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.
By Laurie Power
Director of Lifelong Faith Formation
Holy Child Parish, Runnemede, NJ
As part of the Matthew 25 Project, Holy Child Parish hosted a speaker who volunteers in Camden’s recently launched Welcome Centers, an outreach to the formerly incarcerated to help them secure healthcare, find employment and stay on the right path. As James Rodriguez, a parishioner of St. Josephine Bakhita and volunteer with Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), told his story and described his experiences serving returning citizens, the conversation became a lesson in mercy — the mercy described in Matthew 25, the mercy we, as Christians, are all called to share. What did we learn?
- God’s mercy is for all. It can reach anyone, anywhere. James recounted the night he sat drinking outside his house and, from a place of profound sadness, started a conversation with God. He knew something had to change. God answered his prayer, but not in the way he had expected. That night he was arrested and spent six months in jail. God continued the conversation and James took advantage of all the programs offered there. The time he spent incarcerated changed his life. God is now using him to reach out to those who are where he once was.
- Mercy has to be shared. It means meeting people where they are. When individuals come to the Welcome Centers, an immediate physical need is met by getting them enrolled for health insurance. Because of this, James related, they can begin to believe that they are part of society again and not written off as non-entities or “mess-ups.” They are then given an opportunity to speak. At listening sessions, they share the barriers that keep them from thriving in their communities. They are not simply offered advice, but a place to be heard.
- Communities are built on mercy. James felt strongly that it is only through real concern for each other that communities can survive: “It’s when we stop caring about one another that things of a bad nature start happening.” Welcome Centers not only offer practical resources, but introduce returning citizens to people who care about them.
The take-home message was one of hope. Welcome Centers are a small step, but one with remarkable potential, for whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me (Matt. 25:40).
To learn more about Welcome Centers and how you can serve returning citizens, contact Frank Stiefel from CCOP at 856-966-8869 or email@example.com.
Three people who moved to South Jersey from other countries shared their stories at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood a few weeks ago, and there were a few moments from that night I’ll never forget.
Moustafa, who grew up in Iraq and now helps resettle refugees for Catholic Charities, described being kidnapped and tortured as a teenager. He told the audience that he was released when his parents paid $20,000 ransom. Moustafa’s father, seated in the front row, said something to his son in Arabic. “My father just said he would’ve paid $100,000,” Moustafa translated. A quiet murmur went around the room.
David is originally from Liberia and came to New Jersey as a refugee. Now, with Moustafa and others on the team, he helps to welcome those from around the world who are facing similar circumstances. I asked David what he says to newly arrived refugees, whom he often sees in their most desperate hours. “I say, ‘That bag you are carrying now, I carried the same one.’” David’s empathy, radiant smile, and expertise give hope to the hopeless.
Fabiola came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child to live with her father, who had made the journey several years before. While her English today is strong, she didn’t know the language when she moved to New Jersey. Her first school here had no idea what to do with her, and put her in a class for students with developmental disabilities. “But I don’t have any disabilities!” she told the audience. “It really hurt my self-esteem.”
These stories, told at a Matthew 25 Project special event on October 29 called “Welcoming the Stranger,” remain vivid in my memory; I can quote all three without notes. On the other hand, I remember almost no other details from that week. I don’t know what my wife and I ate for dinner in late October, what sporting events I watched, or what errands I ran. Why such a discrepancy? Because stories have a special power.
“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving,” said the writer Madeleine L’Engle, whose own A Wrinkle in Time novels have touched millions of readers. Stories surely have a privileged place within our Catholic tradition. Just think about the Mass: We hear the same Scripture passages over and over in a three-year cycle. The homily and general intercessions connect the story of the Mass to the stories of our lives and the life of the world. The Creed calls to mind the most important details in the love story of God and his people. The Liturgy of the Eucharist includes the story of the Last Supper. As we hear these stories of compassion and mercy over and over again, they can shape us into more compassionate and merciful people.
Just like the stories that we share within Mass, stories like the ones shared by Moustafa, David and Fabiola can open our hearts and change our perspectives.
A recent article from Oregon Catholic Press’ “Today’s Liturgy” publication described this sort of a perspective shift in a really compelling way. Fr. Ronald Raab, CSC, describes a conversation he had with a retired bishop as Fr. Raab was preparing to serve a parish as pastor. “When you speak about ‘the poor,’ simply tell your people to switch out one word,” the bishop told him. “Tell them to take out the ‘the’ and replace it with ‘our.’”
In the case of the thousands of people who come from around the world to South Jersey, the phrase might be “our migrants and refugees.” And, as we have the chance to get to know individual people and their stories, we can take it one step further: “our migrants and refugees” become “our friends” Moustafa, David, Fabiola, and so on.
Peter Henriot, SJ, a Jesuit priest who was a pioneer in articulating the intimate connection between faith and social justice, says that as we become friends with those who have experienced oppression, our love for them inspires us to work to change the structures that oppress them.
In the spirit of this movement from friendship to action, participants at the October 29 event were encouraged to contact elected officials in the following days, urging them to enact policies that grant relief to so many of our immigrant families who are living in fear. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ suggested message for Catholics to send to President Obama is clear: Protect as many immigrants and their families as possible from deportation. When I called the White House last week and delivered that message, I had Fabiola’s story in my thoughts and prayers.
The only way to overcome polarization and division is to hear stories and build friendships across society’s boundaries. Where are there opportunities in your own life to start or deepen this process?
To learn more about opportunities for building friendships across boundaries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Catholic Church works with both migrants (like Fabiola) and refugees (like David and Moustafa). Learn about this work, and the difference between migrants and refugees, at www.justiceforimmigrants.org/immigration-basics.shtml.
In a powerful YouTube video produced by a New York City-based homeless shelter called the Rescue Mission, five individuals are interviewed about relatives who are important to them.
“Nobody meets in bars anymore, but I met my wife in a bar,” says Tom. “You know, 34 years later, it’s still working!”
Alison offers a short reflection about her brother. “My whole life, I’ve always felt like we were a team – my brother and I,” she says. “I think there’s nobody who can understand you quite like your family.”
Unbeknownst to the interviewees, as they walked through the city to the studio for filming, each one passed their respective family member, posing as homeless on the street. Tom, Alison, and the three others were filmed surreptitiously as they walked right by their loved ones without a second glance.
The video producers show the hidden-camera footage to the five, and then each heads back to the street for a tearful embrace with their relative.
Text on the screen at the end of the video reads, “Change how you see the homeless.”
“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
This famous line comes from one of my favorite Scripture passages, Matthew 25: 31-46. It is a foundational passage for all Life & Justice ministries, in which Jesus tells his followers that they will be judged based on how faithfully they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the ill, and visited the prisoner. What is particularly striking to me about this passage is that Jesus identifies with these vulnerable people in a one-to-one way. We are not caring for others on Christ’s behalf; we are caring for Christ. Like the Rescue Mission’s video, this passage is all about changing how we see those who are poor and vulnerable. They are not statistics or sad stories. They are our brothers and sisters; they are bearers of Christ himself.
What’s just as remarkable as the reading itself is where the Church places it in the lectionary. Once every three years, including this coming November 23, we hear this Matthew 25 story on Christ the King Sunday. On a feast day in which we celebrate the King of the Universe, we hear that we will not find him on a throne in an impenetrable castle, making proclamations from on high. Instead, our King is found on society’s peripheries, in the faces of prisoners on death row and hungry children at soup kitchens.
A few months ago, I was meeting with a newly formed social concerns coordinating committee at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood/Westmont. The group wondered when they should introduce the ministry to the parish. We decided Christ the King Sunday, with every Mass-goer hearing the Matthew 25 reading, was a perfect opportunity. Excited by the natural tie-in, the group decided to create a five-week series leading up to Christ the King, focusing on one of the conditions Jesus describes in the Matthew 25 reading each week: hungry/thirsty (October 19-25), stranger (October 26-November 1), naked (November 2-8), ill (November 9-15), and imprisoned (November 16-22). How do we see Christ in these marginalized groups of people today, and how can we journey with them? The Blessed Teresa group started to plan a handful of social ministry activities that all parishioners could participate in. We’d call it “The Matthew 25 Project.”
Their creativity inspired me. Why not invite other parishes to get involved? A number of faith communities all over the diocese decided to participate, and I’m thrilled that about a dozen parishes will be hosting over 20 events as part of the inaugural Matthew 25 Project. We have sandwich makings for social service agencies, an educational panel featuring former refugees and immigrants, meal service a homeless shelter, a communal anointing of the sick, diaper drives for Catholic Charities, and more events lined up. The complete series is open to everyone. Find activities at a parish near you by accessing a complete calendar of activities at camdendiocese.org/matthew25.
The hope of The Matthew 25 Project is similar to the Rescue Mission’s video, as these experiences can change how we see those who are poor and vulnerable and how we respond. Prayerfully consider participating in this opportunity to live our Gospel call.
Daniel Hoover and Martha Jordan are the keynote speakers at this year’s Diocese of Camden Respect Life Leaders Gathering on Saturday, October 18 at St. Charles Borromeo in Sicklerville. By then, they’ll be married! (Yes, to each other!)
Titled “Called to Love All Life,” the gathering will bring together current and aspiring leaders in the pro-life movement from the diocese’s parishes and schools. Besides Daniel and Martha’s keynote address, the day will feature Mass and communal prayer, breakfast and lunch, topical breakout sessions, and networking time with dozens of respect life leaders from faith communities all over the diocese.
You can register for the event by clicking here, or email email@example.com for more information.
All are welcome!
A bit about Daniel and Martha:
Daniel grew up in Grass Lake, Michigan. He attended Michigan State University where he studied religion and philosophy before getting his Masters of Theology from the University of Notre Dame through the Echo Faith Formation Leadership Program. He is currently the pastoral associate of St. Mary Magdalen school and parish in Wilmington, Del.
Martha grew up in South Jersey, and was a long-time parishioner at the Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit (Holy Name of Jesus Parish). She received a Bachelor’s degree in Theology, with a minor in Human Life Studies, from Franciscan University of Steubenville. After college, Martha worked with organizations such as Generation Life and FOCUS as a campus missionary at Boston University. Martha now works at the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne, Penn., where Church leaders receive world-class leadership training, following the example of leadership made known to us through Jesus Christ.
To help you get to know Martha and Daniel a little bit more before October 18, I asked them to reflect on three questions.
Martha: I have a friend whose love for all people is expressed so clearly whenever she interacts with another. She allows all of the details of a conversation to be important so that love might be shown. When she speaks her tone is loving, kind and sweet, her demeanor is pleasant, she smiles, and her body language is open. She communicates with people with great intentionality because of the love she has in her heart for Christ and His people. It inspires me because it is so uncommon today to take the time to look, listen, and speak to each person as though he/she were the most important, and yet — it is in these actions — in this love, that the hearts of people are moved to believe in Christ, in love.