Convocation examines today’s concerns, challenges and opportunities

It is hard to believe that only nine weeks ago we celebrated the Sacred Triduum and Easter Sunday. I recall the great joy of those who answered the call to enter into the Catholic faith on that Holy Saturday night. Each in their own way answered the call to come and follow Jesus in a new way.

Since Easter, I have been on the confirmation circuit, traversing the diocese, helping those who were confirmed to come to a deeper understanding of what Jesus is asking of them as he pours out the gift of the Holy Spirit upon them, sharing with them the seven gifts which will help them to become mature disciples. These gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit have been given to all who have been confirmed so that all of us can live as true witnesses of Christ in our everyday lives. This is our call in Christ. As to whether we take it seriously, only each of us can answer for ourselves.

This is at the heart of the mission of the Diocese of Rapid City. I wonder, even after the Diocesan Priority Plan was promulgated and Through Him, With Him, and In Him – A Spiritual Guide to the Diocesan Priority Plan was shared across the diocese, if most parishioners would know the mission statement of the diocese — it is the mission statement of each one of us.

Here it is again: We, the Diocese of Rapid City, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are called to attract and form intentional disciples who joyfully, boldly and lovingly proclaim and live the mission of Jesus Christ, leading to eternal life.

This propels us into the New Evangelization, stemming from our baptism and strengthened through the sacrament of confirmation. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis has been very clear about this in writing: “The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth.” In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth.” Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel” (#20).

In response to this call the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken seriously Pope Francis’ exhortation to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy of the Gospel growing in our own call to missionary discipleship of Jesus Christ as well as helping to form others in this call.

The USCCB is convening “The Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” on July 1-4 in Orlando, Florida. Under the guidance of the bishops, this gathering of diverse Catholic leaders from around the country will provide an opportunity for the church of the United States, to

examine today’s concerns, challenges and opportunities in the light of the church’s mission of evangelization. They will be equipped to go forth, ready to engage the world with the joy of the Gospel. The Diocese of Rapid City will be represented by a diverse team of fourteen leaders from across the diocese.

Two key outcomes for the convocation include: first, leaders will be equipped and re-energized to share the Gospel as missionary disciples, and second, they will come away with new insights from participation in strategic conversation about current challenges and opportunities informed by new research, communication strategies and successful models. From these conversations, the hope is that participants will bring back — to the diocese, their parishes and our ministries — tools, resources and renewed inspiration to apply and move forward the “Joy of the Gospel” and Pope Francis’ desire to create a church of missionary disciples who lead others to a “missionary conversion” so that, together as the body of Christ, we can have a profound impact on the culture and society in a dynamic way.

This convocation will be of great value as we move forward the mission of the Diocese of Rapid City. To that goal, I would ask that this Convocation of Catholic Leaders, its participants and the ministry which flow forth from it be lifted up in your daily prayers, asking the Holy Spirit to direct and guide these efforts. Pastors, please include an intercession for this intention in the Prayers of the Faithful at the weekend Masses of July 1-2.

Only together can we live our mission and build the kingdom of God in western South Dakota. May God abundantly bless you and your families.

 

Bidding farewell to priests departing for new assignments

 

The Easter season is a very busy time for me as I travel the highways and byways to many different parishes to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to our young people. This is one of the things I enjoy most about being the bishop — the chance to interact with our confirmation students, their families and parishioners in each parish.

Late April and early May is also a time for finalizing priest assignments for the following fiscal year. The departure of a number of priests from the diocese has made this process a real challenge this year. While the challenges are real, I have so much for which to be grateful.

It all began with Bishop-elect Steve Biegler being named the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne. What a gift the people of Cheyenne are getting! I am deeply grateful for his ministry in the Diocese of Rapid City for the past twenty-four years. But I am grateful that I will still see him at least twice a year at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference meetings.

I am saddened that Frs. Godfrey Muwanga and John Lule, our Ugandan priests, are being called home for new assignments, although I am grateful to their bishop for allowing them to remain here for ten years (five years longer than originally planned). They both provided wonderful ministry and were great additions to our presbyterate. They will be deeply missed. Thank you, Father Godfrey and Father John, for your service among us.

We will also say farewell to Fr. Andrea Benso, our priest from Italy. After serving in the diocese for the past three years on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Reservations and completing his Native American Ministry experience, he will return to Italy to continue his priesthood in his own diocese. We wish him well and thank him for his service among us. Despite his short time with us, he, too, has left his mark.

It will also be hard to say goodbye to some of our Jesuit priests who will be leaving the diocese over the course of the next few months. Fr. John Hatcher, SJ, will be departing later in the summer after serving the Native American people for the past 45 years. He will be taking a well-deserved sabbatical over the next year. Fr. Rick Abert, SJ, who has been a dedicated servant to the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation for a total of 13 years, will be leaving the end of May to take on a new pastoral assignment in another diocese. Fr. Peter Etzel, SJ, who has served here for seven years as the

Director of the Sioux Spiritual Center, Director of the Deacon Formation Program and Director of the Lay Ministry Formation Program, will also be reassigned to another diocese-missioned to a new assignment, departing later in the summer.

I am deeply grateful for the presence of the Jesuit communities here in the diocese and for all that they have been doing to serve the Native American communities for these many, many years. Fr. DeSmet first arrived in the Dakota Territory with the “Black Robes” in 1838 — 179 years ago. Many wonderful Jesuit men have served here sharing their gifts, talents, and their love for the Native American people. They have taken on the most challenging ministry in the diocese and truly made a difference in the lives of many people. As I have traveled around the diocese, the names of many Jesuits who have served here have come up in the conversation with parishioners who have described how their lives have been touched by the ministry of these fine men. The Jesuits who will be leaving us are among the finest. Fr. John, Fr. Rick and Fr. Peter, I cannot thank you enough for your ministry. You have each left a lasting mark on the church in western South Dakota and all of you will be deeply missed.

In the face of these departures, the Lord has assisted us in meeting the challenges of assigning priests to provide necessary coverage for our parishes this year. The process has been difficult and it is only possible because of the generous priests we have in our diocese. I am deeply grateful to our priests for their willingness to give of themselves in many ways for the sake of the needs of the diocese.

I am grateful for those priests who are willing to move if asked, for those priests who are willing to delay their retirement, come out of retirement or remain out of retirement for another year. This has been extremely helpful in addressing the priest shortage this year because of the many departures. I am thankful for those priests willing to accept a new assignment before their current assignment has ended or who have accepted one that is not necessarily on their wish list. This is just another example of the many ways they serve sacrificially for the greater good of the diocese. We also rejoice in the return of Fr. Brian Christensen, who will complete his assignment at the North American College, and the arrival of several priests to serve in the diocese for the first time. (The assignment changes are listed on page 4 in this paper.)

Although it has been challenging to program the placement of priests this year, I will always trust that God will provide for the Diocese of Rapid City. However, I also know that we all MUST do our part by praying for vocations every day, by inviting your sons or other young men in your parishes to consider a vocation to the priesthood, and by helping to create a culture of vocations in your parishes. There is no reason why the Diocese of Rapid City should be facing a priest shortage. There is an abundance of priests in our diocese!

As I wrote in Through Him, With Him and In Him: “Families and local parish communities should be the seed beds for priestly and religious vocations. There are no shortages of vocations to the priesthood. They are in your families and parish communities. You have not called them forth. The only shortage is that of vocational discernment. If more Catholics were to intentionally

engage the Lord in a conversation about what his plan for their life might be, in other words, seek out their personal vocation, many would discover a call to the priesthood or religious life. This is precisely why families and parish communities must be engaged in the work of vocations.”

In conclusion, I offer my deepest thanks for the priests who have so generously served the people of God in the Diocese of Rapid City, those priests who are departing us and those who continue to give of themselves across western South Dakota. Be assured of my continued prayers for all of our priests and for those whom God is calling to discern a religious vocation. I also ask the People of God in our diocese to remember to regularly thank your priests and to thank God for them. We can never take their presence for granted.

‘What would happen if parents began teaching the psalms to their little ones?

Last month I was in Davenport, Iowa, my former diocese, to give a four-night Parish Renewal on Stewardship at St.

Anthony Catholic Church, the oldest parish in the Diocese of Davenport. It was a great joy to be back amongst many people whom I have come to know through my years of ministry in that diocese. Having never given a parish renewal before, I was not sure what to expect. Many questions came to my mind: Would people show up? How would they hear my message? Is a prophet welcome in his native place? Any concerns that I had quickly went by the wayside. My message was well received and I deeply enjoyed the experience.

But my experience went beyond just giving one-hour talks on various aspects of stewardship. One afternoon, a woman from the church who faithfully attended each evening talk, as well as the talks that I gave following the daily Mass, invited me to come and bless her office. She was a local chiropractor and her office was not far from the church. When I showed up at her office, I also found her mother and her almost five-year-old nephew. They were not unfamiliar to me because they had all been at Mass on Sunday. But this gave me an opportunity to get to know them a little better.

What I experienced was beautiful and deeply moving. The little boy was very active, but a little shy in my presence, at least for a little while. It didn’t take him long to warm up to me. The next thing I experienced was something unexpected. His aunt asked him to pray with me the 23rd Psalm. As a four-year-old, this little boy could not yet read, but he began to recite Psalm 23 for me by heart. Remarkable! I was blown away. During the visit, he later recited Psalm 91 for me as well. But if that was not enough, there was more.

Prior to me leaving his aunt’s chiropractic office to go next door for a cup of coffee at his mother’s café, this little boy was asked to pray a prayer of blessing over me from his heart. Out of his mouth came this beautiful extemporaneous prayer, asking God to bless the bishop with many blessings and to grant me a safe trip home. Again, I was deeply moved, even to tears. I have never experienced anything like this before.

It revealed to me not only his faith, but the faith of the parents, the aunt and the grandmother. They were intentional about working with this child and sharing with him the importance of prayer and a relationship with Jesus.

As I reflected upon this experience, it reminded me of two core values in the Diocesan Priority Plan — Prayer and Family. The first Core Value is prayer, which is the very foundation of the Catholic life. “As the primary educators of their children in the faith, it is imperative that parents teach their children how to engage in a relationship with Jesus through prayer. It is the one way in which they will build a strong and secure foundation, leading to an intimacy with the Lord based on faith and trust. The active engagement of family prayer is also what builds strong, healthy marriages and families. Daily family prayer is what best models the life of the Holy Family. It should be the practice of every Christian family.” (Through Him, With Him, and In Him – A Spiritual Guide to the Diocesan Priority Plan, pg. 32).

This family was living out this Core Value of Prayer, but also the Core Value of Family. It was clear that they had created the “domestic church,” a place where we first learn about who God is and how we encounter him in prayer; a place where Christ is encountered within a community, an individual Christian family where each member plays a role in the mission of evangelization. We evangelize when we share faith, teach faith and live faith. The Christian family is where this begins and should continue, lifelong” (Through Him, With Him, and In Him – A Spiritual Guide to the Diocesan Priority Plan, pg. 51).

There is no doubt that these family members took seriously their role in the evangelization of their little four-year-old. I found myself thinking what society would be like if this was the norm rather than the exception. Imagine what would happen if parents began teaching the psalms to their little ones; if they began teaching them how to pray from their heart at this early age. This little boy was no doubt very smart, but his gifts for prayer came alive and were developed because family members took the time to share their faith and teach him the importance of God in his life.

To learn more about the Core Values which provide the basis for living an authentic Catholic way of life, read and reflect upon the Spiritual Guide to the Diocesan Priority Plan – Through Him, With Him, and In Him.

(More free copies are available. Ask your pastor how you can obtain one.)

Who knows where this little boy’s life will lead him, but certainly he is well on the way in building a strong and secure foundation in the Lord. His prayer over me was truly an experience of resurrected life in Jesus.

As we celebrate this beautiful season of Easter, may Jesus set our hearts afire with his love so that we all become bearers of Christ’s radiant glory, filling the world with this new life!

 

No one will be denied the opportunity to share love with a child

By the time you will read this, the South Dakota Legislative Session has drawn to an end. One of the bills which has drawn most of my attention from an input level has been Senate Bill 149 — the Faith-Based Adoption Agency Protection Bill. This was a very important piece of legislation because it ensures faith-based adoption agencies in South Dakota the freedom to continue placing children and making decisions within their agencies that are consistent with their deeply held religious beliefs and moral convictions, which should be protected by our First Amendment rights.

The bill has passed in both the House and Senate and was signed by the governor. There has been great pushback from opponents citing it as a “hate” bill or misrepresenting it as “state funded discrimination.” Our opponents either fail to understand or do not want to understand how important a role religious beliefs and values play in the lives of Americans across this country. It seems to matter little to them that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian values and appears that they will go to great lengths to rid the culture of our First Amendment Right to Freedom of Religion.

With this particular situation, opponents allege that because there are religious criteria in the policy of Catholic Social Services for making placements of children into homes of loving parents, CSS is discriminating against the LGBTQ community. This is far from the truth. The opposition is agenda driven, partisan and assisted by news media who unfortunately do not seek all the facts.

CSS has been providing adoption services in western South Dakota for over forty years and has always served the best interests of the children in accord with our Catholic faith and traditions. It and other faith-based organizations receive no government funding for their adoption programs — one reason why this bill is important for the sake of our Catholic ministry.

The very mission of CSS is “To share in Christ’s ministry of offering hope, promoting individual human dignity and strengthening families and communities, by providing professional social services to people of all faiths in western South Dakota.” Encouraging families to consider becoming foster or adoptive families is part of their mission. Contrary to the false statement from the ACLU of South Dakota Policy Director, that “this law directly affects the hundreds of children in South Dakota awaiting their forever families,” when a potential adoptive family cannot be served because they fall outside of CSS’s policy, they are referred to other organizations who can provide for their needs. The State of South Dakota has more than enough agencies and attorneys available to provide adoption and foster care services. Every family who wants to adopt a child can find an organization to assist them if CSS is unable to do so.

In fact, the opposite is true. In the case of CSS, if they are forced to make decisions which force them to violate their deeply held religious beliefs, they will close down their adoption services before violating those beliefs. Closures of adoption agencies would affect the number of families and birth parents being served. The bottom line is that the government should not be dictating how religious organizations carry out the mission of Jesus Christ in service of the Gospel. Faith-based organizations do far more than any other agencies in serving the poor and vulnerable. If those opposed to Judeo-Christian religious values and traditions are determined that the government should control the ministry of faith-based organizations, the less fortunate and vulnerable will have many fewer places to turn for services and care.

I would like to personally and publicly thank the sponsors of SB 149, Senator Alan Solano and Representative Steven G.

Haugaard, for their work in getting this bill passed. They and those who voted for it have my admiration and gratitude for speaking out for religious freedom in the State of South Dakota. In today’s culture it takes courage to risk stepping out publicly on faith-based issues. Doing so, as Jesus warned us, has made these brave legislators the subject of persecution (Jn 15:20). Thank you for being courageous in spite of the persecution and derision you received from the opposition. It shows your true character.

I am also deeply grateful that Governor Dennis Daugaard had the same courage and signed this bill into law for the sake of religious freedom and religious beliefs held by the

individuals who serve others through CSS and all faith-based organizations across our state. Thank you so much!

The statement on religious liberty from United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, begins, “We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens. To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other.”

Religious freedom is not only about Catholics being able to attend Mass on Sundays or enter into private prayer, but it involves whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. It is about the ability to continue to do the good works the Gospel of Jesus calls us to do without having to compromise our Catholic faith.

State funded adoption agencies and faith-based adoptive agencies have worked together for many years helping thousands of children find loving homes in South Dakota with an admirable tolerance of each other’s beliefs. Little by little, those opposed to Christianity have become intolerant and are trying to impose their beliefs on society. They believe that, because our ministry is guided by Gospel and traditional family values, there should be no place for it because they don’t like it.

We will continue to fight for our First Amendment rights.

Senate Bill 149 is an important way in which we can carry out the mission of Jesus without others telling us how we must do it. This fact remains, even with the passage of this legislation: no one will be denied the opportunity to share their love for a child through adoption.

 

Assisted suicide — are we headed there too?

In 1994 Oregon passed a law allowing physicians to prescribe deadly drugs for some patients in order for them to take their own lives. Since then, Montana (1995), Washington (2008), Vermont (2013), California (2015), Colorado (2016) and Washington, DC (2016) have all passed laws or court rulings allowing doctor-prescribed suicide.

This movement continues across our land. Much of the momentum began from the story of a 29-year-old cancer patient from California named Brittany Maynard. She announced in the fall of 2014 that she did not want to face the expected suffering associated with her brain cancer and therefore would move to Oregon so she could take her life using its assisted suicide law. Her story became a media sensation and she then became a spokesperson for the group called Compassion & Choices. Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, is the primary organization leading the drive for cultural acceptance and legalization of assisted suicide. This organization is well funded through the efforts of a large fundraising staff, raising money and awareness through wealthy and committed donors like George Soros.

Are we headed there too? Last December an article in the Rapid City Journal revealed that in November 2018 the people of the State of South Dakota could find a ballot measure on doctor-prescribed suicide under the misleading title, “Death with Dignity.” This ballot measure will give voters the opportunity to vote into law doctor-assisted suicide.

Though this campaign to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide has been rejected by most policymakers in our society, there is still great cause for concern as the throwaway attitude in our culture deepens. Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, know that suicide is a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent. They realize that allowing doctors to prescribe the means for their patients to kill themselves is a corruption of the doctor’s call to assist in healing.

Proponents know these facts and thus avoid terms such as “assisting suicide” and instead use code words such as “aid in dying.” These proponents cite that it should be a person’s right to choose to end his or her life so as to alleviate their suffering on his or her own terms, enabling them to die with “dignity.” They see this as a form of compassion and choice.

“The idea that assisting a suicide shows compassion and eliminates suffering is equally misguided. It eliminates the person, and results in suffering for those left behind — grieving families and friends, and other vulnerable people who may be influenced by this event to see death as an escape. The sufferings caused by chronic or terminal illness are often severe. They cry out for our compassion, a word whose root meaning is to “suffer with” another person. True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem. Taking life in the name of compassion also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions” (USCCB, To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide).

In the case of doctor-assisted suicide, the “dignity” of the terminally ill is ultimately stripped away because the dignity of the sick person is placed purely on a subjective level. This can easily lead down a slippery slope when subjectivity determines the value of a human life.

Doctor-assisted suicide is not free choice because it’s often driven by depression and hopelessness. The assisted suicide agenda can actually increase the suffering of isolation and hopelessness often experienced by seriously ill people. Seeing their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems only magnifies this kind of suffering. For example, people dying under Oregon’s law more often cite as a reason for their choice the feeling of being a burden rather than any concern about pain. There is also proof that in Oregon general suicides have risen dramatically since assisted suicide is promoted as a “good.”

Documentation suggests where there is legalized assisted suicide there is less commitment to palliative care. Government programs and private insurers have even limited support for care that could extend life, while emphasizing the “cost-effective” solution of a doctor-prescribed death. This was reality for Stephanie Packer, a California wife and mother of four who was diagnosed with a terminal form of scleroderma. Her insurance company refused to cover the cost of her medical treatment. When asked if her insurance company would cover the doctor-prescribed suicide drugs, the company told her, “Yes, we do provide that to our patients, and you would only have to pay $1.20 for the medication.”

A society that devalues some people’s lives, by hastening and facilitating their deaths, will ultimately lose respect for their other rights and freedoms. The government, by rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, implicitly communicates the message that some may be better off dead. Assisted suicide is also a recipe for abuse of elderly and disabled persons because it can put lethal drugs within reach of abusers. No oversight and no witnesses are required once the lethal drugs leave the pharmacy. There is also no requirement to notify a family member or emergency contact for a person taking their own life. Imagine the trauma the family would face in such a situation.

There are many other reasons why doctor-prescribed suicide is not good for this country, the State of South Dakota and for families — too many to lay out in this article. But it is important that in supporting a culture of life, we begin to speak out against this serious challenge and deadly issue now, in our parishes, in our families and in our communities. We do not want our state to be the next one to support a culture of death in allowing suicide for its citizens. Resources can be found at www.usccb.org/ToLiveEachDay.

In conclusion, from an article which appeared in Crisis Magazine by Maria Cintorino:

“Genuine death with dignity, dying naturally, is courageous for it dares to live despite suffering. It affirms the dignity of the human person as grounded in the image and likeness of God and recognizes that the beauty of life entails both the moments of joy and health as well as the sorrows and sufferings which are part of life. Dying with true dignity means accepting and embracing the suffering of a terminal illness and the death which ensues, no matter how prolonged the process may be. True death with dignity does not “opt” out of life — it fearlessly charges on as it recognizes the immense power of redemptive suffering and affirms the value of each human being who suffers.”

Praying for more priests

I am writing to share with you some important information and to seek your assistance. God has blessed this diocese with many wonderful and dedicated priests. I am proud of and deeply grateful for the priests who serve the people of God across the Diocese of Rapid City. They live as true witnesses of the love and mercy of the Lord, day in and day out. This is good news. Please be grateful for all they do for you and continue to pray for them daily.

But I also want to share with you some not-so-good news about the priests’ situation in the diocese, seeking your daily prayers for this situation as well.

The Diocese of Rapid City currently has seven men in seminary formation for the priesthood. This is good news. However, we had no ordinations this past year and the next ordination to the priesthood for our diocese is not scheduled until the summer of 2019, if the man currently in Theology II discerns this through to completion.

We also have priests who are moving into retirement. Fr. Bill Zandri retired last July, although he is still active in hospital and nursing home ministry. Another priest is due to retire in July 2017. Due to health issues of two of our active priests, we are already short on clergy personnel for this current year. Fr. Ed Vanorny has come out of retirement to cover a cluster of parishes in Harding and Perkins Counties.

In addition, Fr. Godfrey Muwanga and Fr. John Lule, who are on loan from Uganda, have been serving for almost ten years and their status in our diocese is year-to-year. Fr. Andrea Benso, who has been here on loan from Italy, will be returning home to his diocese next June. In addition, the two Jesuit priests serving at the Sioux Spiritual Center will also be taking new assignments, thus leaving a void in the ministry which they have been providing.

Also, Fr. Brian Christensen will complete his assignment in Rome and return to the diocese in July 2017. Taking all of this into consideration, there will be a shortage of at least one priest, and maybe more, if the Ugandan priests are called home.

So as you can see, the priest personnel situation leaves a challenging reality in covering our current places for ministry into the coming years. People may inquire, “Why don’t you get more priests from outside the diocese to come here?” This is much more difficult than one thinks. Obviously, in doing so, it would have to be the right person — one who would fit well into the culture of our local church.

St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Corinthians, “But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”

Yes, we are one body of Christ in the Diocese of Rapid City. If one parish is affected, all parishes are affected. A shortage of two priests or even one priest has an impact across the whole diocese. Any adjustment to the number of parishes we can serve will impact more than just one parish. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” We all must become concerned about these challenges in our diocese.

Therefore, while I wanted you to be aware of this situation, I am also asking each of you to take seriously the call to pray daily for vocations to the priesthood in our diocese. But I am also asking that each of you pray daily for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our diocese and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in this endeavor to find more priests to serve here, so that there will not be a shortage in this coming year and the years to follow.

Be assured of my prayers for all of you and your families. May Christ’s peace and love be the source and meaning of your lives.

 

‘Fear hardens our hearts and creates binders on our eyes’

 

The symbols of Christmas speak a language which we all understand. Pope Francis reminds us, “The Christmas tree and Nativity scene are symbols of God’s love and hope, reminding us to contemplate the beauty of creation and welcome the marginalized. The cribs set up in churches, in homes and in so many public places are also an invitation to make room in our life and in society for God, hidden in the faces of many persons who are in conditions of hardship, of poverty and of tribulation.”

As we have listened to the readings of Advent and look forward to the readings of Christmas, we can see that they speak of a new era, one of peace and tranquility — a new dawn breaking upon the world. This message is meant to fill the world with hope, with deep longings fulfilled, thereby diminishing the anxiety and fear experienced by many people in this country and throughout the world.

Emmanuel, God Is with Us, brings new promise. The Messiah has come to deliver people from their suffering and affliction. The promise has been realized. This is the gift of Christmas. This is what we celebrate these days.

But perhaps not for everyone. The threat of deportation among the undocumented in this country, and even worse the threat of death for being Christian in the Middle East, brings severe angst among many populations. The mystery of Christmas for them may seem to be a hidden reality.

As I sit to write this column, the sad news has come across the Internet of a bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral killing 25 people and wounding another 49, mostly women and children, during a Sunday Mass. One cannot imagine the pain and suffering felt by Egyptians in the aftermath of such barbarism. But this is not an isolated incident. My heart goes out to the people of Cairo and all across Egypt. We must not forget the people of Iraq and Syria as well, for so many of them have similar experiences.

The fact is that the persecution of religious believers has become an increasingly tragic situation all across the world. People of all religious denominations, including Muslims and Jews, are facing the wrath of persecution. But Evangelical Protestants and Catholics have especially become targets of terrorism initiated by evil authorities who are often motivated by anti-Western, anti-democratic ideologies and who feel threatened by Christian faith and worship.

Pope Francis, in a homily in June 2014, said that “there are more martyrs in the Church today than in the first centuries.” After an additional two years, the evidence bears this out even more. Little has been done by the United States government in terms of speaking out against these terrors of religious persecution. Perhaps as a Christian nation we have failed to do all within our power to alleviate the suffering of those persecuted. This should concern all of us.

We might think, “what can I do?” We can be in solidarity with those who have been displaced from their homelands because of persecution through prayer and support. As I wrote in my Pastoral Letter, “To be in solidarity with others is to see them as God sees them, to love them as God loves them, and to sacrifice for them as Christ has sacrificed for them. United together, we are the Body of Christ. Every time we neglect others in the Body, the whole Body suffers (cf. 1 Cor 12:26). When we live in solidarity and charity, the Body of Christ is built up, there is communion, and the Kingdom of God is made manifest.”

We are often are afraid of people who are different from us. Fear hardens our hearts and creates binders on our eyes. But when looking at this situation with our eyes open, not living in fear but in solidarity and love, we will see their plight as an opportunity to be messengers of Christmas peace and hope. Then blindness and indifference will be transformed into solidarity and love.

In gathering with family and friends to celebrate this great feast of Emmanuel, God Is With Us, don’t forget to include the suffering and persecuted of the world in your prayers, in your conversations and in your generosity. These are simple ways in which we can be in solidarity with these brothers and sisters. May your Christmas be filled with very grace and blessing!

 

‘How do we get the nation back on the right track?’

By the time most of you will have read this, the Jubilee Year of Mercy will have come to an end and the 2016 Presidential Election will be over. Now what? Where do we go from here? What is next?

What a wonderful Jubilee of Mercy it has been. I recall the words of Pope Francis when he first informed the world of the Year of Mercy: “It is indeed my wish that the Jubilee be a living experience of the closeness of the Father, whose tenderness is almost tangible, so that the faith of every believer may be strengthened and thus testimony to be ever more effective.” It is my hope and prayer that the Holy Father’s wish has become a reality all across the world. It is the experience of mercy, both received and given away, that will bring true peace and harmony. So where do we go from here as the Jubilee of Mercy ends?

This Jubilee has raised awareness for us of mercy being at the heart of the church’s mission. Proclaiming and living the mercy of God is at the heart of the church’s identity and where she is most credible and authentic. Therefore, though the official Jubilee of Mercy has ended, the clarion call to continue the works of mercy continues because it is at the heart of Catholic identity. This is the reason why both mercy and solidarity were specifically included as core values in the Diocesan Priority Plan. We will always be called to “be merciful, just as our Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). As I wrote in Through Him, With Him, and In Him,’ “To be in solidarity with others is to see them as God sees them, to love them as God loves them, and to sacrifice for them as Christ has sacrificed for them. United together, we are the body of Christ. Every time we neglect others in the body, the whole body suffers (cf. 1 Cor 12:26).

When we live in solidarity and charity, (and share mercy) the Body of Christ is built up, there is communion, and the kingdom of God is made manifest.” Continuing to seek ways in which these values are lived out among us allows us to more fully embrace our true identity.

As I write this monthly column the presidential election is pending and I find myself still quite concerned about our country regardless of which candidate wins. The threats to human life and religious liberty remain, here and around the world. The threats to traditional marriage and family values are on the rise. The number of people living in poverty remains. Immigration issues, healthcare issues, the national debt issue all remain. The threat of violence from terrorism remains. The rise of secularism continues. A new face in the White House doesn’t change these realities.

So where do we go from here? Recent polls show that more than 70 percent of the people surveyed believe our nation is on the wrong track. How do we get the nation back on the right track? What is the right track? There are probably as many different answers as the number of people polled. I would propose that the right track is a Catholic world view. What is it?

The world view when this country was founded was from Judeo-Christian values brought from a Christian Europe. A world view is a lens through which we look at everything in life. It informs our laws and policies. It helps determine how we think and act in all situations and circumstances. An individual may not even be aware of having a world view.

The Catholic world view is the view of the world and our response to it that has been given to us by Jesus Christ through his church. It is not something man-made, but given to us by God — revealed to us. The Catholic world view has its foundation in the Biblical world view — the world seen through the lens of divine revelation, the divine and living Word of God.

Many people today have a world view that is informed by things other than our Catholic faith, i.e. by secularism, by a culture that is profoundly un-Christian and becoming even anti-Christian. Intentionally or unintentionally, many Catholics have rejected the world view given to us by God’s revelation.

Catholics make up the largest Christian denomination in the world. Therefore, one would think that Catholics in numbers could have a profound impact in helping to shape and transform our culture. There would be great power to change the world if Catholics wholeheartedly embraced the revelation given us by Christ in his church.

Dr. Ralph Martin in a talk entitled “The Attack on Religious Liberty and the Catholic Church: The Spiritual Dynamics and Our Role” quoted noted scripture scholar Father Francis Martin: “The root sin of the world is the refusal to believe in Jesus and the place he holds next to the Father as the revelation of the Father. The root sin is to reject the truth.” And then he quoted John 3:36, Whoever believes in the son has eternal life. Whoever disobeys the son will not see life but must endure God’s wrath. The wrath of God is not God getting angry at people, but is our experience of God’s holiness when we’re rejecting it. It’s the anguish of soul and the darkness of mind that comes when we say no to the testimony that God is giving to his Son. This is perhaps the situation in our world today.

We need a Catholic world view if we are to live as Jesus’ disciples and become the people whom God created us to be, our true authentic selves. This call leads to seeking our personal vocation and mission in and for the world. We can’t transform the culture if we’ve accepted the secular world’s distorted world view. Unless we receive and accept all that has been given us through the church, we cannot be powerful witnesses in the world. There is no doctrine revealed that is not part of the Gospel message. We have a duty to live it all and share it.

Many Catholics received religious formation in years past but have gone no further in the faith formation process and therefore have an elementary understanding and knowledge of the Catholic faith. This is why Forming Disciples is our second pastoral priority. As written in the Diocesan Pastoral Priority Plan: “We are called to a deep union with Christ — a relationship of love. We will work together for formation in the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral areas. This formation will empower us to grow as faithful stewards of God’s gifts, living a Catholic way of life through hospitality, faith and discipleship.”

According to the Priority Plan, renewed efforts in religious formation for all ages lay a firm foundation for Catholics to grow in their union with Christ, to obtain adequate knowledge of the Catholic world view and to develop the necessary skills to be able to carry on the work of Christ in the world, each in one’s own way.

Pope Francis in the “Joy of the Gospel” wrote: “To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: ‘The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable.’ Evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit.”

Evangelization is the duty and responsibility of all baptized Catholics. Evangelization shares the Catholic world view and will lead others to true faith, living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church rather than under the deceitfulness of the Evil One. So, that’s where we go from here!

 

As Catholics we focus on what protects human life

In last month’s column, I raised the question: What happens in a race where Christians are faced with two morally problematic choices like we are faced with this year? When both candidates are not good, then who should I vote for?

The question hasn’t changed as we get closer to November 8. In fact, it seems that as each day brings us closer to Election Day, additional negative material on both candidates surfaces in the media. I can’t help but think, “How much worse can it get?” It is hard to believe that our country has reached this point where the two choices we have as presidential candidates are so deeply flawed. Certainly God is the only one who can judge the human heart, and I am sure they both are personally well intentioned, but each in their own way, seriously put forth defective ideas and policies when it comes to Catholic Social teaching.

Written in the USCCB document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” are these words: “As Catholics, our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties, as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens human life and dignity.”

The month of October is Respect Life Month with the theme “Moved By Mercy.” There are many life issues to consider for reflection which speak clearly of the dignity of human life in its many stages. Some of these issues are written into the platforms of the two major political parties and are major concerns in this election year. Human life issues, religious freedom issues, immigration issues and education issues are some of those which are at the heart of the Republican and Democratic Party Platforms. These platforms are presented in this issue of the West River Catholic, on pages 3-4. Please take the time to view them before you vote.

Even though there are many issues in which to consider in any election, Catholics should view them within the context of the hierarchy of truths in Catholic Social teaching which begins with defending innocent human life. There is a vast difference on life issues between the Republican and Democratic Party Platforms — one of life and one of death.

This year’s Democratic Party platform calls for the overturning of the Hyde Amendment, a provision that both parties have voted to include in the federal budget and on other spending bills for many, many years. The Hyde Amendment prohibits federal taxpayer money from being used for abortion. The platform is aggressively pro-abortion, not only in funding matters, but in the appointment of judges who support abortion. It also supports the repealing of the Helms Amendment, which states that “no (U.S.) foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” Conversely, the Republican Party platform is supportive of the Hyde Amendment and has strengthened its support for life by calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, banning dismemberment abortion and opposing assisted suicide.

People may say that the life issue isn’t the only issue to consider. That is true. The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. Therefore, I believe the life issue is the first issue to consider. The right to life is the first and most fundamental principle of human rights. Without life, none of the other rights matter.

Many of the other issues can legitimately be debated by Christians, such as the best and most effective policies in caring for the poor, the immigrants, taxes, etc. In voting, it is not an either/or scenario. All issues need to be considered. But all issues are not equal. The direct killing of innocent human life must be opposed always by every follower of Jesus Christ.

The health and holiness of our country and our world depends on a deep respect for human life at all its stages from the moment of conception until natural death. The future of our society depends on how we protect that right.

In this Year of Mercy, we are called to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful to us. How will we be moved by mercy if we are not first moved by mercy for the unborn?

 

Our country is facing political challenges

In a culture which is becoming more and more secular each day and the moral values on which this country was founded are in steep decline, this upcoming election is one of the most important elections of our lifetime. I urge all Catholics to take seriously their obligation as citizens to engage in the political process, beginning with exercising the right to vote. All Catholics have a moral obligation to this responsibility.

More than any other time in history, our country is facing political challenges that demand urgent moral choices. This current presidential campaign and upcoming election provide an important opportunity to help Catholics and non-Catholics alike understand the magnitude of acting in the political arena with a properly formed and informed conscience.

Neither I, nor any bishop, can tell people which candidates for whom to vote. But the U.S. bishops state in The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (www.faithfulcit izenship.org) that voting “is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.” The role of bishops is to help form the consciences of Catholics in the light of church teaching so they will make sound moral judgments.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph #1777 states: “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.”

In the context of the political process, forming our conscience takes place when we seriously examine the issues and are open to the truth and what is right according to Catholic teaching. It requires the study of sacred Scripture and the teachings of the church, especially in regard to Catholic social teaching. Then we must examine the facts and background information about various choices and prayerfully reflect and discern the will of God. The prudent advice and the good example of others help support and enlighten our conscience. The authoritative teaching of the church is an essential element as well as the gifts of the Holy Spirit in helping us to develop our conscience.

In voting for a candidate for public office, we must be guided by our moral convictions, not any self-interest or attachment to a political party or interest group. It would irresponsible to vote for a candidate because we have always voted for that particular political party. The USCCB document The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship states: “Catholic voters should use Catholic teaching to examine candidates’ positions on issues and should consider candidates’ integrity, philosophy, and performance. It is important for all citizens “to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest” (USCCB, Living the Gospel of Life, no. 33).”

But what happens in a race where Christians are faced with two morally problematic choices? When both candidates are not good, then who should I vote for? This is a question on the minds of many people in this election cycle. In reality, very few candidates or political parties advocate policies which line up completely with Catholic Social Teaching. That being said, all political issues are not equal. Some parties and candidates have policies and planks within their platforms which promote serious mortal sin. This is a cause for grave concern. Human life issues, religious freedom issues, immigration issues and education issues are just some of the major concerns in this election year. But there is a hierarchy of truths in Catholic Social Teaching. Defending innocent human life, protecting the sanctity of marriage and concern for the poor lead the way.

Again as stated in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “As Catholics, our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties, as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens human life and dignity.” Therefore, a formed conscience, enlightened by the teachings of Christ as it comes to us through the church’s moral teaching, must be our guide for all of the issues. If you would like to know more about the Seven Themes

of Catholic Social Teaching, this

website will be of value. http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm.

Through voting and involvement in the political process, Catholics help shape the moral character of society. It is the church’s role to help build and shape a society that animates the love and charity which the Gospel demands. This is a requirement of our faith and part of the mission of Jesus Christ that has been given to each member of his body. Our faith offers us the opportunity to make a unique contribution in our society through our efforts to advance the common good for all in building God’s kingdom. Therefore we must carefully discern which public policies are most sound in accord to Gospel values and vote for the candidate which most likely will embrace those policies.

At times Catholics may choose different ways to respond to social problems, but we cannot differ on our obligations to protect human life and help build a more just and peaceful world through a lens of Catholic morality.

In the words of Mark Twain: “A Christian’s first duty is to God. It then follows, as a matter of course, that it is his duty to carry his Christian code of morals to the polls and vote them … If Christians should vote their duty to God at the polls, they would carry every election, and do it with ease. … It would bring about a moral revolution that would be incalculably beneficent. It would save the country” (Colliers Magazine, September 2, 1905, pg. 17).

Let us pray that the Lord will give each of us the wisdom, guidance and moral prudence needed as we go to the polls on November 8. Come Holy Spirit!