Friday, December 11, 2009

The War in Afghanistan

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, the director of De Sales Servcie Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. McCue reflects on the human costs of war that often are hidden from out sight, and offers a strong challenge from the Catholic tradition about the morality of this war and all the costs with which it is associated.

At our parish grade school, teachers reported recently observing that one boy in kindergarten was eating more than one of our free school breakfasts in the morning and was caught several times bringing food from breakfast or lunch back to the classroom. He was breaking the rules and did not respond to authority telling him to follow the rules. Our principal discerned that he was doing this because he is hungry. He and his 5 brothers and sisters live with their grandmother and frequently go without dinner. The great thing is that the principal and teachers looked to the source of the problem instead of solely addressing the behavior. They could then address the real issue, or one level of the real issue.

This story gives just one example of what makes me proud of our school: simple attention and care for our students as individuals.

The experience also gives a way for me to offer some thoughts about the war in Afghanistan. I hesitate to write about a public policy issue that is complicated and in an area where I have no direct experience or special competence. However, because democracy is all about everyone having a voice, and blogs are all about exchange of ideas; I write.

To put it simply, I think the course of action chosen by our president, sending more troops to Afghanistan, is unfortunate. Even if all goes forward according to best-case hopes, the many downsides which have accompanied the war so far are likely to continue.

1. The war involves a huge expense of money, and I have to think how we could spend the money better. And where does the money go?

2. Camden, N.J. is an American city that has stood out for its poverty and dysfunction for 40 years. Multiple efforts and plans to lead this community out of its dysfunction have come and gone. There is some progress, but entrenched problems remain. Aren’t we basically trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan? In addition, in central Asia we are not dealing with an American city, but with an area where we are outsiders to the many languages and ancient cultures of the region. How can we count on success there when we can’t do it here?

3. The number of Americans who have died in the war has exceeded the amount who died on 9/11. That comparison does not consider how many non-Americans have died so far, or how many non-combatants. How many young people are injured for life, missing limbs, health ruined or mental health stressed to the limits? The number of soldiers who have returned to the United States and subsequently committed suicide is also sobering.

4. Isn’t this war making enemies for America? Doesn’t the violence and disruption radicalize many people the conflict touches? Every bomb, on target or not, kills or maims someone’s son, brother, friend, nephew, husband, father, grandson, and creates anger and makes enemies of the U.S. As long as conflict provides more jobs than actual productive enterprises (put on hold because of war), there are more young men freed up to get into trouble.

If we bring the classic just war criteria (1) to the situation, my list of concerns raises problems. It is very unsure that other means of addressing the risk of terrorist activity are impractical or ineffective. The chance of success is small. My list of downsides most clearly challenges the criteria that the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver that the evil to be eliminated. Simply put, our war effort is creating more aggrieved people with reason to join in opposition to the United States.

This brings us back to the kindergarten story. The school officials might have simply addressed the problem of a student taking more than his share of food via discipline and punishment. Instead, the school had the good sense and skill to see and address the underlying issue. I want to suggest that an approach to this war in Afghanistan that thinks U.S. security concerns can be effectively addressed by more armed troops fails to address root issues.

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches history and international relations at Boston University. He articulates a critique of what he sees as an excessive dependence on military power to pursue foreign policy goals. I have heard him speak a couple times in radio interviews and have read one book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. His arguments make sense and carry particular weight for three reasons: 1. he is a retired Army colonel, he began his career during the Vietnam War era, 2. His son was killed in this war, 3. He is a Catholic who deliberately brings the insight of this tradition to his thinking.

He also argues that we simply do not have the resources to effectively fight an open-ended, world-wide “war on terror.” He argues that it would be more accurate and effective to treat the terror threat as a law enforcement issue. The terrorists are criminal thugs, rather than national actors, soldiers.

American economic prosperity is not infinite, not something that is guaranteed, he argues. Costly military actions divert resources and economic focus away from medicine, education, infrastructure and technology to things that support what, he argues, is a self-perpetuating reliance on military force. On the topic of American resources, he points out that our soldiers and their families are being asked to bear the burden of “the war on terror.” Isolating the responsibility of defense to a subgroup, distances the human cost of armed conflict from the rest of the nation. Talking about the draft-a structure that was supposed to distribute the burden of defense across economic and cultural lines of the citizenry-he writes, “Whatever the threat posed by Al Qaeda, most parents with teenagers will view the prospect of a draft as posing a greater immediate danger to their children’s well-being.”

What most advances American and world security? I recommend Andrew J. Bacevich’s work as a help to understanding the problem, and to seeing another way.

(1) These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
· the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
· all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
· there must be serious prospects of success;
· the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Drug Use in Camden

Editor's Note: In today's entry, De Sales Service Works director Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, discusses the rampant drug problems in Camden. Despite the obvious problems and the temptation to despair, he highlights the possibility of hope for people and what some people are doing to help people who suffer from addiction. Frequently, people addicted to drugs can be moved to the margins of society. However, as Christians, we are challenged to follow Jesus who ministered to those who lived on society's margins.

One of the most disturbing things we have experienced living here is the evidence of drug abuse. Illegal, dangerous drugs are all around us here.

We see it in the drug trade carried on “hidden in clear sight” everywhere, at intersections and in the middle of blocks. In fact, for our first year here, until about a month ago, a house directly across the street from the front door of our grade school was a busy drug house. Teenage boys and young men manned the front porch and sidewalk as buyers visited in car or on foot beginning late morning and continuing late into the night. All this occurred with mother and extended family-sisters, cousins, babies-coming and going as well.

We see it in people we meet who are clearly high: either hyper-energetic or just out of it. We see it in people young and old who are wasted away physically: skinny with vacant, distracted eyes. We feel it in conversations that have no energy of commitment: no one is home. This is most shocking and depressing when we see people in their teens or early twenties who clearly just arrived here from their middle class lives. Seeing the look of people caught in this subculture is depressing in everyone, but seeing young people who are not yet wasted away, whose skin in not yet scribbled on with tattoos that are on everyone on the street, often just makes me angry. They have to have other options, I think to myself.

The third evidence of drug use is discarded syringes that can be seen all over in the neighborhood. Every alley or shadowy corner seems to be the place to shoot up. An alley near our house, between us and our grade school, is where we see needles the most. This alley is a disaster, with junk everywhere. For a couple months in the summer the alley even featured chairs, a discarded cooler, and two plastic milk crates with a canopy rigged above it set up for shooting up.

We have to ask how anyone gets to the point in their lives where they are willing to sit in a place like that, for any purpose. And who likes needles, even in a safe and sanitary medical environment? I suppose people get so caught in addiction that they end up here. I suppose some see so few options for themselves that the escape that alcohol and drugs offer seems like a viable option, one that is within reach.

This chilly morning I looked out my office window to the night shelter of a man we see here every day. Sometimes he sleeps with friends or in abandoned buildings, but when he sleeps in our parking lot, he gathers cardboard to construct a box for himself to sleep. He chooses a somewhat sheltered spot against the wall of a tall brick building. He never seems high; he says he has been free of drugs for years. Yet looking at his circumstances, I think that the temptation to simply numb his awareness must haunt him as an appealing option against the cold, loneliness and lack of direction.

I met another man a couple weeks ago here to get a sandwich. He is a young guy, clean-cut, not wasted away, without tattoos. We talked, and he told me he is a vet. He served in Iraq. He is in the reserves (if I got the terminology correct) and is waiting to be deployed overseas again. He can’t be more than 24. His family situation is scattered and chaotic, so he is on his own, living in Camden’s “tent city.” He said he spent much of his downtime during his deployment high, with earphones plugged into loud music just to get through the constant stress of war. So he is here trying to keep things together until his unit re-gathers for training for a deployment in Afghanistan in the spring. I suggested he use the resources of the Veterans’ Administration to treat his drug dependence and the effects of combat. He feels that doing that would jeopardize his career. The only option he sees is holding out until training begins.

That weekend members of the student government of DeSales University were here for a service retreat, and they took on the alley. Graduates of Holy Name grade school joined them, and together they cleared away old tires, mattresses, carpet, weeds: junk and more junk. They filled a construction dumpster with the debris. The pavement still looks like it belongs in a developing country, but clearing the alley has made a huge difference.

These students are aware of a wide horizon of options for their lives. Thank God that service and concern for those with constricted options is on that horizon; our community benefits from that generous vision.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Elizabeth of Hungary

Editor's Note: Francis de Sales loved the saints and referred to their lives frequently in his writings. Today, Fr. Michael Murray, OSFS, director of the De Sales Spirituality Center, reminds us of the high esteem Francis had for St. Elizabeth, whose feast we celebrate today. This reflection is a good reminder to all of us that we all have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters in need.
On Tuesday, November 17, we remember the life and legacy of St.Elizabeth of Hungary: princess, wife, mother and widow who died in 1231. She is considered the patroness of the Franciscan Third Order and of Catholic Charities.
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales observed: "St.Elizabeth, daughter of the king of Hungary, often visited the poor. For recreation among her entourage she would sometimes clothe herself like a poor woman, saying to them, 'If I were poor I would dress in this manner.' O God, dear Philothea, how poor was this princess in the midst of all her riches and how rich was her poverty...There is no one who at some time or other has not felt the lack and want of some convenience.It sometimes happens that we are visited by a guest whom we would and should entertain very well but at the time lack means to do so. At other times our best clothes are in one place and we need them to be in another place where we must appear publicly. Again, sometimes the wines in our cellar ferment and turn sour so that only bad or green wines remain. At another time we are out in the country and have to stay in some hovel where everything is lacking and we have neither bed, room, table nor service. In fine, it is often very easy to lack something, no matter how rich we are. This is to be poor in effect with regard to the things we lack. Rejoice on such occasions, Philothea, accept them with a good heart and put up with them cheerfully." (IDL, Part 3: 15)
We remember and admire St. Elizabeth of Hungary because her wealth was only surpassed by her generosity, making her truly rich in the eyes ofGod. Her example calls us to consider that our personal wealth and success is gained best by seizing the opportunities we have each day to share what we have and who we are with others. Leave it to Francis deSales to remind us, however, that true poverty of spirit (being poor inthe midst of riches and rich in the midst of poverty) is a two-edgedsword: it is not only a function of how well we share what we have, but very frequently is practiced by how well we accept what we lack.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hope Works in Camden

(Pictured: Students at HopeWorks)

In a number of entries, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works, has highlighted one ministry in which volunteers in Camden participate, HopeWorks. HopeWorks is a program founded by a Jesuit, Fr. Jeff Putthoff, that is a technology training center for young people in the city of Camden. This week, there is an aritcle from the National Catholic Reporter on Fr. Putthoff and what HopeWorks is doing for Camden.

In the article, NCR editor Tom Roberts explores the questions Fr. Putthoff wrestles with as he engages in this ministry in such a poor area. Fr. Putthoff raises some interesting questions about the future of religious life in our culture today. The article can be found here:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Friendship and Justice

(Pictured: Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, by Br. Michael O'Neill-McGrath, OSFS)

Francis de Sales had a great love of friendship. He recognized the need for healthy friendships for people to grow in their spiritual lives. Francis relied on friendship for his own growth; we see this reflected in the numerous letters he wrote to his spiritual directees and other friends. In the end of his discussion on friendship in the Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis quotes one of the most famous Biblical statements on friendship, “He who fears God shall likewise have a good friendship” (Sir 6:17).

The late Fr. Anthony Ceresko, OSFS, explored Sirach’s understanding of friendship in an attempt to expand our notion of what friendship can mean for people who try to live Salesian spirituality and Catholic social teaching today. One of the most difficult things about work for justice in today’s world is that it is often a thankless task. These efforts can only be sustained if we have healthy friendships with people who share a common vision for humanity and all of creation, because there will inevitably be resistance from some people to our work.

As I have noted at other times on this blog, some people criticize Salesian spirituality for being too “soft” on social justice or for being too individual centered. By his reflections on the meaning of friendship in Sirach, Ceresko also wants to expand our understanding of friendship in the writings of Francis de Sales, seeing that friendship is not something that affects only two people who are friends, but can expand to affect more and more people for the better. Ceresko writes:

“With our modern, over-psychologized notion of “person” today, we too often misunderstand Francis and overlook this social commitment implied in his writings. This modern, over-psychologized understanding of “person” stresses the individual, unique and isolated, focused on the self and interior life, unrelated to the world and the persons around us. This isolated “self”-centered definition of person is in contrast to the relational notion of person as understood by the world of Francis. The challenge for us today, then, is to develop and make more explicit the “social commitment” implied in Francis’ discussion of friendship.”[i]

Ceresko attempts to make this social commitment more explicit through the examination of the Scriptural text Francis uses in his reflection on friendship. The Hebrew word for friend is ’oheb, which comes from the root ’hb, which means “to love.” Ceresko notes that instead of referring to the range of meanings we associate with love in English, the root in Hebrew “includes connotations of political loyalty and covenantal obligations.”[ii] Thus, in order to understand what it means to love or to be a friend for Sirach, we also have to understand the covenantal obligations for the Jewish people at the time Sirach was writing (ca. 180 BCE).

Ceresko explores the historical context of Sirach’s writing in light of the people’s covenantal obligations, noting, “A key element in Israel’s covenant with God was the social and especially economic arrangements within their community. Their commitment to God included the commitment to help and support one another, especially in times of economic distress.”[iii] Thus, love for God was something that demanded a concern for one’s neighbors, especially for neighbors who were in financial straits. In the time Sirach wrote, the Jewish people were under the power of Greek kings who levied heavy taxes on the people. These taxes put many people in precarious financial situations. With this understanding of the situation at the time Sirach wrote his book, Ceresko makes this observation on Sirach’s purpose in his discussion of friendship:

“It is against this background that we can understand the stress on “relationships,” including friendship, in the book of Sirach. The author has a keen interest in fostering and strengthening relationships. It represents part of his strategy to counter the damage done to relationships and family support networks caused by the exploitative economic measures imposed by the Hellenistic kings.”[iv]

Ceresko does not suggest that Francis de Sales had this background in mind when he wrote the Introduction to the Devout Life or anything else on the topic of friendship. However, the background does give us an alternative way to approach the texts of Francis de Sales from the perspective of one Biblical author in a way that can open up new possibilities for us to spread Salesian spirituality today. We too live in a time when the damage done to relationships and families throughout the world as a result of exploitative economic measures makes authentic friendships more difficult. Nevertheless, the challenge to people who follow Christ today is to be united in friendship in a way that allows the love of friends to overflow into love of all people, especially those who are most vulnerable and are most affected by exploitative economic and social policies. Ceresko concludes his article with a sound test for true friendship today, “An important dimension of our personal friendships should include a common commitment, along with our friends, to solidarity with our neighbor in need. Such would be the touchstone and test of true friendship for the follower of Christ today.”[v]

In the picture above, Br. Mickey portrays the friends Francis and Jane as having one heart, with the Eucharist at the center of the heart. This painting is a beautiful image of what friendship can be like for Christians today: two people sharing one heart, aflame for justice, with their lives always centered on the Eucharist.

[i] Anthony Ceresko, “Sirach and St. Francis de Sales on Friendship: Solidarity and the Struggle for Liberation,” in idem., St. Francis de Sales de Sales and the Bible (Bangalore, India: SFS Publications, 2005) 107.
[ii] Ibid., 98.
[iii] Ibid., 101.
[iv] Ibid., 103.
[v] Ibid., 108.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Words to Take with Us into Life

(Pictured: Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, and De Sales Service Works volunteer Tim Gallagher)

Editor's Note: In a blog entry on Monday, DSW volunteer Meg Weber offered her reflection on her experience of spending her Fall break in Camden. Today, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, offers his reflection on the experience of these volunteers and reflects on one of the projects the volunteers worked on during their stay. Francis de Sales was a great lover of words, and Fr. Mike's reflection is a good reminder to us all of the power of words in our lives.

This Columbus Day long-weekend four members of DeSales University took an alternative fall break with DSW. Three students, Tim, Helen and Meg, and a member of the University Service Learning team, Latoya, served in a variety of ways over the four days. They helped in the rehab of the parish hall, made and served lunches, participated at New Visions Day shelter, visited Oblate Mickey McGrath’s studio in South Camden, and toured Hopeworks back on our block. All this work encourages the people of Camden and gives volunteers insight into big urban issues. It also gives volunteers the opportunity to get beyond “issues” to the level of people meeting people in Christian service.

This group from DSU initiated a project that will be continued the last week in October. Campbell’s Soup has had a long association with this city. The soup factories that used to employ wave after wave of new Americans and whose aromas filled the downtown air are now gone, but Campbell’s headquarters remains in Camden. They are sponsoring a service week this October for employees and neighborhoods. Our State Street area will benefit from this involvement.

One of the projects involves painting the boarded up windows of abandoned buildings in our neighborhood. The DeSales University Salesian Service team contributed to this by working on a prototype, painting a house’s broken-down porch and adding color to the boards over the windows. We painted Salesian good thoughts to offer the positive, good-sense vision of St. Francis de Sales to this environment. This project does not fix the problem of these buildings---but the bright, clean color and uplifting words make a difference.

St. Francis de Sales is well known for his sayings---expressed in short, memorable phrases:
“Be who you are and be that well.”
“Nothing is as strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as true strength.”
“Be patient with everyone, first of all with yourself.”
“We must do all by love, nothing by force.”
“It is a great part of our perfection to support one another in our imperfections.”
“We must be displeased with our faults in a firm yet tranquil manner.”
“Accept peacefully all the duties that come your way, taking them in order, one by one.”
“There is no soil so barren that diligent tenderness doesn’t bring some fruit.”

I could go on because there are hundreds of these wise sayings. They have some similarity to the Lord’s parables in that they are memorable and often express values that are the reverse of what is expected. They look good painted in the neighborhood. Next week, DSW volunteers and school children from Holy Name School will continue this effort along with volunteers from Campbell’s Soup.

Volunteers also distribute cards with Salesian quotes printed on them out with lunches to the individuals and families who come for food. People seem to enjoy the good sense, positive out-look, and the reminder that God is to be found in every circumstance---guiding, challenging offering blessing. Perhaps the reason De Sales came up with so many, and the reason they have been popular, is that they are memorable and thus can be carried into all aspects of life to put the faith we love into practice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

De Sales University Meets De Sales Service Works

(Pictured: Helen, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, Tim, Meg, and Latoya, in front of a Salesian sign they painted.)

Editor's Note: Meg Weber is a senior at De Sales University studying nursing. Over the Fall break at De Sales University, Meg traveled to Camden to work with De Sales Service Works (DSW). Meg had a powerful experience while in Camden and now hopes to serve as a year long volunteer with DSW after graduation this May. She reflects on her experience in the entry below. Meg's entry highlights yet again how we can be transformed through service. Even though we frequently begin to serve others in order to help them, we soon learn that we are gaining just as much, if not more, from the experience. For more information on DSW, please visit

On a cold Saturday morning in October, we departed for what was to become one of the most significantly reflective and life-changing weekends for me. Two other DeSales students, Tim, a senior studying theology, and Helen, a freshman studying to become a physician assistant, Latoya, our group leader, and I packed up a DSU van and started our drive to Camden, New Jersey. Though I was unfamiliar with the city, I soon enough learned of the immense and widespread poverty that Camden suffered. My first thoughts were positive, wanting to be fully open to the experience and therefore to make the best of the weekend. While I have a short history of working with the poor, I knew better than to expect a similar experience.

Our weekend events ranged from making bagged lunches for Sandwich Ministry to utilizing both white and colorful paint to decorate the boarded up windows and doors of a near by abandoned house. We also spent time on the streets, inviting local community members to a street cleanup that was to be hosted by Campbell’s and speaking with families of the parish who wished to be on the Christmas gift donation list. These opportunities were awesome, but just doing those above-mentioned things don’t make my weekend worthy of repeating.

I was definitely touched by the experiences of conversing with others and at the end of the day reflection. In the community, during our walk with Sr. Claire to find out details for the Christmas gift list, the members of the community opened their homes not only to her, but to me too. I had the chance to be in people’s homes, simply talking and praying with them. Now, to me, home is a special place of love and comfort, so to be invited into the homes of families exemplifies the generosity and love that people share in this community. I believe that, while it isn’t always the first thing that one notices on the streets of Camden, there is a huge amount of love: love for the community and love for one another. During one of our days, we visited a place called Hope Works. This place, while humble in appearance, is filled with hearts of young men and women who are immensely compassionate for achieving their dreams. How cool is that! This is a local program, dwelling within the rundown, poor streets of Camden that provides hope and opportunity for local young men and women who need guidance, who want to change their lives for the better.

Love. Such a powerful word, and yet one that is used much too frequently, in ways that deprive it of its true strength. I saw love in Camden… I really did. And I felt it too. I saw love in each person with whom I made eye contact or spoke to, because for me to try to imagine the struggles of their lives would do anything but comfort me. They are strong people. I felt love in the warm way that I was welcomed into people’s homes, and especially in the way that men and women would ask God to bless me, despite the fact that I was overwhelmed with the feeling that they are the ones who need the prayers.

Thus, reflecting at the end of the day would stir emotions of sadness, fear, and extreme joy; I felt an interesting mixture of them all over the weekend. And while my emotions were tossed from one end of the spectrum to the complete opposite, my faith and trust in the Lord matured.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Oblate Founder's Day

Editor's Note: On Monday, October 12, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales celebrated Founder's Day, a day in which we remember the first Oblates beginning their novitiate. On this day in 1873, Bishop Ravinet of Troyes, France, presented the Oblate religious habit to Fathers Brisson, Gilbert, Rollin, Lambert, Lambey, and Perrot as they began their novitiate. In this blog entry, Fr. Jim Greenfield, OSFS, provincial of the Wilmington-Philadeplhia Province, offers his reflections on Founder's Day. Last week, we learned that one of of our oldest ministries, Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia, will be closing at the end of the school year. Fr. Greenfield reflects on this development and some of our other ministries in light of our founders' vision, Salesian spirituality, and Catholic social teaching.

Founders’ Day is an opportunity to celebrate who the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales are, where we’ve been and where we are going as a community founded by Fr. Louis Brisson and Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis.

Due to the announcement of the closing of Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia last Thursday, I want to reflect on what this decision by Cardinal Rigali—and others like it— could mean for us Oblates as we begin to accept this type of situation, in our Salesian manner, in the providence of God. It really does invite us to celebrate who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going.

In January of 2008, Stan Dombrowski, pastor of St. Cecilia in Ft. Myers, FL asked me to present the Parish Mission on the topic of Stewardship. I had never done a Mission on this topic so I needed to pull a lot of information together and get to the task of devising three one-hour talks. I have continued to reflect on stewardship, and since the Mission I led was just after my election as provincial, the preparation has been most helpful to me in my ministry.

We know that to be a steward is to care for and manage that which has been entrusted to us – originally understood as a steward for guests on a ship! We hear about being good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure. We are blessed and we are invited to share the blessings we have been given with others in concrete ways.

In this entry, I offer three considerations for our Founders’ Day:
· A reflection on stewardship and the principle of solidarity from Catholic Social Teaching
· An vignette of solidarity at North Catholic shared by Nick Waseline
· An example of solidarity from DSW prepared by Mike McCue

Reflection from Catholic Social Teaching
Our primary responsibility as stewards is to one another. I see this most boldly and clearly in the care of our youngest and oldest members. For our future to be strong, we help—through our prayers, example, and support—to educate and form our young men so that they can serve the Church through our mission. Perhaps more powerfully, I see our stewardship in the care of our retired, sick, and dying members. Again, our prayers for them are abundant, and our allocation of resources for their patient healing and dignified dying is vast. Yes, we are responsible for them. And, for those of us not yet in need of such care, other Oblates will, in time, be caring for us. In large measure, the preparation, cultivation, and investment of the necessary resources for the future are occurring now.

The contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that there are really two qualities of human beings that are indisputable: We are vulnerable and dependent --- vulnerable to disease, hurt, and finally death, and dependent on one another.

It's surely true to say that we all have been vulnerable and dependent. Perhaps we are now, and certainly we will be in the future. MacIntyre notes the importance of our remembering who we are as vulnerable and dependent and that it not be a source of fear.
On this Founders’ Day, I invite us to celebrate our stewardship of one another as we continue to face the challenges of aging, diminishment, and dwindling resources with a new resolve to choose trust and hope in whatever direction the hand of God is guiding us.

The closing of North Catholic raises these similar concerns: The fear that creeps into our province conversations about diminution and death, the questions about our longest ministry now coming to a close, the castles of our youth symbolized by the fortress on Torresdale Avenue poised for closure alongside the faculty house there perhaps on the verge of being razed.

Catholic social teaching underscores the virtue is solidarity. Pope John Paul II defines solidarity as "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all" (On Social Concern, 1987, 38). He says further that solidarity is at work when members of society "recognize one another as persons" (On Social Concern, 39) and that "everyone should look upon his or her neighbor (without any exception) as another self'' (Gaudium et spes, 26).

The closure of Northeast Catholic and the way we respond to it will ultimately be a matter of figuring out what it means for us to remain one with the students at North and the alumni. We will be called to recognize that we will always be committed to this inner-city ministry and to discern what the commitment will require of us. Furthermore, at this moment of a deepening of solidarity with those we will not let go of in the North Community, we are called to a greater solidarity with one another, especially as we navigate our way through these issues with the spirit of our Founders.

An example of solidarity from one of our oldest ministries
Nick Waseline (principal of Northeast Catholic) recounts the mood of last Friday, the morning after the closure announcement:
“By 7:00 a.m. the media were conspicuously present on Torresdale Ave. As the students arrived, a spontaneous ‘pep rally’ took place for about 20 minutes. It unfolded as an event of true ‘red and white’ Falcon pride. The students knew from the news of the night before that Northeast Catholic was slated to close its doors in June. Their response in the morning was none other than that of love for their school, solidarity in their identity as Falcons and their loyalty to its tradition and spirit. As this impromptu rally was taking place on the front steps of the school, the faculty was gathered in the Resource Center to plan a strategy for a day of unusual emotion and reaction to the news of closure. They were sad, the pain was evident. After a short period of planning and sharing they joined the students who were, by 8:00, gathered in the auditorium for an assembly. The atmosphere was a combination of so much emotion: sadness, pride, unity, love for North and the Salesian tradition, gratitude for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the dedication of the faculty over the years – it was a celebration of ‘North’ at a very significant moment in its time-honored history.

Those who were present will never forget the experience it afforded - the ‘graced’ power of the presence of the Holy Spirit in lifting a community of faith to a level of hope and confidence in the Providence of God.

The students and faculty left the assembly for a day of classes with a somewhat consoled spirit. However, throughout the day many concerns and emotions continued to emerge and be expressed: Why us? What will happen to us? Where will we go? What will the rest of the year be like? And much more.

We are challenged by this turn of events, but with the help of God, the spirit of DeSales and the two standards by which we follow life at North: ‘Tenui nec Dimmitam’, and ‘Be who you are and be that well.’ We will work, pray through and celebrate the best Salesian year North as ever had.”

An example of solidarity from one of our newest ministries
There is another point from Catholic social teaching that has deep roots in Scripture. That is, in our stewardship for one another, we ought to have a preferential option for the poor. Our attention should be first directed to those most in need, those lacking the basic necessities of life.

Mike McCue (director of De Sales Service Works) writes about Salesian compassion and solidarity
“One of the most striking aspects of Jane de Chantal’s life was the tremendous pain which she encountered. She dealt with the loss of her young husband, three children, her friend and spiritual director Francis at 53, as well as undergoing a lengthy period of feeling God’s absence in her spiritual life. Despite all of this pain, St. Jane was able to open herself to the sufferings of others and recognize that all human beings depend on God’s grace. Her own suffering allowed her to relate to other people in pain and to minister to their particular situations. All of us have experiences of pain in our own lives, but we are not called to isolation as a result of these experiences. We are called to enter into the pain of others and to ease each other’s burdens, regardless of the differences between us that might lead to separation.

Cardboard boxes are common and useful, and usually end up in the trash or recycling bin. Here in Camden used cardboard is a valued item. Flattened out cardboard boxes become the mattress of choice for our homeless neighbors. Homelessness is a problem across our country. Living here, we have encountered it not so much as a national problem, but simply as our neighbors’ situation. Maybe because we are a church---or because the property is well lighted, or maybe because people end up anyplace where they are not chased away—about a dozen men and women with no other place to go, camp out around us. We exchange pleasantries coming and going; we channel food, blankets and clothing; and we intend to communicate respect, patience, and kindness.

A couple who goes by the names Ken and Barbie spend most evenings and nights on our front porch. The front door has a large stained glass panel; so we cannot forget they are there outside, while we are inside. The thin line of that door separates our very different worlds. The two of them sleep on cardboard spread over the cold cement of our front porch, and we sleep on comfortable mattress, in our own space, safe and warm inside.
Because the warmth and security we enjoy is—in a sense—normal, and something everyone should have, I can say that I do not feel guilty. However, this situation raises many feelings and thoughts. It feels uncomfortable and really painful that these neighbors whom we have connected with and whom we like—despite differences of background, education, experience, and expectations—have such pain and burden.

Solidarity is more than a feeling—or is not enough to let it stay on the feeling level. All of the feelings and the awareness bring us to action. We ask what can we do for homelessness or, specifically, for our neighbors—for Ken and Barbie? St. Francis de Sales challenges us to bring respect, gentleness, humility, and gratitude, and to treat our neighbors as adults and equals. Catholic social teaching calls us to work for shelters, aid, housing, and health care—for structures that can lead to better situations for our neighbors. And, all the while, we continue to feel the discomfort and pain that things are not as they should be when people have to sleep on cardboard.

For us in Camden and in so many other places in our world, homeless people are literal neighbors. But few neighborhoods are without homelessness and poverty, and no neighborhood, no community is without people struggling—whether the people be in Camden, or your home or in distant Haiti, Darfur, or Afghanistan. All—near or far— are our gospel neighbors.

We do what we can, we do not forget, we are incomplete and uncomfortable. The kingdom of God is here. It is also not yet fully here.”

We really do need one another and we need to take seriously our commitment to be neighbor to one another. We cannot let go of those who need us to care from them. Solidarity calls us to this. So, do our Founders!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Catholic Climate Covenant

Every October 4, the Church celebrates the memory of one of the most famous saints in history, St. Francis of Assisi. Since the feast fell on a Sunday this year, the Church celebrates the liturgy for Sunday instead of the saint. Nevertheless, his feast is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the timeliness of his message for our situation today. One of the principal tenets of Catholic social teaching is respect for God’s creation, and this was a concern for Francis of Assisi as well. In a recent statement Pope Benedict highlighted the Christian’s response to this issue:

“Today the great gift of God’s Creation is exposed to serious dangers and lifestyles which can degrade it. Environmental pollution is making particularly unsustainable the lives of the poor of the world … we must pledge ourselves to take care of creation and to share its resources in solidarity.”

In April of this year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other members of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change launched a new initiative that stressed the need for all Christians to show a greater respect for creation and for the way in which we consume resources. The coalition invited all Catholics to participate in their new effort, the Catholic Climate Covenant. As a part of this initiative, the coalition invited individuals to take the St. Francis Pledge and has renewed this invitation on Francis’ feast day.

While this is not the Francis who is referred to most frequently on this blog, respect for God’s creation is something that was close to the heart of Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal as well. Francis and Jane lived long portions of their lives in the beautiful city of Annecy, France, which helped form Francis’ famous statement, “We pray best before beauty.” When all of creation becomes an invitation to prayer, the way in which we interact with creation is transformed and all humanity can experience the wonder of God’s creation.

The Catholic Climate Covenant covers a number of justice issues. As the title makes clear, the issue of climate change is central. However, the effects of climate change are felt most acutely by the poor, who are least responsible for the causes of climate change. Experts give numbers of poor people affected that are staggering. To give but one example, access to clean water is a hot issue today. According to the World Development Movement, one-sixth of the world’s population will face water shortages in the near future because of retreating glaciers as a result of increased temperatures. Thus, the covenant challenges us with a provocative question, “Who’s under your carbon footprint?”

This question can be helpful for those of us who use the practice of examination of conscience as one of our daily rituals, a practice Francis de Sales suggested to his spiritual directees. Questions such as this one posed by the climate covenant can help us expand our perspectives and see that there are different ways to approach our spiritual disciplines. These questions help us to realize how narrow our approach can be at times as well.

Information on the Catholic Climate Covenant, as well as the St. Francis pledge, can be found at

I close this entry with a poem called “Earth, Sister Earth” from Dom Helder Camara, the late archbishop of Recife, Brazil. Camara has been called by some people a modern day Francis of Assisi because of his dedication to the poor and all of creation. This poem is a strong challenge for all of us to rethink the way in which we relate to all of creation and how our actions or inactions impact all of creation.

Earth, Sister Earth

Teach us
to continue the creation
to help the seeds
to multiply,
giving food
for the people
and for the beasts.

Teach us
to further the joy
you never tire of offering
when weary travelers find you,
a signpost to their home.

Teach us
to make the horizon
become a beautiful image
of creation’s grandeur.

Teach us
to accept
the mediation of those
who wish to unite us
to our fellows,
as you accept the gift
of the water that binds
land to land,
no matter how great
the distances!

What do you suffer
in the dust of deserts?
How do you look upon
those of us who,
though capable of transforming
the waste to lushness,
prefer to be creators
of barrenness?

And how do you rejoice
in the rain
that brings forth your fruits?
And what pain do you feel
at the storms
that drown you with floods,
destroying plantations,
crushing houses and the lives
of animals, of plants, of people?
How great is the lesson
you give us,

O Earth,
more than sister:
our mother Earth!
All our lives
we walk carelessly across you,
and when life leaves us,
with no shadow of resentment,
you open up to us
your maternal bosom
to keep
our flesh,
our ashes,
for the joy
of the resurrection.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ"

The words above are one of the most famous statements of St. Jerome, the great biblical scholar and doctor of the Church whose feast we celebrate today. One of the main criticisms I hear about Catholic social teaching from a number of people who do not find it relevant for today’s world is that it is based on an understanding of an outdated philosophical framework which few people accept today, namely, natural law. While there is no doubt that natural law arguments do play a large, and I would argue valuable, role in the Catholic Church’s reflection on social issues, in honor of St. Jerome today I would like to explore the use of Scripture in Catholic social teaching. Scripture offers us God’s vision for the potential of all of humanity and all of creation and does not fit neatly into any philosophical outlook. I offer the following reflections on the use of Scripture, as well as some potential misuses, that can challenge us to work for peace and justice in the world today.

Vatican II called for a greater use of Scripture in moral reflection (Optatam Totius 16). This challenge of the council fathers was to move away from the proof texting of many of the moral theology textbooks in existence prior to the council. These texts argued their positions based on tradition and one understanding of natural law, and then at the end threw in a biblical reference or two that would seem, at least on the surface, to support the position for which they had argued. One of the great insights Scripture scholars have offered us from their work is that we all bring biases and presuppositions to the texts of Scripture and frequently we find in the Scriptures only what we want to find there. We often overlook or do not even notice things with which we disagree. How can we reconcile a desire to grow in union with Christ with a closed attitude to Christ speaking to us in the Scriptures? As theologian William Spohn states, “If the reader merely seeks to find biblical support for moral positions arrived at on other grounds, Scripture no longer functions as an authoritative source.”[i]

In addition to the poor use of Scripture in moral reflection before the council, moral theologians also focused predominantly on case studies, applying the principles of natural law and tradition to specific situations. Today, moral theologians are more concerned with the type of person we are trying to become. In the early Church, there was not a distinction of disciplines between spirituality and moral theology; both were interrelated as a way of becoming a better Christian. Theologians highlight this link more today due in large part to the important role Scripture plays in theological reflection. While many of us still view morality as a list of do’s and don’t’s, this perspective limits our possibilities. Spohn states elsewhere, “When we examine how Scripture actually functions in moral reflection we must expand the scope of ethics to include convictions, dispositions, and imaginative models as well as norms and principles. An ethics of universal principles and rules artificially restricts the contribution that biblical materials can make to the moral life.”[ii] This biblical vision for humanity inspired Francis de Sales to be concerned with the formation of the entire human person, working from the inside out. He recognized that individual actions, as important as they might be, do not tell the whole story. Francis was concerned with the type of person people are becoming.

How, then, does this new approach to Scripture help us in our work for peace and justice? I would like to quote at length from an article by noted Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is responding to many Scripture scholars who are obsessed with “truth” in relation to whether or not something in Scripture can be considered historical (e.g., did Jesus ever tell the parable of the Good Samaritan?). Johnson suggests an alternate approach to the question of truth:

“I would like to propose another approach to the truth of the Bible, one which works in and through literary imagination. Such an approach would focus neither on the world that created the Bible nor on the world that the Bible might predict, but rather on the world that the Bible itself creates. We can approach the Bible not as an anthology of compositions locked in the past but as a word that unlocks every present, not as a set of sources for describing reality, not as a set of propositions about the world but as an imaginative construction of a world. In every age and in every circumstance, it is possible to read the Bible as creating an imaginative world in which humans can choose to live.”[iii]

Johnson goes on to say that reading the Bible in this way makes demands on us that neither a fundamentalist approach nor the traditional historical-critical approach makes on its readers: the audacity to try to put the vision of the Scriptures into practice.

“But there is also a moral factor in our reluctance to embrace such a reading, for it demands of us that we put into practice the world thus imagined by the Bible. If the Bible is “true” as description or prediction, it demands nothing of us but intellectual assent; its truth is like that of a weather report or mathematical theorem. But if the Bible is true as prescription, then everything is demanded of us: we are called to embody that imagination, to bring it into existence by the pattern of our lives.”[iv]

It is easy for us to label people who believe in the vision of Scripture idealists, Communists, or utopians. Even the Scriptures do not make the claim that working for justice will be easy (Matt 5:3-10). However, if we are to be faithful to our baptismal call to follow Christ, we must constantly listen to the Scriptures with new ears, identifying and removing our moral blind spots that prevent us from attempting to put the vision of the Scriptures into practice in our own lives and communities. God’s vision for justice and peace will undoubtedly be different from our own, and does not fit neatly into any political party’s outlook. By constantly turning to the Scriptures so that we are not ignorant of Christ but are able to know him more deeply, we demonstrate that God is the Lord of our lives and not an ideology, philosophy, or political system. May Jerome’s love of Scripture inspire us all to that same love of God’s Word!

[i] William Spohn, “Scripture, Use of in Catholic Social Ethics,” pp. 861-74 in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Judith Dwyer. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994. 863.
[ii] Ibid., 868.
[iii] Luke Timothy Johnson, “How is the Bible True? Let Me Count the Ways.” Commonweal, May 22, 2009. 14.
[iv] Ibid., 15.

Monday, September 28, 2009

High School Service Retreats in Camden

(Pictured: Salesianum students at work in the "Peace Garden" in Camden with Luis, second from right, a Camden local.)

Editor's Note: At the end of Mass yesterday in the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict directed these words to the young people in attendance, "Hope! This word, to which I often return, sits well with youth. You, my dear young people, are the hope of the Church! She expects you to become messengers of hope.” In a city that seems devoid of hope sometimes, De Sales Service Works (DSW) invites young people to come to Camden and offer hope to people who desperately need it. The work these young people do offers hope for the Church as she continues the mission of Christ to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). The blog entry that follows is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works. In this entry, Fr. Mike describes one aspect of DSW, high school service retreats in Camden.

This month DSW has begun hosting groups from the three local high schools sponsored by the Oblates: Salesianum in Wilmington, DE, Father Judge in NE Philadelphia and North Catholic in the Frankford section of Philadelphia.

Salesianum seniors were the first group to come for our Salesian service retreats. The retreat day is made up of a morning service period and afternoon discussion and prayer. This blog entry will describe the three service activities to give a taste of what some people involved in DSW are doing in the Camden community.

New Visions Day Shelter
On each retreat, fifteen students go with Salesianum’s Oblate campus minister Fr. Pat Kifolo to a “day shelter” three blocks away called New Visions. The director, Kevin Moran, meets them and guides them through a tour of operations at New Visions. This shelter offers services that many people from a middle-class background take for granted. Here there are laundry facilities, showers, a thrift store, and a large community room to relax and be off the street. Breakfast and lunch are served each weekday. In addition, because the people served here are either homeless or are shifting between rented rooms, abandoned houses, sleeping in doorways in the city or with various friends and family, New Visions serves as a stable mailing address. The shelter enables guests to receive government aid, veteran benefits, and bills---and any other mail which otherwise would not reach them.

Aside from addressing these base level needs, Kevin Moran and the New Visions staff make an effort to create a welcoming place for community to form, for people to get their bearings and to take steps in a positive direction. This may involve getting in to a program, moving toward a better self-image, or achieving personal goals. For many vulnerable people suffering from mental illness the shelter helps them keep their heads above water. The students participating in service for the morning contribute to this mission by listening to the guests, playing games and sharing community and humanity. In that real way they share the light of Christ---kindness, gentleness, and patience in a hard-edged, rough city.

Sandwich Ministry
Six students staff the cathedral’s sandwich ministry preparing bagged lunches: a sandwich, fruit, napkin and Salesian thought. Between 30 to 75 people come to our door each weekday for a sandwich or for canned goods from our food pantry. All the food is donated by parishioners and by St. Vincent de Paul groups from Our Mother of Consolation in Philadelphia & St. Thomas More here in New Jersey. The parish staff and volunteers usually make and offer the sandwiches, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the fall semester Salesinum seniors will do the honors. The nourishment provided by the sandwiches helps people in need, but I think it can be said that the human contact, marked by gentleness and humility, may be just as important. We often give people cards with a good thought from St. Francis de Sales printed on them. People seem glad for the optimistic insights from our saint.

Peace Garden
The final group works on our “peace garden.” Camden fits the prototypical concrete/asphalt jungle one thinks of as a broken-down, inner city landscape. However, because there are so many vacant lots, there is a good amount of potential green space. Usually weeds and derelict trees dominate, but one neglected plot of earth is being transformed by the labors of students doing service here. Digging and planting may not seem like service the way talking to homeless people or preparing food does. But we try to make it clear that the gardens the young men are creating lift the spirits of people who live here---beauty and order replacing weeds, dead plants, trash and disorder. Beauty has a lot of power, and is not something that belongs only in wealthy areas. In addition, the students work with two homeless men, Ken and Luis, who give direction and share about their lives in the city.

There is so much to be learned here: observing, listening to people, taking it all in. One of the garden groups recounted how they were working: digging, clearing weeds and stumps, when a mother with her second grader hurried by, with a couple of the lunches prepared by their fellow Salesianum students, very late for school. The little girl made it clear that she did not want to go to school. Arguing with the child, the mother pointed to the guys doing the landscaping and said to the daughter, “If you don’t go to school, you’ll end up like them. Come on!” and she pulled her off toward the school. It was a funny, ironic comment since these seniors work hard at a good school and are deep into the task of college application and have a life full of options. We all got a laugh out of the irony. But on another level, the comment also highlighted the simple fact of human solidarity. Poor people, people with various mental illnesses, and those with addictions are not a separate species of human being---any of us could be in their shoes if some things were different about our lives. That awareness of unity and connectedness across very real differences is an insight many students have talked about. When you meet and talk to people who are poor or homeless or addicted, you are no longer dealing with abstract problems and issues but with people with stories, complexities and personalities. It is a gift to have the chance to realize this.

In the discussion that follows the service period, many students have also expressed a sense of awareness of blessing and a sense of gratitude, seeing their situation in contrast to the very visible privations here in Camden. The experience of service helps educate young people in ways that are not possible in the classroom. On top of the educational dimension, however, these students are making a concrete difference in the lives of many people in Camden.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Salesian Approach to the Health Care Debate

Editor's Note: The following blog entry is from Michael Castrilli, OSFS, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales studying theology at Washington Theological Union and serving as a campus minister at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory school in Washington, DC. Michael offers us a balanced approach to the debate based on Salesian spirituality and the teaching of the magisterium. As we all are aware, there is a lot of energy around disagreements in the health care debate. I offer the following poem from the late Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, Dom Helder Camara, as a good reflection on how we can approach all debates with charity. The poem is called "If You Disagree with Me."

If you disagree with me,
you have something to give me,
if you are sincere
and seek the truth
as best you may,
honestly, with modest care,
your thought is growth
to mine, correction,
you deepen my vision.

The health care debate in the United States has been consuming many areas of daily life. Whether we are watching contentious health care town-hall meetings on television news, reading about the variety of perspectives on the matter, or discussing the issues with friends and family around the dinner table, everyone seems to be talking about health care reform. The question that arises for me is what Catholic social teaching and our Salesian tradition offers us in terms of insights into this debate. I would like to highlight two points for discussion. The first point involves our Salesian approach to the debate and the second point highlights the resources available to understand the Catholic Church’s position on this challenging and complex issue.

Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix solution to the health care problem in the United States. If there were an easy solution, the six-decade debate over what to do in terms of access and escalating costs would have been solved many years ago. President Harry Truman, in his address to Congress in 1945 was the first to propose universal health care access. Many years have passed between his declaration and where we stand today on this position. As Catholics and followers of Salesian spirituality, what role are we to take in this debate? I would argue our responsibility is to promote dialogue in love, with love, and through love. Salesian spirituality challenges us to listen well to others, seek to understand a variety of points of view, and reflect on Sacred Scripture and magisterial teaching to help inform our conscience and our viewpoints. However, the central trait that we bring to this discussion is our approach, and that approach is love. To bring the gift of love to this debate is what we as people of faith are called to do. Jesus says, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love…This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:9-12). As the health care debate rages in our country, it is difficult not to notice that some individuals seem to be paralyzed by their own point of view, evident in the yelling and screaming at each other in public forums. Whether a person supports or disagrees with health care reform is not my point. However, I would argue that now, more than ever, the public square needs honest dialogue with love as our source, and Jesus Christ as our inspiration.

Throughout the life of St. Francis de Sales, we see him consistently dialoguing in love. As Francis faced contentious, challenging, and dangerous situations, whether as a missionary in the Chablais region or his work as Bishop of Geneva, Francis never tired of listening, dialoguing, and winning hearts through his gentle presence and his loving approach. With love as our approach, this stance can only serve to facilitate and promote respectful dialogue. The outcome of respectful dialogue is a broader understanding of another’s view, and then, whether we agree or disagree, we can meet each other as sister or brother and not as an enemy.

With love as our stance, the second point is to have awareness for what we truly believe as people of faith and to understand how our Catholic Church engages this issue. The Catholic Church has long supported universal access to health care that respects human life and dignity. One of the many reasons I love the Church is that it has never shied away from speaking out on a host of social, economic, political, and human issues faced by the faithful of all generations. To instruct the faithful, over time, the Church has developed a rich canon of magisterial documents in which the Church provides guidance, articulation, and instruction to the Catholic faithful. As health care issues evolved over time, it was Pope John XXIII who spoke explicitly about medical care as an issue of justice.[i] In Pacem in Terris (1963) the Pope articulates the position that proper medical care is a human right. He states, “We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.”[ii] Therefore, medical care as a human right is not new for the Church, though understanding the complex issues surrounding this debate can be challenging. To meet this challenge, in an effort to assist the faithful, the US Bishops’ have responded with a variety of resources.

In the summer of 2009, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a health care website ( to help clarify issues. The bishops have developed a clear framework from which any health care reform must consider and provide guidelines to instruct the faithful on this important matter being discussed in the nation. The four principles are explicit:

1. a truly universal health policy with respect for human life and dignity
2. access for all with a special concern for the poor and inclusion of legal immigrants
3. pursuing the common good and preserving pluralism including freedom of conscience
and a variety of options
4. restraining costs and applying them equitably across the spectrum of payers

Reading these principles, as well as the variety of resources available[iii] from the USCCB, individuals can come to greater awareness and understanding for this complex debate. As the United States continues to debate health care reform, if we approach the dialogue with love, allowing our faith to instruct us and permit the Spirit to lead us, we simply cannot go wrong. Let us also not forget that what makes us unique as Christian people is how we approach one another, sister and brother, all with love. For when we allow love to rule our dialogue, nothing can get in the way of seeking the common good, respecting the humanity of those around us, and acting as a community of believers dedicated to the message of Jesus Christ, the first and ultimate advocate for all members of the earthly city.

[i] Philip S. Keane, Catholicism & Health Care Justice (New York: Paulist Press, 2002), 6.
[ii] John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Rome: Vatican, 1963), 11.
[iii] See the 1993 document, A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: Protecting Human Life, Promoting Human Dignity, and Pursuing the Common Good or the 1981 document entitled Health and Health Care, available at

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Home Visits in Camden

(Pictured: DSW volunteers prepare for home visits.)

Editor's Note: The following blog entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. McCue's entry highlights how work for justice, no matter how great or simple, transforms us as individuals, even when our attempts to articulate the experience seem inadequate. For more information on De Sales Service Works, please visit the website at

“Home visits?” “House blessings?” “Pastoral visits?” “Block collection?” “Walking around the neighborhood with Sr. Claire?”

One of the works of De Sales Service Works (DSW) is visits to people in their homes in our neighborhood of Holy Name Parish in Camden. I know everyone who has participated in these visits will agree with me that it is an unforgettable experience---beneficial for the volunteers and the people visited. The only problem is that I cannot think of a title for the service activity that conveys what a rich activity it is. Tim Gallagher in his blog entry of Wednesday, August19, describes his hesitation about this aspect of DSW service because of my plain failure to name and explain effectively what we would be doing.

I will try to do a better job here. Basically, we visit homes in the neighborhood, visit with the families, and enjoy the hospitality offered. In this simple act we hope to express the parish’s concern for its residents and to connect basically middle-class European Americans with people in our neighborhood who have a Latino background and are mostly in a more precarious economic position. There is often a language difference as well. The things we share in common, however, are more important and bind us together: our faith tradition and our common humanity. Visiting volunteers learn that there are some shockingly poor families---as well as some middle class homes---in this inner city setting.

We have been welcomed to households where a lot of people live: three or four generations, working or out of work, in school or not. On our streets a fully functioning house may be next door to an abandoned house, a vacant lot, or a drug house. Often people we visit are clearly fresh immigrants and being welcomed into their space feels like a trip to Latin America or the Caribbean. These homes bear witness to the pride the people have in their home country with flags on the wall, as well as their devotion to their Catholic faith, with images of the Blessed Mother and the Lord displayed prominently next to the flag.

Sr. Claire Sullivan, IHM, is our guide for these visits. Her role in the parish has provided me and DSW volunteers many opportunities to get to know the area and the families well. Prior to coming to Holy Name Parish seven years ago, she spent decades working among the poor in Peru and Chile. She is fluent in Spanish and is familiar with Latino cultures. As our guide, she used the Biblical image of "holy ground" to remind us to visit as guests, as fellow Christians, and neighbors---not as a tourist or a cultural anthropologist. Let me describe two specific visits to attempt to convey the richness of the experience.

On one occasion, we visited a family whose children attend Holy Name Parish School. One boy, his cousin and a neighbor have a start-up band---guitar, drums, and bass. The kids seem to live in both a Latino and American world---speaking English and Spanish, sharing interests and style that you would find anywhere in the US. But the house fascinated me. It was very simple except for an entertainment center. That cabinet also served as a home shrine with multiple images of the Virgin Mary, holy water, rosaries, a crucifix and family pictures all mixed together. Since this family has a Mexican background, the Blessed Mother pictured as Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared several times. They also had a lovely statue of Mary dressed in yellow with a radiating halo. I asked the name and tried to learn it, repeating the title several times. I did not take the name away with me but did take away an experience of the kindness of the family.

In June, Oblate Associates Tim Gallagher, Ryan Cronshaw and I visited the home of a little boy, Jacob, who was sick with cancer. His family lives in a modest row house with extended family living together. The family had been through a lot in addition to Jacob’s illness. His grandfather died three months before our visit, and a young uncle with special needs died not long after our visit. At their house, it could not have been clearer that, despite the sorrows, his family gave young Jacob a full measure of love and attention.

Later in the summer, Jacob lost his fight against the disease. His funeral was very, very sad because he was only eight and because he had fought hard and bravely against the disease. Jacob wanted to be a fireman, and a family member had connected him to the Camden fire department. Camden’s firemen took him as one of their own, making him a member of their company. Firefighters supported the family throughout the illness and joined family and friends in mourning young Jacob as a brother at the funeral.

Whatever we call these experiences, these visits are very good things that bring us toward the Salesian friendship and real solidarity that are key values in Salesian spirituality and Catholic Social Teaching. We cannot be in solidarity with people if we are not prepared to enter into their lives and attempt to experience life from their perspective. The experience of home visits offers all of us an opportunity to see life in a new way, through the eyes of people who may not have had the same opportunities in life, but still live lives full of faith. Through these experiences, we believe the grace of God is at work, transforming both us and the people we are visiting.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Bishop Passionate for Justice: Bishop John Minder, OSFS

(Pictured: Bishop John Minder, OSFS)

In Tuesday’s post, I mentioned that over the past month the Oblates have mourned the passing of two of our leaders in our efforts to promote peace and justice. Today, I would like to remember the life of Bishop John Minder, OSFS, who presided over the local church of Keimoes-Upington, South Africa, for more than thirty years, including the tumultuous years when the country was emerging from the horrors of apartheid.

Bishop Minder was the sixth of a string of Oblate bishops who served the local church in Keimoes, and eventually Keimoes-Upington. He embodied one of the principal tenets of Catholic social teaching, solidarity with the entire human family. For his Episcopal coat of arms, Bishop Minder chose a one word motto for how he envisioned his life as a bishop: condolere, a Latin word meaning “to have compassion.” To have compassion, to “suffer with” other people, is what it means to be in solidarity with people. Bishop Minder did not see his role as a bishop as being separate from or above the people of his diocese. Rather, he understood his vocation as a challenge to serve the people of God by entering into their suffering and suffering with them. In doing this, he followed the example of our patron bishop, St. Francis de Sales.

While bishops are required by church law to submit their resignations to the pope when they turn 75, Bishop Minder did not believe retirement was a time to sit back and enjoy all that he had accomplished in his life, for there were still plenty of people suffering and in need of an experience of God’s compassion. In remarks at Bishop Minder’s memorial mass, Oblate provincial Fr. Jim Greenfield, OSFS, recounted a quote from Minder before his retirement, “Just six years before the pope accepted his resignation for reasons of age, Bishop Minder was quoted in a newspaper article: ‘If I live to be 75 and I am able to retire, I would like to stay here and take over a parish.’ He kept his word, for he worked as a parish priest in Keimoes-Upington for nine years after his retirement, giving flesh to the word compassion.”

Optimism and gentleness are two notable characteristics of Salesian spirituality. Bishop Minder demonstrated both during his time as a bishop in South Africa, especially during the turbulent period after apartheid. He believed in the goodness of all people and that people were open to conversion. Nevertheless, he also spoke the truth and sided with those who were oppressed, not the oppressors. Fr. Greenfield told another story of Bishop Minder’s optimism balanced with a realistic sense of whose side he was on, “In 1994, as South Africa held it first democratic, multi-racial elections which gave the country its first black president after a long history of white rule, Bp. Minder embodied hope and optimism: ‘I think all races are going to do their best to make a success of the new South Africa,’ he said in an interview with the media.

Yet, his optimism did not falsely color the truth of his commitment to equality and the strength of his position. He asserted where he stood on apartheid and how he differed from others:

‘There are, of course, some die-hard white people who are not happy about things. People who are opposed to real democracy are dissatisfied, but I can’t tell you what they are doing or saying, because they are not my friends.’

His ability to clarify his stance with charity, honesty, and gentleness, while not condemning his political foes, speaks to the wider position of respect that he had for all people.”

Bishop Minder was a gift to the Oblates, the Church of South Africa, and the Church throughout the world. We pray that his optimism, gentleness, and passion for justice will continue to inspire people to have a missionary spirit and to witness to the God who always sides with those who are oppressed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Prophet of Racial Justice: Fr. Joseph Travers, OSFS

(Pictured: Rev. Joseph Travers, OSFS)

Over the past month, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales have mourned the loss of two of our leaders in the cause for justice in our world and Church today. In this space today, I would like to remember Fr. Joseph Travers, OSFS, a champion of justice for people in the United States and abroad. In particular, Fr. Travers worked for racial equality in a number of his ministries.

From the early days of our founding, the Oblates have worked in the missions. One of our first areas of missionary activity was in South Africa, a country that for much of the time of the Oblates’ presence was under apartheid. Fr. Travers was an outspoken critic of the injustice of apartheid during his missionary period there because he was convinced of the dignity of all human beings as children of God, regardless of their skin color. While the injustice of this system seems obvious to us now, Fr. Travers’ opposition to apartheid did not always make him a popular person in South Africa.

Fr. Travers’ concern for racial justice showed in his parochial ministry in the United States as well. In remarks at the funeral for Fr. Travers, Oblate provincial Fr. Jim Greenfield, OSFS, recounted two reactions of people in response to a homily Fr. Travers preached after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Fr. Travers was a gentle, enlightened pastor. Three days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Joe preached a challenging homily on the social injustice of racism in our country, a message some of his Philadelphia hearers were not excited to hear. He received a stormy letter from a lawyer involved who worked as a political official for the city. While the letter was strong and fierce—calling into question Fr. Travers’ theology, including his respect for the Eucharist, Joe’s gentle response was to type a letter and offer to meet with the man to discuss the issues.

He also received a letter from a woman that weekend thanking him for his homily. She reported that her Jewish neighbor was filled with hope that Catholics are not racists and that important issues of the day are preached in Catholic churches.”

Fr. Travers was a gifted theologian (he also taught at LaSalle University for a number of years) who understood that the Christian life flows from our celebration of the Eucharist, and that we cannot say we are all one in Christ in our sharing of the Eucharist when we treat people of other races as less than human. His gentle response to someone who attacked his prophetic stance demonstrated how the Salesian spirit of gentleness and humility had taken hold in his life. Fr. Travers’ openness to dialogue with people who were critical of him is a powerful example for us to follow, rather than retreating into camps and refusing dialogue with those who disagree with us. His courage to preach against injustice to a congregation in which some members were not prepared to hear the message has inspired many other Oblates to follow his lead on many other issues of injustice in our world.

The Oblates and all of the Church are grateful to God for the gift and challenge that Fr. Travers’ ministry was for the Church throughout his years of service. We pray that the Lord will continue to inspire men and women in the spirit of Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal to be pillars of gentle strength in the face of the injustices of our world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Justice in Education

(Pictured: Oblate associate John Leone, a junior at De Sales University, with a student from Nativity School in Wilmington, during the Oblate Associate Nativity Summer Program).

Editor's Note: The following blog entry is from Tim Gallagher, a senior at De Sales University and an associate of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. This past summer, Tim and four other Oblate associates spent a month with the students from Nativity at De Sales University, serving as teachers, counselors, and mentors for the students. Tim's reflection is a good example of how we can learn much about ourselves when we reach out to others in service.

Last year I was lucky enough to serve on the inaugural staff of the Oblate Associate Nativity Summer Program (OANS). The OANS program works in conjunction with the Nativity Prep School of Wilmington, DE. The middle school was opened by the Oblates a number of years ago for lower income families to send their sons, free of charge. The school has extended school days and an extended school year to offer the best possible educational experience for the students. Part of the extended school year is a 4 week summer camp experience, and this is where the Oblate Associates come in. We serve as teachers and coaches to the boys and have the opportunity to form a discernment community for ourselves.

I was asked to serve on the staff again this past July. At first, I was apprehensive and nervous about returning to the camp. My main concern was that the boys would not be happy to see me because the year earlier was a very tough summer and my best qualities were not always the ones that the boys got to see. The first summer I was frustrated, and to be honest I was happy to see the boys leave, because the days were very stressful. This summer though, I learned the meaning of Francis de Sales’ quote “Be patient in all things but most especially be patient with yourself.”

I apprehensively returned to the camp this year and was met with smiles and welcomes from the boys. I was most nervous about seeing one student in particular, Jahmeer, because he and I did not see eye-to-eye at all last year and he thought I was a, well let’s leave it at, less than charitable person. When I found out I had this student in my 8th grade grammar class, I was even more anxious. By remaining calm and gentle with Jahmeer, I was able to establish a relationship with him. On one occasion, we were having a discussion in class about who the boys trusted in their life to give them advice, and my little friend said “I would have to say you, Mr. Gallagher, because you are always there for us and we can talk to you about anything.” He and I had made so much progress from the year before that by the end of camp he came up to me and gave me a huge hug and asked if he could stay in contact with me throughout the year if he ever needed it.

Jahmeer gave me an insight into the true meaning of patience and forgiveness. It is my hope that we can all learn something about patience from this 8th grader from Wilmington, and welcome people back into our lives that may have caused us to hurt, and provide them a second chance to build a relationship with us. We all must be patient with ourselves and learn from our past so that our future may be better.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

De Sales Service Works in Camden

(Pictured: Mike McCue, OSFS, back left, talks with volunteers.)

(Editor's Note: The following entry is from Mike McCue, OSFS, the director of De Sales Service Works, a ministry of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in Camden, NJ.)

My name is Mike McCue and I’m an Oblate working in Camden, NJ. Camden is noted as one of America’s poorest cities, ironically in one of the richest states in the richest nation. The Oblates staff the cathedral parish and do retreat ministry, campus ministry, and hospital ministry in this struggling urban community.

My specific job in the Oblates is to direct our service effort, De Sales Service Works (DSW). For over ten years DSW has invited people to do service in communities with economic hardship. Under the direction of Mark Plaushin (now at De Sales University) and the late Rick Wojnicki, DSW has invited guests to reflect on Salesian spirituality & Catholic social teaching and to bring that reflection to life in concrete service to the needy and poor.

One year ago, in August of 2008, the Oblates moved the program to Camden. Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden has given us the use of a great former rectory in an active immigrant neighborhood as the DSW guesthouse. Since we arrived one year ago, DSW has welcomed groups from high schools, parishes, colleges and universities to work, reflect, pray, and play. This fall we will host small group day retreats from two area Oblate high schools, a group of student leaders from De Sales University, and three groups returning after coming here last spring. This spring the other area Oblate high school and our school in Florida will have service retreats here, along with more parish and college groups. In addition, next year we hope to welcome year-long residential volunteers to the program.

So that is the background of our Oblate project here. This August brought our one-year anniversary and offered opportunity to reflect on what we have learned and experienced living, working, praying and thinking in this poor community of Camden.

It is difficult to convey the richness of the experience in writing. The list that follows attempts to give an impression of our experience:

Young guys down the block exchanging drugs in their tight fist for folded bills from someone else’s fist.
Young and old, Latino, white, black, affluent, poor, men, women buying drugs.
People drunk or high, people with vacant eyes, sleeping all day, falling over, talking to you---but not really there, personalities clouded over by a toxic fog.
People living outside, sleeping in doorways, sleeping on cardboard,
washing up with water in a paper cup,
People with nowhere to stay, no place for their stuff, no one to call on.
Young parents loud and harsh with their small children.
People with obvious mental illness—loose with no one to connect with them. Depression is very apparent, and low self-esteem
People “on the make” saying whatever they need to, people who just need $1.45 to get out of Camden.
People dropping trash anywhere, graffiti, half finished jobs,
overgrown backyards, trash.
Tough faces and eyes. Tough talk.
New Americans in small, old houses that they have made home,
where they welcome us in.
Communities sharing abundant food from their old country.
People proud to be American and Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Chilean, or Salvadoran.
People doing an amazing job speaking English when they learned to think in Spanish.

My list means to give snap shots of our experience of this community; poverty is only part of the picture. There is so much more going on than meets the eye. People often laugh and tell stories. So many people express their gratitude for whatever we do. Even when we say “no” to a request, most often, people understand. People are generous in offering hospitality and sharing delicious food. Every scene is complicated and every person involved has a story with origins, motivations and dimensions. There is more to people and lives than meets the eye.

Two of our homeless neighbors are a couple who go by the names Ken and Barbie. Over time we have gotten to know them not as an odd couple, living on the street, making daily rounds of Camden’s two soup kitchens and our own sandwich ministry, charging their phone at our outdoor plug, bickering and bantering, dealing with health issues, each with a history. We have gotten to know them and their stories and have encouraged them to make progress while at the same time enjoying them and their goodness.

Another vivid example is one nearby drug house with lots of teenaged kids. We enlisted the mom and some of the kids to work with DSW volunteers to clean up the parish school playground and to paint over the graffiti-covered cinderblock wall that surrounds the playground. This was part of upgrading the school environment and preparing for a block party. Though drug sales clearly continue, we nevertheless reached across a significant divide and did a small thing well.

Evaluating at the one-year mark, one thing is very clear. We Oblates, and the DSW volunteers who have come to reflect and serve, sometimes look at the situation---all the issues---and want to solve the problem. Hunger, homelessness, addiction, mental illness are like open wounds, and we want to dial 9-1-1, code blue, call in the cavalry: these conditions are unacceptable.

After a year I can say we may not have solved many problems. However we have joined with DSW visitors and other community members here doing small things, while working with efforts for larger solutions. Francis de Sales teaches us that small things matter. “Nothing is small in the service of God,” he tells us. So we give out sandwiches from our side door. We have cool water available at all times. We talk to our neighbors resting on their cardboard “mattresses.” We make it our mission to treat everyone with dignity and respect. We have worked on our parish grade school. We have reached out to new Americans and have been guests in neighborhood homes. While these conditions really are unacceptable and it is a code blue emergency, it is also important to meet people where they are and to bring whatever good we can to the present moment. We have tried to be part of people’s lives, part of this community.

Tim Gallagher’s blog entry (August 19, 2009) about his three weeks in Camden this summer presents Sr. Claire Sullivan, IHM, as a vivid illustration of a very Salesian approach. Her fearless presence in the community shows the power and value of the little virtues that De Sales promotes. She has taught us so much about being here, being with people. I can also say that Tim and all the other volunteers who have come ---college students, high school students, and parishioners--- inspire and also show the power of generosity, service, and respect. Again, these are small things, but things that make a difference---one person at a time. There is real truth to the observation that life is a mystery to be reverenced rather than a problem to be solved. So we are here to put Salesian values in practice---reverencing our least sisters and brothers, and at the same time we work as we can for God’s reign of justice and peace.