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Justice convocation raises awareness of social issues

By Jim Lockwood
Posted: 10/23/2009

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Participants meditate on the opening prayer at the Archdiocesan Justice Convocation Oct. 17 at Boston College High School in Dorchester. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

DORCHESTER -- Over 300 Catholics from around the Archdiocese of Boston gathered at Boston College High School on Oct. 16 for the first annual archdiocesan justice convocation.

The event, titled “In the Footsteps of Christ,” featured remarks from Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley and archdiocesan secretary for Health and Social Services Father J. Bryan Hehir. Following a panel discussion with Catholic Charities president Tiziana Dearing, archdiocesan director of Pastoral Planning Father David Couturier, OFM Cap., and RENEW International executive director Sister Terry Rickard, OP, participants attended various breakout sessions detailing how Catholics should respond to the different needs for social justice at the national and local levels.

Breakout sessions focused on issues such as immigration, the workplace, poverty and hunger, respect for life, the ARISE program, social justice in the home, parish, and school, cultural and racial diversity, human trafficking, housing, residential care, youth ministry, and why social justice is necessary today.

The convocation highlighted the fact that Catholics must not and cannot separate the social teachings of the faith from scripture and sacramental practices. Speakers insisted that the social teaching of the Church is interconnected with those other aspects of the Catholic faith such as the reading of scripture and devotional practice.

“Catholic social teaching has always been a part of the task of evangelization,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “All the various aspects are connected. It doesn’t make sense to isolate the teachings of the Church from human dignity and justice.”

Pat Dinneen, chairperson of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council Social Justice Committee encouraged participants to focus their energies on a few of society’s needs.

“Whether it is immigration reform, housing, poverty, injustice in the workplace, or whatever it is, understand your faith and follow that vocation,” she said. “There are so many aspects of social justice. Today people have hopefully been called to discern their vocation to build a more just world.”

“For the convocation today, we wanted to give people an opportunity to look across the many dimensions and choose their own priorities,” she added.

“It’s a multidimensional task,” said Father Hehir in the keynote address. “None of us can do it all, but all of us can do something.”

In his address entitled “Catholic Social Vision: Its Content and Challenges” Father Hehir outlined the three sources of Catholic social teaching -- the Bible, papal encyclicals, and Vatican II -- and ways Catholics can work for social justice in today’s pluralistic society.

According to Hehir, the Book of Genesis reveals that man is created by God with an inherent human dignity, and that he has a responsibility for the moral stewardship of God’s creation. Through the Incarnation, man is “doubly consecrated” by God and Jesus.

Father Hehir explained that papal encyclicals, especially over the last century, have focused on translating social vision into “living witness” for a “complex” modern society.

“It’s one thing to say with the prophets, ‘Let justice flow from the mountains’,” said Father Hehir. “It’s another thing to design a fair tax code in a complex society.”

“Complexity requires the use of human reason,” Father Hehir said. “It is an exercise of stewardship.”

To that end, Father Hehir said, the popes have encouraged Catholics to combine scripture with human reason in working for social justice.

Father Hehir also remarked on the social nature of the person, saying that Catholics do not believe man is totally self-sufficient and autonomous.

“That means we need multiple communities to achieve our dignity and human flourishing together,” he said.

Cardinal O’Malley echoed the same idea in his remarks.

“We are all interconnected and must embrace an ethic of working together for the common good,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “That flies in the face of the individualism and materialism of our day.”

The Second Vatican Council, the third source of social teaching according to the keynote address, did not greatly add to Catholic social teaching. Rather, it established a foundation for social teaching.

“You came out of Vatican II convinced that to be Catholic is to be scriptural, sacramental, and social,” Father Hehir said.

Father Hehir also reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on health care, in light of the current debate.

“We believe health care is a right, part of the common good, and a responsibility for a decent society to provide at least a minimum of health care for every person in society,” he said.

The panel discussion focused on addressing social justice needs at the local level.

Dearing spoke of Catholic Charities’ work in the Boston area, highlighting that the organization addresses needs for clothing, food, shelter, rent and mortgage assistance, utilities, job preparation, pregnant and parenting teens, fatherhood programs, and English as a Second Language programs.

“There’s always tremendous pressure to pick a piece,” she said. “The problem is human need doesn’t pick a piece.”

Father Couturier addressed the need for social justice at the parish level by focusing on how current economic conditions have affected average American families. He highlighted the current unemployment rate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and described the growing wage stagnation, gap between rich and poor, and wage reduction that affects Americans now.

He recommends that parishes form discussion groups where parishioners and neighbors can talk through economic troubles as some community groups have already done.

“We need to do this to break the yoke of shame and isolation,” Father Couturier said.

He said the goals of Catholic parishes now should be “to bring the poor and middle class together to build a stronger and more relational economy.”

Sister Rickard said that while Catholics need to have a personal relationship with Jesus, they also need to have a communal relationship with him. She stressed the concept of solidarity -- that “every person is our brother and sister.”

“The more deeply we are committed to loving our God, at the same time, that calls us to an ever deepening love of our brothers and sisters -- those who are part of our Catholic communion, and maybe even more so, those outside of that, particularly those who are most vulnerable in our society and in our world,” Sister Rickard said.

For John Breithaupt, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Stoneham, the convocation stressed balancing the three aspects of Catholic life.

“We’re certainly a sacramental religion and a lot of our life as Catholics is involved with the sacraments, with prayer, and with worship,” he said. “We’re also fellow citizens of this planet Earth and we have responsibilities toward our fellow human beings. We have responsibilities about how we live and the responsibility of acting and thoughtful compassion. It’s easy to ignore one aspect of Catholic life to the advantage of the other. We need to keep all three things in mind.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council with the Secretariat for Health and Social Services and RENEW International.