Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

The Bishop Writes

"Amazing witness"

by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the Oct. 26, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Our world is full of stories of haunting tragedy. Events seem more painful when they involve children. I can still remember the shock of a school bus crashing into Lake Chelan during a snowstorm in the mid-í40s. Many of the children aboard drowned.

We were all profoundly shocked and saddened by the horrifying events this month in Lancaster, Pa., when a man barricaded himself in a one-room Amish schoolhouse and killed several children, then killed himself. This violent tragedy is especially shocking because the Amish are known throughout the world for their commitment to peace.

Two remarkable things happened after the shootings. First, the Amish community immediately forgave the attacker. Their concern was not for themselves, but how they might be of comfort and consolation to the manís family. Second, about 70 people attended the killerís funeral. About half of those present were Amish.

A few months ago, north of Spokane, five young children of the same family were killed when a pickup crossed the median and crashed into the van driven by their father.†The father of the children survived.†At the time of the accident, the childrenís mother was in a hospital, awaiting the birth of her next child.†The mother and father are members of the Mennonite community.†Not so long ago they invited the driver of the pickup to their home for dinner.†They do not wish to press charges against him.

These two stories, of the Amish and the Mennonites, are stunning examples of forgiveness and compassion.

Our Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) met earlier this month. During the meeting, we talked about the prophetic nature of both of these groups, the Mennonites and the Amish, who in a very radical and profound way live out the reconciliation, compassion, and forgiveness called for by the Gospel.†Their response is immediate and very genuine.†Jesusí command is not only to love oneís neighbor as oneself, but also to forgive.†In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of our responsibility of being ambassadors of Christ. Jesus has given to all of us the ministry of reconciliation.

In our discussion at the DPC meeting, we talked about our own witness as a Catholic community. When we feel we have been wronged, is our immediate response forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation? In the Amish and Mennonite communities, we have come to expect that kind of answer to very tragic situations. Does the broader community see us Catholics responding similarly? Is our forgiveness immediate and genuine? How can we do better? How can we allow ourselves to be filled with the Spirit of the Lord Jesus, whose response in his own life powerfully leads the way?

At our meeting, we also talked about how we should address the needs of our Catholic community of faith as, pray God, we move out of our Chapter 11 situation. Our people have experienced devastation, hurt, anger, disappointment, broken trust, and loss. The wounds are deep.†Some of our people, through no fault of their own, have lost their faith. How do we assert the genuine sort of courage we need in order to be a community of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing? And the truth is, we cannot expect that of our communities until it begins to happen within us as individuals.

Itís rather easy to be critical, pointing fingers, emphasizing those parts of our lives where we have fallen short, those places where we are less than we ought to be. Itís true of our Catholic community, itís true of our wider society: Itís easy to find all sorts of imperfections, of warts and moles. Itís easy to fixate on the negative, on personal faults and failures Ė some of those failures, truly tragic. Itís easy to belittle others; it seems much harder to bring out the good.†Itís easy to put a finger to the wind, to check which way it is blowing.†The winds of recrimination, vindictiveness, harshness, name calling, sensationalism, titillation can be pretty strong sometimes.†But there is a difference between personal attacks intended to crush, and courageous calls to accountability and responsibility, speaking from a place of integrity, not self-righteous superiority.

We must foster a sense of compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and connectedness in our society, encouraging respect, peace, and love of others. That, too, is a ďwind,Ē and it can have† a powerful, trans-formational,†and lasting impact. That wind must be rooted in a spirituality that speaks of closeness to the Lord Jesus and integration of Godís Word into our daily lives.

Dr. Robbert Bellah spoke to the U.S. Catholic bishops some years ago at Santa Clara University. One of his suggestions: that we work to make our countryís culture more Biblically literate. None of us on this side of the Kingdom of God lives the ďWordĒ perfectly. Thus, our effort must truly be life-long: continued conversion; integrating the basic values of Jesus into our lives as Christians.†All of this demands patience with one another as we journey together toward conversion. Sometimes conversion happens to us the way it happened to St. Paul on his way to Damascus. Itís sudden, immediate, instantaneous; ďscalesĒ fall from our eyes, just as they did from his, as told in the Acts of the Apostles. That is a good and wondrous thing. But for most of us, the conversion journey is much more circuitous and slow. As we strive to connect the Gospel to our everyday life and experience, we must go about that effort with persistence, hope, and vision.

As a diocesan family, we have the opportunity to use this moment in our history to root ourselves more deeply in the Gospel, root ourselves more deeply in our identity as a Catholic community of faith and in our commitment to the Lord and to one another as the Body of Christ.†May our hearts individually and collectively be open to the power of the Holy Spirit who, as Jesus says, will come and instruct us in everything.

Blessings and peace to all!

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