Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Relief Services’

THE SUN WILL COME UP TOMORROW

Friday, October 7th, 2016

Matthew has come, gone, and may make another appearance later next week. Matthew has left his path of destruction behind, a bad memory for a lot of people and a challenge for us all. Like many other Floridians I watched that storm for almost ten days, always with a funny feeling that “it is the one – the big one” and for the people of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas it certainly was. For many in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, it will also be a bad memory, although we seem spared the worst of its powerful presence.

I am amazed at the ability which the National Hurricane Center possesses to warn us of the likelihood of getting to know a storm. In my lifetime we have progressed from “guess” to almost pinpoint accuracy in predicting which act of nature is likely to befall us. With their computer base and spaghetti models, the NHC called this one perfectly, if one allows for the fact that such storms have a mind of their own. Government acted as good government should and the population responded as expected (sometimes listening and acting and sometimes in either denial or rejection). Here in the states, we have the ability to react in advance. In our island nation neighbors there is no such freedom.

These words are being penned on Friday afternoon while Matthew continues to challenge northern Florida and later tonight Georgia and South Carolina. Yesterday a majority of the priests of the diocese and I finished three days together in our annual October convocation. We knew what some of the least among us would have to endure from this storm and we prayed for them.  We also resolved that we would do more than pray.

Our presenter yesterday was Carolyn Woo, the President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. On your behalf, I presented her with a check for $250,000 to assist our brothers and sisters in the hemispheres most desperately poor nation, Haiti, as well as in the Bahamas. Even our government recognized that when it comes to disasters, CRS responds quickly, effectively and well in helping people survive, rebuild, and renew. US AID (a branch of the federal State Department) yesterday made a multi-million dollar donation of money, food and supplies to CRS and the Red Cross for help for Haiti.

As a diocese we do not have $250,000 to throw around but I simply advanced it as the pastors present for the convocation said they would appeal to their people, to you, this weekend and next in a special collection to begin to stitch together again the lives Matthew tore asunder. I hope our response might approach the $1.7 million we raised for the tsunami in the Indian Ocean a few years back or the $1.9 million we raised nine months later for Hurricane Katrina assistance. If we receive more than $250,000 in the next few weeks, we will keep an eye on the needs along our Florida and Georgia east coasts and share it with Catholic Charities USA. Here in Florida, we bishops have a disaster response program located within the Florida Catholic Conference which is being mobilized along our east coast as I write this. CRS will be present in Haiti and the Bahamas, making you proud. None of the money raised here will go to our national episcopal conference where in the recent past a portion is often used to rebuild church infrastructure but directly to Catholic Relief Services to help those people whose nearly hopeless faces appear on our TV screens tonight and in our papers and media tomorrow.

The sun will indeed come up tomorrow, for everyone in Matthew’s path, and for many, their future is a matter of our generosity. Please respond as lovingly as you have done often in the past. God bless you.

+RNL

FINAL SALUTE TO A GOOD MAN

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Doctor David Abdulai, a hero to me, went home to the Father last night. He died of stage four thyroid cancer after a life of public service in his native Ghana and years of medically treating the poorest of the poor and the most destitute in his two free clinics in Tamale, Ghana. I grieve his loss today deeply. Those readers who had children confirmed by me this year know that I devoted my homily to this good man in the hopes of striking a chord in the hearts of the young for service to the poor.

Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, Christopher Mertens and I last Christmas.

Myself, Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, and Christopher Mertens last Christmas.

David Abdulai was born a Muslim in northeast Ghana almost seven decades ago. His father had died of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) when David was still a young boy and most of his eight siblings also suffered from the disease. Irish missionaries saw intelligence and fire in the young boy and approached his single mother asking her permission to allow David to attend a Catholic boarding/elementary school in the small city of Tamale. She agreed and David started a Catholic education in the first grade that would accompany him until secondary school graduation. He was bright, exceedingly bright and an outstanding student.

After winning a scholarship to and graduating with highest honors from the University of Ghana in Accra, he chose medicine as his profession, specializing in surgery. He won a fellowship in surgery to a Medical College in Liverpool, England and came home with a wife and family and practiced his calling in Accra, the capital city.

As an adult, having been surrounded by Christianity and Catholicism in his formative years, he decided to become a Catholic and entered the Church with baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist on the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. He recounted to me that moment last Christmas when I met and visited with him for what for me, sadly, would be my first and last time, that the readings that day from the Old Testament offered this line: “Comfort my people O Lord, comfort my people.” It would serve to drive his ambitions and desires for the rest of his life.

With his children largely grown, he returned to Tamale and served as the Minister of Health for that Ghana province. But soon he would make a life-changing decision, give all his fame and fortune up and open a clinic for the nation’s poorest of the poor. With acreage given to him by a tribal chief, he built and opened the first of what today are two Shekinah clinics. Here he treated all who came and who could not access, for whatever reason, the government health care system. And they came, for over twenty years.

He would arrange his daily schedule so that he could see 120 patients each day, ninety new cases and thirty follow-up cases. He erected an operating theatre where he would perform some minor surgeries, like hernia repairs.

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The operating room at the clinic.

He scrounged and managed to stock a pharmacy. He built wards for the surgical patients to recover and huts for the lepers in which to live.

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Wards and residences for patients and Hansen’s disease residents.

Through volunteers with gifts of food (Catholic Relief Services through US AID for many years provided food) he served all who came to the clinic, those who lived there and those who were simply overnight residents.

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The kitchen and cooks at the Shekinah Clinic.

Several times the government tried to shut his clinic down but they never succeeded because everyone knew of the work of this great man, his wife and his volunteers.

So magnetic was his personality and deep his devotion that he assembled a team of volunteers who assisted him 24/7/365. No one was paid. Not even the doctor who lived off what he had saved from his earlier practice of medicine. He opened a second clinic, as people would cross the border from Burkina Faso to see him. When confronted with a patient with such a serious disease that he could not treat them, he would have them wait for him to finish his daily work and then would drive them in his jeep to the local government hospital and insist that they be cared for, not leaving until it was done.

Every Christmas he and his wife would feed Christmas dinner to the poor of the region at their home, a total numbering in excess of 3200 last Christmas. On the 27th, the day I arrived, he had a second Christmas dinner for the blind, deaf, lame, widowed and leprous who for physical reasons could not come on Christmas. Talk about feeding the 5000. My task that day was to simply give them a Christmas present of one super large bar of shea butter soap (from the region) and a new dishtowel plus some candy (all donated).

They called Dr. Abdulai “the male Mother Theresa of West Africa”. To watch him work and interact with people lacking in hope was life changing. His energy level far exceeded anything I could give. His love of his Catholic faith and the joy that Pope Francis brought to him was palpable. In both clinics there is to be found a small mosque at the entrance, a chapel where Mass is celebrated at times throughout the week, and a Star of David is painted on the wall of the examining room – his desire to show and share that all are welcome regardless of faith.

How did I come to know him? That is a story in itself but I will make it short. One summer two seminarians at that time, brothers, and one sophomore at Notre Dame talked to me about spending the summer working in Africa. I called my beloved Catholic Relief Services knowing that they had such a program, and they arranged for the three to spend ten weeks in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. The Notre Dame student, Christopher Mertens, an Eagle Scout, the St. Petersburg Times male scholar athlete of the year in his senior year at Palm Harbor University High School, a member of the Diocesan Youth Council and son of an elementary school teacher at Guardian Angels school in Clearwater, was sent to the Clinic in Tamale and spent the summer with the Doctor.

His emails home to his parents and to myself radiated a respect for Dr Abdulai that spanned the ocean. Then Chris came down with malaria. Doctor Abdulai rushed to his side and prescribed the necessary medicines. Chris could have come home because of the malaria but he stayed. He lived in the clinic at bare subsistence level, but every new day brought new patients to the clinic and he helped as best he could. The love that the staff and the doctor had for Chris was abundantly evident when Chris took me to Tamale and to the doctor on Christmas day last year.

I’m off to my chapel to offer Mass today for this great man, thankful to God for having had the opportunity to meet him and see where and how he performed the works of mercy. I am thankful to Catholic Relief Services for their help to the clinic in the past and I am grateful to Christopher Mertens for unwittingly and unknowingly being the catalyst for allowing me one of the great moments of my adult lifetime. Dr. David Abdulai and the clinic staff welcomed us on December 27th and he was proud that his young American was then in his fourth semester of Medical School at Tulane in New Orleans. God takes and God gives. It happens all the time and we just don’t seem to want to notice it.

Rest now in the peace of the Lord you servant, good doctor to the poor, and may the Divine Physician embrace you for your life lived on earth.

+RNL

OLD BUSINESS, NEW BUSINESS

Monday, January 6th, 2014

I find myself afflicted with yet another monster cold which has slowed me down slightly from things I intended to do this past week, including updating this blog site with a new post or two.

In the area of old business, I am deeply touched to once again point out to the readership how greatly generous the people of this diocese are when asked to help other people in desperate need. Remember Typhoon Haiyan (aka “Yolanda”) which devastated several islands in the Philippines? On the 23rd of December I was able to forward to Catholic Relief Services a second check in the amount of $500,000 (added to the $100,000 I had sent one day after the Typhoon passed). We have therefore sent $600,000 to CRS so far with a few parishes not yet reporting. Catholic Relief Services has responded with great gratitude for a level of generosity which ranks among the highest of any monies sent to them for this purpose. Please keep in mind that monies collected for disaster relief are forwarded in total to CRS and not sent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Just prior to the beginning of the year, we closed out our consultation on the questions proposed by the Holy See on Marriage and Family Life in the United States. As most of you know, we used an on-line survey instrument. Once again I am proud to report the response of the faithful of this diocese to the survey questions: 6,462 people responded to the survey (4% were between the ages of 18-28), 21% were between 30-49 years of age, 47% were between the ages of 50-69 years, and 28% were seventy or older). 36% of the respondents were male and 64% were female. An amazingly high percentage of the respondents indicated that they were registered parishioners (85%) and 87% said they attend Mass: daily (9%), Sunday and Holy Days and some weekdays (37%), and Sundays and holy days (41%). 11% of the survey population indicated that they were single and never married, 61% currently married, 9% divorced and never remarried, 4% divorced and remarried in the Catholic Church, 4% divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, 9% widowers. This is the easy part of summarizing the results.

At the outset there were questions about whether or not the Holy See wanted a broad consultation in the local Churches or were just expecting bishops to consult with Presbyteral and/or Pastoral Councils. That seems to me to have been answered, as broadly as one can given the time constraints. Then of late there has been a question of whether or not the results can be shared outside of the Synod office in Rome. The present answer seems to be a solid “no” to that at this moment. That raised a problem for me since when making the decision to go online (and make a paper survey available to those who could not access the on-line instrument) I said I would share the results. While I work on that an Executive Summary is being prepared by the Diocesan Pastoral Council which will be reviewed by the Priest’s Council and off the results will go to Rome. Stay tuned.

Finally, this afternoon (Sunday, January 5th) we held an Evening Prayer Service at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle for those who were baptized into the Church at the 2013 Easter Vigil. You may recall that because the Cathedral was under construction the important annual ceremonies of the Rite of Election were held at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Largo. I promised those in attendance at that time that when the remodeling project was complete, I would invite them to return to the Cathedral for a “Neophyte” gathering. I attach here my homily for that occasion.

Thirty archbishops and bishops from Wilmington, Delaware to Miami along the eastern seaboard and the Military Archdiocese will be gathering tomorrow for our annual retreat at The Bethany Center. I hope they bring their winter clothes because it, as you know, is supposed to get very cold tomorrow afternoon [Monday] and night. I know I will have to listen to a few voices which will say “why did we have to come all the way to Florida to freeze?” But by Thursday, they will know why. Pray for us as I shall for all of you. Happy New Year.

+RNL

HARBORING INNER THOUGHTS

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013
The sun rises on Monday over Baltimore's Inner Harbor

The sun rises on Monday over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

I was ordained a priest by Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, the second (arch)bishop of Miami. I cherish his memory still and love him as a father. But he had a habit whenever he flew anywhere on Church business to write out in longhand a letter to the people of the Archdiocese which he entitled “Devotedly Yours.” They would always in some way share the experiences of the meetings he attended, the agenda or ideas presented, etc. and he always wrote them on the airplane coming home.

As he grew older, the cynics among us used to ascribe what could at times become mere musings to the effect of altitude on the brain. Well, I am now at that age and am on the plane home following the November meeting of bishops in Baltimore along its beautiful inner harbor with pictures from my hotel room at dawn and dusk. We are at 36,000 feet, so if some ideas don’t compute or all the dots do not connect, attribute them to altitude not age.

My first thought about the meeting just concluded is that there was so little business there must be a cheaper and more efficient way of doing it. Beginning on Monday morning, we had seven and one half hours of public session business. I looked around the room and felt sorry for all those observers and invited guests, the media (feeling sorry for the media is a tough task for me) and others who sat around waiting to hear us engage in something which might effect their lives or make them proud in some way.

There’s always some business like the budget, the priorities and plans of the organization, elections (more about this later) that are required and necessary. But ever since the end of the “liturgical wars” a few years ago, our meetings seem to me to lack a lot of substance. For a long time I attributed it to the conference reorganization which took place about six years ago and the need for the new committee structure to learn how to crawl, walk and then run but that does not seem to be it. I served in the General Secretariat of the NCCB/USCC for eleven years and we struggled to fit everything into a three and one half day time frame so we could adjourn by noon on Thursday. This time we finished our public business by noon on Tuesday. True, we had three hours of meeting by regions and a nearly full day of Executive Sessions but other than approving some necessary liturgical texts, giving permission to a committee to develop a pastoral statement on pornography, we didn’t do a lot to advance the kingdom of God on earth – at least publicly.

That brings me to the growing tendency to seek the shelter of “Executive Sessions” which seems to be expanding. Bishops don’t particularly like the glare of the cameras, the presence of the press and photographers. We seem to be intimidated by it and often choose to place the more “juicy stuff” into Executive Sessions.

There have been many times in recent years when I wished that God’s people could hear the debate and the engagement of their bishops on many of the topics in the Executive Sessions. Some of the best, most thoughtful, charitable debates and discussions have taken place therein. If I am edified after almost forty-one years of attending these annual meetings, that must mean something. There certainly are times and subjects where we need to be in an Executive Session, but that is becoming more the norm than the exception. The church suffers, credibility flies out-the-door in certain circles, and can seem to some to be cowardly. I don’t think this area of our communal life and ministry of bishops is going to change anytime soon.

A lot of pre-meeting hype went into the elections for the office of President and Vice-President this time. Notwithstanding the unexpected which happened three years ago, the expected happened this time and we gave the Church in this country a fine President for the next three years. I would wish to be able to “dream” that my early endorsement in these pages had something to do with his first ballot victory (it’s the altitude thing!!!!).

Archbishop Kurtz is a fine man and a grand bishop. So is Cardinal Dolan and it irked me the other day when a certain columnist in the Catholic press suggested he might have engineered the surprise of three years ago. He did not – take it to the bank. He was nominated on the list of ten and was also embarrassed at that turn of events. He has had a difficult three years with the Affordable Care Act and the contraceptive mandate and at all times he has been compassionate and caring. He’s genuine. I have known him for a long time and he has not changed. Most of the men who had him as their Rector at the North American College idolize him (he would himself prefer a more modest verb like “respect”). He can now look forward to a lot more time in and with New York and the local Church he has been called to serve. You can not appreciate how much time and energy being President of our Conference requires of a man and he deserves our thanks. It is important to remember that the success or failure of any elected officer depends on the skill and work of the executive staff, the General Secretary and his Associates. They anticipate his needs, sometimes his thoughts, and execute his wishes which flow from the actions of the majority of its membership.

Finally, on the matter of elections, the choice of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston as Vice-President means that the Diocese of St. Petersburg will provide His Eminence with his first speaking engagement since being elected, this Saturday night, at the Foundation for Life Gala in Tampa. He will be my house guest on Saturday night.

Planning and executing our twice yearly meetings of the bishops of the United States is a herculean task and it is well handled by the staff of the USCCB every time. I think sometimes we appreciate them more than our elected officers for they are ready for our every need.

I have heard from some of you who watched the TV feed of the meeting and have contacted me to ask what I was addled about regarding the Collection for the Philippine Relief .

From time immemorial, Catholic Relief Services has raised money for disaster relief and development for people and not for Church infrastructure needs. When the massive earthquake hit Haiti four years ago, many Church structures were destroyed including the Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, the seminary, hospitals and parish churches and schools. We took up in our diocese significant gifts of money to help people, but for the first time, a decision was made that in this one instance, some of the money would be split and go to church and institutional rebuilding. I did not like the idea when I learned of it because in our diocese we raised the money to help those thin, emaciated bodies of children and adults who were homeless and in immediate need of food, clothing, water, etc. Additionally the decision to split was made not by the plenary assembly, which usually has competence in national collections, nor in this instance was the Board of Catholic Relief Services queried or the Conference’s own Committee on Budget and Finance. It was just announced. Poof!

During the discussion of CRS on Monday afternoon I learned for the first time that any monies raised and sent to the Conference for the Philippines would also be split. Eventually I was able to ascertain that each bishop who raised money in this current moment of devastation and lack of hope in those islands could do one of three things:

1. He can take the collection up and send it to USCCB knowing that it will be split.

2. He can take the collection up and send it to USCCB and indicate that it not be split but go to one of the two uses only.

3. He can send the money directly to CRS which will not split it but use it for humanitarian aid only.

In the Diocese of St. Petersburg, all monies collected for Typhoon relief will be sent to Catholic Relief Service and used to help those desperate brothers and sisters we see on the front page of both of our papers or on TV.

The sun sets over another USCCB Fall Assembly of Bishops - same scene as above but nine hours later.

The sun sets over another USCCB Fall Assembly of Bishops – same scene as above but nine hours later.

They are threatening me now on the plane to get ready for landing in Tampa. It will be great to be home for the holidays.

The sun in setting on Baltimore now but the five counties are still bright and shiny.

+RNL

WE SHALL RETURN

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Nine years ago, on the day after Christmas in 2004, an earthquake far below the surface of the Indian Ocean unleashed an act of nature that staggered the human imagination and made even I stop to ask, “Where were you, O Lord.” Over 200,000 lives were lost as one of the largest and most devastating tsunamis swept parts of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the southernmost tip of the Indian sub-continent. Hundreds of thousands who did survive were left without housing, access to food and water, and a total absence of sanitation. Only the fast action of the community of nations and non-governmental organizations saved the survivors from typhoid and dysentery. Catholic Relief Services, your national church’s agency, helped to rebuild lives in all three places, returning families to almost 9000 totally new homes able to withstand earthquakes of the magnitude of 9.0 and far enough away from the sea that a tsunami of even more historic proportions would not reach them. In a Muslim and Hindu land, the Catholic people of the United States represented by CRS were greatly appreciated.

The two main islands hit by Typhoon Haiyan, Leyte and Samar, are home to 3.6 million people (including the families of Fathers Allen Tupa, Glen Diaz, and Cesar Patilla) of whom are Catholic as our faith is very strong in those islands.

Photo credit: Caritas International

Photo credit: Caritas International

Most are without the basic necessities and wandering the streets looking for food among the garbage and water which is so contaminated that they should not even get near it. US troops are already on station and CRS is moving its resources into the area as this is being written. I remember CRS staffer Pat Johns who led the tsunami recovery in Indonesia that the first thing he did was to buy every plastic bucket that the local equivalent of Walmart or Home Depot or Lowes had on the island of Sumatra and drive them into the disaster zone, thereby giving people something to carry clean, purified water to their shelters for drinking and cooking sparing the population dysentery, diarrhea, and other potentially lethal diseases.

The Philippines need our help desperately and CRS is our delivery vehicle of mercy.

I am asking that second collections be taken up in all our parish churches for the next two weekends (Nov. 16-17 and Nov. 23-24) and at Mass on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 28) to be forwarded immediately to CRS (see letter). 

Image of the devastation in the Philippines. Photo credit: Caritas International

Image of the devastation in the Philippines. Photo credit: Caritas International

"Bogo City and Daanbantayan, North of Cebu." Photo and caption credit: Caritas International

“Bogo City and Daanbantayan, North of Cebu.” Photo and caption credit: Caritas International

Church evacuation centre in Tacloban City. Photo care of church volunteer. Photo caption and credit: Caritas International

“Church evacuation centre in Tacloban City. Photo care of church volunteer.” Photo caption and credit: Caritas International

Brendan Stack and his family are parishioners at the Cathedral parish in St. Petersburg. Brendan went to Jesuit High School in Tampa and then earned his bachelor’s degree at Loyola University of Maryland. During his time at Loyola he asked my assistance and he went as a CRS summer intern (of sorts) to a remote area of India where he worked hard in a CRS and parish program. When he graduated from Loyola in May of 2011 he spent a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp in Boise, Idaho teaching English to poor, mostly undocumented Mexicans and serving meals at a Salvation Army feeding center. Those experiences plus his own human longings led him to begin in the Fall of 2012 a Masters degree program in Public Health at Boston University. Last week he was working as a CRS intern in disaster relief and response on the Philippine island of Bolon which had just experienced a 7.0 earthquake rendering 250,000 inhabitants homeless. Last Friday he hunkered down as Typhoon Haiyan took aim on where he was working. I spoke with him by SKYPE on Friday before the storm hit (the eye passed about 125 miles north of where Brendan was staying with the other members of the CRS team working on the earthquake response. He was fearless, not worried for himself but deeply worried for the Philippine people whose lives would be forever changed by the oncoming storm. On Saturday I got a text message from Brendan that he was safe but that the CRS team was meeting all day to develop a strategy for meeting the new challenge. That’s the way CRS and its people are: if somewhere outside of the US there are people in dire need because of a natural or manmade disaster, CRS will be there in their midst with a dedicated core of people to help them make it through today with some scant hope for tomorrow.

Please be generous. This requires all of us to perhaps dig a little deeper, inflict a tad more financial pain on ourselves, sacrifice so that others may live. Nothing less than the NEW YORK TIMES declared this a disaster of “epic proportions” and even as I write this, three days after the storm, we still do not have a good handle on how many million people we must now care for.

The Indonesians on the island of Sumatra left when the Navy Aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy sailed away from Banda Ache when they had done all they could, when the Australian army left having been the very first responders to the tsunami and when Catholic Relief Services completed its work of rebuilding in northwestern Sumatra. CRS representing Catholics proved once again that we are friends when others are in need, friends indeed.

Our Lady of Antipolo graphic graciously shared with us from the artist, Brother Mickey O'Neill McGrath, OSFS, with Bee Still Studio.

Our Lady of Antipolo graphic graciously shared with us from the artist, Brother Mickey O’Neill McGrath, OSFS, with Bee Still Studio.

Please keep all of our Filipino brothers and sisters and all of the emergency personnel responding in your prayers.

Prayer for the Philippines (courtesy of CRS)

“God, who quiets great winds and stills rough seas,
We ask your protection for the people of the Philippines.
Comfort them in their fear.
Stay close to them in their danger.
And we ask the intercession of Your Blessed Mother
That together with her and with all your holy saints
We may stand in solidarity with our Filipino brothers and sisters
through their darkest hour,
through their longest night.
Give us the courage to remain steadfast
To reach out to them in their need
To comfort them in their sorrow
To hold them as closely as You hold them
To see them through to morning.

Amen”

Thank you.

+RNL

WHEN IN ROME…

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

This morning along with a crowd estimated in excess of 110,000, I saw the Holy Father up close and personal. My reason for being in Rome this morning I will share with you momentarily, but for the first time in a long time I had that sense of “chills” of being in the presence of the Pope. It is a sense I first had when as a layman I was introduced to Pope Paul VI but left me after repeated time spent with Blessed Pope John Paul II, on the road during three papal visits to the United States and and many, many other occasions with he and Pope Benedict. Perhaps I “overdosed” on Popes in my life but over time while holding the deepest respect for them and the office they held, awe gave way to “ho hum” perhaps.

Well “awe” returned with a vengeance this morning. First, when I arrived at my place reserved for all bishops and looked out over the sea of people in front of me. I have been in the square when it has been full but I have never been there when the square was full and there were thousands shoulder to shoulder down the Via Conciliatione, the Main Street leading up to the square. I had heard last night there were 92,000 requests for tickets for today’s audience, in mid-October, folks, when schools are finally reopened in Europe and everyone is supposed to be back to work but in front of me was this wave of humanity, all waiting for a glimpse of one man.

Looking out at the sea of people. Photo by yours truly.

Looking out at the sea of people. Photo by yours truly.

It’s too facile to say that all new popes draw big crowds. They do. But not this big. Ask the shopkeeper near the Vatican and he shouts “bella”or ask the cab driver trying to make his way through the area and he says “bruta.” Ask any person and they say they have never seen anything like it.

The audience is supposed to start at ten o’clock but precisely at 940am a roar goes up and out he comes on the jeep, smiling, waving, stopping for wheelchairs and babies. And they drive everywhere throughout the square and then, as I suspected, out into the deep of the Conciliatione where there were no barriers holding people back. They came to see him so he was not going to disappoint them.

Pope Francis greeting the people. Photo kindness of Msgr. Robert Morris.

Pope Francis greeting the people. Photo kindness of Patty Morris.

For forty minutes he drove throughout and outside of the square, keeping we bishops waiting and everyone else at the “front of the line.” I have a feeling that he does it on purpose. Those who have the smallest or no connection with how to get tickets for one of the 90,000 chairs get just as much of his time and attention as those of us in the “orchestra” who hold jobs that ensure proximity or know someone who can land the best seat.

He walks up the incline plane from the car to the platform not like a 75 year old with one lung but like a younger man delighted to be there.

Pope Francis. Photo taken by yours truly.

Pope Francis. Photo taken by yours truly.

The formal part of the audience took, you guessed it, the same forty minutes it took him to drive through the crowd.

Pope Francis. Photo kindness of Msgr. Robert Morris

Pope Francis. Photo kindness of Patty Morris.

He spoke of the centrality of Mary in the life of the Church in Italian – an Italian spoken so slowly that even I understood most of it.

He dropped his text and spoke extemporaneously three times this morning, each time drawing laughter from the Italian speakers and scattered applause. He does not attempt any other language but Spanish and after one Our Father and the blessing it is over. You can read his written text by clicking here or by watching a summary video below.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AZR_qD3SYI[/youtube]

We bishops were first to greet him and have our picture taken with him. It’s a shame that others wait so long because this morning Cardinal Meisner of Germany and forty-one of we other “red caps” were there.

I thanked him for all he has done so far after first telling him I was from St. Petersburg, Florida, in the United States and smiling he said to me in perfect English, “Please pray for me, I have only just begun and I need prayers.”

Meeting Pope Francis. His reply to me, "Please pray for me, I have only just begun and I need prayers." Photo kindness of Msgr. Robert Morris.

Meeting Pope Francis. His reply to me, “Please pray for me, I have only just begun and I need prayers.” Photo kindness of Patty Morris.

I didn’t want to take any more time and my knees were shaking anyway. I left the upper platform looking at the recent brides and grooms in their wedding attire waiting to meet him and get a picture. One couple yelled out to me by name so someone was there from St. Petersburg. I know Monsignor Morris and his brother and sister-in-law were there in the crowd somewhere as well as Father Craig Morley and a pilgrimage group but finding other people in that Mass of humanity was like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. I have shared whatever free time they have the last two and a half days with our two seminarians, Ryan Boyle and Alex Padilla, but they had class this morning. Rome is beautiful right now.

I was on my way back to the North American College where I am staying by 1135am. I am in Rome for three days only because a man whom I deeply admire and with whom I worked for seventeen years, Kenneth Hackett, former President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, presented his papers to Pope Francis on Monday as the new Ambassador of the United States of America to the Holy See, appointed by President Obama. It was an honor to share these moments with Ken and Joan, his wife, and their two children.

I am home again tomorrow (Thursday) and back at it in the diocese where I belong. I shall not soon forget that warm, smiling, welcoming face of Francis and the energy of the crowd who love what he is doing to and for our Church.

+RNL

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES

Monday, October 14th, 2013

CRS is celebrating its seventieth anniversary this year, a child of World War II and a Church in one nation which had an unquenchable desire to help those outside its own borders as they coped with the horrors of war, famine, earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and floods to name but a few. Occasionally I am asked (and sometimes I prompt others to ask me the question) what three things have been the greatest blessing of your priesthood (now thirty-five years old) I respond, the episcopal conference of the United States of America, the church of St. Petersburg, and Catholic Relief Services. The first, now called the USCCB, has laid claim to fourteen years of my life as a staff member in the early part of my priesthood; the second has been my home and my joy for seventeen years, and the third has seen me intimately involved as a member of the Board of Directors for twelve years, including six as Chairman.

Catholic Relief Services has established over its seventy years a well-deserved reputation as among the very best of first-responders when disaster strikes. Secondly, among disaster relief and development agencies, it spends less on every dollar contributed on funding raised and advertising than almost any other agency (seven cents on the dollar). Third, it operates in ninety-six countries throughout the world and in one year helps millions of people in their struggles for daily life. The great tsunami of the day after Christmas in 2004 occurred on my watch as Board chair and within forty-eight hours we had a team on the ground in Banda Ache, Sumatra, Indonesia helping people live, cope, survive, revive and move on. I have witnessed women in India using microfinance tools (they get small CRS backed loans from banks in their towns and villages) band together for the first time, pool their loans and start small businesses which soon turn enough profit to feed and cloth and educate their children (and the loan failure rate among these women’s microfinance initiatives is close to zero). Proving they can do it, banks often on their own will then lend them more money and their businesses grow. It’s absolutely amazing in its empowerment. In famine stricken Africa I have been present for “Seed Fairs” where farmers gather on a Saturday in a village and bring their unused seeds from the prior year and trade them or sell them where as in the past they were simply thrown away. I have been present for pre-natal clinics for expectant mothers supported by CRS which have impressively and effectively lowered infant mortality rates. AND, I have never visited a country where having been invited by a local Church to be present have had that Church ask that we withdraw. It just does not happen. When CRS has to withdraw from a country, it most often happens because that country and the local Church have reached a level of self-sufficiency that our presence is no longer necessary. Do we occasionally disappoint a local Church? Yes, but often it happens when US-AID cuts back a program, usually and most often food support, as the US tries to balance its budget. Sometimes the local Church would like us to hire only Catholics. I remember during the height of the Ethiopian Famine in the mid-1980’s while visiting Addis Ababa the local Cardinal Archbishop was quite upset with me and with CRS because we hired Coptic Orthodox auditors and did not take well my response that we tried and failed to find Latin-Rite auditors who were capable of managing the US government reporting forms.  Many African churches wish we would just send them a check and let them spend it as they would want like the Germans and Italians do (or used to do in the case of the former donor nation/Church) and don’t realize that CRS does not build seminaries, restore or build churches, buy trucks for diocesan CARITAS organizations (unless we are present to help manage and supervise the use of vehicles) – we help people.

American Catholic women should see the faces of gratitude and happiness on their African and Central American counterparts (women) when we teach the community how to build a well in the midst of their village and eliminate the long walk to the well or water source miles away with the water jar on top of the heads of the women of the village. Why is the Catholic Church so well suited around the world to act as a delivery agent for human relief and development? Partly, it is due to the fact that we have the parish structure which serves the whole community regardless of religion and our local partners, most often diocesan CARITAS or Catholic Charities agencies, serve as the primary instruments of outreach. It is a great Church, good readers, and CRS is a great organization.

The Board of Catholic Relief Services takes its responsibilities quite seriously. It can by statutes and by-laws consist of thirteen bishops elected by the USCCB and twelve non-bishops elected by the Board. They meet four times a year as a whole and more often as committee assignments requires. World headquarters is in an old department store in downtown Baltimore. The chair of the CRS board is a member of both the USCCB Administrative Committee as well as the USCCB Finance Committee. CRS makes its annual audit and finance statements publicly available. It is transparent, accountable to its owners (the bishops) and its donors (God’s generous people).

Last week the priests of the Diocese of St. Petersburg gathered for our annual priests’ convocation for three and a half days at the Bethany Center. Monsignor David Garcia from the Archdiocese of San Antonio and two other representatives of CRS spoke to us about the social justice responsibilities of the Gospel and pointed out ways in which CRS enfleshes the Gospel imperative in today’s Church in a unique and special way. We left that session “pumped up” to perhaps better do the work of justice and if any agency of the Church in the United States mirrors the Justice and Peace Gospel imperatives, it is Catholic Relief Services, now seventy years old and getting better all the time. Happy Anniversary, CRS!

+RNL

HURRICANE HEADING TOWARDS AFRICA

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Half the fun of writing blogs is to discover a title that arouses interest, gives little away, but inspires me to share some thoughts with you, my readers. I have mentioned to other bloggers that sometimes I begin with a title and work from there rather than write and then search for a title. That is the case now. Here in Florida during this season, nothing arouses interest more than “the National Hurricane Center in Miami is monitoring a tropical disturbance moving westward over the Atlantic for potential development.” We don’t rush out to buy plywood, but we become attuned to listening during weather reports to the “Invest Number ” and then to the Tropical Depression, Tropical Storm, Hurricane, etc., if and as it develops. The vast majority of our threats begin over the Sahara in northern Africa and then move across the increasingly warm waters of the mid-Atlantic. Occasionally, a system develops in the Caribbean and there is less time to prepare but tropical weather problems for us almost always move westward.

Unfortunately, a storm of a different kind developed in the United States recently and was headed toward Africa. It began with a group called the “Population Research Institute” which is an allegedly pro-life group and spread to a few other notoriously and consistently wrong entities who “thrive” on attacking the Church or its entities. While it was meant to inflict harm on a highly respected US Catholic charity, it took dead aim this time at Africa. From time to time, I suspect when these organizations need money, they try to stir up a hornet’s nest or storm by attacking a Catholic organization, usually falsely accusing them of being anti-life, pro-contraception, either pro or soft on abortion, etc., etc., etc. The storms start small enough and then occasionally grow in size. It’s simply a money raising scheme with little regard for the human lives which they allege they seek to protect – well maybe it is only pre-born human life in which they are interested. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has felt the buffeting torrents of accusations in the past as has Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA). This time it was Catholic Relief Services (CRS) which was to be the significant “whipping boy/girl” for these groups. For twelve years of my priestly life I have been on the Board of Catholic Relief Services and six of those I served as President and Chairman of the Board. During my engagement we were mostly spared any of these storms, but from the time Cardinal Timothy Dolan succeeded me as Chairman, these storms have developed off the East Coast of the U.S. and moved eastward toward Africa where CRS does an amazing job of supporting and sustaining human life, even with programs of pre-natal maternal/child health care,  which has helped lower the infant (in and out of the womb) death rate.

These attacks never grow beyond a tropical depression but too much time and energy is spent by CRS and CCHD and CCUSA in responding to them. The latest components of  this “Tropical Depression” were the allegation that in the nation of Madagascar CRS was actively promoting contraception, that the bishops of that country and elsewhere were displeased with CRS, and that you dear reader should not give to Catholic Relief Services because they do not adhere to Catholic teaching but send your money to them so they can develop this into a Tropical Storm and rid the Church of this organization. We’ve heard it all before, responded to it in the past, know its sources, and spend way too much energy in defense of the agency.

So let me take each of the current seeds of the latest storm and tell you the truth. Does CRS staff or the agency in general promote contraceptives in Madagascar or anywhere else in Africa or the globe? The storm originators never identify their sources but just throw mud up into the air. CRS policy is consistent and supportive of the Church’s teaching and we have been excluded from many U.S. government programs over the years because we will not sign on to the U.S. program of condom distribution in other countries. The storm sources have yet, yet in all these years to produce a credible witness to the contrary.

Now, how about the hierarchy of Madagascar? Do they think CRS is acting contrary to Church teaching? Are they unhappy with the presence and work of CRS in their country? Archbishop Desire Tsarahazana, President of the bishops’ conference of Madagascar expressed “strong support” for CRS and said that the agency is “acting in accord with Catholic teaching and does not provide or facilitate access to contraception or abortion.” So who do you wish to believe, an organization that will not identify either its sources of the allegations or name its own members of its Board of Directors or the arm of the Catholic church that saves lives daily throughout the world?

Catholic Relief Services readily admits that it is not always perfect. When one has 5000 employees worldwide, is it even remotely possible that one or two of those same employees might incorrectly represent the agency’s position? Yes, it is. If one searches far enough can one find a bishop who is unhappy with CRS in their country? Yes, one can. The primary complaint I heard throughout my dozen years from bishops where we are present and serving, was, “can’t you just send us the money and let us spend it?” or “why can’t you give us money to build a headquarters building for our episcopal conference?” Patiently I would explain how we are different from the European Catholic Aid agencies because our scope is limited to disaster relief and human development through programs of microfinance, food maintenance, pre-natal medicine and HIV/AIDS interventions, etc. They also often complained about the demands of reporting required by the government of the United States if federal program monies were involved and I would quickly respond, we don’t like it either but it is the cost of doing business. When I queried would they be better off without CRS in their diocese of country they were quick, unanimous and emphatic in saying “no, stay.”

I am convinced that many so called Pro-Life groups are not really pro-life but merely anti-abortion. We heard nothing from the heavy hitters in the prolife movement in the last week when Florida last night executed a man on death row for 34 years having been diagnosed as a severe schizophrenic. Which personality did the state execute? Many priests grow weary of continual calls to action for legislative support for abortion and contraception related issues but nothing for immigration reform, food aid, and capital punishment. And, this is a big one, priests don’t like unfair attacks on things they highly value and esteem, like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.

So this little storm which was headed in a way to harm CRS’s work in Africa has run into a ridge of dry air and will stall. But when the Population Research Institute or others need money from Catholics who want to believe the worst about their church, its leadership and their service agencies, then it will suck up the mud-filled moisture and try to stoke up another storm. I suspect that if he ever got this blog, Pope Francis would agree with its content. Keep on doing the good work of Christ and be an instrument of mercy to the world.

+RNL

LAETARE MEANS TAKE DELIGHT

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Former CRS president Ken Hackett. Photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent each year marks the occasion for the annual collection for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) throughout our country. Our church takes justifiable pride in this highly acclaimed and recognized organ of the Catholic Church in the United States which responds quickly and effectively to major disasters throughout the world and leads development efforts in many underdeveloped or at risk countries. While US Catholics contribute about 15 million each year to the CRS collection, the agency’s program expenses and outreach will this year for the first time exceed one billion dollars. The balance comes from agency fund-raising efforts and grants from the US government and other international agencies. CRS serves all of humankind, without favor to religion, race or sex. What makes its so highly effective are two things: its low cost administration (less than $10 for every $100 is spent on fundraising and administrative costs and when I left the Board chairmanship four years ago, the actual cost audited and accounted for was in the neighborhood of $7.00 for the one hundred given) and its partners throughout the world. What other organization has the network of Catholic Charities and parish structures for the delivery of services?

But yesterday’s major gift to Catholic Relief Services was the announcement that the University of Notre Dame had chosen its recently retired (three months ago) President and CEO, Kenneth Hackett for its prestigious “Laetare Medal” at the 2012 commencement ceremony. I would say that given the incredibly distinguished history of its recipients over the years, all Catholics I believe, this award is without parallel for its selectivity and recognition of service to the Church and to the Gospel. I was on the Search Committee, which recommended to the bishops’ only (at that time) Board of Directors that Hackett be appointed its CEO. When chosen, CRS had a program budget of about 200 million a year and, as I noted above, it now should exceed one billion in service to the poor of the world. Still, the administrative costs remain low. Much of this growth and much of its rise in prestige is due to Ken Hackett. He would rightly say that a tremendous staff at CRS backed him up and that is indeed true. But he was the right man at the right time to lead an organization in search of a mission and identity.

In his twenty plus years as CEO, Ken Hackett protected and enhanced its Catholic identity. When USAID balked at giving grants to CRS for anti-HIV retroviral medicines in nine nations in Africa and in Haiti because we did not distribute condoms (our government’s principal answer to stopping the pandemic), he never flinched from Catholic teaching and Catholic identity. And he led the agency in establishing a greater mission than disaster relief and the Thanksgiving Clothing Drive (older Catholics remember that one well) to remain and serve in countries by assisting them in self-help development work (like digging wells and providing for sanitation).

I can’t think of a more worthy recipient than Kenneth Hackett with whom I was privileged both to work side by side with and at the same time learn from about serving the poor. My commitment to and love for Pinellas Hope can be traced to two laymen who have taught me everything: Ken Hackett and Frank Murphy. Congratulations Notre Dame on an outstanding selection and congratulations Ken Hackett on winning this award, which is even more affirming than the honorary doctorate, conferred on you by the same institution a few years ago. And thanks, Notre Dame, for letting CRS woo your Dean of the Mendoza School of Business to succeed Ken Hackett as the person at the helm of the premier relief and development agency in the world.

+RNL

WHEREIN DO WE CAPTURE THE CONSCIENCE OF THE KING?

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

I know, I know, we have no such thing as a “king” in these United States but then Shakespeare had no such thing as a “president” when he was writing plays and sonnets either. So I have inverted titles to make this point: in his famous commencement speech given at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, President Obama said this: “So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

We shall soon learn how committed the President is to drafting “a sensible conscience clause” as his administration ponders whether or not, I as an employer, must provide contraceptive opportunities as a part of the health care program which I (the diocese) provide to all our employees. That’s the present assertion of the draft language in a portion of the health care bill which deals with services which must be provided to all employees. The President of Notre Dame University, the same man that President Obama praised for his wisdom and leadership in the same speech quoted above, joined by twenty-eight other college and university presidents has said that to do so would violate his (their) individual as well as institutional consciences. Father John Jenkins, C.S.C. bravely went on to say that unless a conscience clause exempting religious institutions from providing such services was included, then he would cease to provide Notre Dame employees health care coverage and would be forced to remunerate them so that they would have to purchase a health plan individually and on their own, resulting in a loss of services and coverage and an escalation of health care costs. I would do the same here in the diocese. What a sad day that would be.

In the closing days of September, I asked all of y0u to write to Secretary Sibelius and ask her for conscience protection for those of us who hold religious beliefs that may be at variance by the letter or intent of the health care legislation. Although I am sometimes at a loss to completely understand everything about Christian Scientists, they are a Christian Church and they deserve protection for their religious beliefs and I would fight for them as I hope they would fight for us in this regard. Final wording has not yet been forthcoming from the US Department of Health and Human Services but it can not be far away. Then and only then will we be able to capture the conscience of the President and his administration in providing for an religious conscience exemption from requirements that violate people’s moral code and system of beliefs.

Should we be worried? I believe so. I feel the same attack on religious liberty and its exercise in this nation that drove the founders to flee their native lands and establish this government, for the people, by the people and Under God, is suddenly front and center here in my country. Migration and Refugee Services, a division of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been denied a grant from the government because we do not provide contraceptive assistance to the newly arrived whom we have helped resettle with great distinction over decades, especially the Vietnamese following the war. Catholic Relief Services has been told “shape up or ship out” because we do not distribute or advocate condom use in the countries where we serve the poor. Now I must confess that during the administration of President George W. Bush, USAID which is a program of the State Department was at one time going to deny CRS any PEPFAR funds because we did not advocate and teach the use of condoms. Someone woke up and smelled the coffee of the potential risk of failure of the new anti-AIDS retroviral program and made CRS a lead agent in initially nine countries so the pressure is not just a reflection of one party. Catholic Charities in Illinois has been stricken from receiving any state funds for any program because of their conscience belief on gay and lesbian adoptions. What a shame! Today the question is whether those  in office now will also “smell the coffee” and allow us the conscience protection so strongly embraced by our nation’s founders. We will see, will we not and only then will be capture the conscience of the king!

+RNL