Faith-filled storytellers

Everyone loves a good story. From tots to the elderly, we like to hear and read stories or watch them on stage and screen. And most of us like to tell stories. We often delight in relating something that happened on our vacation, a memory from our childhood or a passed-down episode from our family history. Why is it, then, that so few of us are willing to share our faith stories? Why do we refrain from telling stories of our encounters with God and stories of how God has worked in our lives?

Stories are a wonderful and easy way to pass on the faith to the next generation and to others. Jesus taught with stories. The Catholic Church nourishes us with stories, drawing from Scripture and the lives of the saints. Should we not be doing the same with our children, grandchildren, family members, friends and neighbors? The U.S. bishops think so. They are looking to adults with a mature, vibrant faith to be the messengers who pass on the faith by telling their own stories of God in their lives. This is what the early Christians did. This is what we must do.

In their recent pastoral letter "Were Not Our Hearts Burning Within Us?" the U.S. bishops called for the Church to prepare adults to spread the faith. It is a major undertaking. Some studies show that only 10 percent of Christian families discuss their faith with any regularity and, in 43 percent of families, faith is never discussed.

For many years, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has emphasized adult faith formation. Offerings range from Paul VI Institute courses to parish RCIA and Scripture study programs. In addition to these learning opportunities, most parishes offer faith-sharing programs, such as Renew. These small faith-sharing groups provide an environment where we can learn and practice how to share our faith experiences through storytelling.

Anyone who has participated in such groups knows, however, how easy it is to avoid the faith-sharing part of the session by focusing on reading and discussing Scripture. We find it difficult to reveal our intimate relationship with God. We fear embarrassment or what others might think. We fear pricking old hurts and memories that bring tears to our eyes. Yet unless we are willing to take such risks in our world of family and friends, we will miss the experience of healing, joy and love that flow when hearts are opened to one another.

A culture that devalues life

President George W. Bush has made his decision regarding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Elsewhere in this week's St. Louis Review Archbishop Justin Rigali offers his thoughts on the president's decision.

An intriguing aspect of the entire matter is that the Church's position on the issue was actively sought out by our nation's leader. For the past eight years, the former leader of our nation - in accord with many in the secular news media - openly disparaged Catholic thought, especially as it related to the most important life issues of the day. It is almost impossible to count the number of times in the last administration the word "extreme" was used to dismiss important elements of Pope John Paul II's theology of the body.

To Bush's credit, his speech to the American people spoke of his worry "about a culture that devalues life," and that as president he has "an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world." If one may separate his words from the actual decision he has made - and that indeed is debatable - the language marks a refreshing change.

Conversely, the embryonic stem cell discussion showed that many in the news media remain either hostile or ignorant regarding Catholic intellectual thought. A columnist for The Seattle Times, for example, lamented that the recent meeting between President Bush and Pope John Paul II was "of great concern." "It's not easy to apply 12th-century religious doctrine to life in 2001," the columnist hissed, arguing that "the best we can do is stick to secular and practical values of human progress and urge politicians to leave theology to the theologians."

Our local daily newspaper, using a communications strategy perfected by President Bill Clinton, consistently cited polls it said showed the issue was "clear cut." In antiseptic, amoral fashion, the paper's editorialist referred to a human embryo as simply a "product of conception."

Only a day after its editorial, the same newspaper told the tragic story of a British woman suing a California couple for whom she had contracted to be a surrogate mother. It seems the couple backed out of the deal when they discovered the surrogate was pregnant with twins. Because the "product of conception" was not what they were expecting, the California couple allegedly demanded the woman abort one of the two babies she was carrying. She declined, but apparently only for personal reasons: "Fearing the procedure would endanger her own health, she refused," the Associated Press said.

In both the California case and the issue decided by the president, the human beings at the center of the dispute are thought of, by some, merely as commodities. Praise God that the Church plays an active part in the societal debate, so that one day our society may more aggressively take heed of the Church's wisdom that all of God's "products of conception" are of inestimable intrinsic value.

An 'unmarketable' tragedy

During the last 100 years the world has witnessed unprecedented religious persecution and genocide. In fact, human slaughter and wholesale human exploitation have become so much a part of modern life that we risk becoming hardened to its presence and its cause in our own political and cultural lives. One contemporary situation which has garnered scant attention in the Western press is the civil war and the enslavement of women and children in the Sudan. At present the Sudanese government continues aerial bombardment of civilians, poisons their water supplies, restricts American attempts at humanitarian food assistance, conscripts child soldiers and kills and maims Christians.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees reports that in the southern and central parts of the country, civil war and related atrocities have caused the death of almost 2 million Sudanese - more than all the casualties in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda combined. The state of Bahr el Ghazal in southern Sudan has been the site of devastating famine and starvation, and this summer has intensified the gravity of the already dreadful catastrophe. The south is also continually the focal point for slave raids and the majority of the persecution continues because the southern inhabitants are Christians.

Rather than wage conventional war with the rebels, the Sudanese government prefers to attack villages, abducting and killing or maiming unarmed civilians, mostly women and children. These abductions should not be confused with taking prisoners of war. In 1994, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Sudan reported that women and children were abducted by the government's Popular Defense Forces and then sold into slavery to northern Sudanese and persons from abroad. Again, in 1996, that same U.N. report found that women and children captured as "war booty" were in many cases subjected to "sexual slavery" and forced into a program of "Islamization." In September of 2000 the Special Rapporteur announced to the General Assembly of the U.N. that between 5,000 and 15,000 southern Sudanese children had been abducted and sold to Arab Baggara tribesmen.

It is an absurd understatement to observe that the United Nations has been ineffectual at bringing attention to the Sudan. But what is more alarming is the silence of the West. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remarked, "The human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people." Franklin Graham of the Wall Street Journal suggests a reason for the silence in a March 15, 2000, editorial on the subject: "When several thousand Europeans are killed and tens of thousands displaced, the world calls it genocide. But when 1.9 million black Africans are killed and millions more are displaced, tortured and even sold into slavery, the world remains strangely silent."

However, the Church continues to speak out, and the exiled Roman Catholic bishops of the Sudan continue to protest the National Islamic Front Government. Bishop Macram Max Gassis, especially, has traveled to the United States to inform our government and the American people about the realities of the Sudanese civil war. For these efforts he has been branded a criminal and risks execution when he frequently travels to his country to visit his diocese. It looks as if his efforts are beginning to have an effect. Christian relief organizations throughout the United States have helped to educate various members of Congress to the situation in the Sudan. Now what is needed is for Americans to be educated as well.

Embryonic stem cells and cloning

Proponents of government funding of immoral embryonic stem cell research continually repeat the question that has become a mantra in the debate: If embryos frozen in fertility clinics are to be destroyed anyway, why not use them for the benefit of the rest of us? This appealing argument is flawed. Its first flaw is that it does not respect the fact that those who produced these embryos did so precisely because they constitute human life. Calling the question about life "merely religious," proponents of the destruction of embryonic humans refuse to allow discussion of the embryonic human's right to life and the right to be respected as human persons.

The mantra also aims to divert attention from the relationship between embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. Human cloning is necessary if embryonic stem cell research is to be profitable and useful for those who would ignore the moral evil. Human cloning was rejected recently in a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, reactions to the House action from some scientists and other proponents were vicious.

The debate over cloning demonstrated that the deadly research would not be limited to those unfortunate embryonic humans in fertility clinics. If the research on embryonic stem cells is to become useful for other humans, scientists will have to clone humans to create cells that will not be rejected by the intended patient's body.

The alleged advantage of embryonic stem cell therapies over non-embryonic stem cells disappears without the expectation of cloning unlimited numbers of embryonic humans. In other words, the most promising means by which Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox or Mary Tyler Moore will benefit from embryonic stem cell research is by cannibalizing embryonic human clones of themselves for a sufficient supply of stem cells.

The greatest promise, however, for stem cell therapies has been found in the almost-daily breakthroughs in adult stem cell research which does not require the destruction of human life or human cloning. A report in the Harvard University Gazette on July 19, 2001, for example, indicated that scientists used adult stem cells to obtain a permanent reversal of Type I diabetes. Adult stem cell research continues to yield useful, actual results, a much more practical application of funding than embryonic stem cell research whose benefits are far less certain, without the moral problems.

Those who allege that the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research could outstrip all benefits of adult stem cell research should know by now that the application of the embryonic research depends ultimately upon human cloning. Those who deny this must have missed the debate in the House.

No respect

So rocker Rod Stewart thinks that marriage licenses should be renewed each year just like, his words here, a "dog license." Wed twice and a notorious womanizer, the 56-year-old father of five thinks the marriage vows that have been in existence "for 600 years" are hopelessly out of date because they were designed for people with a 35-year life span.

These days, he pontificates, marriage-for-life is too big a commitment because "you're going to be with someone for 50 years - it's impossible."

Impossible? Not for Eileen and Paul Infante of Eastchester, who were among the 450 couples celebrating their 50th anniversary recently in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. They said the most important part of the day was its affirmation that "no matter what's going on in the world today, (marriage) can work."

Were the couples celebrating an outmoded institution? It didn't look that way to anyone observing Eileen and Bernard McGeever of Riverdale, who held hands like newlyweds as they renewed their vows.

Dorothy Buttermark remembers the sun shining brightly when she exchanged vows with her husband, Hugh, on April 28, 1951, at St. Mary of the Assumption Church on Staten Island. It was such a happy day that they tried to recreate it by arriving at the cathedral in a bridal limousine - a gift from their family. Another couple, Vivian Lucy and Charles Wyker of Yorktown Heights, offered their prescription for marital success: "Respect for each other."

Cardinal Edward M. Egan celebrated the Mass for the golden jubilarians, telling them their commitment "to the permanence and sanctity of marriage is ... something of which America, New York and the Church can be very proud."

Sure, the notion of a lifetime commitment in marriage took a beating in the 20th century, and there were periods when it seemed as though more people were getting divorced than getting married. This took a heavy toll on the couples involved - just ask anyone who's been through a so-called no-fault divorce about the emotional, financial and psychological suffering they endured. Multiply that pain by 10 if there were children.

Even Rod Stewart, whose incessant flirtations caused his second wife to leave him after eight years and two children, has felt the pain. "I was not ready for that," he told a Scottish newspaper. "I was ill-equipped for it."

Yet even as he describes that experience as his most painful ever, he clearly hasn't learned from it, judging by his comment. "The vows should be written like a dog's license that has to be renewed every year."

Maybe it's too much to expect someone like Stewart, the major talent that he is, to be anything other than self-involved (think of his hit song, "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?") given the adulation that has been heaped on him in his long career.

But he's an important part of the pop culture that has created the anti-marriage mindset, so his silly self-indulgences can have sad consequences indeed. Married couples and those contemplating it would be far wiser to absorb the message of the 450 couples in the cathedral who, the Cardinal said, "walked through their married life hand-in-hand with Jesus Christ."

This editorial appeared in a recent issue of Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York.

Be a missionary!

St. Therese Lisieux is patroness of the missions though she hardly traveled in the course of her brief life. She desired to be a missionary and spent her life making little sacrifices of love to further the work of Christ.

Most of us will never visit Bolivia or any other part of South America, but we can be co-missionaries with our St. Louis priests and the other priests and religious who go there on our behalf. It is as simple - and as profound - as making little sacrifices of love to further and support the work of Christ. A little goes a long way - a little prayer each day for the growth of the faith - or a dollar for each year we have had the benefit of our Catholic faith. As our financial means allow we can send our donation through any of our parishes this week. This weekend is the annual collection for the St. Louis Archdioce-san Latin America Apostolate, and our prayers and offerings are lifted to the Lord on its behalf.

The true Church is apostolic, and each member is called to be a missionary every day, becoming more aware of our solidarity with God's children - our brothers and sisters in Christ - and making for them, often, some little sacrifice of love.

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