Current Issue
July, 2019
Volume 45, Number 2
3 May 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Construction workers lift wet concrete onto the roof of a new development in Kottayam, India. (photo: Peter Lemieux)

CNEWA works in many places where unemployment, long working hours and insufficient wages are endemic. The reasons for these conditions are varied: lack of opportunity, poor or no education, a culture of exploitation. CNEWA supports schools, vocation programs and job training to help people find work that promotes the common good of society and the good of families. This is accomplished by creating a situation in which workers can find dignity in their work and a just wage, which allows them and their families to enjoy the fruits of their work.

Work and human dignity are subjects long at the heart of Catholic social teaching — and they are subjects that gain renewed attention every year around “May Day,” marked on 1 May. On the Catholic liturgical calendar, this is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Both of these observances are relatively recent.

The 19th century — with the technological advantages of the Industrial Revolution, the social disruption of large numbers of people moving to cities to find work and other forces — witnessed the rise of what we call, for lack of a better term, “the workers movement.”

Of course, there had always been workers — often slaves or semi-free serfs — but the conditions of the 19th century provided conditions different from what had been before. Dangerous and oppressive working conditions were common. One need only recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York on 25 March 1911. In that fire 146 people — some as young as 14 — died because the employers had locked them in to prevent them taking unpermitted breaks. The Haymarket Riots on 4 May 1886 started as peaceful demonstrations of workers asking for an eight-hour workday. It ended up with several workers and police being killed by bombs and other violence.

Conditions like this prevailed both in the United States and Europe. In response to the Haymarket Riots, a “pan-national” organization of socialist and communist parties in Europe called for a day or remembrance. The first day of May became Labor Day or International Workers Day through most of Europe. Even today 1 May is a holiday in many countries in Europe. (In 1955, Pope Pius XII adopted this date for the feast of St. Joseph the Worker — in part, in response to holidays being observed in communist countries.)

In the United States, a similar movement was taking place. Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was proposed as a holiday in 1882 and became a Federal holiday in 1894. Although neither of these days solved all or even most of the problems workers were enduring, at least it gave the concerns of workers a forum where they could be expressed.

At the same time, labor unions were beginning to evolve in the face of at times extremely violent opposition from management. This inevitably involved the church.

Legal and moral questions were being asked about the relationships and responsibilities that existed between workers and employers. While some religious people looked upon the situation as the way it had always been — and, therefore, part of God’s plan — some in the Catholic Church thought differently.

Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore (1834-1921) was an advocate for justice for American workers. Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (14 September 1891) which was a major stage in the development of Catholic Social teaching regarding the rights of worker and the relationship of mutual responsibility between workers and employers, labor and management. Pope John Paul II brought Catholic sociall teaching further with the encyclical “Laborem Exercens” (14 September 1981 — the 90th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum”). In his encyclical, the pope stressed the importance and dignity of work for human beings. Work, he explained, is part of the human vocation as custodians of Creation. Since work is essential to the well-being of society, workers have a right to just wages. By “just wages/recompense,” the pope is clear that he is not talking about mere subsistence wages that “allow” a family to live — if at all — from pay check to pay check. Workers, he wrote, have the right to share in the benefits of creation, which they are providing through their work and efforts.

Pope Francis last year expressed this idea beautifully.

As Catholic News Agency reported:

According to Christian tradition, [work] is more than a mere doing; it is, above all, a mission,” the pope said.

“We collaborate with the creative work of God when, through our work, we cultivate and preserve creation; we participate, in the Spirit of Jesus, in his redemptive mission, when by our activity we give sustenance to our families and respond to the needs of our neighbor.”

Jesus of Nazareth, who spent most of his life working as a carpenter, “invites us to follow in his footsteps through work,” he continued. This way, in the words of St. Ambrose, “every worker is the hand of Christ who continues to create and to do good.”

CNEWA seeks to give that idea meaning and purpose through our own work in some of the most troubled corners of the world — carrying that mission to others and, we hope, making the Gospel come alive among those we serve.

Tags: Economic hardships Pope John Paul II Employment

26 April 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In this 2016 image, an Ethiopian girl fetches water from what remains of a pond during a severe drought in the Afar region of Ethiopia. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

Every year on 22 April, the world observes Earth Day, a moment intended to focus our attention on the plight of the environment and the future of the planet. There are lectures, gatherings and celebrations all over the world. (One acute observer in New York City noted that the Earth Day observance generates an unusually large amount of trash.) Nevertheless, despite all the contradictions involved in the observance of Earth Day, its purpose is extremely important.

Modern humans are facing — or ignoring — a threat to our very existence — to say nothing of our well-being. The overwhelming consensus of modern science is that the earth is warming and that human agency plays an important though not necessarily sole role in this. Ignoring this science because it is a “theory” is simply to misunderstand science. (As a comparison: Scientists are constantly studying gravity. The most omnipresent force in the cosmos, gravity barely exists at subatomic levels and seems not to exist at all in black holes. Some scientists see gravity as not so much a force as the consequence of the curvature of spacetime. However, even though the nature of gravity is open to several theories, no one in their right mind would walk off a tall building because gravity is “only a theory.”) We dismiss or minimize science at our own peril.

The importance of taking responsibility for our planet and its future (and ours) was the opportunity for an extraordinary exercise in ecumenical cooperation — which speaks, I believe, to part of CNEWA’s mission of encouraging understanding and fostering dialogue. On 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published the encyclical “Laudato Si’ ” (the opening words of the “Canticle of Creation” of St. Francis of Assisi). The opening of the encyclical repeatedly mentions Bartholomew, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, and the concerns which he and Pope Francis share concerning the health of the planet and its future. A Greek Orthodox theologian was part of the committee that helped Francis write the encyclical. The pope and patriarch have agreed to work together on this issue so that both Catholic and Orthodox can witness to its importance.

Francis lists the different forces which are threatening the planet. He mentions “Pollution, waste and a throwaway culture.” Although not mentioned by Francis, a good though terrifying example of this would be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (aka Pacific Trash Vortex) which contains trash and plastics in various stages of decomposition. Conservative estimates see the vortex at 270,000 square miles — or roughly the size of Texas. Other measurements see it as large as Russia. This is environmental degradation on a massive scale but one which remains for all practical purposes “invisible” to most people. Francis and Bartholomew wish to change that.

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew make it very clear that this is not an issue merely for scientists or “tree huggers.” It is a moral challenge facing Christians everywhere. In the sixth chapter of “Laudato Si’ ” Francis develops the theme of “ecological education and spirituality.” He calls for a conversion of heart and action. A conversion from how we think of — or ignore — our environment, a conversion of how we use, consume and dispose of the goods of our world. Again and again in the encyclical Francis calls for an “integral ecology.” By this he means that responsibility for the environment is not something we do now and then, much less something we do only once a year on Earth Day. Rather, who we are as Christians and how we live our day to day lives must reflect our concern for the creation which has been entrusted to us by God.

We at CNEWA are often painfully aware of how people are impacted by the environment. Many of those we serve find their lives devastated by natural disasters and weather. For several years, for example, the monsoons in Ethiopia either never came or carried much less water than usual. The ensuing drought brought suffering, misery and, in some cases, death to those who had to live through it. Pollution and overfishing has threatened the livelihoods of many in south India whose lives depend on fishing. Environmentally-induced sicknesses affect the young and vulnerable in many places of the world where we work.

Earth Day and “Laudato Si’ ” are reminders — or, if necessary, wake up calls — that we as believers have a moral responsibility to remember that greed has never been a virtue, that the unjust hording of wealth and resources has never been moral that we are called by God to take care of our planet.

Tags: Catholic Environment Pollution

19 April 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Members of the St. Paul Prison Chaplaincy of the Archeparchy of Addis Ababa, a lay organization that ministers to prisoners, travel to a facility outside of the Ethiopian capital. (photo: Don Duncan)

Last week our blog dealt with the “formation” of the clergy and members of religious orders and communities. This week we are going to look at the formation of the laity.

We focus on the subject of formation in the current edition of ONE, with stories throwing a spotlight on priests and religious sisters. But we also tell the stories of the laity.

First, we need to ask: who are they?

Vatican II defines the laity as those who are not clergy or religious (“Lumen Gentium,” par. 51). Last week, we noted that CNEWA does not directly engage in the formation of the clergy; rather CNEWA helps those who do the formation by providing them with the necessary resources to accomplish their task. It is the same with formation of the laity. CNEWA does not itself maintain any programs of lay formation. Nevertheless, wherever CNEWA is present, it supports such programs.

The Second Vatican Council attempted to make the church and its mission more effective in the modern world. Three documents published at Vatican II are extremely important for understanding the role of lay people in the church: “Lumen Gentium,” or the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (21 November 1964); “Gaudium et spes,” or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (7 December 1965); and “Apostolicam actuositatem,” or the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (18 November 1965). If, in the past, Councils had dealt primarily with questions/problems of dogma — with great emphasis placed on the Magisterium or teaching office of the church and those who carry it out — viz., the clergy — Vatican II took a different approach. Vatican II spent little or no time dealing with dogmatic or theological controversies. Rather, it looked at the church as it was (in 1965) and asked how it could be more effective in its mission — how it could use its resources better for the Kingdom of God.

Key among those resources, of course, is the laity — the ordinary people in the pews to make up the greatest part of the Body of Christ.

In a sense, Vatican II “rediscovered” the laity. While lay people were all too often defined by what they were not — not clergy, not religious — Vatican II sees lay people as those “incorporated into Christ … and [who] in their own way share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ and … carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the church and in the world” (“Lumen Gentium,” par. 31). The role of the laity is: “to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them [the laity] that she [the church] can become the salt of the earth” (par. 33).

The laity form a crucial and indeed indispensable part of the church’s mission. It is at this point that the formation of the laity is recognized as central to the life of the church. If people are crushed by dehumanizing poverty, by lack of education, oppression, war and debilitating yet curable diseases, there is no way they can carry out the mission entrusted to them by Christ. It is very hard for the sick, the poor and uneducated to be the leaders the church needs.

The first step of the formation of the laity, therefore, is to help them achieve a standard of living which promotes their human dignity as members of the Body of Christ. Working with local churches, CNEWA supports programs that help people recover their dignity and their futures. Wherever we work, CNEWA supports programs that promote the health, education and dignity of those whom we serve. Programs, for example, which teach people — especially women — a trade allow these people to rise above subsistence living and to begin to influence a wider world: their family, their village, their church. It helps empower them to go out spread the Gospel and change the world.

However, raising people’s standard of living and educating them for work is only a part of what the formation of the laity means.

Vatican II sees the life of lay person in the world as a life of witness and service. As people are trained, for example, to run small businesses, they need also be trained to behave as witnesses to the Gospel in the world in which they live and work. Perhaps the most important part of the formation of the laity is teaching them that their role in life is not merely to earn a living and support their family but to witness to Christ and transform the world in which they live and work into the Kingdom of God.

Tags: Catholic

12 April 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Seminarians at St. Thomas the Apostle Seminary in Vadavathoor, a small village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, study on campus for an exam. (photo: Meenakshi Soman)

While the word “formation” may not be familiar to most Catholic Christians — at least, not as an educational term — it is very familiar to seminarians and members of religious orders. The current edition of ONE is focused (as the cover notes) on the subject of “Forming the Future,” so this is a good opportunity to explore just what that means and how “formation” figures in both the Church and the mission of CNEWA.

Since Vatican II there has been a lot of discussion about the word “formation” — not the concept — questioning whether it is the best expression of what it is trying to convey. For many members of religious orders “formation” seems to imply too much passivity. A young priest or religious just sits back and “gets formed.” Unfortunately that has sometimes been the case, producing people who are often lacking in initiative and openness. In one of his talks, Pope Francis — who, in his many years as a Jesuit, has witnessed both the strengths and weaknesses of religious formation — spoke of formation sometimes creating “little monsters.” I think many of us who spent years in religious life can recall some of the “little monsters” in our past. While the discussion about the appropriateness of the word formation goes on, the concept behind it is accepted by all.

Although CNEWA does not engage in actual formation — we do not staff or run seminaries, novitiates, etc. — we are, nevertheless, deeply involved with it in the areas where we work. This week and next, we will look at two different but related types of formation: the formation of clergy and religious and the formation of lay people. We will also see how CNEWA is involved in both.

When a person enters a seminary or a religious order, there is a long process of formation which extends anywhere from four to ten years. The religious goes through different stages of membership in the community; the seminarian has increasing involvement in the diocese where he will serve. Formation involves personal growth, spiritual discernment and learning. For seminarians and most religious there is a lengthy, multi-year program of academic studies in philosophy and theology with required courses and electives. For most seminarians, this program covers a minimum of four years.

While academic studies are extremely important — a primary principle of pastoral practice is to know what you’re talking about-- they are not the only element. Members of religious communities learn about the “charism” of their order. The “charism” is, among other things, the special spirituality of the community and the special aspect the community brings to the people it serves. Both seminarians and religious have to learn how to live authentically and as adults among the people we are called to serve.

Among other things, the formation of seminarians and religious helps them to deal in a healthy way with celibacy and how one serves credibly and with sensitivity in a community where most believers are not celibates. They learn how to be what St. Paul calls “all things to all people so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

While the word “formation” may or may not be the most appropriate, the goals it seeks to achieve are extremely important. Formation programs provide the service corps of the Church. They produce clergy and religious who are educated, articulate, pastorally committed and authentic. While clergy and religious are not the only people involved in the Church’s mission (as we shall see next week), they form a critical part.

It should be obvious that formation programs require that local churches and religious communities commit a great deal of resources to them. Somewhat crudely put: good formation programs are not cheap. They requite residences, faculties — people who teach and inspire — and books, to name just a few. In all the regions from southern India to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and northeast Africa, CNEWA helps the local church educate, train, prepare — in a word, form — the leaders of the Church of the future.

It is a long-term investment that literally takes years to bear fruit. However, the future of Christianity depends upon it.

Tags: Seminarians Vocations (religious)

5 April 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis blesses the faithful with holy water on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square. Water has powerful religious and spiritual meaning in both Judaism and Christianity.
(photo: CNS/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Among Christians of all denominations, the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter Season involves the blessing of water. We saw an example of this vividly last weekend when, in the Easter Vigil, Catholics throughout the world blessed water and celebrated the sacrament of baptism.

It served to remind us that water has great significance and importance in both Judaism and Christianity. Although water can and is seen as something dangerous and wild, that refers mostly to the waters of the sea, which the Hebrews held in some dread. In ancient Mesopotamia, the deity Tiamat, “the Deep,” was seen as an all devouring dragon. Water — fresh water — on the other hand was clearly a source of life. The Second Creation Account (Gen. 2:5-3:24) starts off in a dry and lifeless desert: “as yet there was no grass or shrubbery that has sprung up because God had not caused it to rain...” (Gen 2:5) Creation begins when God causes moisture (Hebrew: ’ēd) to rise from the earth.

With moisture — water — life begins.

It carries other connotations, as well. In the ancient Near East, water is often connected with the goddess of wisdom. Wisdom brings life and order. The desert is a frightening place, a “howling desert” (Deut 32:10), “a land of horror” (Isa 21:1), filled with strange and dangerous animals. There is neither city nor civilization in the desert. But with water, the wild chaos of the desert gives way to life, order and civilization — the gifts of Wisdom. We see this in scripture; in the book of Proverbs, wisdom is often connected with water (Prov 18:4; 20:5). In the New Testament, something similar can be found in the Gospel of John, which frequently connects Jesus with the Wisdom of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have long noticed that the Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-18) sounds very much like the poem about Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs (8:22-31). Later in the Gospel, Jesus calls those who thirst to come to him and drink (John 7:37-39). Echoing the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, the water which Jesus offers — his teaching — is spirit and springs up to eternal life.

The cleansing properties of water were, of course, not lost on the people of the Bible. Ritual purity was very important for the priests who served in the Temple. Purity was also important for all — priest and non-priest — who would worship at the Temple. There were many things which could render a person impure or unfit to worship in the Temple — everything from touching a dead body to coming into contact with pork. The impure person was purified by washing with water. Even today among some Jews there is the ritual of the miqveh. A miqveh is a pool connected with running (“living”) water that is used for purification. Converts to Judaism — as well as Jewish men and women who have incurred ritual impurity — are required to immerse themselves in the waters of the miqveh in order to become ritually pure once again. The Jewish community at Qumran, who were the copiers of the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls,” left behind extensive ruins. A very visible part of the ruins are ritual baths or miqveh. So important is the miqveh that Jewish religious authorities hold that new Jewish communities should build a miqveh even before they build a synagogue.

Clearly Christianity has taken over a great deal of the symbolism of water found in the Hebrew Bible and incorporated it into our own faith and ritual. We observed this recently, when those symbols played a central role in the observances of Holy Week. The washing of the feet at the Holy Thursday liturgy underlines the cleansing power of water but also stresses that it is a requirement to be with Jesus (John 13:9). The symbols found in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday reflect the destructive power of water in recalling the destruction of the Egyptians at the Sea. The waters of baptism are also a symbol of Christ’s death (Rom 6:3). However, the life-giving and cleansing powers of water are also stressed in the waters of baptism which bring newness of life.

Throughout the Bible, in both Testaments, the powerful symbolism of water is a common theme. For Christians, the recent observance of Holy Week provided a call to reflect on the powerful role of water in the faith of Christians and Jews — and a bond we share that stretches back through the centuries.

15 March 2018
Bishop Joseph C. Bambera

Pope Francis kisses the hand of a man during a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in this 2014 file photo. (photo: CNS/Abir Sultan, EPA)

Editor’s note: Friday 16 March marks the 20th anniversary of “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah,” the Vatican document on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, or Shoah. This commentary on the document was written by Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

It has been 20 years since the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released the historic document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”; an important step in the relationship between Catholics and Jews and an act of repentance on behalf the Catholic faithful — clergy and laity alike.

Though reception of the document varied within the Catholic and Jewish communities upon its release, ranging from fierce criticism to felicitous reception, it was recognized for what it was — an advancement for Catholic-Jewish relations through Catholic acknowledgment of the deficiencies of people of faith and cultural ambivalence toward European Jewry during the Second World War. This statement is by no means a final repentance or a complete reconciliation between our two communities, but it is a solid starting point for the growth of Catholic-Jewish spiritual friendship and mutual concern.

The history of Christian-Jewish relations is wrought with tension, demeaning rhetoric and flat out anti-Judaism. However, since the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of “Nostra Aetate” (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church with non-Christian Religions) with special attention to paragraph 4, the church has been intentional in building friendship based on mutual trust and respect with the Jewish community. For relationships to flourish and dialogue to bear fruit, we, as Catholics and people of faith, must acknowledge the grim reality of our past in the hope of a more fruitful future.

Related: Seeking Interfaith Harmony
Remembering the Holocaust

In 2001, the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, at the then-National Conference of Catholic Bishops, produced a companion teaching tool to the Vatican document titled “Catholic Teaching on the Shoah: Implementing the Holy See’s ‘We Remember.’ ” It was developed to “help Catholic educators begin developing curricula and other educational programs on the Holocaust.” The Shoah’s relevance to Catholic education is and will continue to be integral. It is a difficult subject to speak about, to teach about, and to learn about. It is equally difficult to understand how a Christian culture could perpetrate such atrocities, and what this history means for our current cultural context. However, it is necessary.

“The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable” was published in 2015 by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of “Nostra Aetate.” Like “We Remember,” this document is another effort at offering practical insights regarding theological and pastoral progress between Catholics and Jews, outlining the historical and current realities between Christians and Jews.

Though much has been done to enhance Catholic-Jewish relations, it is unacceptable that anti-Semitism is a thread which continues to be woven in American society. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently released its annual report of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. The report states that there was a 57 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, rising from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986 in 2017.

In our increasingly polarized society where bigotry feeds upon humanity’s basest qualities, we must be diligent in returning to our institutional memory of the Shoah. “We Remember” is a tool to nurture our memory to, in the words of St. John Paul II, “play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never be possible again.”

As the church has made major strides in moving beyond the sin of anti-Semitism, I implore all the faithful to take stock of our lives and our relationships with our Jewish brothers and sisters and to reflect upon, learn from and pray for the continued growth of Catholic-Jewish friendship.

May our fervent prayer be that of St. John Paul, offered on the occasion of the promulgation of “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” 20 years ago. “May the Lord of history guide the efforts of Catholics and Jews and all men and women of goodwill as they work together for a world of true respect for the life and dignity of every human being, for all have been created in the image and likeness of God.”

Read the full document “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah.”

22 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

A sister serves a midday meal in Ghaziabad, India. (photo: John Mathew)

This past Tuesday, on 20 February, the UN observed the World Day for Social Justice. In one sense the concept of justice and social justice as a basic human right is a relatively new phenomenon in world history. In the past, highly stratified societies with very inequitable sharing of resources were considered to be part of the natural order. The poor were poor, it was believed, because God did not create them nobles. On the other hand, a notion of social justice and the call to a more equitable sharing of resources are as old as the prophetic tradition. The three great monotheistic religions of the world — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — not only believe in the same one God, they all also have a strong prophetic tradition of justice. CNEWA’s roots are — as its name implies — in the Near East, the home of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Among the people we serve many are Christians and Muslims. The home of the prophetic call to justice is in a real sense also the home of CNEWA.

In the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, or Law, stressed the importance of taking care of the weak and poor and offering them the same legal justice as the strong and powerful. In Leviticus, farmers are told not to harvest their entire fields and to leave whatever parts of their harvest fall to the ground, so that the poor may glean them (Lev. 19:9 ff.) The handicapped are not to be taken advantage of (19:14-15). The Bible demands that the administration of justice not be overawed by the wealthy and powerful (Exod. 22:20; Lev. 19:34). Repeatedly the bible demands justice for the widow, the orphan and the alien. In Deut. 10:17-18 it reads “...Yahweh your God is God of is he who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the alien and gives him food and clothing.”

In the books of the prophets, justice is more central than worship. In Isaiah 1:11-17, God says, “...I am sick of holocausts of rams...bring me your worthless offerings no more....Take your evildoing out of my sight. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.” Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God abhors usury, false weights and measure of merchants (Amos 8:4 ff.) and withholding wages from workers (Lev. 19:13).

In the New Testament Jesus describes his ministry as, among other things, “to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4:18). The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Lk. 16:19-31) describes the horrible fate of the rich man who ignored the poverty-stricken Lazarus. In Christ’s description of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46), the difference between the righteous and the damned is that the righteous fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, etc., etc. and the damned did not. Although often conveniently overlooked by the entitled and comfortable, social justice is the ultimate “orthodoxy” for the followers of Jesus in the Gospels.

A similar situation can be found in Islam. The Qur’an constantly calls for the protection of the poor and the weak. Zakat, donations for the poor, is one of the Pillars of Islam. Qur’an 4:136 reads “ strict in observing justice and be witnesses for God, even though it be against yourselves or against parents or relatives...” One of the most extraordinary Surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an is Surah 80, ‘Abasa. It begins “He {Muhammad} frowned (‘abasa) and turned away....” It relates the story of a blind man approaching the Prophet who is speaking/preaching to some people. God rebukes the Prophet for ignoring the handicapped man and paying attention to “him who is disdainfully indifferent.” For Muslims, even the Holy Prophet of Islam is not absolved from caring for the poor, outcast and handicapped and is rebuked when he fails in this.

For many of us — and perhaps, at times, all of us — social justice is something quite secondary, little more than a decoration on the Christmas tree of our lives of virtue. That is really quite amazing. While there are things in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an that are esoteric, hard to understand or appear only once, the demands of social justice are found boldly woven throughout all our sacred texts like a shockingly bright pattern on a fabric — a pattern than cannot be overlooked. There is neither reason nor excuse to ignore it.

The UN is a relatively recent organization. World Day for Social Justice is even more recent.

But the call for social justice is — literally — as old as the Bible.

15 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This mosaic shows Satan tempting Christ while he is fasting in the desert — offering him stones to turn into bread. It comes from the Chora Church in Constantinople. Parts of the church date to the 11th century. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For the western church, yesterday — Ash Wednesday — marked the beginning of Lent, a penitential season in preparation for Easter. Basically patterned on the Gospel stories of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11; Mk. 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13), Lent is usually counted as 40 days, sometimes with some creative calculations involved. For some of CNEWA’s partners who are Orthodox, the preparation for Easter this year does not begin until Monday 19 February, which is the beginning of the Great Fast.

Fasting is something common to almost all the religions of the world. It is connected often with asceticism — those practices which help the believer overcome the drives of the body and elevate the spirit to a higher reality. However, for members of monotheistic religions who believe in the one God — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — fasting plays a central and important role.

Again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures we find the Israelites proclaiming a fast to atone for some transgression or to avert some tragedy. The biblical book of the Prophet Joel revolves entirely around a period of fasting and repentance. It seems that a plague of locusts had attacked the land and was devastating the crops. Joel compares the locust to an army of countless warriors, devouring the land and hurling the people into a deadly famine. Joel exclaims “order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly!” (1:13; 2:15) God calls the people to repent, “..come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning...” (2:12 ff.) Fasting and repentance are outward signs of an inner conversion to the justice which God demands (Isa 58:5-7). Fasting focuses the spirit and purifies prayer throughout the Hebrew Bible. The tradition continues to this day; for contemporary Jews the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, the Day of the Atonement, is a day of fasting, prayer and repentance.

For Muslims, fasting also plays a major role. The holy month of Ramadan is the month of fasting. For a lunar month, Muslims observe a total fast in which nothing enters the body. Whereas Christian fasting does not include water, Muslims go further; they abstain from food, water, smoking and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Unlike the case with Judaism and Christianity, Muslim fasting during the month of Ramadan does not have a strong penitential element. For Muslims, the fast of Ramadan is rather a joyful thing — an act of self-control, to be sure, but also primarily an act of worship to God.

Finally, in the New Testament fasting plays an important role and is connected for Christians with penance and prayer. Fasting here understandably has roots deep in the Hebrew tradition. And it is mentioned with surprising frequency. We tend to overlook how often people in the New Testament are presented as “praying and fasting.” It is so common that it is almost self-evident and often mentioned merely in passing. In Luke, the prophetess Anna spends her time in the Temple with “prayer and fasting” (Lk 2:37). In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers of the times he has spent praying and fasting (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27). Simply assuming that his followers will fast, Jesus warns them against making an outward show of their fasting (Mt. 6 passim). Although it is often overlooked, fasting in both the Old and New Testaments is closely connected with acts of charity and justice (see especially Isa 58).

For Christians, then, the fasting of Lent has several levels of meaning deeply rooted in the Scriptures. Outwardly fasting is an act of self-denial and self-discipline. But it is far more than just self-discipline. It is an act of stripping away the non-essential and focusing on what is central. It focuses inward, as the believer focuses on God and the act of God in Jesus Christ. And focusing inwardly on the saving act of God in Christ, the Christian is impelled to focus externally to bring about the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus — a kingdom of justice, peace and compassion.

8 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The video above offered a preview of the interfaith gathering at Assisi in 2011, with context and history about what the meetings there have meant. (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)

The promulgation of “Nostra Ætate” (“The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”) on 28 October 1965 committed the Catholic Church to dialogue with the great religious traditions in the world. The declaration was groundbreaking, in that the Catholic Church declared that it “rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions” and called Catholics to “enter ... into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”

It’s worth looking at how that “discussion and collaboration” came out — and how it is being carried out to this day.

On Pentecost Sunday 1964, a year before the promulgation of “Nostra Ætate,” Pope Paul VI set up the Secretariat for Non-Christians whose work was “to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of other religious traditions.” In the decades since, that work has only deepened. As the Catholic Church became more sophisticated and deeply engaged in this dialogue, Pope John Paul II in 1988 restructured the Roman Curia (the central administration of the Catholic Church), creating the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID).

This stressed the importance of dialogue with other religions and expressed it more positively. As a result, no longer does the Catholic Church express its relationship to other religions as “non-Christians,” but sees the endeavor as more broadly conceived, attempting to understand the religions of the world on their own terms and not merely as “not us.”

In addition to maintaining bi-lateral dialogues with the great religious traditions of the world, the PCID encourages and promotes local dialogues. Three times a year it publishes “Pro Dialogo,” containing articles on theological topics related to inter religious dialogue; it also reports on the work of local dialogues throughout the year.

This work has entailed not only words, but also concrete actions. Three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — have hosted major interfaith events in Assisi. At these gatherings, religious leaders from around the world gathered to reflect on the values they hold in common and on how they might work together for a more just add peaceful world. In addition, every year the Holy See sends out greetings to members of other religions — including Hindus, on the feast of Diwali (the festival of lights) in November and Muslims on ‘Eid ul Fitr — the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Other religious traditions are included throughout the year, as well.

The PCID also has a special committee for relations with Muslims. The proximity of the two faiths and their often unfortunate histories together convinced the church to pay special attention to Islam. While the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with many different Muslim majority countries, the PCID focuses primarily on religious issues. Recently, relations between the Catholic Church and Al Azhar University, perhaps the premier Sunni Muslim university in the world, were resumed with the hope of increased cooperation between Muslim and Catholic theologians and thinkers.

While the work of the PCID may seem remote to Catholics in general and also to CNEWA, nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics all over the world are increasingly encountering members of other religions. More and more, they are our neighbors. In the U.S., Europe and elsewhere mosques, Hindu mandirs (temples), Buddhist sanghas (religious communities), Sikh gurudwara (temples/centers) are becoming familiar fixtures in urban — and even rural — landscapes.

CNEWA works in the Middle East and southern India. In both regions, Christians are a minority surrounded by much larger religious communities — Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Good relations with these faiths in imperative. Often, members of these religions benefit from programs which CNEWA maintains.

Over the years the popes have stressed the importance of interreligious dialogue for the survival of the planet. The Catholic Church recognizes that centuries of interreligious conflict must be replaced by interreligious dialogue and understanding. Again and again popes have stressed that this not something added on to Catholicism but part and parcel of what it means to be Catholic.

1 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis lights a candle during an interfaith peace gathering outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, on 20 September 2016. The pope and other religious leaders were attending a peace gathering marking the 30th anniversary of the first peace encounter. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

The United Nations observes World Interfaith Harmony Week every year beginning on 1 February. Although the UN is not a religious organization, its primary concern is for peace in the world — and religion can help bring this about. While the claim that religion is the basis of all conflict in the world is unfair and untrue, neither is it true that religion plays no role in conflicts around the world. The Pew Research Center reports on the state of religions around the world clearly show that almost every part of the globe experiences some kind of conflict that has at very least a religious component. Religions consciously and unconsciously provide powerful symbols that intensify conflicts, demonize the Other and make compromises more difficult for all parties involved. While interfaith harmony would not solve all conflicts in the world, it would greatly alleviate many of them.

Interfaith harmony — and the lack thereof — is something CNEWA experiences every day in the countries where we work. The Middle East, for example, has been an arena for incredible sectarian violence with thousands of people — Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and others — being killed and literally millions being displaced. However, it is also the place where Muslim youths in Mosul helped clean up a Christian church damaged in the battle against ISIS. Both religious harmony and sectarian hatred exist in our world. During this week the UN wishes to remind the world of the importance of interfaith harmony for every person — religious or not — on the planet.

Although there have always been great and open spirits in the Catholic Church who respected and loved people who were not Christians — we need think only of St. Francis meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the 4th Crusade — the Church committed itself officially to working for interfaith harmony at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). On 28 October 1965 the decree Nostra Ætate (“In Our Times”) was promulgated. Officially known as the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, this short document made extraordinary advances. Noting that all religions attempt to address and provide answers to the great questions of human existence, it went on to declare: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” Further, it stated, the Church “urges her sons {sic} to enter ...into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”

The document speaks with great respect about Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Recognizing centuries of conflict, vituperation and downright hatred that often existed between Christians, Muslims and Jews, the church called on all to forget the past, to strive for mutual understanding and to work together to “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.” With the declaration that not “all Jews indiscriminately at that time {the death of Jesus} nor Jews today, can be charged with crimes committed during his {[Christ’s} passion,” the Catholic Church thereby officially rejected the long-held claim that Jews were deicides, i.e. god killers, worthy of persecution and even hatred.

Great strides have been made in promoting interfaith understanding and harmony since that October day in 1965. Dialogues have been set up on international, national and local levels to help believers understand the Other, to promote cooperation and prevent conflict. Almost every Christian Church and every world religion is engaged in some type of dialogue and exchange.

Clearly there is still a great deal more to be done. However, the UN International Interfaith Harmony Week adds a special urgency to the interfaith endeavor. As mentioned earlier, the UN is not a religious organization. But this single week underlines the fact that interfaith harmony is not something which impacts only religious people; it is crucial for the very survival of a planet already wracked with too many conflicts with religious components.

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