Friday, March 25, 2011


Springtime for the soul
How are those New Year’s resolutions going? Are you sticking to them? Has your enthusiasm for them fizzled out? Or, has something happened to throw you off course?

Confronted with the death of someone I loved, my resolutions definitely diminished in importance and fizzled out. The long, dreary winter has done nothing to reignite my enthusiasm or inspire the discipline I need to get back on track. Happily, two events, the coming of spring and the liturgical season of Lent, come to my rescue and help me refocus.

Image courtesy of Freefoto
Spring fills the earth with new life. The warmth of the sun, the singing of the birds, and the  bursting forth of blossoms inspire us with energy.

With the coming of spring, our enthusiasm for projects grows. We want to make over a section of our gardens and renovate our homes. We want a beauty makeover complete with a fitness regime that will get our sluggish winter bodies into beach ready shape.

Lent: a spiritual makeover
Lent offers us the opportunity for a makeover of the spiritual variety.

The word “lent” is from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning “spring.” It has come to denote the forty days before Easter. Lent is a time for spiritual resolution during which Christians acknowledge their sinfulness.

The notion of sin is very much out of fashion in today’s society. We have set ourselves up as little gods and goddesses. Our ill informed consciences have become the ultimate authority over our behavior. There are no longer any moral absolutes. Like petulant children, we adopt the “You’re not the boss of me” attitude.

We do not like to admit that we sin. Confessing our sin is an admission that we are imperfect and in need of a make over.

Be holy as God is holy
We are made in the image and likeness of God who is holy and who invites us to be holy. A basic of Christian spirituality “is the willingness to accept the holiness that God offers us” (Daniel E. Pilarczyk, Archbishop of Cincinnati). 

The holiness of God is the standard for our life. Numerous biblical passages reveal the character of God and show us how to be like God. These passages help us examine our conscience in a life giving way. Evaluating our conduct and attitudes is an instructive tool for spiritual renewal.

The Ten Commandments, for example, are a basic formulation of how to avoid conflict within our self. They provide practical advice on how to preserve good relations with others and within the community. The essence of the Law of Moses is “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) so that the self can be holy as God is holy.

Sometimes our sin lies not in what we have done, but in what we have failed to do. Love of neighbour goes beyond avoiding sin. It requires action. Jesus tells us that it is not enough to cry “Lord, Lord.” We have to bear fruit. One way we bear fruit is by responding to the needs   of others in charity and humility.

The Good Samaritan

Lent is a good time to examine our motives and conduct. We should also examine our inaction. Have I fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the lonely, comforted the suffering? (Matthew 25:35-37) Have I given willingly of my time, treasure, and talent? Have I at least tried to be the image of the holy, compassionate God?

Lent: a time for conversion and renewal
The conversion of our heart begins when we honestly examine our self and admit that we are sinners. This interior transformation liberates. It creates space for growth and for a renewed relationship with God and others.

Lent is like spring-cleaning. It is a time to sweep out the dust from under the bed, discard items we were once attached to, and wash the windows clean of dirt that obscures the light.

Lent is a spiritual make over, prompting renewal of the most profound resolutions of the heart. It is springtime for the soul!

(You might enjoy Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk's program  "Sharing the Word"  available at

Friday, March 11, 2011

Catholic Social Teaching

Concern for the poor

A comment from a blog follower has prompted this post. The individual wondered why Catholicism is less renowned for poverty reduction type work than some other denominations.

A common misconception about the Catholic Church is that it sits on the sidelines of social justice efforts. It is often said that the Catholic Church’s teaching on social justice is the Church’s “best kept secret.” The Church has done a poor job disseminating its extensive teachings on social justice, and an even poorer job of publicizing its good works. The Church, it seems, prefers to quietly do goods works, rather than seek publicity for them.

Historical Background:

From the earliest days of Christianity, Christians were concerned about the welfare of the poor.

The early Christian community practiced a spontaneous form of charity, responding to needs as they became obvious. The community viewed ministry to the poor as an extension of the love of Jesus. The community also looked upon charity as a spiritual practice; acts of charity helped individuals detach themselves from earthly possessions.

In the 4th century, the Emperor Julian commented on the unusual generosity of Christians.  Christians not only looked after the poor members of their own communities, they also responded to the needs of poor outsiders. This was rare in antiquity.

It seems that the Catholic response to the poor was largely confined to works of charity until about the mid 1800’s. The mid 1800’s saw the birth of “social Catholicism.” By the end of the century, the Catholic Church had formulated its first official piece of social justice teaching.

Pioneers of “social Catholicism” included  Archbishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler in Germany, Charles de Montalembert, Albert de Mun and Frederick Ozanam (founder of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society) in France, and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning in England. These men recognized that changes in the social fabric of Europe following the Industrial Revolution threatened the well being of an increasing number of people. Employers required factory workers to work long hours in unsafe work conditions for little pay. "Social Catholicism" challenged the institutional Church as well as individual Catholics to respond to the needs of the poor.

Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor) and the "living wage"  

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), an encyclical that addressed the plight of workers. In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII called for a living wage. In Leo’s definition, a living wage would
Leo XIII 1810-1903
  1. allow a worker to maintain his family with dignity,
  2. permit ownership of property - a home and perhaps a little land to grow food, and
  3. enable modest savings.
Pope Leo XIII knew that without pressure from the state, the living wage was only a dream. He urged the state to intervene on behalf of the poorer classes. The state had a moral obligation for without the worker, the state too would be improvished.

Leo XIII believed that poverty could be overcome “in truth and justice.” He decried the plight of workingmen, the greed and heartlessness of employers, and the disastrous effects of “rapacious usury.” He warned against the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few men.

Some of Leo’s insights sound eerily familiar. Today, the working poor struggle to put food on the table. Some large corporations are more concerned with the bottom line than with the welfare and morale of their employees. Easy credit and the exorbitant interest  of credit cards have proven disastrous for many individuals and families. Wealth remains concentrated in a relatively small portion of the world's population.

One hundred and ten years after Rerum Novarum, Canada struggles with the concept of a living wage. 

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives defines the living wage as “the hourly rate of pay at which a household can meet its expenses once government transfers have been added and government deductions have been subtracted.”  The living wage does not cover savings, home ownership, or a cushion for emergencies. 

The Preferential Option for the Poor: One response to poverty

The preferential option for the poor calls Christians to “follow Jesus by identifying with the victims of injustice, by analyzing the dominant attitudes and structures that cause human suffering and by actively supporting the poor and the oppressed in their struggles to transform society” (from Do Justice! The Social Teaching of the Canadian Catholic Bishops, 1987, p.399).

Charity: Another response to poverty

Charitable acts are those that seek to bring some immediate relief to those in need. Charitable acts include things like providing food, shelter, and clothing to the poor. 

There are numerous organizations in the Catholic Church that provide immediate relief to the poor. One example is the Saint Vincent de Paul Society  ( which is active in thousands of parishes worldwide.  All parishes do some sort of outreach in their community. Most large dioceses have a Catholic Charities branch.                                                        

The Catholic Church in action: Working for systemic change and reaching out to those in need

Development and Peace, an initiative of the Canadian Bishops begun in 1967, works to address the root causes of poverty around the world.

The Catholic Women’s League advocates for changes in government policy and legislation here in Canada.

Many religious orders advocate for systemic change and are actively engaged with acts of charity. Below are three examples.

Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns)
Sisters of Charity of Halifax

The Church does not segregate advocacy and charity. Poverty reduction requires both responses. The two go hand in hand.

Jesus came to show us a kinder, gentler way to live. Through the Holy Spirit, he invites us  to participate in the kingdom of God.   This is a kingdom of equality, justice and freedom for all people. Charity and advocacy are a significant part of the mission of the Catholic Church.


The Catholic Church does not publicize its many good deeds, but it is actively engaged in poverty reduction in Canada and abroad. Let us not forget that the Church, even if it seems like a monolithic institution, is made up of individuals. Thousands of individual Catholics are advocating and doing works of charity daily.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Responding to poverty demands generosity of heart
Poverty has been much in the news lately, at home and abroad. Poverty is a significant factor in the unrest sweeping the Middle East and is responsible for numerous social ills here in Canada.

What attitudes do Canadians have about the poor?

The Salvation Army has just released the findings of an Angus Reid survey on the attitudes of Canadians towards the poor. Here's what Canadians said:
  • Forty-one percent of Canadians surveyed believe that the poor will take advantage of social assistance and do nothing themselves to improve their situation.
  • Fifty percent believe a family of four can live on $10,000 - $30,000 per year. (Statistics Canada puts the poverty level for a family of four at $35,000 per year.)
  • Twenty-five percent think the poor are lazy and of low moral character.
  • Almost half those surveyed believe that if poor people want a job, they can find one.
  • Although 95 percent said everyone deserves to live with dignity, only 65 percent saw a connection between poverty and living with dignity.
It is no easy task to escape the cycle of poverty. For some, the cycle is generational, following a child into adulthood. For others, it is a downward spiral resulting from addictions, abuse, and mental health problems. And for others, poverty comes knocking due to job loss and prolonged unemployment.

What can be done about poverty?
  1. First, we need to educate ourselves. Education encourages us to reevaluate our preconceived ideas about the poor. It helps us to understand the causes of poverty. With understanding, comes an increase in compassion. To this end, the Salvation Army has launched “The Dignity Project.” (Although the Dignity Project video views a bit like an infomercial for the Salvation Army, it does provide some insight into  the causes and effects of poverty. View the video and learn more about the efforts of the Salvation Army to combat poverty at
  2. Second, we need to become involved. We can donate to anti-poverty organizations. We can pressure government to do more to eliminate poverty. We can become active in local organizations that help the improvished in our towns. Visiting the websites of organizations like “End Poverty Now” is a good place to discover how to make a difference at the national and international levels.
Making poverty personal:

For poverty to be real to us, we need to experience it. We do not need to become impoverished ourselves, but we need to encounter the poor among us and we need to be moved to action.
Last year, I was involved with a project to provide school supplies to children of the working poor in my community. In a three-week period, we raised over $5000 and were able to provide over 70 students from grades 1 to 12 with school supplies.

Consider the following situations:
  • The 13-year-old girl who cried with joy because she had new school supplies for the first time in her life.
  • A single mother who collected empty bottles to scrape together enough money to put food on the table.
  • A father of four who, the day before school started, had nothing to send to school with his children.
Imagine being 10 years old. It is the first day of school and you have no supplies. Everyone sees that you are poor. Imagine being the parent of that child; imagine the shame, the worry, and the sense of inadequacy.

If we as a society are going to alleviate poverty, we have to become familiar with the faces of poverty in our communities. The poor are not some faceless category of individuals; they are our neighbours. We need to be invested in their well being.

The Gospel Challenge: Mark 10: 17-27

There is a story in the Gospel of Mark about a rich young man who follows Jesus and throws himself at the feet of Jesus. He has a pressing question: what does he need to do to inherit eternal life? When he hears the answer, he goes away sad.
Jesus tells the man he must honor the commandments, sell his riches and give the proceeds to the poor.
The problem with the rich man was not that he was rich, but that he was concerned only about himself. He followed the laws, but he lacked generosity. He was immune to the needs of others. Jesus wants the young man to give of himself. So he challenges the young man to change his attitudes and to serve others.
Jesus is not telling us to sell everything. He is not recommending that we live in poverty. He is urging us to check our hearts for a lack of generosity towards the vulnerable and needy. Jesus is recommending that we cultivate an attitude of generosity so we can respond to the needs of others.

Based on the results of the survey, Canadian attitudes towards the poor could be a little more generous.