But undocumented workers are not the problem. The real problem is globalization and deindustrialization and what that is doing to our economy, to our family structures and neighborhoods. This is not a “white working class” issue only, as the media reports it. Whites, Latinos, Asians, blacks and others are all suffering from the breakdown of the family and the vanishing of good-paying jobs that make it possible to support a family.
Right now, we need to stop allowing politicians and media figures to make immigration a “wedge issue” that divides us. We need to come together to study these issues and find solutions.
The truth is there actually is broad public consensus on a way forward.
There is broad agreement that our nation has the obligation to secure its borders and determine who enters the country and how long they stay. There is also broad agreement that we need to update our immigration system to enable us to welcome newcomers who have the character and skills our country needs to grow.
There is even broad consensus on how to deal with the undocumented persons living among us.
Virtually every poll has found overwhelming support for granting them a generous path to citizenship, provided they meet certain requirements, such as learning English, paying some fines and holding a job that pays taxes.
These basic points should form the basis for immigration reform that is just and merciful.
We have a consensus in public opinion. What we are waiting for is politicians and media figures who have the will and the courage to tell the truth and to lead.
(Editors note: In the wake of the national elections, Catholic News Service is offering a series of columns from leading archbishops on key issues facing the church and the new Trump administration. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles.)

Dangers of ‘warrior prophets’

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
A prophet makes a vow of love, not of alienation. Daniel Berrigan wrote those words and they need to be highlighted today when a lot of very sincere, committed, religious people self-define as cultural warriors, as prophets at war with secular culture.
This is the stance of many seminarians, clergy, bishops and whole denominations of Christians today. It is a virtual mantra within in the “religious right” and in many Roman Catholic seminaries. In this outlook, secular culture is seen as a negative force that’s threatening our faith, morals, religious liberties and churches. Secular culture is viewed as, for the main part, being anti-Christian, anti-ecclesial and anti-clerical and its political correctness is seen to protect everyone except Christians.
More worrisome for these cultural warriors is what they see as the “slippery slope” wherein they see our culture as sliding ever further away from our Judeo-Christian roots. In the face of this, they believe, the churches must be highly vigilant, defensive and in a warrior stance.
Partly they’re correct. There are voices and movements within secular culture that do threaten some essentials within our faith and moral lives, as is seen in the issue of abortion, and there is the danger of the “slippery slope.” But the real picture is far more nuanced than this defensiveness merits. Secularity, for all its narcissism, false freedoms and superficiality, also carries many key Christian values that challenge to us to live more deeply our own principles.
Moreover the issues on which they challenge us are not minor ones. Secular culture, in its best expressions, is a powerful challenge to everyone in the world to be more sensitive and more moral in the face of economic inequality, human rights violations, war, racism, sexism and the ravaging of Mother Nature for short-term gain. The voice of God is also inside secular culture.
Christian prophecy must account for that. Secular culture is not the anti-Christ. It ultimately comes out of Judeo-Christian roots and has inextricably embedded within its core many central values of Judeo-Christianity. We need then to be careful, as cultural warriors, to not blindly be fighting truth, justice, the poor, equality and the integrity of creation. Too often, in a black-and-white approach, we end up having God fighting God.
A prophet has to be characterized first of all by love, by empathy for the very persons he or she is challenging. Moreover, as Gustavo Gutierrez teaches, our words of challenge must come more out of our gratitude than out of our anger, no matter how justified the anger.
Being angry, being in someone else’s face, shredding those who don’t agree with us with hate-filled rhetoric and winning bitter arguments, admittedly, might be politically effective sometimes. But all of these are counter-productive long term because they harden hearts rather than soften them. True conversion can never come about by coercion, physical or intellectual. Hearts only change when they’re touched by love.
All of us know this from experience. We can only truly accept a strong challenge to clean up something in our lives if we first know that this challenge is coming to us because someone loves us and loves us enough to care for us in this deep way. This alone can soften our hearts. Every other kind of challenge only works to harden hearts. So before we can effectively speak a prophetic challenge to our culture we must first let the people we are trying to win over know that we love them and love them enough to care about them in this deep way. Too often this is not the case. Our culture doesn’t sense or believe that we love it, which, I believe, more than any other factor renders so much of our prophetic challenge useless and even counter-productive today.
Our prophecy must mirror that of Jesus: As he approached the city of Jerusalem shortly before his death, knowing that it inhabitants, in all good conscience, were going to kill him, he wept over it. But his tears were not for himself, that he was right and they were wrong and that his death would make that clear.
His tears were for them, for the very ones who opposed him, who would kill him and then fall flat on their faces. There was no glee that they would fall, only empathy, sadness, love, for them, not for himself.
Father Larry Rosebaugh OMI, one of my Oblate confreres who spent his priesthood fighting for the peace and justice and was shot to death in Guatemala, shares in his autobiography how on the night before his first arrest for civil disobedience he spent the entire night in prayer and in the morning as he walked out to do the non-violent act that would lead to his arrest, was told by Daniel Berrigan: “If you can’t do this without getting angry at the people who oppose you, don’t do it! This has to be an act of love.”
Prophecy has to be an act of love; otherwise it’s merely alienation.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com. 
Now on Facebook www.facebook.com/ronrolheiser.)

Conference offers dynamic faith experience

It is not too late to sign up for the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference to be held in Kenner, La., on Jan. 12-14, 2017.  While the conference is hosted and sponsored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, this year the diocesan directors for faith formation from other dioceses in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have worked collaboratively to present a truly regional conference.
We are expecting more than 1,000 people – laity, clergy and religious – from the Gulf Coast and throughout the United States attend. In its 35th year, the conference continues its heritage inspired by its previous namesake, Father Johannes Hofinger, SJ, a world-renowned missionary, evangelizer, teacher and catechetical leader.
This year’s theme, “Prayer: Our Faith Prayed and Lived,” will look at our role as Catholic leaders through a lens of prayer and prayerfulness.
We have been mindful to develop a conference that includes a little something for everyone. In addition to excellent catechetical presentations, there is a dedicated liturgy track as well as excellent break-out sessions for youth ministers and Catholic school teachers or administrators.
In short, the conference offers those involved in catechesis and evangelization in the Catholic Church an opportunity to enhance their ministries and to deepen their commitment to Jesus Christ through personal and professional development sessions with leaders in evangelization and catechetical ministry, liturgical celebrations and a variety of prayer experiences, formal and informal networking opportunities and thought-provoking and inspirational presentations.
New this year is Leadership Thursday which will include a presentation by Father David Caron, OP, on spiritual leadership and evangelization; Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome on connection and communion and Paul Sanfrancesco on cultivating a faith-based digital community.
The conference will be buttressed by three keynote speakers who will bring to focus a three-fold action to Pray, Reflect and Witness.
PRAY: Sister Lynn McKenzie became a Benedictine Sister at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Ala., more than 35 years ago. As a Benedictine, she seeks to live a balanced life of prayer and work in keeping with the Benedictine motto of “Ora et Labora.” Her life of prayer in the community of Benedictine Sisters at Sacred Heart Monastery has been vital and life-giving. It is through prayer and community that she is able to live the Rule of St. Benedict. She will share her experience of how prayer helps her as she tries to be a faithful seeker of God in her daily journey, intending and hoping to live a life of fidelity, but realistic about the challenges. Sister Lynn says that “Prayer: Faith Prayed and Lived” is central to her life as a Benedictine Sister.
REFLECT: Dr. Brant Pitre is Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, La. He earned his Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame, where he specialized in the study of the New Testament and ancient Judaism. Dr. Pitre will offer his reflections on how we can “Pray the Scriptures.”
WITNESS: Bishop Ferdand Cheri is a Franciscan Friar of the Sacred Heart Province (St. Louis) and has been ordained for 37 years. He is auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Bishop Cheri has served as a member of the liturgical planning committee for the National Black Catholic Congress in Chicago, 2002; the planning committee for Unity Explosion, 1991, in New Orleans; the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Subcommittee on Black Catholic Worship, 1984 to 1990; the National Joint Conference of Black Catholic Religious Planning Committee, 1983-1990; and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, 1978. He is a revivalist, preaching across the country.
His strength and testimony comes from God’s Word in Scripture, “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection.” (2Cor 12:9) You will be inspired as Bishop Cheri encourages us to “Go forth and witness.”
You don’t want to miss the great liturgies, a hallmark of the conference, including the opening Mass with Archbishop Gregory Aymond presiding and the closing Mass on Saturday with Bishop Joseph Kopacz presiding. More than 60 breakout sessions are also included. Sign up today! For more information go to: http://go4th.faith. We hope to see you there!

Focused tracks available:
Conference workshops are loosely organized into specific categories/tracks. Because of content some workshops can be found in more than one category/track.
 Adolescent Catechesis (Lights of Hope): 103, 203, 307, L30, 408, 409, 501, 506, 508, 608
 Adult Catechesis/RCIA: L12, 205, 303, L30, 408, L40, 502, 506, 602, 605
 Catholic Identity: 101, 201, 308, 404
 Discipleship: 102, 203, 204, 307, 402, 404, 407
 Elementary Catechesis: 204, 209, L30, L32, 406, 503, 601, 608
 Evangelization: Thursday-Caron, Keynote/Cheri, 106, 108, L12, L20, 309, 402, 408, 409, L40, 509, 603, 605
 Family Catechesis: 106, 107, 208, 305, 504
 Forms of Prayer: Keynote/Pitre, 104, 206, 209, 301, 302, 405, 406, 503, L52, 601, 606
 Pope Francis: 102, 206, 303, 304, 403, 505
 Special Needs/Disabilities: 202, 604
 Spirituality: Keynote/McKenzie, 105, 207, 301, 306, 309, 401, 603, 607
 Technology:  Thursday-Zsupan-Jerome, Sanfrancesco, 109, 508, 608
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)