Laborers for the harvest

Upon being elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory said that a serious challenge facing the Catholic Church in America was the poor state of catechetics among the faithful. One pivotal area where this is especially true is in our understanding of the nature of the male priesthood and its centrality to the mission of the Church.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic exhortation "I Will Give You Shepherds:" "Without priests the Church would not be able to live that fundamental obedience which is at the very heart of her existence and her mission in history, an obedience in response to the command of Christ: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations' (Mt 28:19) and 'Do this in remembrance of me' (Lk 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24), i.e., an obedience to the command to announce the Gospel and to renew daily the sacrifice of the giving of his body and the shedding of his blood for the life of the world."

During the latter half of the 20th century there has been much emphasis on the possible sharing of lay faithful in certain aspects of the pastoral ministry of priests. There is little doubt that the rich and sustained collaboration of the laity and priests is vital to the life of the Church. The Church is a living and functioning body characterized by a variety of vocations, states of life, ministries, charisms and responsibilities which must all enthusiastically include the baptized in the work of building up the Body of Christ to bring the Gospel to ever more people and cultures. But we must guard against seeing the priesthood as a function that can be carried out by certain lay ministries because of priest shortages. Once again John Paul II is clear about the distinction: "In the Church and on behalf of the Church, priests are a sacramental representation of Jesus Christ, the head and shepherd" ("I Will Give You Shepherds," 15). The priest acts in the person of Christ; he is the head; he is, as the Pope says, "the figure of the shepherd" and cannot be replaced by other members of the flock. Further, he is in reality the Bridegroom to the Church; thus his maleness is not merely accidental but is essential to his priestly vocation. This is the essence of the hierarchical priesthood.

On the other hand, all lay participation in various ministries of the Church originates in our "common" participation in Christ's priesthood as a result of our baptism. The ministerial or ordained priesthood is transmitted by its own sacrament, Holy Orders, and differs essentially from the priesthood of the faithful ("Catechism of the Catholic Church," No.1547). Any task, apostolate or ministry properly entrusted to laypeople by the priest is essentially rooted in their baptismal dignity. The laity cannot be pastors; the dignity and obligations of shepherding and sanctifying are, rather, at the service of the common priesthood of the faithful. They are the otherwise unobtainable fruit of sacramental ordination, and the means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads the Church. And we need these priests. "Without the priest," Archbishop Justin Rigali has often reminded us, "there is no Eucharist!" Understanding these distinctions is necessary if the Church is to address the shortage of priests, which cannot be mitigated by having the laity piece out their duties.

The solution lies in the dedication of every Catholic community - families, parishes, Catholic schools - to follow Christ and his Church's teachings. And we must pray to the "Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Mt. 9:38).

The wonder of Christmas

In the pagan world in which our Savior was born, the winter solstice was the background for a great festival, Natale solis invicti (the rebirth of the unconquered sun). Each year people noted that as winter was coming the days grew shorter. It seemed to them that the sun god was waning, but after the shortest day of the year, the days began to lengthen once again.

There was a very early tradition that this was the approximate time of the birth of Jesus, and Christians were quick to perceive that the pagan feast could be seen as a foreshadowing of the unconquered Son of God. Certainly by the year 334 A.D. the celebration of the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 was well established at Rome.

Christmas is a beautiful word - Christ's Mass - which designates the liturgy commemorating the birth of the Lord Jesus in time. As St. John's Gospel declares, Jesus is the Light come into the world to challenge and to shatter the powers of darkness.

We know the details of the Christmas story: that a Roman decree went out commanding a census be taken. In response, Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of some 75 miles. They went to Bethlehem to be registered because they were descended from King David and this was his city. There in a stable Mary gave birth to her son and placed him in a manger "because there was no room for them in the inn." Angels summoned shepherds to greet the newborn Babe and chanted God's praises over this sacred place. As we participate in the Christmas liturgy, we recall the threefold mystery of the birth of the Son of God; his human birth in time in the stable of Bethlehem; his spiritual birth by faith and charity in the minds and hearts of believers; and his eternal generation in the bosom of the Father.

Divine revelation teaches us that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son for our salvation. To think that the all-powerful God who created the universe would enter into our history in poverty and humility staggers the imagination, but by his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has taught us that God's love does such things.

In these recent months we Americans have seen the cruelty and destructiveness of evil, but we have witnessed the courage and heroism of dedicated men and women. Our emotions are deeply stirred when we hear accounts of the selflessness of those who gave their lives that others might live. There is a parallel between such emotions and those we experience when we reflect on the birth of Jesus who came to give himself for the salvation of mankind. The obscure entry of the Son of God, Prince of Peace and Redeemer of the world touches us profoundly and leads us to declare with the psalmist: "Thou art the God of my heart, and the God who is my portion forever."

Charitable giving

With the outpouring of giving by the American people since our terrorist attack, charitable giving has taken some hard hits with the criticism of not delivering the goods to the victims for whom they were intended. We all understand that in such a massive crisis there is difficulty in determining exactly who the true victims are, since there are always some who will claim need when there is none. However, there does seem to be some basis for the criticism in the slowness of delivering the help that is needed.

Lest we think that charitable giving is very often misguided, we would like to point out that there are long-standing relief organizations that have worked for many years without blemish on their records.

We admit to showing favoritism when we point out at least two such organizations: Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. These agencies work without notoriety, quietly gathering the funds they require for relief.

They work efficiently since many of those who administer the programs do so in addition to other work they do in the Catholic Church. There are salaried administrators on the local levels but, if there are national directors, they are very often clergy or religious who are paid the same no matter what the work or receive no pay at all.

Catholic Charities USA has announced that it has collected $14 million since the Sept. 11 attack and that these funds have been or will be distributed through the 13 dioceses initially targeted to receive the funds in the immediate vicinity of New York City. There is the example of the efficiency of the system.

Going through the dioceses means that those who will do the distribution are already working for the diocese and merely take on the added duties. The Catholic Charities reports state that their local service agencies in New York area dioceses have been giving out $20,000 to $30,000 a day to help affected people to cover rent, mortgages and tuition.

CRS has been working in both Afghanistan and Pakistan through the decade of the 1990s. It withdrew its personnel from Afghanistan in the middle of the decade due to threats from the Taliban but has remained in Pakistan to aid refugees.

Then there is Cuba, which got hit by Hurricane Michelle, remember?

CRS has delivered more than $20 million in food, clothing, medicines and medical supplies to the Cuban people through Caritas Cuba and is arranging to deliver 35,000 pounds of food supplies to Caritas Cuba through the Archdiocese of Miami.

The delivery is awaiting approval of both the U.S. and Cuban governments due to the embargo on shipping goods.

CRS is also working to ease the AIDS pandemic in those countries which have been willing to admit there is such a thing as AIDS.

Catholic Charities and CRS are permanent relief organizations that never stop but go from place to place where they are needed.

Catholic Charities works in our own home towns and around the nation, CRS around the world.

So don't give up on charitable giving and don't use the stories of misguided funding as an excuse to stop giving. Giving is basic to our faith.

This editorial appeared in a recent edition of The Witness, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa.

Prayer and peace

Today's day of fasting and prayer is a faith-filled and practical way to unite ourselves in solidarity with those who are suffering greatly as this year draws to a close. The Holy Father has explicitly drawn our attention to the thousands of innocent victims of Sept. 11, as well as the many who have been forced to abandon their homes - the refugees of Afghanistan, and those at risk in the continuing conflicts of the Holy Land. "Dark clouds gather on the world's horizon," the Pope said on Dec. 8. "Humanity, which greeted the dawn of the third millennium with such hope, now feels the threat of new, upsetting conflicts hanging over it."

Today, Dec. 14, which coincides with the end of the Muslim observance of Ramadan, is also the beginning of a lengthier vigil of prayer requested by the Pope to help him prepare to meet with leaders of religions of the world. These representatives now plan to gather and pray in the Italian town of Assisi on Jan. 24, coming together in a gesture of hope. The Pope has expressed his particular desire "to bring Christians and Muslims together to proclaim to the world that religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred and violence." All are asked to pray "for the promotion of authentic peace." Fasting also allows us, in a practical way, to share our "daily bread" with "those who have none," and the Pope urged continued donations to relief efforts.

The Vatican's pastoral guidelines on fasting issued in conjunction with the Dec. 14-Jan. 24 initiative, remind us that "fasting has an important place in all the great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is "closely connected to prayer, it strengthens virtue, inspires mercy, implores divine assistance and leads to conversion of heart." This fasting, the Church reminds us, "implies an attitude of faith, humility and complete dependence upon God." According to the guidelines, local tradition will suggest the best form of fasting to adopt: whether it be the traditional practice of taking one main meal and eating nothing between meals, or "taking only 'bread and water,' or waiting until sundown before eating."

For those who may not have been able to join in today's observance, the Dec. 14 "day of fasting" may certainly be extended to the Advent season, as a sign of our waiting for the saving action of the "Prince of Peace." Archbishop Justin Rigali, in a pastoral letter last week, asked local Catholics to respond wholeheartedly to the Pope's plea to fast, "and to pray fervently that God will give the world a stable peace, founded on justice." The Archbishop recommended another practice of great relevance to the faithful here in the archdiocese of St. Louis: Eucharistic adoration. Indeed, since the very beginning of this national trial, Archbishop Rigali has stressed the importance of intensifying the eucharistic devotion that has taken hold so meaningfully in the great majority of our parishes.

In his message for the 2002 World Day of Peace to be observed Jan. 1, the Holy Father acknowledges the nature of terrorism as a "true crime against humanity." He speaks of the right to defend oneself against terrorism - always exercised with "respect for moral and legal limits in the choice of ends and means." The Pope also calls us to prayer. "Prayer is not an afterthought to the work of peace. It is the very essence of building the peace of order, justice and freedom. ... To pray for peace is to pray for justice. ... It is to pray for freedom, especially for the religious freedom that is a basic human and civil right of every individual."

We commend our country to the care of Mary under the title of her Immaculate Conception. We acknowledge her maternal solicitude as Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. Through fasting and other acts of penance and sacrificial love, let us support the work of peace. Through prayer, including the rosary and a renewed commitment to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and through the continuing care of our brothers and sisters in need, may we engage ourselves in the spiritual campaign that will win hearts turned toward Christ.

"We must not lose heart," the Pope said in his Dec. 8 message. "Peace is a gift of God and, at the same time, the fruit of the daily efforts of people of good will."

A man of faith, a man of justice

We lament the passing of Rabbi Robert Jacobs last week at 93 years of age. Rabbi Jacobs, a man of compassion and love, lived and worked in St. Louis for nearly 50 years. Through his work at the Washington University Hillel Center and with the Interfaith Partnership, Rabbi Jacobs left an indelible mark on our community.

Rabbi Jacobs was seen around the world reading from the Old Testament book of Isaiah during the historic papal visit to St. Louis in 1999, a groundbreaking moment of which he was singularly proud. He was famous in our own city as a tireless advocate of justice and peace for all members of the community. A close friend of Archdiocesan Human Rights Office director Msgr. John Shocklee, they made a powerful one-two punch in seeking justice in the 1970s. And, in his latter years, Rabbi Jacobs inspired the collaboration of representatives of many of the area's spiritual communities, including our Catholic director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs, Father Vincent Heier, in the Interfaith Partnership - promoting awareness in interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

The words of Archbishop Justin Rigali capture the respect and admiration so many of us shared for Rabbi Jacobs. "Rabbi Jacobs was a man of kindness and gentleness, who evoked the presence of God. We are grateful for his work in pursuit of justice and peace. I will always remember fondly his reading from the Prophet Isaiah at the Evening Prayer Service during Pope John Paul II's historic pastoral visit to St. Louis."

We give thanks to God for the work and life of Rabbi Jacobs.

Futility policies: Part of the culture of death

Over the past decade many articles in legal, ethical and medical journals have argued for a new concept in health care and in treatment decisions called "medical futility." At least a couple of Catholic health-care systems have involved themselves at the forefront of the implementation of these dubious medical futility policies. Part of the problem lies in the lack of agreement about what "medical futility" actually means.

In terms used by its proponents, medical futility means that a physician can refuse to provide a patient with treatment that he or she does not believe to be useful for the patient. After years of promoting the patient's autonomy in health-care decisions, now, with medical futility, some ethicists argue for a limitation on the patient's decision-making power.

Two authors, Father Peter Clark and Catherine Mikus, working for a Catholic health-care system in Pennsylvania, have subtly argued that physicians should ignore a patient's request for treatment when it conflicts with the physician's judgment. Anticipating reticence on the part of physicians due to the legalities, they write, "If the physician has acted according to generally accepted medical standards and/or in conformance with the expressed wishes of the patient, the physician will generally prevail (in subsequent litigation)."

These authors argue that when patients make irrational requests for treatment the physician should refuse. Of course physicians should not be required to provide medical interventions that offer no medical benefit. But that is not what the current theory of medical futility is about or what the authors mean by irrational. According to the principles of medical fulitity, proponents are seeking to terminate treatment precisely because it actually does sustain life. To put it in the words of anti-euthanasia task force lawyer Wesley Smith, "It isn't the treatment that is deemed futile but, in effect, the patient."

Medical futility policies seem acceptable until one grasps the transformation of words to mean things which most of us would not take them to mean ordinarily. For example, authentic Catholic moral teaching accepts the idea that, in order to be required, treatment should have a benefit. But Father Clark and Mikus state plainly, based on the principle of beneficence, that "treatment that merely preserves permanent unconsciousness or is incapable of ending dependence on critical care should also be considered futile. In judging futility physicians must ... distinguish between an effect (which is limited to a part of the patient's body) and a benefit (which appreciably improves the patient as a whole)." As Wesley Smith points out, "Treatments withheld under this policy might include antibiotics to treat infection, medicines for fever reduction, tube feeding and hydration, kidney dialysis or ventilator support." Persons will certainly dehydrate or die of an infection when water or antibiotics are withheld. But for Clark and Mikus, to intervene medically in such cases is "only to prolong a seemingly meaningless life."

Catholic institutions should resist medical futility policies, seeing them as another deceptive contrivance of the culture of death. Those who do adopt such policies should provide prospective patients and their families with clear notice that they are departing from the authentic principles of Catholic moral teaching and the Hippocratic principle which precludes doing harm to the patient. Once medical futility becomes the standard in health care, a poor prognosis, which can be erroneous and is seldom precise, will become a death sentence.

Syndicate content