From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

‘The family is the hardest place to see God,’ speaker tells Catholic Conference participants

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Nov. 15, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

Dr. David Thomas of Colorado is a family man. He and his wife have seven children ages 33 to 8, and they have cared for 75 foster children.

For those reasons alone, the doctor was a perfect choice to be the keynote speaker at the annual Catholic Conference Oct. 27, which focused on family life with the theme “The Family: Broken, Blessed, Hope for the World.”

But there were other reasons, professional and educational, to select the doctor. He has a PhD in systematic and historical theology and an MA in sociology and cultural anthropology, both from the University of Notre Dame. He is an editor, professor, author, and co-director of the Bethany Family Institute, located in Colorado and in Wales.

About 230 people attended the weekend conference, which is sponsored annually by the diocesan Parish Services Office. It was held at the Spokane Ag Trade Center.

Given his background, when Dr. Thomas says, “The family is the hardest place to see God,” he speaks with authority.

Why is it so hard to see God in the family?

“So much depends on what we see,” Dr. Thomas told conference participants in his keynote address. “But we don’t notice; we don’t ponder.”

The mystics spoke of seeing God in the ordinary, which is different, and more difficult, than seeing God in the beauty of creation. The difficulty lies in the fact that families are “where most of the mud is. It’s mundane and ordinary. We know their faults. And that keeps us from seeing clearly.”

He told about one of his children, a little girl named Monet, who was born a crack baby. She had been a foster child with the Thomases and they took her back and eventually adopted her when her other adoptive family proved to be brutally abusive, he said.

“It was mud of the worst possible kind,” he said to his audience, many of whom were in tears. “How do we see God in that?”

Dr. Thomas said there are three ways of “seeing.” The first level is in the flesh: “we’re good at this.” The second is in the mind: “when we interpret what we see.” The third level is in the spirit or soul, “where we see as God sees.”

Dr. Thomas used the story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel as an analogy. The man was healed with common ordinary materials. Jesus made mud from dirt and spit, placing it on the man’s eyes. Then Jesus told the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. His physical sight was restored after he had washed.

As the healed man was questioned about what happened to him, his knowledge and awareness of who healed him began to grow, with his answers revealing a clearer picture each time. Finally, when the man encounters Jesus again, he sees that Jesus is Lord.

So, too, with Jesus’ followers. Dr. Thomas talked about the Latin phrase, “Ubi caritas” – love present in the world. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am.” The doctor said this “messy money place – this is the world and this is where the church needs to be.”

Dr. Thomas said he is sure of one thing, and quoted the late Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn.: “More than anything else, I’ve learned this one truth, that God is here. He is always with us. If we open our eyes, we will see.”

Dr. Thomas presented two other workshops during the conference, both centered on helping parents in raising children.

During the day-long conference, about 50 people attended a panel discussion titled “Working Together in Challenging Times.” Panel members included Bishop William Skylstad; Father Pat Hartin, a priest of Johannesburg, South Africa, who is in residence at St. Paschal Parish, Spokane; and Hassan Mallah, president of the Spokane Islamic Center.

The bishop spoke on the Church’s “continued sensitivity to the need for peace.” Its teachings on peace in the world are not new. He reminded those present of Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris – “Peace on Earth.” The encyclical spells out the quest of man to live in peace and dignity.

The bishop also referred to Vatican II’s 1965 document Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”). The document contains a chapter titled “The Fostering of Peace and the Promotion of a Community of Nations” and offers another of the Church’s teachings on war and peace.

In 1983, in what Bishop Skylstad called “a defining moment,” the bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.

Their letter was issued “amid much controversy,” Bishop Skylstad said, since it addressed “the whole nuclear issue” in a world in which nuclear disaster was an ominous threat that could destroy the world. The letter lays out the criteria for when war is justified and also ways to “develop non-violent means of conflict resolution.”

Bishop Skylstad also talked about Pope John Paul II’s efforts in seeking world peace. The pontiff has traveled the globe and written extensively on peace and justice. The bishop termed the pope’s visit to the Holy Land a “defining moment,” as Pope John Paul asked forgiveness there for the ways the church has hurt others.

These all have a “tremendous significance,” Bishop Skylstad said, “given the church’s stance on the dignity and sacredness of each person.” In light of Sept. 11, which brought about what the bishop called “an entirely new reality,” that stance has become more urgent. He expressed his hope that the nation is coming to a “new level of awareness. We need to live it; we need to believe it and act on it.”

Father Hartin told about his country’s experiences with apartheid, which he said “can present an example of hope.” Segregation of the races in South Africa was tightly legislated, with 13 percent of the people (whites) ruling the other 87 percent (black or mixed blood). As opposition grew, violence escalated.

In the face of this injustice, theologians of all faiths joined together to issue the “Kairos Document,” a call to bring an end to the “evil of apartheid,” Father Hartin said.

“They were the only ones who could voice opposition, since most of the political leaders had been either jailed, exiled, or murdered. It was ecumenism in the realm of social justice,” he said. This, too, was a defining moment, “a turning point,” for his country.

Father Hartin talked about seeking “a third way” of bringing peace. What was done in South Africa, he said, was to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped bring healing and closure to residents of the strife-torn country.

Father Hartin sees the present time as another “defining moment,” one that will allow people to “overcome the crisis using the vision Jesus gave, which is a third way, to understand one another and bring peace.”

Mallah spoke about the religion of Islam. This is a difficult time, he said, especially for Muslims. The word “Islam” means “peace,” he said. “There is no way in any religion that God sent a message to kill people. We are to live together in peace and harmony, to live our life together. We need to turn to God,” he said.

Mallah has been in the United States for 18 years. When he came to this country, he said, “I find my dignity; I find freedom.” He is Palestinian and spoke of the “unjustice that is everywhere in this world,” including his former homeland.

He encouraged Americans to “pray for us and stand together to speak the truth.” He said Americans hear only one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and asked them to “seek a change in policy” regarding the situation in the Middle East. He stressed that “there will not be peace anywhere if there is no peace in the Middle East.”

Bishop Skylstad concluded by saying the church’s social teaching is not something new: “it’s based on the prophets of old and continues to be developed. Social justice should not be marginalized; we need to get over that idea. It needs to be part of our church.”

Pope John Paul reached out to the world, the bishop said, including Muslims. He told Mallah and the Islamic community that “on behalf of the church in Eastern Washington, I want to express our solidarity with you.”

Inland Register archives

© The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved