Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
"Engaging the culture"
by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the June 10, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)
Everything we have, everything we are, is a gift from God. We got up this morning. We drew breath. Our minds engaged, our feet hit the floor. We have a gift: a gift of this day. What do we do with the gift?
Human life is a gift. And each life is full of individual gifts. Not necessarily talents Ė playing the piano, or giving a great speech, or fixing a car, though those are all gifts, too. But gifts like the sacraments.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is one of the columnists featured in each issue of the Inland Register. Father Rolheiserís essays often spark my own reflections. One of his favorite themes is the idea that the sacraments are incarnational: outward signs that we encounter through our senses, through our bodies, these human lives, these gifts from God. Oils of blessing. Waters of baptism. Words pronounced where all can hear, prayers recited by the community of faith, as one body. The taste of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus.
The Eucharist really is the source and the summit of our life as Church. Eucharist defines us. Eucharist is what we do best Ė or try to do best. Christís people, gathering in his name, just as he asked us to do. Christ present with us, among us, just as he promised he would be.
The prophet Isaiah has that wonderful line about peace-making Ė turning swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. In our present-day American society, particularly in regard to politics, I fear that we are reversing the situation, and taking Godís great gift to our Church and using it as a weapon of divisiveness and destruction.
I speak, of course, about the matter of Catholic political figures who have taken a pro-choice position with regard to abortion legislation, and whether they should be allowed to receive Communion in our churches.
A Benedictine priest once remarked that liturgy should be the center of what we do as believers, and yet liturgy is the topic most fraught with criticism, with heated argument, with potential division Ė ďthe very place for Satan to strike the Church,Ē he said.
Let me be very clear: as Church we are profoundly serious about human life, every human life on the continuum of earthly existence; its worth and dignity; that each human life, from conception to natural death, is a gift from God and precious in Godís sight. The value of a human life is Godís judgment, not ours. The Church teaches consistently that human life is to be cherished and protected against threats, particularly the lives of those most vulnerable: the pre-born; the ill; the aged; the poor. The immigrant, the sorrowing, the confused, the misunderstood. We are all Godís unique creations, we are all beloved by God, we are all children of God, we are all precious. God depends on us to defend and protect one another.
Jesus tells us that there are two great commandments: love God, love neighbor. The tricky part is: How do we do those things? How do we love God? How do we love our neighbor?
Linus, of the Peanuts comic strip, famously remarked, ďI love humanity. Itís people I canít stand.Ē We can love society, love neighbor in some abstract, distant fashion, but is that love? Is that how God wants us to love our neighbor?
Christ has given us the charge of evangelization. Go out, he said, and be my witnesses, to the ends of the Earth. Spread the Good News. Be witnesses.
In a sense, we are all missionaries of Christís message, Godís love. We preach by our example. We preach by living our lives as witnesses to the Gospel, witnesses to values that are sometimes 180 degrees from the culture which surrounds us, the cultural messages which bombard us. But we cannot live this charge from Jesus by holding ourselves aloof and aloft and apart. We can only evangelize by engaging the culture which surrounds us.
A recent article in Church magazine by Father Bryan Hehir discussed Vatican IIís document Gaudium et Spes Ė The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. Itís a helpful reminder of how we love God and love our neighbor in todayís society.
Father Hehir reminds us the Churchís relationship with society must be dialectical: dialogue, discussion, persuasion. Does dialogue mean watering down the faith, to make it acceptable? No. Does discussion mean selling short our message Ė Godís message Ė to a hurting world? No. Does persuasion mean simplification of complex issues? No.
In fact, the very complexity of our world and the issues which face us as members of society argues strongly in favor of the persuasive approach to evangelization. As a church, we are more educated, better educated, more widely educated than ever before. That is true of the greater society as well. A club will not do the trick. We must act persuasively, with respect for the intelligence of the people with whom we interact Ė our own Catholic community and society at large.
Some bishops have stated that they will deny Eucharist to Catholic politicians who have supported abortion legislation. Eucharist is Godís gift to us, Godís presence among us. It is a most precious part of our Catholic heritage. I strongly oppose using Eucharist as a weapon.
I am not alone in this opinion. Similar views have been voiced by Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, D.C.; Bishop Donald Wuerl, Bishop of Pittsburgh and co-editor of The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults; and other bishops, both nationally and globally.
As a bishop, I believe we are called to persuade, not to bludgeon. We have at our disposal so many opportunities and means for sharing the Gospel of Christ. We have neither need nor call to take Godís gifts Ė Godís plowshares, if you will Ė and turn them into weapons of divisiveness and anger.
The U.S. bishopsí document Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, discusses our role as a Church in society, from both the standpoint of an organization and as individual citizens and voters. We should be political, without being partisan. Our concern is the common good, not the advancement of the agenda of a particular political party. As we do so, we must be clear about our teaching, but civil as well. We can be firm without being unkind or cruel. We can be clear without being blunt. And we can persuade without drawing lines in the sand and daring others to cross.
This political year, I hope you will join me in deepening our education as a community of faith. Learn about the issues. Learn about the candidates. Be informed, and make decisions based on solid information Ė about the issues, about Church teaching. Our task as Catholic citizens is far from easy. The greater society needs us. God needs us. We can and will make a difference. But to make that difference, we must act with a sense of responsibility, a sense of compassion, with the love of God Ė not with a club.
Much peace and Godís blessings.