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Out of the pews and against the grain

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

It’s going to be tough being a practicing American Catholic in the 21st century if the leading Catholic social service agencies have any say.

And they believe they do.

Some 67 of those agencies cosponsored Jubilee Justice here July 15-18 to identify the Catholic church’s good works and to get Catholics more deeply committed to them.

Jubilee Justice, a first-of-its-kind gathering, drew 3,000 people to the University of California Los Angeles. It was planned to give parish and diocesan social justice ministers fresh insights into how they could jolt, encourage or cajole Catholics into joining the social action fray. The meeting’s title reflected Pope John Paul II’s call for “Jubilee Year 2000” in obedience to the biblical injunction to forgive debts, redistribute wealth and reconcile relationships every 50 years.

“Last April,” said meeting cochair Annette Kane, executive director of the National Council of Catholic Women, “dozens of these Catholic organizations met to devise a way to show to the church how broad-based the Catholic commitment is to its social mission. And then to encourage Catholics at the parish level to pledge themselves anew to works of charity, justice and peace. Catholics are doing more than talking about creating a just society.”

In practical U.S. terms, Jubilee Justice also showed how much who carries on the tradition of Catholic social teaching -- and how that’s done -- has changed.

No longer the province of academics, nuns and individual priests committed to special works, the tradition has been institutionalized in the United States. Much of the teaching is done by agencies that do the work -- such hands-on national organizations as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Migration and Refugee Services. They act in happy collusion with the bishops’ Social Development and World Peace Office.

Jubilee Justice cochair Fr. Robert Vitillo, executive director of the Campaign for Human Development, warned conference participants that “it is so easy for many of us living in the U.S. to lull ourselves into an uncaring complacency -- ignoring the needs of those in neighboring countries” and neighboring communities.

According to dozens attending Jubilee Justice, it’s apparent that today’s parish-centered Catholics, however hesitant, however middle- and upper-middle class they may be, are ready to listen and likely to respond.

“They want substance,” said Stephen Picha, social justice minister at Houston’s Christ the Good Shepherd, a parish of 3,300 families.

Looking for a vision

“They want a vision to hold as they build on principles and absorb the social justice stuff,” said Margaret Roncalli of St. Augustine Parish of Oakland, Calif.

“There’s a lot of charity,” said Frany Bose of Sacred Heart community in Pullman, Wash. “We’re trying to improve participation and move it toward justice.”

Added Picha, whose parish has three full-time social justice ministers, including one who focuses on advocacy, “I think most people are very ignorant of the teaching. Once they’re exposed to it, they become hungry for it -- if it’s given to them in a way that has application.”

Think of this four-day event as a way of tuning the strings on the Catholic instruments of social justice.

“There’s no doubt why these people gathered,” said Jesuit Fr. Fred Kammer of Catholic Charities USA. It was to “put ourselves in the presence of God,” and to learn. Kammer’s topic was “Spirituality for Leadership in the Third Millennium.”

In another room, people listened intently as Marie Denis, director of Maryknoll Global Concerns, delivered a revolutionary message in gentle, measured tones. Linking sacred to simple, Denis revealed the biblical principles of economy: “Enough for everyone, the abundance given to all by a loving God. Self limits. Take no more than you need.” She then deftly turned to confront globalization and self-aggrandizing transnational capitalism, revealing the depth of Christianity’s economic counterculturalism.

Life issues on the line

Dr. Marcella Colbert laid the life issues on the line as she talked of “the medicalization of life,” with physicians involved in everything from abortion at one end of the continuum to lethal injections for capital punishment at the other. Medicine has “reversed over 2,000 years of medical practice,” she said, “by abandoning the moral for the therapeutic.”

At one point, Colbert, who directs Galveston-Houston’s Respect Life Office, zeroed in on racial and ethnic discrimination, pointing out that one in two black babies dies of abortion, one in three Hispanic babies, one in four white babies.

“In Houston,” she said, “abortion clinics are all in the poor parts of town, along the freeway that feeds into the housing projects. They’re there for a reason. These people are targeted. They are not given alternatives. And make no mistake. Euthanasia’s coming right down the line.”

Another life issue, world peace, drew Fr. Bryan Hehir of Harvard Divinity School, who traced the evolution of Catholic peace teaching. In another room, Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen did the same with teaching on nonviolence.

Local Catholic Workers put a twist on the theme of forgiving debts of poor nations. “Why don’t dioceses forgive the debts of poor parishes?” their placard pleaded. (Other placards urged, “Build houses, not cathedrals.”)

Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of Dili, East Timor, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was among speakers.

To some attending Jubilee Justice, the overall message was nothing less than the remaking of Catholic identity in the light of social teaching, not least the words of Pope John Paul II, who has spoken deeply and encouragingly across all the topics this gathering grappled with.

If the first half of the meeting was reviewing the issues by meeting the workers in the field, the second half moved to education and implementation: carrying the message back to dioceses and parishes in practical ways.

As one participant put it, “I need something that’ll capture the parishioners’ imagination in order to direct that imagination toward programs. This’ll work.”

At the opening liturgy, Native Americans addressed their “grandfather” and brought blessings to the four corners of the world and the four corners of the meeting. Vatican Cardinal Roger Etchegaray of the Jubilee Central Committee brought greetings from the pope.

The table was set for 3,000. At the halfway point in the Mass, dozens of crystal goblets filled with red wine and interspersed with big, brown loaves, were arranged around three sides of a giant square wooden altar -- covered for the Mass in brilliant cloth.

To the extent that a gathering in the present can reveal what lies ahead, Jubilee Justice revealed a promising link between Catholic social teaching and the public identity of post-Vatican II Catholics.

In U.S. terms, that means 62 million Catholics, with lesser and greater levels of spiritual commitment, will be invited to stand against the American grain -- to go against their own grain perhaps -- on matters as complex and contentious as immigration and abortion, as capital punishment and national atonement for racism and America’s many “trails of tears,” as Social Security and worker justice at home, as sweatshops and debt forgiveness overseas.

Tough road, often the road less traveled. But increasingly it’s labeled “Catholic and Christian,” and the arrow’s pointing to 2000 and beyond.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999