Volunteerism: Virtue and value

Volunteerism is an important part of the fiber of American communities and millions get involved but, for millions more, there doesn't seem to be enough time in the day to fulfill their desire to volunteer. American businesses, according to a recent Time magazine report, are now stepping in to help by offering employees paid time off to volunteer for causes of their choosing. The motivation isn't purely altruistic. In a tight labor market, employers offer this perk to keep valuable employees. And the work the volunteers do often reflects positively on the company's image in the community and with clients or customers.

Still, in a society that often seems focused on greed and excessive consumption, it is heartening to find that the spirit of volunteerism continues to burn fiercely within Americans and that both big and small businesses are willing to support it. Although company-sponsored volunteers often choose familiar volunteer pursuits, Time reports some innovative approaches as well. At one company, a long-time employee was given a six-month sabbatical to work with hospice patients and their families. In another, a woman trains assistance dogs for the disabled in her corporate office.

New Choices magazine reports on nonprofit organizations that provide opportunities for Americans to use vacation or retirement time to travel to different parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work. Tasks include working in national forests; teaching conversational English or assisting with health care in third world countries; and even working in archaeological digs. The magazine touts these as inexpensive vacations but volunteers work hard and accommodations may be below even the cheapest motel.

Many Catholics are accustomed to volunteering in their parishes, schools and dioceses. They also support programs, such as those preceding confirmation, that help to pass along the spirit of Christian service to the next generation. Many parishes and schools hold programs or events at this time of year to thank those who have served, and to remind us of the motive for our service - the love of Christ and his people.

In our parish organizations it is often the same people who volunteer year after year, and each one usually wears a number of volunteer hats. It is easier to ask current volunteers to take on additional roles than to seek new volunteers, but it is far better to increase the ranks with new people. Doing so helps avoid volunteer burnout and introduces more people to the joys - and challenges - of the apostolic service that marks the Church.

Limitations becoming obvious

The beleaguered Federal Bureau of Investigation has suffered yet another blow to its already damaged credibility and public image. After several high-profile botched investigations, such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory spy case and the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, the post-sentencing revelation of new evidence in the conviction of Timothy McVeigh is shocking, even if not so surprising.

The McVeigh case was open and shut. He was guilty in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building which took the lives of 168 men, women and children. He even admitted the crime and wanted to be executed after his conviction.

The terrorist action was callous in its disregard of human life. Many homes have been broken apart as the survivors continue to mourn their loved ones' violent passing. It is the kind of evil that can make anyone, anywhere feel at risk.

The public, through statements reported in the press, was encouraged to view the case as one where the death penalty was justified. It was stated that even an opponent of the death penalty would support McVeigh's execution.

The revelation Saturday that 3,135 pages of FBI files were not made available to the defense, therefore, leaves those already mindful of the expanding jeopardy of the culture of death with clearer perceptions of the injustices of a society and a legal system corrupted by growing disregard for the truth about human life. It is ironic that this monstrous crime would be met with such a demonstrative case of the lack of integrity in the administration of justice.

This case illustrates the great difficulty with the application of the death penalty. One would have thought that such a public case would have every detail closely examined in the pursuit of justice. After all, not only was the life of an alleged criminal at stake, it is our society's responsibility to bring to justice the criminal or criminals who actually committed this crime against humanity. But what happened, in fact, is an illustration of what can and does happen in many cases with far less notoriety. And similar errors can be far more pertinent to the outcome and discovered much later than in this case where the government claims that the new evidence will not affect the sentence.

The traditional teaching of the Church, presented in the catechism, does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is necessary to defend human lives against unjust aggressors. But the state is to limit itself to non-lethal means, if they are sufficient to protect people's safety, because they are more in keeping with the common good and the dignity of the human person. Even a case like this one, which many consider to be so clearly supportive of the death penalty, illustrates why this limitation upon the use of the death penalty is sound in principle.

Simple answers to complex questions?

Either/or. Black or white. In our contemporary culture, it is becoming increasingly commonplace to discuss complex issues in simplistic ways, using extreme language. We mostly see it in politics, where those who urge fiscal restraint are portrayed as "cold-hearted" while those who urge social reform are portrayed as "spendthrifts." Oftentimes a more fair, reasoned assessment is required.

It is especially unfortunate when complex Church issues are discussed in simplistic ways. Such was the case in a recent news item covered by Catholic News Service. The story in question pertained to the new book, "Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice," and its survey and analysis of trends pertaining to young adults in the Church. And while it is unclear where the simplicity originated, it should stop here.

"A survey of young adult U.S. Catholics reported that they strongly prefer a personalized view of the faith instead of the rules of the institutional Church," the story begins.

There are your extremes: the loving, personal faith vs. the big, bad "institutional Church." Like butterflies and rainbows vs. Big Tobacco.

The problem with the assertion is its lack of context regarding what our Catholic faith is. We are a personal Church. We are an institutional Church. The two concepts need not be mutually exclusive. At our best, we are a personal Church that is institutional and an institutional Church that is personal.

The lead researcher for the survey, Dean R. Hoge of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America in Washington noted in the story that young adults are more tentative in their affiliation with the Church because "[w]here many seek a church community, they often encounter one of hierarchy." Read: church community, good; hierarchy, bad.

The results of the survey suggest that the institution that is the Church is of little value; indeed, the institution - it is suggested - may indeed turn young adults away from the practice of the faith. These are, of course, the same young adults who in numbers upwards of 64 percent say "you can be a good Catholic without going to Mass." It obviously is not the "authority" of the institutional Church that is turning off our young adults. Could it be that such surveys promote a kind of catechesis-of-personal-opinion which is itself "at war" with the whole notion of inspired and authoritative teaching? Such surveys give compliant young adults few options for expressing a nuanced faith expression.

The Church is what it is - a "both/and" mystery in which the human and the divine are gracefully intertwined. Simplistic portrayals of what element of the faith wears the proverbial black hat are not helpful. We should reflect on these complex issues more carefully.

May pilgrims

This week the Holy Father continued the pilgrim journey that characterized the Holy Year 2000 as he fulfilled his desire to retrace St. Paul's path through Greece, Syria and Malta. It was a sojourn of thanksgiving, and prayerful meditation that sowed seeds for unity and reconciliation and broke through some barriers that have existed for too long.

May presents us fitting opportunities for our own pilgrimages, so expressive of the dynamic movement of faith in our lives. One journey should lead each of us toward our mothers on the occasion of Mothers' Day. If we are blessed to have our mother living and near us, we should spend time with her. If she is distant, a card or phone call may help to unite us with her. If our mother has died we should make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayerful intercession and thanks. Our Mothers' Day pilgrimage can be also a fitting time for reflection on the life we enjoy from our mother, thankful expressions of our affection, renewed honor to our mother and, if needs be, the mending of a hurt relationship.

May should include a pilgrimage to our Blessed Mother. We might make a trip to a local Marian shrine - to one of the more than 45 churches or shrines within the archdiocese that are dedicated to her under her titles or the mysteries of her life. Indeed, every one of our parishes has some niche or statue that focuses our devotion to Mary, our Blessed Mother. Mary herself is the first shrine, for in her God became present for our sakes. She is a living tabernacle in whom first dwelt the eucharistic Lord. She is the model of the interior life: He who dwelled in her by her maternity, dwells in us by baptism. May ends with the Feast of Mary's own pilgrimage to St. Elizabeth, the Visitation, May 31. Let us ask her prayerfully and with signs of devotion - a candle or flowers - to renew the seeds of faith in Christ within us, and if need be, to assist us in removing any stubborn obstacles to our growth in the spiritual life.

May can fittingly include a Memorial Day pilgrimage. Whether we are able to visit the grave of a loved one, or make a spiritual visit in prayerful intercession, these petitions, too, we can entrust to Mary the Queen of the poor souls and the saints.

As we make our pilgrimage in May, we can echo the Pope's words in Athens this week. With him we ask the Virgin Mary "to watch over the path we must now walk ... in order to fulfill with one another, in openness and enthusiasm, the mission that Christ has entrusted to his Church."

The papacy in the new millennium

On Feb. 26, 2001, Pope John Paul II announced that an extraordinary consistory or meeting of all the Church's cardinals would be convened in order to discuss and explore the ministry of the papacy and its meaning and relation to the collegiality of the bishops. Some elements of the press have already begun to misreport and misunderstand the aims of this meeting. Several reports have suggested that Pope John Paul II wishes to begin "downplaying" the primacy of the papacy; that he wants to decentralize the role of the Bishop of Rome in the leadership of the Church. It is fair to say, clearly this is not his purpose. As with all else he has written and accomplished, Pope John Paul II has laid the intellectual and theological groundwork for this consistory for the last 17 years in his public addresses, his commissioning of a special symposium on the subject of the Petrine ministry, and with the writing of an encyclical on the office of bishop and ecumenism.

In May of 1995, his encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" ("That They May Be One") was promulgated. One of its purposes was to shed some necessary light on the essential characteristics and functions of the papacy for the new millennium and the new evangelization. In it, he extends for our modern context the understanding of St. Augustine's famous exhortation concerning the papal ministry: "May all shepherds thus be one in the one Shepherd; may they let the one voice of the Shepherd be heard; may the sheep hear this voice and follow their Shepherd, not this shepherd or that, but the only one; in him may they all let one voice be heard and not a babble of voices, but the only one free of all division." Pope John Paul II extends this understanding by describing the Bishop of Rome as the "first servant of unity," ecumenical unity, whose mission is to unite the various Christian communities, under the paternal watch and one true voice of Christ. Hence, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, he is the initiator of this service of unity, and therefore, he possesses a particular responsibility "in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation" [emphasis added] (n. 95).

Throughout the 19th century, beginning with Napoleon, many identified the papacy with the temporal rule of its lands, namely the Papal States. They predicted that if this were to end the papacy would be finished; yet no one would argue that the papacy has been diminished in the 20th century because of the loss of the papal states. In fact the contrary has been true - the 20th century papacy has been a powerful beacon in the darkness of modernity.

We do not know what this "new situation" might look like. But we can be secure in our belief that the papacy will not be diminished but enhanced, fulfilling more perfectly its mission as servum servorum Dei, servant of the servants of God.

Globalization and the human person

Someone throws a brick through the window of a sneaker store that has factories in Southeast Asia likely to be exploiting workers, including children. "Protesters" tear down a fence and throw rocks at police because of a meeting being held to negotiate world trade agreements. Such events taking place in Seattle and Canada in recent months should give us pause. The violence is never justified. But might not there be a just anger?

Most of these people are reacting to (or say they are reacting to) issues of world trade as further intensified by what is called "globalization." Globalization is the rapid movement of people, products, wealth and culture across the world. Throughout history, we have seen small-scale globalization - think of the trade routes to India or the New World's development. Now, with the advent of advanced technologies of travel and information transfer, globalization is taking place at breath-taking pace. More is possible - for good or bad - more quickly, in more places than ever before.

Good people don't throw bricks or tear down fences. They think about issues, they posit arguments and peaceably take action. Often they suffer greatly. Occasionally they see some good accomplished because of their efforts. As Catholics, we can take the lead of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who recently said: "Globalization is (in itself) neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it. (Globalization) must be at the service of the human person; it must serve solidarity, and the common good."

So, as for globalization, what are the possibilities? Many considerations of globalization center on the issues of trade, commerce and economy - we must turn these considerations back to the human person and the common good.

Some people worry that globalization will impact the job market and lead to the exploitation of workers in other parts of the world. We should look at these issues through the lens of improving all people's lives - not simply American lives. Others fear that globalization will degrade the environment; we should push for an understanding of good stewardship (with humanity at the center of creation). Still others fear globalization will foster the spread of the moral relativism (and other cultural aspects) from the Western industrialized nations to other parts of the world; we must respect the face of truth in other cultures and awaken the seeds of the Gospel within our own!

We should remember that we welcome cultural exchange and new people, rejoicing at the differences of people and places. Our Holy Father has talked about a right to migrate to where work and family may live better. Time and time again, it has been shown that the best way to improve the conditions of the poor is to promote jobs and economic development. Faith-filled economic development promotes the good of all involved.

When it comes to globalization, we must be advocates of a painstakingly thoughtful application of Gospel principles. We must bring moral truth to bear on the market and the world - truths emphasizing the inherent dignity of the human person and the common good of all humanity.

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