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from a number of people who do not find it relevant for today’s world is that it is based on an understanding of an outdated philosophical framework which few people accept today, namely, natural law.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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fr. Louis Brisson, OSFS: Champion of the Poor

(Pictured: Fr. Louis Brisson, OSFS)

The founder of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales was a diocesan priest from Troyes, France, Fr. Louis Brisson (1817-1908). One of Brisson’s first ministries as a priest was as the chaplain to the Troyes Visitation monastery, a community of nuns founded by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. The superior of that community, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, urged Fr. Brisson to found the Oblates of St Francis de Sales, as well as the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales with St. Leonie Aviat.

The city of Troyes was an industrial town with much poverty. For Brisson, the care of the poor workers was one of his primary concerns as the leader of the new congregations of Oblates and Oblate Sisters. Brisson saw the devastating effects poverty had on the people of Troyes and sought creative ways to help poor workers lead meaningful lives. In particular, Brisson was concerned with the young female factory workers because they did not have opportunities to learn about their faith and recreate on their days off, and he understood the deleterious effects this neglect had on society. As his biographer states, “He saw the poverty that led to personal disintegration and immorality.”[i] As theologian Gustavo Gutierrez would say in the twentieth century, “Poverty means death.” The evil of poverty affects every aspect of a person’s lives and is in a real sense a type of death.

During the time Brisson worked with the poor of Troyes, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, which is viewed as the beginning of modern Catholic social teaching. This encyclical dealt with the same issue Brisson was facing, the rights of workers, which Rerum Novarum called “the question of the hour” (#44). Given the difference in the way information was shared in that time, Brisson’s biographer questions whether Brisson actually read the encyclical, “Only a small number of French bishops actually read the encyclical. And Father Brisson? We have no indication. We do know that Brisson was not the type of man who spent hours pondering and studying hefty documents and encyclicals. There are no doubts whatsoever, however, that he spent his entire life caring for workers and their rights, doing precisely what Rerum Novarum demanded.”[ii]

During his life, Brisson built many youth houses, schools, and shelters for young workers in addition to leading his two new congregations of priests and sisters. All of his enterprises were begun in order to help people live more fully human lives. Brisson was inspired by Salesian spirituality’s vision of God being passionately in love with every human being. He is a good example for all of us today that knowledge of Catholic social teaching and Salesian spirituality are great things, but it is by putting those beliefs into concrete practice that the world is transformed and people feel the healing touch of God.

[i] Dirk Koster, Louis Brisson (Noorden: Bert Post Publishing, 2007) 90.
[ii] Ibid, 186.