Echoes from the Rectory: A two-fer from an insightful pastor
(POSTED: 3/7/12) As you are all aware, I am an immigrant and I became a naturalized American citizen almost seven years ago. One of the things that I am proud of as an American is the fact that freedom in our country is not an empty word or a meaningless promise. I appreciate the way we can be free -– free to be ourselves, free to express our opinions without fear of retribution, free to practice our faith.
Recent rumblings from the Obama administration would seem to suggest that we may no longer be free to be Catholic and American. The president signed off on a ruling from the Health and Human Services Department that constrains all institutions -– religious and secular -– to provide and pay for insurance coverage that includes reproductive health services. This means that all Catholic institutions –- charities, schools, and hospitals –- must provide insurance coverage that will pay for “preventive care” that will include sterilizations, contraceptives and even the “morning after pill” which induces an abortion. We will have one year to comply with this rule. If we do not, we can face millions of dollars in fines. This attempt to erode conscience protection under the law is a travesty and we Catholics must protest it with all our strength. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has declared, “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”
The Catholic Conference of Illinois that monitors pro-life issues in the political arena urges all Catholics to take up arms. On their website, the organization states: The lack of an adequate conscience exemption is a slap in the face to common fairness and decency. It strikes at the mission of Catholic organizations to serve the poor and care for the sick. But forcing Catholics and members of other faiths to violate their conscience is a breathtaking attack on the religious freedom protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Stop this assault on the founding principles of our country. I am urging all parishioners to make their voices heard. Call or write your congressman and senator, and urge them to vote against this rule. In order to do this, you can visit www.catholicconferenceofillinois.org. Talk to your fellow Catholics and people of other faiths. Encourage them to oppose this ruling. We are all going to be affected.
What options does the Church have? We can challenge the rule in the courts and I am sure it is already being done. In all likelihood it will go all the way up to the Supreme Court where it will be thrown out. However, we cannot wait till then. If we are forced to follow this requirement, we will be compelled to shut down our institutions. We cannot go against our basic principles and moral values. Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2012, sends out a warning to the administration. She writes: “The church is split on many things. But do Catholics in the pews want the government telling their church to contravene its beliefs? A president affronting the leadership of the church, and blithely threatening its great institutions? No, they don’t want that. They will unite against that.” Let us fast and pray that this draconian rule will never come to pass. At the same time, let us remind ourselves that in contemporary American society there are still traces of latent anti-Catholicism. We should not be surprised by that. Jesus told us long time ago: “If they hated me, they will hate you. Be glad and rejoice when you suffer on account of my name.” It is my humble opinion that in the coming years we as a Church will be called upon to suffer because of our fidelity to our Catholic principles. It is in those times that we must re-echo the words of Peter and the apostles to the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God rather than men.” We should be glad that we are found worthy to suffer for the sake of His name. May the Holy Spirit guide us through these troubling trends! Let us pray for the Church and for her leadership.
–The Rev. Britto Berchmans, St. Paul of the Cross, Park Ridge, Feb. 12
A couple of days ago, a concerned parishioner e-mailed me expressing his distress over a family that was begging outside the church after a Sunday Mass. In part this is what he wrote: “I’m sure you receive multiple questions and suggestions, and I know it’s incredibly complicated, but I wonder if in one of your columns you could address the appropriate Christian, Catholic response to begging. On our way out of Noon Mass today there was a mother and child begging in the church parking lot. It was an incredibly evocative scene, but one which brings such a tangle of emotions. We are in a prosperous area of Chicago, and we want to be generous. Obviously, our parish does what it can with various drives, the Sunday Supper etc. I can’t imagine what it takes to beg with your child in a cold rainy parking lot, yet after a 30+ year career in social services, I’m also aware of the depths of deception or
manipulation to which some may go. One could argue that begging after Mass gets us at our most emotionally vulnerable.”
Believe me, this issue has been on my mind for over a year and I have been wondering how to address it. Please bear with me because it is complicated. First of all, it is crystal clear that we have to take care of our brothers and sisters, especially the poor and the needy. St John would go so far as to say that if we do not love our brothers and sisters whom we can see, we cannot claim to love the God we cannot see. Paul, addressing the Church at Corinth, speaks of Jesus in these words: “He Who was rich made Himself poor in order to make us rich.” The implication is that we must also give of ourselves to better the lives of those around us. The Gospel of Luke is filled with parables and sayings of Jesus and they tell Christians that indifference to the poor at our doorstep is totally unacceptable. In chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus goes even further. He tells us that our final judgment will depend on how we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. To take care of the poor is a fundamental Christian obligation.
Second, the Church has consistently reiterated the teachings of Jesus. Saints and mystics, founders of religious orders and spiritual stalwarts have insisted that in serving the poor we serve Christ Himself. Having come from India, I can forcefully assert that more than 80 percent of the work of the Church in the Third World is directed towards the poor. Now, in the light of all this how do we respond to someone begging at our door? I have faced the same dilemma as you. You are vulnerable especially when you are coming out of Church after Sunday Mass. I know the mother and child that were begging last Sunday. I have seen them. I talked to the family several months ago. They have been here several times over the last few months. I encouraged them to meet with our Social Services Ministries Director, Adrienne Timm, but they refused.
They want to receive cash, right here and now. We have tried to help them but they don’t seem to be in any mood to accept long-term assistance. Here at St Paul’s we do serve the poor. You are aware of our Food Pantry, our Sunday Suppers and our Social Service Ministries. Our outreach is well organized and we ensure that people do not take advantage of the system. It is our policy not to give anyone money. Our Social Services have helped hundreds of people over the years with rent, medical expenses, food and temporary shelter. Just over the last one year, our Social Service Ministries have disbursed over $42,000 in assistance to the poor in the form of rent, utilities assistance, food, medicines, and travel. This amount does not include what it has spent for the Sunday Suppers and the Food Pantry. It does not take into account what we sent to Our Lady of the Angels Mission as part of our Lenten sacrifice ($67,000) and what we give to our sharing parish, St Benedict (over $40,000). We help people not only in Park Ridge but also from the neighborhoods around.
My proposal to all our parishioners is that we do not give cash to anyone begging on church property. Please tell them that they should contact our Social Service Ministries. We will find out what they really need and try to solve their problem. I know how seeing a family begging at our church while we have so much can be very difficult. But, please do not let your emotions get the better of you. We are not shutting out the poor. We want to help them. If you would like to feel that you are helping the poor, feel free to donate to our Social Service Ministries. We will make sure the money is used only for the poor and the needy. Perhaps you can volunteer your time at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.
Let me leave you with the words of the holy woman who made us all think more about the poor. She made the gospel credible once again because she did something beautiful for God by loving the destitute and the abandoned. Here are some words of Mother Theresa that we must ponder over: At the end of our lives, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made or how many great things we have done. We will be judged by “I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in.” Hungry not only for food – but hungry for love. Naked not only for clothing – but naked for human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of a room of bricks – but homeless
because of rejection. This is Christ in distressing disguise. May we never be blind or indifferent to the poor!
–The Rev. Britto Berchmans, St. Paul of the Cross, Park Ridge, Jan. 29