Friday, November 01, 2019

We build a culture of life as we affirm justice, solidarity

In May 2017, upon my return to Austin after speaking at a conference in the Diocese of Biloxi, and visiting seminarians of the Diocese of Austin at St. Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, I suffered a heart attack after working a “simple” 13-hour day. Always resilient, I returned to work a couple of weeks later. In September 2019, I suffered two mild strokes at a national meeting in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Again, always resilient, I returned to “the saddle” before too long. Considering these two events in my life, I believe the Lord has a purpose for me and my work in the life of the church, in society and in my family.

This notion is reminiscent of Archbishop Emeritus Alexander Brunett of Seattle who, after suffering a stroke in 2013, succinctly said, “The future is filled with expectation, and we have to realize that we are the ones who have to make it happen.” The archbishop struck a powerful chord in this melody of life: when the storms of life are raging, we must remain steadfast in hope and joyful expectation, remembering that — as long as we have breath — we still possess an indispensable role in the mission of the church.

I am honored to serve in the Diocese of Austin, particularly as the leader of a secretariat whose mission is to help the faithful to strive — by common effort — to promote the execution of apostolic work and Catholic action. While the church is diverse, there is equality in baptism, and by virtue of that baptism, each of us has been made sharers in the priestly, prophetic and royal work of Christ. As canon law says, the whole church must continue to take seriously the call “to engage in efforts of evangelization, to exercise works of piety or charity and to animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit.”

Recently, the universal church commemorated the centenary of Maximum Illud, Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical calling on Catholics to bring the Good News to all peoples (Missio Ad Gentes). At the same time, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops launched the 2019-2020 Respect Life Program, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II’s encyclical, calling on us to offer “new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.”

These observances remind us of our duty to call each other to conversion in our ways of thinking, speaking and acting relative to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or class. By participating in parish ministries, increasing community outreach and educating ourselves about the implications a lack of respect for life can have on all people, we are responding to the call to offer “new signs of hope.”

When we say we are pro-life, we must also be pro-family, pro-charity and pro-justice. To be clear, pro-justice is not justice in the human estimation, rather, it is God’s justice, a divine characteristic of the Lord who is perfectly just and always merciful. When we say we are pro-life, then we are called to exercise a profound respect for the dignity of every person, regardless of stations in life or the precarious moments on the spectrum of human life. As a pro-life people, we must stand up for what is right and just and witness to the salvific power of God. There is no place in the human heart for prejudice, racism, intolerance, bias, narrow-mindedness and chauvinism.

Earlier this year, Bishop Joe Vásquez called on Catholics to “listen with an open heart and mind to the stories of our brothers and sisters who have experienced racism,” and he asked our priests to “listen to the stories of people within their own parishes and learn from them.” In response to the U.S. bishops’ recent pastoral letter, Open Wide our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, our bishop hosted a Listening Session on Racism, together with Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux and chair of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.

During the listening session at St. Edward’s University, five people of color spoke about their personal experiences of racism within the church and society. Describing her own experience within our diocese, one young woman said, “As a minority, resilience is built through continually walking into spaces that make you feel like an afterthought or an interruption to the regularly scheduled majority’s status quo.”

Another speaker explained his dismay that racism is not preached against in our diocese with any significance by clergy. Of the priests who participated in the listening session, one pastor shared a homily he described as the fruit from the listening session on racism. Admitting it was the first time he had broached the subject in a homily, he felt “challenged by the listening session to at least try.”

When we profess to be a pro-life people, we offer, as St. John Paul II said, “new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love!” I believe the Lord has a purpose for each of us and our work in the life of the church and society. As long as we have breath, may we accept with vigor our indispensable role in the mission of the church: to build a culture of life!

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Welcoming our neighbors with genuine respect, hospitality

In light of comments my staff and I have received from our fellow Catholics about whether we should have bilingual liturgies or liturgies in language other than English, I find it necessary to remind us all that it is through faith we are children of God. We cannot genuinely say we love the Lord who we have never seen, but fail to love those we see every day because we are brothers and sisters who are called to love with the love of the Lord. We, who have been baptized into Christ, have clothed ourselves with Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-27).

Our faith in Jesus Christ is not so much about us as individuals as it is about us as a loving family. Christ remains present through the church. We must all be able to sit around the Eucharistic table without regard to distinction — nationality, ethnicity, language, age or gender. We are social people, and as such, we have an obligation to extend hospitality to those with whom we meet every day. Having been baptized into the common priesthood of the faithful, we have been charged with exercising hospitality. Acknowledging our neighbor in his native language that may be different from our own is an expression of genuine hospitality and respect.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains well the call to hospitality as it conveys that baptism is the sacrament through which we enter the church and are united to Jesus Christ. Baptism signifies the universal call of the Gospel, and incorporates one into Christ and the community. 

The Catechism reminds us, “It is impossible to belong to Christ without at the same time belonging to the Church of Christ. Believing is never an isolated activity” (166). We cannot belong to Christ without being a part of the whole Body of Christ because being born again to new life in Christ brings forward a whole community and family of faith. 

Some areas of our nation, and even some communities in our diocese, have a storied history of not always expressing hospitality. There was a time when racism flourished, and Jim Crow was the law of the land. This stain on the fabric of what should have been a just and moral society, even crept into our some of our parish communities. 

However, as painful as these experiences were, and still are, for many people in our communities, we cannot allow each other to live out of our wounds, though painful. Authentic disciples must understand the obligation to proclaim the Gospel, bringing about the true fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1Jn 1:3). Authentic disciples on mission are challenged to live up to the Gospel values fully and completely.

Let us never forget the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of society — particularly the poor or afflicted — are the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of the Christian faithful (Guadium et spes, no. 1). So whenever people rail against the presence of Spanish-language liturgies or liturgies in other languages within our diocese, I am encouraged to remind them there is an intimate relationship between evangelization, discipleship and liturgy. This relationship unfailingly has a strong effect on the life of the church. After all, Jesus came from all mankind for all mankind — regardless of station in life, race or cultural background. 

May the Mother of God, through her never-failing intercession, always watch over the church as we strive to do the work of her Son in this world.

Friday, April 05, 2019

Advocating for the sanctity of life at all stages

In advocacy work, we are often reminded of the words of the prophet Micah, “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8). The love of Christ impels us to advocate for the least among us, the shunned, the outcast, the disabled, the disenfranchised and the underprivileged. Made in the image and likeness of God, we are called to be in right relationship with God and all our brothers and sisters –– regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, age or gender. Worth is never merely determined in isolation, but rather in the interpersonal relationships with one another and God. 

I propose this is what it means to be pro-life: to exercise genuine love and respect for every human person from conception to natural death. Realizing respect for persons in the midst of humanitarian crises and social injustices is just as pro-life and just as important as any other life issue. Brothers and sisters, let us never find a situation where we can bring ourselves to advocate for some life issues and disregard others. If we truly love the Lord, we must take care of one another — we must love one another. There can be no true justice, no true harmony, no true righteousness and no true integrity without love.

Bishop Daniel E. Garcia of Monterey and DeKarlos Blackmon
A few months ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops penned “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” a pastoral letter against racism. The title of the pastoral letter speaks to the very heart of our Christian responsibility to make room for others in our hearts. Very often, I hear people say, “I don’t see color.” I recognize this as a well-intentioned comment, but until all people come to an authentic awareness of where they fit into systems of power and oppression historically, the comment often possesses no real meaning.

Collectively, we are called to a real conversion of hearts to meet the stranger among us and to engage in courageous encounters to raise more awareness of racism, poverty and all other forms of violence that threaten human life within our communities. As we endeavor to open wide our hearts to love, let us encounter and accompany one another to work to change the structures that work against the sanctity of life.

It is not enough that we simply pray about the issues affecting our communities, we are called to participate in opportunities for meaningful action. In our advocacy, let us promote the sanctity of every human life by learning more about the legislative priorities of our church, participating in advocacy day, and meeting with state legislators to discuss the issues that affect the common good.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Encouraging all to be ‘drum majors for justice’

By Kanobia A. Russell-Blackmon | Correspondent
Catholic Spirit • Diocese of Austin
February 2019, Volume 37, Number 2

A commemoration of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. brought together people of all cultures, backgrounds and ages from across the Diocese of Austin. The annual event was held Jan. 12 at St. Louis Parish in Austin. Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri of New Orleans was the keynote speaker. He was joined by Bishop Joe Vásquez, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Garcia and Father James Misko, pastor of St. Louis Parish and the recently appointed vicar general of the Diocese of Austin. 

As a drum major for justice, King believed in standing up for peace and righteousness, Bishop Vásquez said. “He spoke out against the injustice and evil of racism and advocated for equal rights for blacks,” the bishop said. Considering the current social climate in the U.S., Bishop Vásquez expressed the importance “that we remember [King’s] legacy and continue to stand against injustices.” 

Bishop Cheri, known for his singing and preaching, began his talk by asking all to stand and sing an old spiritual, “If anybody asks you who I am, tell ‘em I’m a child of God.” This hymn, coupled with the “Call of Simon the Fisherman” (Lk 5:1-11), set the stage for his presentation entitled “Changing Lanes.” 

Bishop Cheri said changing lanes is a part of life and one should not simply give up as soon as life throws a curve ball. Invoking King’s words, “Let no man pull you low enough to hate [him],” Bishop Cheri encouraged people to not place limitations on themselves because in changing lanes people should not allow the past to paralyze them in the present. 

This comment resonated with the staff of the diocesan Office of Life, Charity and Justice. Luisa de Poo, the associate director for Pro-Life Activities, said she often cautions those who have endured obstacles of racism or injustices to not live in a wound. 

Bishop Cheri challenged the faithful to not let events that happened to them in the past stop them from moving forward or discourage them from accomplishing their goals. 

Reflecting on the presentation, Wilhelmina Delco said, “I took away from his message that life is full of change and you should not be afraid to change lanes.” Delco knows about change as she was the first woman and the second black speaker pro tempore of the Texas House of Representatives. 

Sonia Eva Vega-Perez, a parishioner of St. Monica Parish in Cameron, agreed and added the message she takes with her is that “love always wins and hate never gains anything but division.”

Bernard Little, the faithful navigator of Knights of Peter Claver Assembly No. 40, appreciated how Bishop Cheri wove the story of Jesus’ calling of Simon Peter, “exhorting him to ‘change lanes’ and step out on faith to try something different.”  

Little, who is a convert to Catholicism, explained, “This was the basis of Dr. King’s message, and Bishop Cheri reminded us that Dr. King called us to change lanes, particularly as to how we view one another.” Considering the various cultures and traditions highlighted throughout the prayer and worship service, Little felt that the cultural presentations were “not only beautiful in their own right, but their inclusion should stand as a stark reminder to us all that God’s presence is everywhere.”

The St. Augustine Choir from Holy Cross Parish opened the service with an African hymn, “Siyahamba.” The hymn was meant to emphasize a spirit of community from the perspectives of those from the African diaspora. 

The choir from St. Louis Catholic School, in songs written by Michael Hoffer, reminded participants to follow the path of the Lord because God gives the courage to brave the storms of life. 

Belizean drummer Bernard Busano of St. William Parish in Round Rock and the Danza Guadalupana of St. Louis Parish in Austin led the march after the program. Busano represented a drum major, and the Guadalupanas represented the growing and varied Hispanic cultures present in the diocese. 

The choir and dance ministry from Holy Cross Parish helped participants praise, worship and witness through the Word, particularly in “Koinonia,” a song by V. Michael McKay which challenges the faithful to love each other with the love of the Lord. Geraldine Jones of St. Joseph Parish in Killeen and Patricia Macy of St. Austin Parish led the congregation in a litany and prayer for promoting harmony and justice.

The Diocese of Austin, through its Secretariat of Life, Charity and Justice, has issued a clarion call every Catholic to be a drum major for justice. During the celebration, the first Drum Major for Justice Award was presented to Johnnie Dorsey. The award was established to acknowledge an individual who truly espouses the ideals of what it means to dedicate one’s life to the promotion of social justice and the dignity of every human life, combined with a strong sense of obligation to the civic community, one’s parish community and family life. The award commemorates the legacy and sacrifice King gave to the world and is presented to an individual who perpetuates King’s convictions “to make justice, equality and opportunity a reality for all people.” The award’s name comes from King’s Drum Major Instinct sermon, during which he said, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”

Johnnie D. Dorsey Sr and Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin

Dorsey, who retired a year ago as the diocesan director of Black Catholic Ministry, was surprised and humbled to receive the award. 

“As I walked up the aisle to receive the award from Bishop Vásquez, I was overwhelmed by the thought that I had been chosen to receive this very meaningful award. Dr. King’s legacy has led to changes in law and social justice and I am humbled to know that I received an award that carries some of the greatest words that Dr. King has spoken,” Dorsey said.

Bishop Vásquez was pleased with the diversity of those in attendance at the commemoration for King. “There were people of different race, culture and language which is a great sign since honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King should never be seen as exclusive to one ethnicity,” the bishop said.

In consultation with the diocesan offices of Social Concerns and Hispanic Ministry, the commemoration program was coordinated by the diocesan Black Catholic Advisory Committee under the leadership of Susan Morris of St. Louis Parish in Austin. 

DeKarlos Blackmon, the diocesan secretariat director of Life, Charity and Justice who also coordinates the Office of Black Ministry, said it was paramount to make the King celebration inclusive of all. 

“This commemoration was a visible sign that we can all sit around the table of the Lord without regard to distinction, expressing in the words of St. John Paul II that there is no black church, no white church, no American church, but the one church of Jesus Christ that is a home for blacks, whites and people of every culture and race,” Blackmon said.