The Diocese of Camden’s office of Life & Justice Ministries is hosting the workshop Catholics Fight Racism: A Day of Prayer, Education and Action on Saturday, January 13.
The day will feature a keynote address by Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, PhD, titled “The Numbers Don’t Add Up: The Legacy of Systemic Racism in the Experiences of African-American Catholics.” Dr. Pratt is a sociologist of religion specializing in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. Specifically, she focuses on issues of identity among African-American Catholics, systemic racism in the U.S. Catholic Church, and millennial generation Catholics. Dr. Pratt is a faculty member in the Sociology Department at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. She is a member of St. Matthias parish in Bala Cynwyd, PA where she serves as a lector and greeter.
Dr. Pratt took some time to answer three questions that introduce a taste of what she’ll be talking about at the workshop. Don’t miss the chance to hear from this dynamic, passionate scholar in person. Register for the workshop today!
The subtitle of your talk includes the phrase “systemic racism.” Can you describe what that term means to you? How is it different from the idea of racism that has mainly to do with personal prejudices and biases?
It’s not about what the term means to me, but rather, what it is. Sociologist Joe R. Feagin describes racism as “foundational and systemic” meaning it pervades all of society’s core institutions including the economy, politics, education, religion, and the family. As such, it is oppressive and exploitative. It’s designed to exploit land and labor for the material and social benefit of those who created society’s core institutions and the hierarchies that lie therein.
As such, we must think about it more in terms of racial justice instead of race relations. The race relations model focuses on individual level concerns. Focusing only on individual level concerns allows folks to believe that since they aren’t using racial slurs or burning crosses on lawns, they aren’t part of the scourge of racism that plagues both our society and our church. Because of that fallacy, those who benefit from a system that exists to prohibit opportunities and actively exclude entire groups can wind up believing – falsely – that such a system doesn’t exist.
Consequently, those who are included and who have opportunities – in short, have power – all too often dismiss the experiences of those who don’t. Conversely, the racial justice model focuses on institutional level concerns and allows us to look at the ways in which entire groups have been excluded from positions of power and authority. Because we are looking at institutional level concerns, we are able to think about ways we can make changes in our institutions and systems to bring about equal opportunity and true justice.
Based on your research or personal experience, could you describe one or two ways that African-American Catholics have experienced systemic racism in the church in this country?
Slavery, systematic exclusion from the priesthood and religious life, segregated church seating and communion lines are just a few institutional level actions designed to exclude and oppress African-American Catholics within a Church that is just as much theirs as it is anyone else’s.
The legacy of this action is found in the disproportionately small number of African-American Catholics, the minuscule number of African-American priests and religious, and the disproportional impact of church closings and parish reorganization in urban areas on African-Americans as well as other racial minority groups.
For a Catholic parish or school that’s interested in starting to fight racism in their own community, what might be a good first step?
A first step isn’t just one thing. It’s several things that must happen at once. Listening to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and exploited while acknowledging that those in power don’t have all – or often any – of the answers, a willingness to be uncomfortable, and a commitment to approach this work from the perspective of racial justice are essential to anti-racism work.
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.
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.
I’m excited to announce a special event coming up in the diocese this October. It’s called Mercy Ministry: Best Practices for Reaching Out to a Wounded World. The gathering will bring together people from Catholic parishes, schools, and other organizations across the diocese for a day of education, prayer, and networking. It’s meant to help parishes and schools more effectively engage in respect life and social justice ministries. It’d be great if you could join us.
- If you’re already convinced and you want to attend, you can register online by clicking here and filling out the form.
- If you want to know more about the event before signing up, read on! Here’s some information in a fun Q&A format.
Q: Who’s this gathering for?
A: Anyone with a heart for our faith’s call to protect human life and promote social justice! More specifically, the gathering is for:
- Respect Life and Social Justice volunteers at parishes or schools, whether working already or aspiring to get started
- Directors of Religious Education
- Youth/Campus Ministers
- Pastoral Associates
- Clergy and religious
Q: Why is it happening?
A: The gathering is meant to help parishes and schools start or deepen their commitment to respect life and social justice ministries. It’ll be a practical day and provide you with tools you can use with your own ministry context. The gathering is being called “Mercy Ministry” because it’s inspired by the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis announced a few months ago. The Jubilee is set to begin in December. As the Holy Father is calling us to recommit ourselves and our faith communities to acting with mercy, especially reaching out to those living on society’s margins, this theme is timely!
Q: So what will happen during the gathering?
A: The day will have three main parts:
- Keynote address
- A display hall featuring community social service organizations that your parish/school could connect with.
- Two rounds of educational workshops.
We’ll also have communal prayer and breakfast and lunch together.
Q: Who’s the keynote speaker?
A: Her name is Kerry Weber, author of the great book Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job. She’s also the managing editor of America Magazine. The Jesuit author Fr. Jim Martin has called Kerry “one of the liveliest, brightest, most provocative and most articulate voices on the Catholic scene today.”
She’ll be talking about her own story of living out mercy – in particular, when she spent one Lent trying to participate in all the Corporal Works of Mercy.
Get to know the wonderful Kerry a bit with this two-minute YouTube video:
And take a look at her most recent article for America, on why Pope Francis’ new encyclical is perfect for Millennials.
And finally, check out this recent profile of her from NJ.com.
Q: Tell me more about the display hall. What’s that going to be like?
A: Have you ever been to an open-air market with a lot of different stalls offering different items? Or have you attended a convention with a big exhibition area? Well, then you have a sense of what our display hall will be like.
A bunch of different community organizations from all over South Jersey will be there. You’ll have time set apart to visit them and learn about how your parish or school might connect with them. Each organization invited to the event offers life & justice volunteer and educational opportunities. Who knows – maybe some neat new relationships will be sparked! Here’s a list of organizations that have RSVP-d so far, with several more from Cumberland, Gloucester, and Atlantic Counties in the works:
- Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden (all counties)
- 40 Days for Life prayer vigil (Cherry Hill)
- Joseph’s House of Camden (Camden)
- Atlantic City Rescue Mission (Atlantic City)
- Romero Center Ministries (Camden)
- Community FoodBank of New Jersey (Egg Harbor Township)
- Food Bank of South Jersey (Pennsauken)
- Cathedral Kitchen (Camden)
- Catholic Relief Services (official humanitarian relief organization of US Catholic Church)
- Center for Environmental Transformation (Camden)
- Spirit and Truth soup kitchen (Vineland)
Q: Sounds good. How about the workshops? What will they be about?
A: There will be two rounds of workshops, and five total workshops offered. They’ll all be offered in both rounds. So you’ll be able to pick two that sound most interesting to you. A quick rundown of the subject matter:
- Doing effective respect life ministry
- Presenter: Jennifer Ruggiero, director of respect life ministries for the Diocese of Metuchen
- How to engage your parish/school in learning about and acting on international issues and poverty relief efforts
- Presenter: Katie Kernich, Catholic Relief Services
- Preparing for and reflecting on community service experiences
- Presenter: Patrick Cashio, Romero Center Ministries
- Life & Justice legislative update and how your faith community can effectively advocate for the poor and vulnerable
- Presenter: James King, New Jersey Catholic Conference
- Social justice tips from a Diocese of Camden parish
- Presenter: Pat Slater, pastoral associate for justice and community outreach, Catholic Community of Christ Our Light.
A: Fantastic. Anything else I should know?
Q: That’s more than enough to get you started! Space is limited, so be sure to register soon. You can sign up by clicking here. Looking forward to seeing you!
Last winter, a friend of mine in West Virginia invited me to speak at a social ministries conference there. “Sounds good,” I said to her,” but instead of just me, how about I get a group of South Jerseyans together and we come down for a few extra days?”
“Why not?” she replied.
So I reached out to some Catholics from around the diocese and invited them to join me for a “solidarity pilgrimage” – a trip to Appalachia designed to introduce us to the region’s gifts and challenges and to facilitate relationship-building across state lines.
For five days in May, eight of us from the Diocese of Camden traveled around West Virginia in minivans and connected with different Catholic ministries there. The pilgrimage was a series of incredible experiences. Here are three of the many lessons our group learned on the trip, which I’ve pulled from reflections several of our pilgrims wrote when returned home.
1) Take risks.
The opportunity to take part in the pilgrimage came out of left field for the participants. “With little understanding of what to expect, six others and I said, ‘We’re in,’” writes Roger Asselta, a pilgrim from the Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit (Mullica Hill/Woodstown).
“Truthfully, none of us really knew what to expect or why we were going,” writes Jim Steinitz, who’s from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish (Collingswood/Westmont). “But every one of us just knew we were being called by the Spirit to an encounter with others. My encountering began immediately as we gathered in Cherry Hill because I had previously met only one other person of our group.”
I’m not sure what convinced my seven co-pilgrims that traveling to West Virginia for five days with a relative stranger leading the way was a good idea, but they jumped in headfirst. Their courage and openness inspired me throughout our journey.
2) West Virginia is a beautiful place with some big-time challenges.
Our first stop on the pilgrimage was Nazareth Farm, an intentional community of young adults that welcomes groups like ours from around the country throughout the year for community service-based retreats. The afternoon we arrived, the farm’s director, Brian, led us on a hike. “I don’t think any of us expected to go up a mountain a few hundred feet for our hike to the tallest point on the farm’s property, but once we got there, the view was breathtaking,” writes Geneva O’Brien, a pilgrim from Stockton University’s Catholic Campus Ministry program. “We were asked to close our eyes to pray and reflect in silence, and when I opened my eyes, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and saw the beauty of God in the bright green trees and rocky earth.”
West Virginia is the only state that is entirely located in Appalachia – it’s nicknamed “The Mountain State” after all. Getting to know the state’s land was an essential part of our journey. Against this beautiful backdrop, though, we learned about the poverty and environmental degradation that have plagued much of the region.
We spent one morning of the pilgrimage at one of Catholic Charities West Virginia’s mobile food pantries, which sets up once a month in different communities. Roger sat in with a caseworker at the pantry who walked new clients through an intake process. “This involves a very close and personal interview revealing details of sad and sometimes desperate stories,” Roger writes. “I heard the words ‘I am hungry’ with a poignancy I never experienced before. It took all I had to keep it together.”
The next day, we toured Kayford Mountain with an attorney and advocate named Elise Keaton. Kayford is a piece of land that has been protected from the ravages of mountaintop removal coal mining. The late Larry Gibson, who grew up on the mountain, refused to sell it to mining companies. He started an organization called “Keeper of the Mountains” that advocates for an end to mountaintop removal mining. From Kayford, you could look out over a barren, leveled landscape that had once been a tree-covered mountain. The experience had a profound impact on Donna Mills, a pilgrim from the Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit. “The destruction of mountaintop removal mining affects just about every part of the population by ripple effect. The vegetation has been destroyed – resulting in catastrophic flooding in the valley villages below,” she writes. “Businesses close, people can’t find employment, poverty takes over. And most disturbing to me as a mother is the fact that families must consider whether it is safe enough to bear children considering the toxic water supply.”
3) It’s OK to be unsettled and confused in the face of the world’s problems. But respond to the unsettling with education and action.
Donna and her husband Steve, who was also on the pilgrimage, describe feeling almost helpless in the face of so many challenges. “Tucked away in my little corner of New Jersey, I had little knowledge of the challenges confronting the people of this region on a daily basis. That this level of poverty can be found in our country seems unconscionable,” Steve writes. “For the first few days after returning home I felt what I can only describe as an unsettled spirit, and it persists even now.”
And Donna shares, “The needs of this world can seem overwhelming. We can’t possibly fix everything. We might be inclined to think there is nothing one person could possibly do. It became very clear to me that God does expect each and every one of us to do something. Whether it is taking on the big industries that are destroying God’s creation (man and planet), being kind to the elderly person at the grocery store, or feeding a hungry child, we all have a the ability and responsibility to be His representatives and caretakers of this great earth and its inhabitants.”
We encountered so many examples of individuals and communities in West Virginia who recognize the size of the challenges they face and act with hope and love anyway. From the Nazareth Farm volunteers to the Catholic Charities staff we met to the Keeper of the Mountains organization, we met inspiring people whose witness compels us to continue our work for justice no matter the obstacle.
To read each pilgrim’s reflections in full, click the links below:
Charles Camosy, PhD, is a professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in the Bronx and author of the brand-new book Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation. He will be the featured speaker at the first Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Lecture (Monday, May 11, 7:00 pm, Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit, Mullica Hill, free admission), where he will discuss the Catholic vision of justice that extends protection to all human beings, from the moment of conception until natural death, including every moment in between.
A fabulous teacher, Dr. Camosy makes complex theological concepts accessible to all, and he has contributed essays to USA Today, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.
He took the time to answer a few questions for The Ampersand. Learn more about the lecture and register to attend here.
MJL: In a Wall Street Journal op-ed written just after the 2013 verdict against abortion-provider Kermit Gosnell, Dan Henninger wrote, “No other public policy has divided the people of the United States for so long and so deeply. Abortion is America’s second civil war.” Why do you think this is true?
CC: It radically divides everything from our families, to our parishes, to our political process. It and goes to the heart of two very fundamental values in our culture: (1) the equal standing of women in our culture and (2) the protecting of vulnerable prenatal children from death. When the stakes are understand to be so high, one can see why the debate turns out this way.
MJL: In another interview you did, you said this: “I think every prenatal child, regardless of how she was conceived, is a person with a right to life and deserves equal protection of the law. Period. That’s simply what justice requires.” Many people would disagree with you on that, obviously, and digging in to the argument would take far more space than we have. But can you lay out the core reasoning behind your argument that every prenatal child has a right to life?
CC: Well, before going to the prenatal child, I like to think about intuitions about the neonatal child — the newborn. Should the newborn child, “regardless of how she was conceived, [also be considered] a person with a right to life and deserves equal protection of the law”? Absolutely. We would think someone a monster who thought differently.
But notice that it is really difficult to explain why a newborn child is a person without saying that a prenatal child is also a person. Both are living organisms, members of the Homo sapiens family. Both are neither actually rational, self-aware, capable of moral choice, or anything else that makes humans more significant than pigs or dogs. But both have the potential for such things that other animals do not have.
Indeed, sometimes when a baby is born prematurely she is less developed than a baby who is still inside her mother. (Interestingly, secular philosophers like Peter Singer are increasingly more confident in arguing that the right to abortion also implies the right to infanticide because they too see the connection between reasoning about prenatal and neonatal human life.) What we say of one we ought to say about the other, and if newborn children have a right to life as a matter of justice, then so do unborn children.
MJL: Some critics say that pro-life advocates don’t do enough to support mothers, fathers, and children after birth. What can Catholics do to respond to those who say that pro-lifers are only “pro-birth” and not really pro-life?
CC: The first response is that such critics are correct. We don’t do enough. Many people do great things, but we absolutely don’t do enough. Every parish with a pro-life ministry, for instance, should also have a ministry to pregnant women and single mothers in difficult circumstances. That same organization should be putting hard core pressure on local politicians to increase social supports for women. Jesus commands Christians not only to be nonviolent, but to actively support those most vulnerable and least among us.
MJL: In your just-released book, you discuss statistics that surprise some people: In many surveys, women are more likely than men to support abortion restrictions. Why do you think that is?
CC: It is complex, but part of the reason is that women understand better than men that abortion does not lead to women’s social equality. In fact, paradoxically, it could lead to more inequality. One reason why our culture doesn’t give women mandatory paid maternity leave and other supports for having children is, frankly, because we believe they could have had an abortion. Our patriarchal culture insists that equality for women means that they basically have to remain non-pregnant; that is, they have to be like men. Pro-lifers know that true social equality for women means–not abortion–but giving women the resources necessary to choose to not kill their child.
MJL: Often in the Church, one can find painful divides between “pro-life Catholics” and “social justice Catholics.” You suggest a both/and approach. What are some signs of hope for you that progress toward the both/and can be made?
CC: Fifty percent of Millennials refuse to identify as either Republican or Democrat. They support “liberal” causes like health care reform and paid maternity leave, but they also support the “conservative” pro-life position in favor of protecting prenatal children. This is true also of Hispanics. Both demographics are the future of this country, and this future looks to be a very different and more hopeful one.
MJL: As a scholar, what interests you most about coming out to a parish and sharing your work with a non-academic audience?
CC: Far too often, academics are interested in having inside baseball conversations among themselves, but my work in bioethics and moral theology really does connect with the concerns of people outside the ivory tower. Indeed, if it didn’t, I’m not sure I could justify my time in working on these issues. Theologians are working for the Church, not just the academy, and this means reaching outside ourselves and engaging with other audiences. Indeed, my experience is that these audiences have just as much to teach us as we have to teach them.
Learn more about Dr. Camosy’s lecture and register to attend here.
In his modern spiritual classic Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, writes about the gang-intervention ministry he runs in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries.
Frequently, Fr. Greg says Mass at juvenile detention camps, and he shares the story of a meeting with one of the teenagers there. After Mass one day, a kid walks over to Fr. Greg, “all swagger and pose,” with a scowl fixed on his face.
“What’s your name?” Fr. Greg asks.
“SNIPER,” the kid replies.
Fr. Greg pushes back – there’s no way the kid’s mom named him Sniper.
“What’s your name?” he asks again.
“Gonzalez,” the kid says, easing up a little.
But Fr. Greg wants to know what the kid’s mother calls him. The replies with a Spanish word that loosely translates as “blockhead.”
Fr. Greg tells the kid he doesn’t doubt it. “But, son, I’m looking for birth certificate here.”
Softening right before Fr. Greg’s eyes, the kid squeaks out his full first name: “Napoleón.”
What a historic, noble name, Fr. Greg tells the kid. But there’s no way your mom uses the whole thing. What does she call you?
Fr. Greg writes: “Then I watch him go to some far, distant place – a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape – right before my eyes.”
Speaking just above a whisper, the kids says, “Sometimes, when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”
“I watched this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzalez to [Blockhead] to Napoleón to Napito,” Fr. Greg writes. “We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not [ticked] off at us.”
Names are powerful things. By digging down through Napito’s five layers of names, Fr. Greg started to build a relationship with the teenager. Napito felt valued and cared for. He felt important.
I think names might be one key part of building what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” In the Holy Father’s native Spanish, the word encuentro means much more than a mere run-in. Instead, it implies the sort of mutuality and kinship present in Fr. Greg’s meeting with Napito.
Pope Francis talks about encounter as an antidote to what he calls a “throwaway culture,” in which people who are seen as useless – the unborn, the elderly, the poor and homeless – are pushed to the margins or even literally discarded. However, if we encounter individuals and communities that are usually pushed aside – if we get to know their names – the throwaway culture begins to crumble. You don’t throw a friend away.
The importance of building a “culture of encounter” has found a new emphasis during the papacy of Pope Francis, but it’s not a new idea. Indeed, Christ himself spent so much of his earthly ministry building a culture of encounter, as he dined and conversed with tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, the poor and hungry, and other people who were usually excluded. Pope Francis’ call is the same as Jesus’ call.
Reflecting on Fr. Greg’s story makes me think about how we might deepen our commitment to building a name-based culture of encounter here in the Diocese of Camden. Here’s one question that I keep mulling over: How might the Church be different if every Catholic knew at least one person by name who had been threatened by the throwaway culture? What would it take to make that goal a real possibility?
To get this “culture of encounter” momentum going, I’m excited about an upcoming initiative called The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable, a three-part experience set for this May.
Co-sponsored by Life & Justice Ministries and the Office of Lay Ministry Formation, The Encounter Series is designed to engage your whole self: open your heart to encountering Christ in the poor on a daylong retreat; open your mind to at an informative lecture by a leading young moral theologian; and open your hands to those living on the margins at a day of service in the city of Camden.
Participate in one, two, or all three experiences, and join us as we strive to live the Holy Father’s call to encounter.
The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable
The series includes a retreat day (Tuesday, May 5; Holy Family, Sewell), an informative lecture (Monday, May 11; Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit, Mullica Hill), and a day of hands-on community service in Camden (May 16; Romero Center Ministries). All adults welcome. For more information and to register for one, two, or all three experiences, visit www.camdendiocese.org/encounter or contact Colleen Mayhew at 856.583.6118.
As we celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe today, the patroness of unborn children, it’s a great time to announce that the Diocese of Camden will host its annual Respect Life Mass on Thursday, January 22, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Shrine in Lindenwold. A pro-life rosary will begin at 6:30 pm, and Mass will start at 7:00 pm.
Download, print, and distribute a flyer for the event here: Respect Life Mass 2015
Two years ago, I published my first reflection on this blog, which included three of the Blessed Mother’s best life & justice lessons. That reflection is reprinted below, with a few small edits.
Mary is one of our tradition’s best teachers of life & justice. There are so many elements of her story that call us to be Christian disciples devoted to protecting and nurturing human life wherever it is threatened.
Mary’s “Yes” to Human Life
In the Gospel for today, we hear the familiar story of the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and tells her that she is going to be the mother of God. She’s skeptical at first, but ultimately says to Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
This powerful “yes” to God’s call is at its heart a “yes” to human life.
Surely Mary knows what bearing a child out of wedlock could mean for her in her community: at best, rejection. At worst, execution. Being a teenaged single mother was not part of her own plan. But she says yes anyway, trusting in God’s plan. (No wonder Pope John Paul II also declared Our Lady of Guadalupe Protectress of Unborn Children.)
Immediately after agreeing to bear the Son of God, Mary takes an arduous journey through the hill country to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. Mary is looking for support, for validation, for safety, for home. Elizabeth provides these things, and assures Mary that all will be well. “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth wonders in today’s Gospel, affirming Mary’s “yes.”
Elizabeth’s welcome reminds us that we must also be supporters of life in a similar way. We are called to welcome and lift up all expectant mothers—married and single, wealthy and poor, teenagers and adults. This means not resting until all mothers have access to good healthcare, a safe home, and nutritious food. A mother’s “yes” to life must be met by our own “yes” of support.
Mary’s “No” to the Status Quo
At a parish mission at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Collingswood two years ago, the presenter (Rev. Jim Greenfield, OSFS) talked first about Mary’s “yes,” but then also about Mary’s “no.”
After being welcomed by Elizabeth, feeling safe and blessed, Mary sings a song of praise to God—the Magnificat.
In this beautiful passage, Mary says “no” to society’s status quo: “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Powerful stuff. Mary praises a God who flips things on their heads, who cares for those most in need, who sends away those who can’t be bothered to think about the poor and vulnerable. The message is so threatening to the status quo that the government of Guatemala banned the Magnificat’s public recitation in the 1980s.
Mary’s prayer proclaims that if we want to be followers of Christ, we must have the courage to criticize societal structures that fail to protect what Cardinal Timothy Dolan calls “the uns”: the un-employed; the un-insured; the un-wanted; the un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb; the un-documented; the un-housed; the un-healthy; the un-fed; the under-educated. The Magnificat demands this criticism, and Mary’s third lesson calls for faith-filled action.
Mary’s “I’m With You” to Juan Diego
Juan Diego was a native Mexican and a poor peasant. And yet Mary chooses him, and appears to him as a native Mexican teenager. She speaks Nahuatl, Juan Diego’s language. Mary does not appear to the local bishop, or to someone else with power and prestige.
By appearing to Juan Diego, Mary asserts that she stands with those who are on the margins of society. “I am one of you,” Our Lady of Guadalupe suggests. It’s an inspiring moment of solidarity.
Today’s celebration is complements the message of the Magnificat. Mary’s “no” to the status quo is not the end of the story. Criticism of unjust structures that forget “the uns” is not enough by itself. Like Mary, we are called to stand with the forgotten and the oppressed, taking concrete action together to build the Kingdom of God on Earth.
May Our Lady of Guadalupe inspire us to say “yes” to life, “no” to injustice, and “I’m with you” to all who suffer.
When I was invited to speak at a parish recently, I shared a story that my predecessor in Life & Justice Ministries, the late Larry DiPaul, loved to tell.
At the end of a family gathering years ago, Larry packed up some leftover lasagna in a Tupperware container to take home. Larry was a prolific coffee drinker, and he stopped at a 711 he often frequented on the drive back from his family’s house.
Outside the store, he saw a guy he called “711 Sam,” a homeless man who was almost always hanging out there. Larry had chatted with him in passing occasionally, and paused to talk on his way back to the car.
“How’s it going, Sam?” Larry asked.
“Not bad, Larry, not bad,” Sam replied. “But I’m pretty hungry tonight.”
A light bulb went off in Larry’s head.
“Hey, I’ve got some lasagna in my car. Would you like it?”
“Oh, sure, thank you, Brother Larry.”
Larry walked over to his car, grabbed the lasagna, and brought it back to Sam.
“Hold on just a second,” Sam said. He walked into the 711 and returned a moment later with two knives and two forks.
Larry didn’t understand. “Why do you have two, Sam?” he asked. “Do you have a friend around?”
Sam held out one set to Larry.
“A meal goes a much longer way when you have someone to share it with,” Sam said.
And so they sat together on the curb and ate the lasagna together.
The phrase “social justice” means a lot of different things, depending on the context. From a Catholic perspective, one of my favorite definitions of the term is right relationship. Social justice is all about building relationships between people that reflect God’s dream for us – relationships marked by mercy, compassion, and mutual kinship.
Sam taught Larry an incredible lesson about right relationship that night outside the 711. At first, Larry saw Sam as a recipient of Larry’s own generosity. It was a one-way relationship: the giver and the receiver. Then, Sam’s surprising gesture shook Larry up and fundamentally altered their relationship. Sam and Larry became companions – a word that literally means those who break bread together.
Of course, social justice also includes political work to change the social structures that permit evils like poverty, hunger, abortion, and so many more. But as a priest friend of mine likes to say, “You can’t work to end poverty if you don’t know any poor people.”
Right relationship is also at the core of what the Church has termed “the New Evangelization,” which is an ongoing process that calls Catholics to share the Good News with new vigor in a world where so many are searching for meaning. The New Evangelization is all about deepening our relationship with Christ as friend and savior and deepening the relationships we build with one another as Church. This shared emphasis on relationship makes social justice work and the New Evangelization natural partners.
The role of social justice ministry within the New Evangelization is the topic of two presentations Dr. Jonathan Reyes will lead here in the Diocese of Camden on Tuesday, December 9. He will explore how these two ministry priorities inform and encourage each other. A gifted teacher, Dr. Reyes is the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Join us for either free event to reflect on how we, as individuals and as faith communities, can more effectively proclaim Christ’s Gospel of justice and love.
If you go…
Social Justice and the New Evangelization
Dr. Jonathan Reyes, Ph.D.
Executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops
Dr. Reyes will lead two sessions on Tuesday, December 9: 1:30 pm – 3:30 pm primarily for parish staffs and volunteers, and 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm for a general audience. Both sessions will be held at Church of the Holy Family’s Aquin Center (226 Hurffville Rd, Sewell, NJ 08080). Admission is free.
To register or for more information, please contact Norma Guzman at 856.583.6170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sponsored by Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries and the Office for Evangelization.