Have you ever had a moment when you just knew the Holy Spirit was at work right in front of you? When your spine tingles and your eyes grow wide? I experienced one of those sacred encounters in a Catholic school basement in Cherry Hill last year, and I’ll never forget it.
I was moderating a panel of folks who work for our Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program. They welcome individuals and families who are fleeing violence and persecution around the world and help them adjust to their new lives here in South Jersey. Two of the panelists were former refugees themselves who now work for the program, including a lovely man named Francis, who is originally from Burma (now called Myanmar).
At the start of the program, I told the crowd that the refugees who move here are living and working and going to school right alongside us, whether we knew it or not. The panel’s goal was to help raise awareness of the work Catholic Charities is doing and share with attendees how they could get involved. How might we all be good neighbors to these newly arriving members of our community?
We took a short break in the middle of the event, and I made small talk with Francis.
“So, where do you live?” I asked.
He told me.
“Wait, where?” I replied. My spine tingled and my eyes grew wide.
It turned out Francis and his family lived right around the corner from me. They were my literal neighbors. I drive past their place every day. I had no idea.
Read the rest of this column at the Catholic Star Herald.
Every Christmas morning, my friend Sean’s parents would load their three sons into the family car and head to a local soup kitchen. Sean and his brothers would help out by putting napkins and flatware on the tables, then a hot meal would be served and gifts distributed to the patrons. Sean’s dad sometimes dressed up as Santa Claus.
On the first day back from Christmas break one year during middle school, Sean’s teacher asked the class what they had done over the holidays. “We served a meal at the soup kitchen in the morning and then we came home and celebrated,” Sean told his class. An awkward silence followed. Sean could tell that kids around the room were staring at him.
“That was the first time it occurred to me that this was not the way most of my friends spent their Christmases,” Sean remembers. “One of my favorite parts about serving was that it wasn’t a big deal. My parents really did a good job of integrating it into our holiday traditions. It was just something we did.”
For many of us, the Advent and Christmas seasons are times when we feel an especially strong pull to reach out toward those who are in need. Why? Maybe one reason is that while Christmas is supposed to be full of joy and togetherness, we realize that there are so many people in the world who are hurting and lonely, and we feel called to close that gap. Sean’s family surely responded to this call in a powerful way.
One thing I love about the Christmas stories found in the Gospels is that they so clearly affirm the season’s tradition of compassion. The stories are chock-full of love, justice, and God’s special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable. Let’s explore these themes by focusing on a few of the Christmas season’s central characters: Mary and Joseph; the Christ-child; and the shepherds and Magi.
Mary and Joseph
It’s impossible to imagine. The Virgin Mary – a devout teenager, not yet married to Joseph – is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she will bear the Son of God. At first, she is “greatly troubled” by this unexpected news. Mary, after all, knows the punishment other unwed mothers have faced in her community: execution by stoning.
But, drawing on the deepest well of faith ever known, Mary says yes to God’s plan. She says yes to life.
This time of year, I spend a lot of time thinking about other mothers who are facing unexpected pregnancies, and wonder about the trepidation many of them must be feeling. I pray that our communities of faith can be places of welcome where all parents – single and married, well-off and struggling – feel supported in their choice for life.
Mary found this sort of radical hospitality in Joseph. When he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, his first instinct was to divorce her quietly, protecting her from shame and violence. Then, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him not to fear, but to care for Mary and her unborn child, he took Mary into his home.
Their journey together took them to Bethlehem and then, in the Gospel of Matthew’s account, into Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. This must not be forgotten: The Holy Family was a refugee family. How relevant and painful it is to reflect on that fact against the backdrop of the world’s current refugee crisis.
On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I went to a prayer service for migrants and refugees at Catholic Charities’ headquarters in Camden. The room was filled with Catholic Charities staff members and recently resettled refugees who had just finished an English class. Some of the refugees have arrived here in the past few months from Syria, welcomed by Catholic Charities and working to build a new life in South Jersey. During the general intercessions, prayers for refugees were read by a handful of the refugees themselves who have become confident English speakers. I have had very few, if any, more powerful experiences of prayer in my life. How might the world be different if every Christian around the world consciously saw the Holy Family in each refugee family?
What can we learn about God from our belief that he came into the world as a baby boy?
God could’ve come to Earth wielding the power of a superhero, but he didn’t. Instead, he came to Earth as the Christ-child, incarnating “transparency, vulnerability, defenselessness,” as the great spiritual writer Fr. Ronald Rolheiser puts it. “Ultimately though that power, helplessness and vulnerability, is the greatest power of all because it, and it alone, can transform hearts,” Rolheiser writes. “You don’t soften hearts by overpowering them. You transform hearts through another kind of persuasion.”
There has been a collective, societal obsession with on political and military power this year – even more than usual, perhaps. Christmas is a reminder that God transforms the world (and invites us to join in the work) with gentleness.
Shepherds and Magi
Both of our Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth include visitors to the manger: shepherds in Luke and Magi in Matthew. Why?
Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that shepherds in first-century Palestine were “among the lowest-esteemed laborers.” That they are Jesus’s very first companions in Luke’s Gospel sets the stage for Christ’s later ministry, during which he consistently accompanied those who were poor and marginalized. As disciples, the way Jesus spent time is a model for how we might spend time; his priorities should be our priorities.
While the Magi aren’t poor or vulnerable the same way the shepherds are, they come from outside the Jewish community, and reveal how the love of God made flesh in Christ embraces all people. The boundaries we build up to separate groups based on race, religion, class, age, ability, and more are not of God. Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, cuts to the heart of this idea in his book Tattoos on the Heart. “No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it,” he writes. “Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”
If our Christmas season in 2016 is filled with radical hospitality, respect for the dignity of life at every stage, and kinship with the marginalized, our celebration will surely look a lot like the very first Christmas. Or, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” May every heart prepare Him room! Merry Christmas!
When she was eight years old, Widian Nicola moved to the United States from Israel with her Palestinian-Catholic family. She has an incredible, inspiring story of facing the challenges of life as an immigrant in this country with faith, hope, and love. She’ll share parts of her story with us at our annual Life & Justice gathering, which is set for Saturday, October 22 at St. Charles Borromeo in Sicklerville. The theme for the day is From Stranger to Friend: Called to Welcome. Learn more and register at camdendiocese.org/mercyministry.
In anticipation of her visit, she played a fun round of “Fill in the Blank.”
Name: Widian Nicola
Hometown: Mi’ilya, Palestine and Vancouver, WA (Currently Titusville, NJ)
One thing I love to do is: listen to podcasts!
One person who inspires me is: my spiritual director, Sharon Browning, who has undoubtedly helped me to grow in my faith more than anyone.
My favorite place is: my home. I have several plants on every window ledge and lots of space to rest and relax.
Job: Assistant Professor of Social Work and Licensed Clinical Social Worker
I’m a social worker because: I’m inspired to connect with and love those who are most vulnerable; there seems to be no clearer path to the Divine.
One cool fact about me is: When I arrived to the USA at eight years old, I knew only the numbers 1-10 and “yes” and “no.”
If I had a meeting with Pope Francis, I’d tell him: Thank you for your faith and for representing our community with such great love.
Catholic parishes could more effectively be agents of welcome for migrants and refugees by: creating opportunities for intentional dialogue to foster connection. Why not host a multi-cultural event or potluck? Or perhaps an “adopt-a-family” program? Invite newcomers to holiday gatherings at your home and ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing a dish from their native country, offer tutoring to help your new neighbors learn English, or create a community pamphlet that lists all the stores where a family might get all their household supplies. In all things, to welcome means to be intentional and extend oneself for the sake of the other.
Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Albania in 1910. Growing up, she was fascinated by the stories of Catholic missionaries, and thought she very well might enter religious life herself. When she was 18, Agnes entered the Sisters of Loreto, taking the name Sister Teresa in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux.
Eventually, Sister Teresa ended up teaching at a convent school in Kolkata, India (formerly known as Calcutta), where she served for nearly 20 years. While she enjoyed the work, Teresa became increasingly troubled by the poverty, hunger, and violence that surrounded her in the city.
Traveling by train to a retreat on September 10, 1946, Teresa experienced what she would later refer to as “the call within the call.”
“I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order,” she said. “To fail would have been to break the faith.”
She shifted her ministry to begin working with the poorest of the poor in Kolkata, and started a new religious order called the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Without knowing it, she had changed from Sister Teresa to Mother Teresa, and the rest is history: She built up a community of sisters that accompanies thousands of the most poor and vulnerable people around the world, extending the compassion and care of Jesus to those who are so often ignored or forgotten.
On Sunday, September 4, Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa at a ceremony at the Vatican, giving her yet another name change: Saint Teresa of Kolkata.
I love that image of a “call within a call.” Teresa’s religious vocation did not end, but its contours changed. I try to listen for those calls in my own life. My primary vocation is as husband and father, but how might God be calling me to live out those vocations more deeply and faithfully as an employee, neighbor, or friend? Do I have the trust that Teresa had to try something new that’s worthwhile but risky? Mother Teresa’s witness is compelling, but so very challenging.
At the annual Romero Lecture sponsored by Camden’s Romero Center Ministries a few years ago, social ministry expert and founder of JustFaith Ministries Jack Jezreel led the audience through a thought experiment. “If you can imagine Mother Teresa standing in front of the room, I picture most of us looking admiringly at her, applauding,” he said. “Meanwhile, we’re looking out of the corner of our eye for the exit, backing up slowly, so as not to be too noticeable – all the while applauding. We admire her, but we want no part of her.”
Mother Teresa’s ministry makes us uncomfortable, Jack said. She and her sisters worked with the desperately poor and dying. She did not a run a back-to-work program; there were no traditional success stories. To most of the world, how she spent her life makes no sense. Why would we want to be a part of that?
Some people, Jack said, are able to pass up society’s version of “the good life,” cross over the boundary and enter into the reality of Teresa, the experience of universal caring that embraces the needs of all. “If somehow we can cross the boundary and engage in the mystery of faith and love, what opens up is a whole new world, a whole new vocabulary, a whole new set of touchstones for life’s living,” he said. “Once people make it across that boundary for the first time or the second time, they do not want to go back to the old ways.”
A move might like this might seem overwhelming or just flat-out impossible. We’re busy with all sorts of obligations and activities. But sometimes, taking just a small step in the direction of compassion can provide the spark the Holy Spirit needs to transform us into disciples who are empowered to live as Mother Teresa lived.
On Saturday, September 10, you’re invited to take a small step together with Catholics from all over the diocese as we spend a day in service to the community to celebrate Mother Teresa’s canonization. We’ll gather for opening Mass in Collingswood and Atlantic City, and then head out to serve with community groups like Catholic Charities and local nursing homes, food banks, and shelters. Disciples of all ages are encouraged to attend; visit www.camdendiocese.org/motherteresa to learn more and to register.
The date of the service day just so happens to be the 70th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s hearing her “call within a call.” What a fantastic occasion to participate in her legacy of love in action. And who knows – maybe you’ll hear a call that day, too.
Questions about the event? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pope Francis’ much-anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, does not disappoint. It is an incredible work that is full of good advice for both families and church leaders, delivered with theological richness and pastoral sensitivity. Do read the whole thing if you can.
A lot has already been written on many of the key elements of the document, but what struck me while reading it is how clearly Pope Francis connects family concerns with social concerns. He argues that families are only able to flourish if our societies are set up to support them.
This approach called to mind a great quote by St. John Paul II, who said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Part of Pope Francis’ emphasis in Amoris Laetitia could be summed up by flipping that idea around: As society goes, so goes the family. They are complementary ideas.
Here are ten quotes from the exhortation that connect particular social issues and our call to work for justice to family life. I’ve listed them by theme, and include each quote’s paragraph number in brackets.
1. Dignity of Work
Labour also makes possible the development of society and provides for the sustenance, stability and fruitfulness of one’s family: “May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children!” (Ps 128:5-6)….This having been said, we can appreciate the suffering created by unemployment and the lack of steady work, as reflected in the Book of Ruth, Jesus’ own parable of the labourers forced to stand idly in the town square (Mt 20:1-16), and his personal experience of meeting people suffering from poverty and hunger. Sadly, these realities are present in many countries today, where the lack of employment opportunities takes its toll on the serenity of family life. [24-25]
2. Care for Creation
Nor can we overlook the social degeneration brought about by sin, as, for example, when human beings tyrannize nature, selfishly and even brutally ravaging it. This leads to the desertification of the earth (cf. Gen 3:17-19) and those social and economic imbalances denounced by the prophets, beginning with Elijah (cf. 1 Kg 21) and culminating in Jesus’ own words against injustice (cf. Lk 12:13; 16:1-31). 
3. Affordable Housing
The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships. It should be kept in mind that “the family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of the members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and the community”. Families and homes go together. This makes us see how important it is to insist on the rights of the family and not only those of individuals… At times families suffer terribly when, faced with the illness of a loved one, they lack access to adequate health care, or struggle to find dignified employment. 
4. Forced Migration
Furthermore, forced migration of families, resulting from situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice, and marked by the vicissitudes of a journey that often puts lives at risk, traumatizes people and destabilizes families. 
The problems faced by poor households are often all the more trying. For example, if a single mother has to raise a child by herself and needs to leave the child alone at home while she goes to work, the child can grow up exposed to all kind of risks and obstacles to personal growth. In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. 
6. Women’s Rights
In this brief overview, I would like to stress the fact that, even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women’s rights and their participation in public life, in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights…The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union. I think of the reprehensible genital mutilation of women practiced in some cultures, but also of their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making. 
7. Protecting the Unborn
Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being. 
Families should not see themselves as a refuge from society, but instead go forth from their homes in a spirit of solidarity with others. In this way, they become a hub for integrating persons into society and a point of contact between the public and private spheres. Married couples should have a clear awareness of their social obligations. With this, their affection does not diminish but is flooded with new light. As the poet says:
“Your hands are my caress,
The harmony that fills my days.
I love you because your hands
Work for justice.
If I love you, it is because you are
My love, my companion and my all,
And on the street, side by side,
We are much more than just two”. 
9. The Family as a School of Mercy
“The family is thus an agent of pastoral activity through its explicit proclamation of the Gospel and its legacy of varied forms of witness, namely solidarity with the poor, openness to a diversity of people, the protection of creation, moral and material solidarity with other families, including those most in need, commitment to the promotion of the common good and the transformation of unjust social structures, beginning in the territory in which the family lives, through the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy”. [310; quoting the Synod Fathers]
10. The Family as Transformer of the World
When a family is welcoming and reaches out to others, especially the poor and the neglected, it is “a symbol, witness and participant in the Church’s motherhood”. Social love, as a reflection of the Trinity, is what truly unifies the spiritual meaning of the family and its mission to others, for it makes present the kerygma in all its communal imperatives. The family lives its spirituality precisely by being at one and the same time a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world. 
Pascasie Musabyemungu works for Catholic Relief Services in Rwanda, her native country. She’s visiting the United States this Lent to share her story and talk about the work of CRS, and she’ll be stopping by the Diocese of Camden on Wednesday, March 9, at 2:30 pm.
Download a flyer for the event here.
She’s so excited for her visit to South Jersey she recorded a special video greeting just for us! Check it out:
Pascasie Musabyemungu (CRS Rwanda) Special Event
Wednesday, March 9, 2016 | 2:30 — 3:30 pm
Diocese of Camden Pastoral Center (3rd Floor)
15 N. 7th Street, Camden, NJ 08102
Email email@example.com to RSVP.
A bit about Pascasie:
Pascasie Musabyemungu has a mission: to work for peaceful, healthy communities in her home country of Rwanda.
Pascasie, who has worked with Catholic Relief Services for more than 15 years, will share stories of people whose lives have improved dramatically since they began participating in CRS programs.
Pascasie works with the hungry, people living with HIV, orphans, vulnerable youth, the elderly and people traumatized by a region rife with conflict and social division. The Women Building Peace Project Across Borders brings together 60 women traders to promote peace. The women serve as critical conduits of information, breaking down harmful stereotypes and preconceptions.
Pascasie was born and raised in the eastern region of Rwanda. When she was a child, her family provided food and essential living supplies to patients in need at a clinic near their home. Additionally, she and her siblings spent two afternoons each week caring for an elderly couple.
In 1994, Pascasie and her family lived through the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. These experiences profoundly influenced her decision to work for CRS and help others in her community.
Pascasie resides in Kigali with Laurent Twahirwa, her husband of more than 30 years. They have four daughters—Josianne, Carine, Christelle and Samantha—and four grandchildren.
In late November, custodian Jose Moran set up the Christmas manger at Holy Jesus Child Church in Queens, NY. He took a lunch break and then returned to the church. What he found there was surprising, to say the least: a newborn baby was crying in the manger – so young, his umbilical cord was still attached. The parish has accepted the infant with open arms, with multiple families volunteering to adopt him.
Fr. Christopher Heanue is an administrator at the parish. “I think it’s beautiful. A church is a home for those in need, and she felt, in this stable — a place where Jesus will find his home — a home for her child,” he told the New York Times. “Pope Francis has called this a year of mercy in the church…What better way to be merciful than to find a home for those in need.”
The Jubilee of Mercy started on December 8. Inspired by the example of Holy Jesus Child Church, here are just 10 ways you might try to practice that type of mercy during the year ahead.
1. Pray for those who are hungry before every meal.
Prayer changes things – including the heart and mind of the one who prays. Working on this simple habit unites us to those who are hungry should lead to fruitful action, like wasting less and giving more to organizations that fight hunger, for instance
2. Get to know someone living on the margins.
There are number of social service agencies in our region that facilitate encounters with those living on society’s peripheries: the poor, the homeless, the lonely. Connect with one of these organizations and spend time with someone the agency serves. Get to know his or her name and a bit about their story, and share of yourself. As we see in parables like the Good Samaritan, mercy involves physically moving toward those who suffer – not just writing a check or dropping some old clothes in a donation box.
3. Learn more about a pressing social issue.
What makes you say, “The world shouldn’t be this way”? Pick an urgent issue threatening human dignity in the world right now. Learn more about it and research what Church leaders have said about it. Then, learn about how you can be involved in possible solutions to the problem, in a small or large way.
4. Memorize the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Memorization is big for us Catholics – we memorize prayers, Mass responses, the dates of particular feast days, the pattern of the rosary, and more. We don’t memorize just to be able to repeat things in a rote way, but so these key ingredients of our faith become fully integrated into our lives. They become part of us. I know I still don’t have the works of mercy memorized. Maybe I’d be better at living them if they were more fully present on my mind and in my heart.
5. Read Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber.
Speaking of integrating the works of mercy into our everyday lives – journalist Kerry Weber committed to practicing all the corporal works of mercy during a Lenten season a few years ago and recorded her experiences in this book. Her authentic witness is inspiring and makes for a great read. Perhaps it’ll spark some good ideas in you.
6. Visit a sick or elderly friend or relative.
When Pope Francis talks about people who are often forgotten or even discarded as part of our “Throwaway Culture,” he almost always mentions the elderly. Loneliness is a real epidemic in our culture. If you don’t have someone close you to you who you can visit, connect with the activities department at a local nursing home and see how you might be able to get involved.
7. Advocate for more just public policy at a lawmaker’s office.
Mercy involves spending time with those who are suffering. It also includes raising your voice on their behalf. One powerful way to make your voice heard is to visit local lawmakers’ offices to advocate for more just legislation. To learn about pertinent legislative issues that affect those on the margins of society, and how the Church suggests you respond to them, visit the website for the movement Catholics Confront Global Poverty at www.confrontglobalpoverty.org.
8. Buy Fair Trade.
Here’s another less-obvious way to practice mercy – in your role as a consumer. Fair Trade products – which range from coffee and tea to clothing and jewelry – are produced by fairly-paid adults around the world. By buying Fair Trade, you can help give a hand-up to those living in poverty in developing countries. Find Fair Trade coffee in your local grocery store. Your parish can even host a Fair Trade sale through a partnership with Catholic Relief Services; visit www.crsfairtrade.org to learn how.
9. Watch you language.
The words we use shape how we view the world. When it comes to mercy, it’s easy to see its practice as a top-down thing in which the more-fortunate generously reach down to give something to the less-fortunate. But in God’s eyes, we are all equally valuable and loved. So, here are some words I’d suggest steering clear of when talking about the practice of mercy: give back; helping the less fortunate; make a difference. Instead, try things like: build relationships; mutuality; kinship.
10. Start or strengthen a Life & Justice Coordinating Team at your parish.
In a document called Communities of Salt and Light, the bishops of the United States write, “The local parish is the most important ecclesial setting for sharing and acting on our Catholic social heritage.” What does this mean? We can’t leave the work of mercy to Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic healthcare, and other similar organizations. These are all great and essential institutions, of course. But as the parish is where faith is meant to be lived in entirety, the parish must be engaged in organized, efficient, widespread works of mercy. A well-formed coordinating team is the best way to empower the faithful to get involved. My office offers training sessions to help get you up and running. Email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call me (856.583.2910) to learn more.