Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hurricane Katrina, Five Years Later

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. As we are well aware from the news the past few months, the Gulf Coast continues to be hit hard recently as a result of the BP oil spill. What is clear from both of these tragedies is that the people who are affected most are the poor and marginalized, those who have little to no security in their lives. While Katrina has passed from many of our memories because we do not see the horrific images on the news anymore, there is still much work to be done to help people flourish in their lives in the Gulf Coast.

While Katrina was a "natural" disaster, many commentators have noted that the poor living conditions of the poorest people of the region contributed to the scope of the disaster. We must be careful in blaming all the negative effects of this disaster on nature, and focus on what can be done to prevent catastrophes such as this from happening in the future. Catholic social teaching reminds us that a society is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable members. Anniversaries such as today remind us that we need to care for the poor not only when a disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane. Poverty itself is a disaster and must be dealt with immediately. Today, we continue our prayers for the people of the Gulf Coast and hopefully will commit ourselves to work for peace and justice in our world so that all people can live fulfilling lives.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Oblate Influence on DSW

Editor's Note: Today's entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike continues his exploration of influences on DSW, today focusing on the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and our founders and patrons. Next week, three recent college graduates will begin a year of service, prayer, and community in Camden. Please keep these three men, and all who come for service retreats, in prayer in the coming year. The blog will highlight the work being done by these volunteers throughout the year. For more information on DSW, please visit

Each religious order in the Church has a focus and purpose that contributes to the overall mission of the Church. The particular Oblate charism is to live and spread the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. Since our founding in 1875, we have done that through every imaginable means. We have been missionaries, teachers, scholars, maintenance men, parish priests, parish team members, traveling retreat directors, artists, preachers, military chaplains, coaches, spiritual directors, counselors, hospital chaplains, and we have worked with prisoners and those recovering from addictions.

So what we do is less central to our existence then our commitment to be Salesian, committed to the wisdom of St. Francis de Sales’ approach to Catholicism. We know God to be in love with his creation, desiring good for us, while challenging us to the core of our being, but not burdened with anxiety or “sweating the small stuff.” We believe in the power of love, which practical Francis breaks down into do-able “little virtues:” gentleness, humility, fun, thoughtfulness, kindness, forgiveness, humor, honesty, loyalty, patience, tolerance, frankness, etc. Often Oblates are noted for being down to earth, easy to connect with.

To describe the Oblates this way is not to say that each of us, each moment, every day, or every year of our lives has effectively integrated Salesian values, or, for that matter, even Christian values. But these things always stand as sacred goals that direct our efforts.

It may seem odd to look at Oblates as one model for DSW since we sponsor the whole project. But, as with the other two models this series has explored, there are specific Oblate characteristics that seem particularly useful in our project in Camden.

Work Ethic

Fr. Louis Brisson founded the Oblates with a Visitation nun, Mother Mary De Sales Chappuis. They served in Troyes, France, addressing the circumstances of their time: social disruption because of the Industrial Revolution, anti-Church attitudes and public policies in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and Catholicism colored by negative Calvinistic/Jansenistic attitudes. Fr. Brisson did this as a teacher, founder, and builder. He was very interested in the emerging technology of his age, and, at the same time, he was convinced that the insight of our 17th century bishop had much to offer the circumstances of his world.

The Oblates were to be men of action and “interior men” continually aware of God, formed by Francis’ rule of life, the Spiritual Directory Fr. Brisson often held up medieval Cistercian and Carthusian monks as models for his new community. In classes and sermons, he highlighted how these sturdy men combined effective manual labor with dedication to prayer and study. They had vibrant interior lives and, at the same time, contributed to the vitality of the Church and society.

I have always experienced Oblates to be people who put in long hours, who get involved, who do not expect to be waited on. Often Oblates are the first to lend a hand with whatever task, whether helping someone move, preparing a meal, cleaning up after a meal, or carrying groceries. Oblates staying in a guest room, when leaving, naturally strip the bed, gather the used linens, turn off the ceiling fan, and empty the trash, not expecting someone to pick up after them. Oblates clean, cut grass, prepare class, do laundry, move furniture, paint.

This practical work ethic also connects with St. Francis de Sales who had a vision of church affirmed at Vatican II. In the Church there are different of roles and responsibilities, but we all have an equal dignity and call to holiness. So religious or priests are not somehow separate from the rest of the people of God in a way requiring deference and being waited on. As Jesus “came to serve, not to be served,” Oblates have a particular responsibility to act in solidarity with other people.

In addition, Salesian spirituality encourages us to offer the full range of human activity to God. In this view no clear line divides the ordinary and secular on one side and the sacred on another side. As De Sales puts it in the Spiritual Directory:

The Oblates who wish to thrive and advance in the way of Our Lord should, at the beginning of their actions, both exterior and interior, ask for His grace and offer to His divine goodness all the good they will do. In this way they will be prepared to bear with peace and serenity all the pain and suffering as coming from the fatherly hand of our good God and Savior. His most holy intention is to have them merit by such means in order to reward them afterwards out of the abundance of His love.

They should not neglect this practice in matters which are small and seemingly insignificant, nor even if they are engaged in those things which are agreeable and in complete conformity with their own will and needs, such as drinking, eating, resting, recreating, and similar actions. By following the advice of the Apostle [see 1 Cor.10:31], everything they do will be done in God’s name to please Him alone.

Not Above the Fray

St. Francis highlights the virtue of humility as central to life. Humility is an honest assessment of ourselves: our abilities, liabilities, goodness, accomplishments and our inconsistencies and mistakes. Without a doubt, Oblate community and friends can work to make us humble in this sense. Sacraments and prayer work to form all of us as realistic, humble people. Catholics begin every Mass with a penitential rite, not because we are overly focused on guilt and sin, but because sin, mistakes, and bad judgment are part of each human life. We are asked, on one hand, not to pretend the negative does not exist, and, on the other hand, not to allow sin to be a reason to get discouraged. Faith asks us to put discouragement aside and face all things with humility and optimism.

People frequently comment that this attitude comes out in counseling and in the sacrament of reconciliation with Oblates. I notice it in our preaching. I don’t hear a lot of use of the second person, “you,” as in “you need to do this or that” or “the gospel challenges you to… .” It is much more characteristic for Oblate preaching to use first person plural. We need to do this or that,” or “the gospel challenges us…” Typically Oblates do not tell congregations what to do, but listen together to what God calls us all to do and to be.

God of Abundance

Everything about Salesian spirituality rests on faith in God who is never nit-picky or petty, but is firmly in love with each woman or man he has created. God pulls for us to have a life that has the peace that comes from trusting in him fully. However, he in no way gives up on us when we focus on things that lead us away from that peace. I want to highlight two things that flow from an awareness of God’s abundance.

First is hospitality, a basic Salesian virtue, and one that people who know us may agree that we embrace wholeheartedly. We welcome people into our homes; our celebrations feature abundant food and drink. Time may be the most valuable thing modern people possess, and I have observed Oblates taking time to treat people with respect: a homeless woman the same as a wealthy parishioner, a guy who can’t read with the same attention as a PhD or a professional. There is a well-known Dorothy Day story that Harvard sociologist, Robert Coles, tells. He visited a Catholic Worker soup kitchen in Manhattan to interview Dorothy Day. When he arrived in the dining room, Dorothy was speaking to a homeless man, giving him her complete attention. After several minutes, with the professor standing waiting, she paused the conversation and asked the waiting Robert Coles if he was waiting to see one of them. Dorothy Day is not an Oblate, obviously, but the story illustrates hospitality in sharing time, not making judgments based on externals, and in being open to service and grace in unexpected places, in seemingly unpromising encounters.

Secondly, we meet the God of abundance in the full range of human activities. St. Francis is a huge promoter of spending time with Jesus in prayer. He encourages meditation on scenes from the gospels as a prime way to observe the Lord and to come to love him. Meditation is an obvious way to meet God, but all of life wants to teach us about God: everything from peaceful prayer to difficult trials to the least promising encounters. Thus, a healthy Christian aims to get the right balance of work, recreation, prayer, service and relationship. Problems arise when any one of these is out of balance, overtaking the others.

It is important to note that enjoyment of life-fun-has to be part of the balance. Often religion is made the enemy of lightness and fun. In reality this is just another setting to encounter God who loves us.

None of us gets this right all the time, but again, these values challenge and form us as we go to work each day. These are values that can help not only Oblates or DSW volunteers in our lives, but all of us as we attempt to thrive in our own particular Christian vocations.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

St. Patrick and Life Changing Experiences

Editor's Note: Today's entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike reflects on the life of St. Patrick (one of my personal favorite saints, for obvious reasons) and how his experience has paralleled the experiences of many people who have participated in service retreats with DSW. All of the saints have something to teach us, and by trying to follow their example of serving those who are on the margins of society we come closer to the heart of God.

Camden Cathedral

In addition to sponsoring DeSales Service Works, the Oblates staff the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception parish in Camden. People often think of a “cathedral” as any large, stone, usually gothic-style church. But, to use the word precisely, a cathedral is the church for an entire diocese; it is the local bishop’s church. So, many cathedrals actually are big and beautiful to accommodate large gatherings. However, there are very humble and ordinary cathedrals that, none the less, serve as a bishop’s church.

Camden’s Cathedral is one of the pretty humble cathedrals. It was built in the mid 1800s as a parish church by the immigrant people of the time, Irish people. Clearly people at the time put a value on solid construction and on beauty because this church has both. Some of the art reflects the Irish background of the founders. In the front of the building there is a large, colorful window of St. Patrick with shamrock held high, speaking to the heart of the pagan leaders about the goodness and power of the Triune God.

St. Patrick

This is still an immigrant parish, though in this generation people come mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean. Still this saint has much to offer; the man we celebrate each March 17th is so much more than a friendly leprechaun or the mascot for celebrating and wearing of the green. His life has a lot to teach us. Patrick grew up in a comfortable setting in Roman Britain. All that changed when bandits stole teenage Patrick away to slavery in Ireland. After several isolated, hungry years, he escaped and returned home. Something about his experience changed him, so that he followed a vocation to become a missionary bishop to the Irish people who had enslaved him and had taken away his childhood. Who could blame him if he were angry and bitter toward those who had enslaved him. Instead of becoming a man consumed and shrunken by anger and desire for retribution, he dedicated his life to service and to the God whose gospel commands love of neighbor, and even love of enemy.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corp (the Jesuit version of DSW) has an unofficial motto that captures Patrick’s experience: he was “ruined for life.” There was no way he could live unaware of the people of Ireland and their need, and his awareness impelled him to do something.

Experience of DSW Service in Camden

“Thank you for reminding me how lucky I am. Coming here has made me want to donate more service to the Lord. I will continue to pray for Camden.”

“… a life changing experience”

“… first time I have ever lost sleep over another’s misfortunate circumstances. I’m more motivated to be active in service and faith than ever. You’ll be hearing from me again!”

“…I have learned so much and feel changed for life…”

“Coming to Camden, I have taken a look at the way I live my life. While handing out food to people, I would ask how they were doing, and some would answer with, “I’m alive.” That took me by surprise. If I were asked that question, I would simply say “fine” or something along those lines. Never would I have thought to answer with, “I’m alive.” As my week has gone on here, I learned not to judge people by their outward appearance or their life’s situation, but by the person they are deep inside. Even though the city is dangerous and crime filled, there is something about it that I truly love!

These thoughts represent some of the experience of college and high school students who have come to Camden for a Salesian Service Retreats. The work volunteers do and the people they encounter have an impact. As St. Francis de Sales observers, “nothing is small in the service of God.” Volunteers work with the neighborhood kids, many of whom clearly are happy for attention from youthful volunteers. They clean out the alleyway near the school. With Sr. Claire Sullivan, they visit people’s homes, some fully functioning homes next to burnt-out or abandoned ones. They paint, plant, rebuild, provide food, extend kindness, play cards or checkers and extend respect.

Service in a place as needy as Camden can open our awareness to the world, to God’s grace and action: that can make an impact in our lives. Some may hear a vocation to be involved in full-time service, like St. Patrick. Others will hear a call to find ways to serve in every walk of life.

Needy communities need us all. But every community needs the generosity of heart and unselfishness that the volunteer quotes and the JVC motto convey. Playing with a child whose family can’t provide daily breakfast; cleaning up an alley with a friendly, homeless guy who can find no way to get off the streets; visiting people in a neighborhood where half the houses are vacant lots, burnt out, abandoned or falling in; walking down a sidewalk littered by discarded syringes and postage stamp sized plastic bags; celebrating Mass in Spanish with warmth and devotion. All these things make an impression. “Ruined for life” is another way of talking about the paschal mystery, death and resurrection. Out of sin, defeat, betrayal, hopelessness can come life, second chances, forgiveness, and deeper understanding.

Why did St. Patrick go the way he did, toward life rather than to the dead-end of retribution and anger? Clearly he responded to the God whom he experienced as with him in even his lowest moments. Patrick had the grace to respond, and that made all the difference.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Immigration and Catholic Social Teaching

One of the most hotly contested issues in our country today is the issue of immigration. People of good will fall on both sides of the issue, and I don't pretend that a blog post will be able to sway people's convictions one way or another. However, it is important to recognize where people are coming from in this debate and to be loving in our dialogue. Frequently in the immigration debate, as with many debates in politics, people stop listening to the other side and demonize their opponents. This is a far cry from the Gospel imperative to love all people, regardless of their beliefs and/or behaviors.

The immigration issue in Arizona has gained much press in the recent weeks. Catholic leaders have spoken prophetically in support of comprehensive immigration reform that respects all parties involved. While Catholic social teaching (CST) does not purport to have all the answers for every political problem, the values we espouse as Christians must influence the way we approach these issues. In particular, CST demands that we recognize that everyone is created in the image and likeness of God and has inestimable dignity, regardless of his/her legal status. How we legislate these issues is open to legitimate discussion and disagreement, but we can never lose sight of this fundamental principle. Further, it is easy for many of us in the first world to overlook all the privileges we have had in our own situations and not be able to see the plight of many people who feel forced to immigrate to our country for a host of reasons, often in extremely dangerous conditions.

The following link provides resources from the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Church's approach to comprehensive immigration reform. it is my hope that the bishops' teaching will be prayerfully considered by all thinking Catholics as we together discern the best way to deal with this complicated issue.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Impact of the Visitation Sisters on DSW

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike traces the impact that the sisters of the Visitation, particularly the community in Minneapolis, have had on DSW. This year the Visitation order celebrates its 400th anniversary of the first group of Visitation sisters begininng in Annecy, France, after being formed by Sts. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. Visitation sisters throughout the world keep the Salesian spirit alive in the world today. For more information about the Visitation order, visit

Later this month, three recent college graduates will begin a year of service in Camden volunteers with De Sales Service Works. The entry below highlights a number of aspects of this year. In addition to year long volunteers, DSW also hosts individuals and groups for day, weekened, or week long service retreats. For more information on DSW, please visit:

Models for DSW
This is the second of three reflections that look at communities that serve as models for De Sales Service Works in Camden. The three are St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, what I call “the Oblate work ethic,” and the Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis.

Visitation Sisters
For 20 years a group of Visitation Sisters have lived a monastic life in an unusual setting. These nuns make their community in a very poor section of North Minneapolis, MN. They follow a regular cycle of prayer, Mass, chanted psalms, meditation, community and labor that makes up the schedule of any contemplative nun or monk. But their setting is not a walled enclosure in a remote, pristine location. Their monastery is two big, old houses in their struggling neighborhood.

One of the most vivid ways to describe this Visitation community is to tell the story they tell about getting settled in the neighborhood. Late one afternoon when they had been in the area only a few months, a young man was shot in the street outside their house. The sisters all ran out of the house to help the man. One cradled his head in her lap; another tried to stop the bleeding. They all knelt in the street and prayed and sang for the man while they waited for the police and rescue to arrive. They made an impression in the community by reaching out in this un-scripted way: they reached out naturally; they naturally prayed. People gathered around told the sisters that the man was a drug dealer, a real “bad guy.” He did not deserve their care or the prayers. The sisters said they did not care. He still deserved not to die alone, and they held him and prayed.

That action, somewhat imprudent, definitely natural and generous, established their identity as unafraid and prayerful. Moreover, they were clearly members of the neighborhood who were there to stay.

Natural Prayer
This story illustrates three things that this Visitation community gives to De Sales Service Works. First, they bring prayer into everything in very natural, honest ways. There are dramatic moments like the shooting of the drug dealer. But most often they connect with God in simple Salesian hospitality and kindness. The sisters have been part of the community for so long that many people have been connected and have become friends. So people knock on their door to check-in or just to say hello. These visits provide occasions to catch up and connect, and to offer thanks to God or to ask for help and blessing. Visits, departure, welcome, start of workday, learning news, special occasions: all of these are moments for simple prayers and blessings.

Secondly, day by day, their service involves welcoming people into their home. They welcome kids for tutoring, for reading, and for computer lessons. The windsock that has become the monastery symbol developed as a signal to kids that it was time to stop by for lessons. Neighbors and friends join the community for Mass in their living room a couple times per week. Following Mass everyone present is welcomed to breakfast and conversation. They welcome old friends back and want to know how things are going. They welcome new people as friends: no one is a stranger.

Liturgy and Life
Thirdly, the warmth and wholesome quality of these women comes across in the way they pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church. This prayer is made up of psalms, canticles, hymns, and readings. Singing these prayers is a core part of any monastic life, and the North Minneapolis monastery chants all the liturgies. However, what is different about their praying is that after each psalm, canticle, or reading they take time to “faith share.” The prayers are structured so there is silent reflection built in, but this community takes the time to speak aloud their reflections. The sharing connects the scripture with the daily life of their neighbors, with the ordinary tasks of each day, and with insights from contemplative life. This seems like a great way to insure that common prayer does not become a task to complete so we can get on to the next task. Instead, it connects with what goes on in the rest of our lives. This approach clearly encourages finding God in all people and events, in the ordinariness of daily living.

Because the structured prayer connects with life, it is not surprising that these women seamlessly bring prayers and blessings into ordinary days. They are a gift to their home neighborhood in Minnesota, but their example is a blessing for us in Camden. Learn more about this wholesome and amazing community at their web site:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Vacation and Justice

We are well into summer now and many of us have had relaxing vacations already or are excited for an upcoming vacation. We all need a break from the hard work of our lives and vacations offer the opportunity for us to relax and see the world with new, less-stressed eyes.

However, as Christians committed to promoting peace and justice in the world, there is no such thing as a vacation from this committment. In fact, our choice of how to spend our vacations has an impact on other people and the rest of creation as well. In the Vatican's "Message for 2010 World Tourism Day" (available here:, the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers reminds us of the importance of how we spend our leisure time. I offer the following exceprt for our consideration:

Under the theme of "Tourism and Biodiversity" proposed by the World Tourism Organization, World Tourism Day hopes to offer its contribution to 2010's "International Year for Biological Diversity," declared by the General Assembly of the United Nations.This proclamation was born of the deep concern for "the social, economic, environmental and cultural implications of the loss of biodiversity, including negative impacts on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and stressing the necessity to adopt concrete measures in order to reverse it."

Biodiversity, or biological diversity, refers to the great wealth of beings that live on Earth, as well as the delicate equilibrium of interdependence and interaction that exists between them and the physical environment that hosts and conditions them. This biodiversity is translated into different ecosystems, of which examples can be found in forests, wetlands, savannah, jungles, deserts, coral reefs, mountains, seas and polar zones.

There are three imminent and grave dangers to them that require an urgent solution: climate change, desertification and the loss of biodiversity. The latter has been developing in recent years at an unprecedented rate. Recent studies indicate that on a worldwide level 22% of mammals, 31% of amphibians, 13.6% of bird life and 27% of reefs are threatened or in danger of extinction.

There are numerous areas of human activity that largely contribute to these changes, and one of them is, without a doubt, tourism, which is among those activities that have experienced great and rapid growth. In this regard, we can look to the statistics that the World Tourism Organization offers us. With international tourist travel numbering 534 million in 1995 and 682 million in 2000, estimates from the organization's "Tourism 2020 Vision" report are 1.006 billion for the year 2010 and reaching 1.561 billion in 2020, at an average annual growth rate of 4.1%. And to these statistics of international tourism one would have to add the even more important internal tourism numbers.

All of this points to strong growth in this economic sector, which brings with it some major effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and the consequent danger of their transformation into serious environmental impacts - especially in regard to the exorbitant consumption of limited resources (such as potable water and land) and the enormous generation of pollution and residues, exceeding the quantities that might be withstood by a determined area.

The situation is seen to be aggravated by the fact that tourist demand directs itself more and more towards natural destinations, attracted by their beauty, which leads to a major impact on the populations visited, on their economies, on their cultural heritage and on the environment. This fact can actually either be a harmful element or, on the contrary, contribute significantly and in a positive way to the conservation of the heritage. In this way tourism lives a paradox. If on the one hand it emerges and grows thanks to the attraction of some natural and cultural sites, on the other hand the very same tourism can become detrimental and even destructive, and as such the tourism sites end up being rejected as destinations for not possessing their original attraction.

For all of this, we must assert that tourism cannot relieve itself of its responsibility to defend biodiversity. On the contrary rather, it must assume an active role in it. This economic sector's development inevitably needs to be accompanied by the principles of sustainability and respect for biological diversity.

Francis de Sales was convinced that "We pray best before beauty," and all of us are naturally attracted to what is beautiful. However, we must always remember that all beauty points us to the beauty that is the love of God, and we demonstrate our love for God by respecting the beauty of all creation. I pray that everyone has a beautiful, relaxing vacation this summer that reverences the Creator behind the created world and renews us for our work to promote justice and peace in the world.