Social Ministry Day One: Lynch urges stamina in 'political and ecclesial desert'

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, opened the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering by urging the church’s social activists to persevere despite what he called “a long journey in an uncertain political and ecclesial desert.”

“This is an election year, and once again we do not hear the needs of the poor, the vulnerable elderly, and children both born and unborn raised up, Lynch said.

Inside Catholicism, Lynch suggested that dwindling resources for social ministry have left activists feeling “tired, worn-out and discouraged.” Despite that, he urged them to continue being “the kind face of Christ to so many in the world.”

Sponsored by 18 different Catholic organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Social Ministry Gathering brings together almost 700 diocesan and parish-level leaders involved in charitable service and social advocacy. The session is meeting Feb. 24-27 in Washington, D.C.

Lynch, a former General Secretary for the U.S. bishops’ conference and the outgoing chair of the board for Catholic Relief Services, said that Catholics committed to social ministry these days face tough times both inside and outside the church.

“Today, everything is harder,” Lynch said. “Resources are more limited at a time when the needs are greater … We remember better days, headier days, when an active church was facing the issues of poverty and war and peace.”

Though he did not say so explicitly, Lynch seemed to suggest that at times the church’s priorities are not always in order.

“I take more satisfaction in what we do for others,” Lynch said, “than from the inordinate amount of time we spend on less serious matters, sometimes even on ecclesiastical polity.”

At the same time, Lynch said, there are counter-signs which speak of new possibilities. He pointed to a program in his own diocese, which he said demonstrated that the homeless “can be sheltered with safety and security.”

Called “Pinellas Hope,” the program centers on a tent city in St. Petersburg erected to accommodate an annual influx of homeless persons during the winter into warm Florida cities. The the site offers shelter in tents, along with social services and job help.

Launched last year, “Pinellas Hope” is located on 10 acres of land owned by the diocese which Lynch offered to the organizers, led by Catholic Charities. Designed as a partnership involving faith-based organizations, local governments, non-profit agencies and the private sector, the idea behind “Pinellas Hope” is to reduce homelessness and to move some of those individuals into a more productive life.

Despite some local opposition, Lynch said that so far “parishioners are generally proud of what they are doing.”

Lynch said that the experience reminded him of the days of “Jack Egan, Saul Alinsky and Dorothy Day.”

“We may be returning to those moments,” Lynch said, “and I thank God for that.”
Four bishops led the Mass which opened the Social Ministry Gathering. The chief celebrant was Cardinal Oscar Rodrigues Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, President of Caritas; Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia; and Bishop Fernando María Bargalló of Merlo-Moreno, Argentina.

(Lynch said that he and Rodriguez have known one another since the days that Rodriguez was the General Secretary for the bishops of Latin American and Lynch played the same role for the U.S. conference – both often wondering, he said, “what in the name of God the bishops want us to do now.”)

The gospel reading for the Mass was John’s account of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Lynch said the well played the same role in the culture of the day as water coolers and coffee machines do today.

“We Irish long ago learned the importance of a good watering hole, which we call the pub,” Lynch joked.

He argued that Jesus’ approach to the Samaritan woman offers a template for how Catholic social ministers approach their work:
•t“With an envelope of respect and openness to all”;
•t“Accepting people where they are in life, and seeking solutions to their human problems”;
•t“Speaking for and working for the ‘nobodies.’”
* * *
tThe theme of this year’s Social Ministry Gathering is “Faithful Citizenship: Promoting Life and Dignity, Justice and Peace.” The reference is to the recent document of the U.S. bishops on Catholics and politics titled “Faithful Citizenship.”

During the entrance procession for tonight’s Mass, an animated choir led the assembly in singing “God’s gonna trouble the waters.” Earlier in the day, however, another force had already troubled the waters at the Social Ministry gathering, but this time it wasn’t God but the Washington Post.

Specifically, the Post carried an op/ed piece this morning by Joe Feuerherd, former Washington correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, in which Feuerherd criticized both “Faithful Citizenship” and some individual bishops for exalting abortion over other social concerns. He cited “war or peace, health care, just wages, immigration, affordable housing, [and] torture” as examples.

Feuerherd summarized the message of “Faithful Citizenship” this way: “Tap the touch screen for a pro-abortion-rights candidate,” he wrote, “and you’re probably punching your ticket to Hell.”

While Feuerherd is pro-life, he objected to what he regards as a single-minded focus on abortion that, in his view, has driven the bishops into a de facto alliance with the Republican Party. In November, he wrote, “I’ll be voting for the Democrat – and the bishops be damned.”

Reaction at the Social Ministry Gathering was mixed – some agreed with much of Feuerherd’s argument, while others felt it was unfair to the “Faithful Citizenship” document, which, they insisted, is more nuanced than he made it sound. In any event, the piece clearly rang some bells.

Feuerherd’s piece can be found on the website of the Washington Post, though registration is required.

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