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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Sacrament of Charity: Christ, man, and nature

It’s fitting that as we approach the Great Week of Holy Week, I rediscovered a document that expresses the warm, exciting unity of Catholicism’s Eucharistic faith. I bought the book on impulse a year or so ago, read it quickly for the content needed at the time, but never had the time to embrace it.

That changed this evening.

A few hours ago, I pulled it from its pile for utilitarian purposes—for a paper on the Holy Father—and found myself in a world of Eucharistic wonder.

From the Paschal mysteries and the Holy Triduum, to the sacramental nature of the church, to the celebration of our liturgies, to the place of the Eucharist in our lives, to our place in the cosmos, and much more, this text by Pope Benedict XVI is gem like few others.

Indeed, it should be the genesis of diocesan Eucharistic Congresses across the globe during the upcoming Year of Faith.

While this text has a very long, complicated name, it comes with a short title, too: The Sacrament of Charity. It's a summary of a year-long series of gatherings on the Eucharist. And what a year it was: October 2004 through October 2005, those months when the Church grieved the last days and the death of Blessed John Paul II and celebrated the election of Pope Benedict XVI and the start of a new pontificate.

Given its gestation during such times, this text has much to ponder and share. It’s easily accessible for free on the Vatican website, or for a small price in book form. However you read it, The Sacrament of Charity offers fresh (and wonderfully ancient) dimensions of faith and practice in a world that is hungry for lasting peace—the kind that only God’s grace can offer.

Of course, I rummaged through it for words on the environment. I was not disappointed.

The title of Section 92 is “The sanctification of the world and the protection of creation.” Here it is in its entirety, some of which I’ve emphasized to note phrases of interest:
Finally, to develop a profound eucharistic spirituality that is also capable of significantly affecting the fabric of society, the Christian people, in giving thanks to God through the Eucharist, should be conscious that they do so in the name of all creation, aspiring to the sanctification of the world and working intensely to that end. The Eucharist itself powerfully illuminates human history and the whole cosmos. In this sacramental perspective we learn, day by day, that every ecclesial event is a kind of sign by which God makes himself known and challenges us. The eucharistic form of life can thus help foster a real change in the way we approach history and the world. The liturgy itself teaches us this, when, during the presentation of the gifts, the priest raises to God a prayer of blessing and petition over the bread and wine, "fruit of the earth," "fruit of the vine" and "work of human hands." With these words, the rite not only includes in our offering to God all human efforts and activity, but also leads us to see the world as God's creation, which brings forth everything we need for our sustenance. The world is not something indifferent, raw material to be utilized simply as we see fit. Rather, it is part of God's good plan, in which all of us are called to be sons and daughters in the one Son of God, Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 1:4-12). The justified concern about threats to the environment present in so many parts of the world is reinforced by Christian hope, which commits us to working responsibly for the protection of creation. The relationship between the Eucharist and the cosmos helps us to see the unity of God's plan and to grasp the profound relationship between creation and the "new creation" inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ, the new Adam. Even now we take part in that new creation by virtue of our Baptism (cf. Col 2:12ff.). Our Christian life, nourished by the Eucharist, gives us a glimpse of that new world – new heavens and a new earth – where the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, from God, "prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev 21:2).
Come to think of it, this post is a fitting follow-up to yesterday’s look at the Annunciation. Both serve as reminders of the place of creation—and, thus, of rightly utilizing and protecting the natural order—in the Catholic faith.

As such, the subject of both posts serve as warnings to those who would diminish the ecological concerns of Catholics (and all people of good will), as well as to those who would seek to save the planet without first seeking the Grace of God—a Grace found especially in Christ’s glorious Sacrament of Charity.

Monday, March 26, 2012

And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us...

A few weeks ago, an organization for which I serve on the Board of Directors sponsored a keynote speaker for our annual conference. He's a philosopher who leans far to the left and makes no bones about it. In many ways, he reminds me of my oldest brother, whom I love dearly, even with our philosophical differences.

Anyway, much of what the speaker said about ecology was good. But his understanding of Christianity was simplistic and, as such, far off the mark. One statement was particularly troubling. He said that Catholics learned to appreciate the natural world only when John Paul II re-read the Book of Genesis.

I have since been in communications with him. I hope our dialogue helps him understand the great link between divinity and creation that we Catholics have always accepted and, today, celebrate and proclaim during the Solemnity of the Annunciation.

I’ll be posting more about my meeting with this philosopher, but for now, I’d like to simply acknowledge the great gift of Mary’s Fiat, and the immense implications it had for the beginning of God’s recreation of His dearly loved creation.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Paying for birth control, paying for poison

Thanks to the bishops of the United States, today was a day of civil engagement.

Rallies held across the country made clear that people from numerous walks of life, faiths, and ideologies are not happy about the cultural and constitutional implications of the president’s Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to pay for birth control medications and abortifacients.

The debate is being framed by the mainstream media as a question of women’s rights, even if those fighting for a repeal of the HHS mandate are fighting for the right to religious freedom. The stakes are high and the rhetoric is dizzying, which is why what one woman said today was so important.

Her name is Kristen Hayes-Yearick. She introduces herself as a “Pro-Life, Catholic mother of three beautiful children and a children's environmental health advocate.” The capitalizations of pro and life are intentional. Indeed, she founded a group called PSALM, which stands for Protecting the Sanctity of All Life Movement. I have been lucky to have met Kristen and others in our various on-line lives. Indeed, a few of us have been working with this formidable woman to make PSALM a worthy resource to bridge an unfortunate divide between ecological issues and traditional life issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and artificial contraception.

As the organizer of today’s rally for religious freedom in Williamsport, PA, Kristen gave an important speech that did the very thing that she and so many—including the Holy Father—are eager to do: express the link between ecology and human life. Let’s “listen in” on some of Kristen’s speech:
Here is my third issue: Synthetic estrogen.
Ethynyl estradiol is an oral estrogen used in almost all of combined oral contraceptive pills. It is one of the most commonly used medications. The warning label for Ethinyl estradiol “may increase the risk of developing endometrial and breast cancer, gallbladder disease, liver tumors, heart attack, stroke, and blood clots. Talk to your doctor about the risks of using this medication.”
Xenoestrogen—Xeno means foreign—so xenoestrogen means foreign estrogen.
Xenoestrogens are now ubiquitous in our environment and in the water, they include pharmacological estrogens like ethinyl estradiol used in birth control pills, but other chemicals also have estrogenic effect. 
Which results in our born and unborn children being exposed to low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals through multiple routes of exposure.
Xenoestrogens are also called environmental hormones or Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds. Xenoestrogen from birth control pills are excreted through urine and feces. Once they're excreted- they head to the municipal water plants and there is no technology to remove them from the water, so the hormones end up in our water supplies.
Xenoestrogens have been leading to intersex fish and lowered sperm counts. Ethinyl estradiol, bisphenol A, and alkyl phenols that are present in treated sewage outflow water can act as estrogen-mimics and induce a wide range of effects on fish, so what are they doing to our children?
These effects include feminization and intersex in males. We have male fish and frogs showing up with ovaries and eggs in our rivers, lakes and streams in Pennsylvania and all over the country.
Studies have linked Synthetic estrogen to breast cancer, liver cancer and other life threatening or life altering diseases. One in three American children has Allergies, Asthma, ADHD or Autism. CDC reports that childhood cancer incidence continues to rise. Girls are entering puberty years before previous generations—breast development beginning at the age of 7—which increases their risks for reproductive cancers.
Male infertility appears to be on the rise, and studies suggest that more boys are being born with genital malformations—like Hypospadias.
Chronic Childhood illness statistics continue to rise. If the HHS mandate was truly about women's health, it wouldn't be focused on only providing free birth control, abortifacients and sterilization. It wouldn't be singling out very specific employers that have valid objections based on their conscience and teachings.
Instead, we would be focusing on over-all women's health not just on the divisive issue of women's reproductive 'rights'.
Coincidence? I think not . . .
We shouldn't be here today. Instead, we should be working together—regardless of denomination or political affiliation—for the common good of all women, children, men and God's creations. 
But we're not. We're debating an issue that was specifically manufactured to further divide our nation for political gains and reasons.
We have a choice: Are we going to allow the political posturing and polarization to continue to divide us or are we going to come together, put aside our differences, and stand up for the rights that men and women have sacrificed their lives to give us?
There’s very little I can add expect to follow up with those words from the Holy Father at the top of this blog: "Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society." (Benedict XVI. Caritas in Veritate, June 2009.)

As a small, related aside: I was mulling over what to write in this post earlier this evening while doing my mom’s food shopping. As I was in the parking lot hoisting the groceries into my Subaru, a pleasant man in a suit walked behind my car and commented on the bumper sticker in the window. It says, Smile: Your mom choose life!

The man liked what it said. We exchanged pleasantries and he asked if he had heard me speak on ecology at a local Orthodox Church. Indeed I did, a few years back, at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in northern Rhode Island. We chatted about ecology and life and the Western world’s amnesia about the great good that Christianity has brought to the world—and about how brutal the pagan world was, with its to-the-death sporting and its human sacrifices for the propagation of the seasons and the harvest.

The man said he had once heard that the modern version of human sacrifice is the practice of abortion as a tool to protect the planet from over population. His words paralleled what I had read earlier in Kristen’s speech. Indeed, I would add that artificial methods of birth control are also examples of modern pagan practices: They are false controls of fertility for the idol of human pleasure and unbridled freedom. But our chemically induced freedom comes at a hefty price, as Kristen reminds us.

Let us remember that the world of pagan antiquity had been imploding in the early days of Christianity. Its brutality, its slavish notion of its gods, and the limitations of its philosophies could not breathe sustenance into its politics, its culture, or its people. We’re in much the same situation today. Our culture has tried the sex-drugs-and rock-n’-roll path of human liberty, but the high it offers is never high enough, and the fall to earth is ever more sobering. Worse, the chemicals needed to sustain our progressive lifestyle are poisoning our bodies as they degrade our humanity.

This is why, as it did 2,000 years ago, Christianity must—indeed, will—reassert itself as the only viable source of life that can truly sustain all life. This is why the HHS mandate will collapse while the IHS invitation will journey on throughout history, bringing life to all who accept the offer.

This is why, of late, women and men of good will, from many creeds and holding many ideologies, are coming together in grocery store parking lots, online, and in our public squares to discuss and defend religious liberty and the message of life that must come with it.

This is why we must applaud and echo voices like Kristen’s—the voices of Catholic mothers and protectors of all life who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What to do on World Water Day

Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?' (Matthew 25:34-37)

Chances are most of you reading this are hydrated. You have plumbing at home that’s attached to a well-run water-supply system, or a well that pulls water out of a deep, clean aquifer. Either way, you have clean, drinkable water on demand. And most of you have a system that flushes and drains your used water out of your home, through a sewage collection system, and to a treatment facility that cleans the water before it finds its way back into nature.

All of this keeps you healthy and your community livable. Me, too.

But not everyone is so lucky.

Today is World Water Day—a 24-hour period to remember that clean water is needed everywhere 365 days a year. Here are some statistics from Catholic Relief Services about the world without clean water or wastewater systems:
  • 3.6 million people die every year from water-related diseases.
  • 4,000 children die every day from diseases caused by poor water, sanitation and hygiene.
  • 884 million people around the world don't have access to clean water.
  • Every $1 invested in water and sanitation returns about $8 in increased productivity and decreased health care costs.
  • 84 percent of people without access to clean water live in rural areas.
As you know, I work as a regulator of municipal wastewater treatment collection and treatment facilities. Over my two decades doing this, I've seen profound improvements in the technology and the professionals that protect our waterways. More recently, as communities struggle with the many economic demands of the day, the required upkeep, repair, and replacement of water infrastructure becomes increasingly difficult.

True, there are many needs that government must fund: schools, public safety, welfare programs—and unfunded pension programs. But without clean water, all those issues either become worse or irrelevant. Clean water is at the foundation of Civilization 101.

And so this World Water Day, you should consider three things.

The first is to donate to help agencies like Catholic Relief Services help millions without access to clean water or sanitation. Your donation now can save lives. It’s really that simple.

The second is to read up on the water infrastructure issues in your own community and nation. There are some good resources here, and here, and here to do just that. You can also visit your community's web page and find out about your water and/or wastewater system funding and condition. Such knowledge, and your involvement, will keep your community's eye focused on the most basic need of human biological life: water.

The third (and most important) is to pray. And so, may God bless and strengthen all those who suffer today—this moment—because of poor, or no, access to clean water. And may those in public office and those responsible for cultural polices make the wise choice of funding and supporting the ongoing operation and maintenance of the infrastructure that brings clean water to our homes, and purifies the polluted water that we leave behind, so that the natural waters of the globe remain clean, healthy, and always plentiful. Heavenly Father, may life, and the clean water necessary for it, always be at the center of our cultures, our lives, and our laws.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Killing our oceans with carbon: Why are people celebrating?

Then God said: Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky. God created the great sea monsters and all kinds of crawling living creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds. God saw that it was good, and God blessed them, saying: Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth. Evening came, and morning followed—the fifth day. (Genesis 1:20-23)

According to a new report, the world's oceans are apparently under greater strain from acidification than had been thought. This could affect the very existence of creatures such as shellfish, which rely on specific water chemistry for the growth of their shells.

From the report by researchers at Columbia University, we read this:
The world’s oceans may be turning acidic faster today from human carbon emissions than they did during four major extinctions in the last 300 million years, when natural pulses of carbon sent global temperatures soaring, says a new study in Science. The study is the first of its kind to survey the geologic record for evidence of ocean acidification over this vast time period.

“What we’re doing today really stands out,” said lead author Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We know that life during past ocean acidification events was not wiped out—new species evolved to replace those that died off. But if industrial carbon emissions continue at the current pace, we may lose organisms we care about—coral reefs, oysters, salmon.”
You can read the whole piece for yourself, and I suggest you do. Once again, science is showing us that natural laws exist and we tweak them at our peril—much like the tweaking of moral laws comes at our peril, but that’s a discussion for another post.

For now, I want to hold this scientific bombshell before you and ask, why do some people find such news a cause for what seems to border on celebration?

Well, perhaps “celebration” isn’t the best word. Maybe it’s more pleasure at being proved correct, or relief at finding evidence that may change the minds of climate-change doubters. But whatever it is, it’s odd.

I seem to be hearing more and more of this whatever-it-is whenever otherwise intelligent people find out about such news. Indeed, finding solace in doomsday scenarios is an unfortunate, if subtle, undercurrent in the secular eco-world. It’s as if the Occupy movement’s desire to deconstruct and destroy capitalism has taken root in global ecological conversations. In an oddly similar way, this phenomenon also reminds me of those who find joy in waiting for the End Times, as if the Apocalypse is something we should wish upon ourselves.

This latest news about our oceans is certainly dire, and I pray that the secular world and people of faith will join forces through objective science and encourage changes for the good of all. Opinions must change and hearts must be converted—and this must all be done within a generation, if not sooner.

Of course, the debate will continue, no matter what the science says. But one thing is for sure: gloating over bad news is not helpful, and Catholic ecologists should have no part of it. Loving thy neighbor means loving them even if they don’t accept the science pointing to anthropomorphic climate change.

What we must remember is that when we entrust our efforts to God, we humans do great things. If we have the power to alter the chemistry of a planet’s oceans, we have the capacity, with God’s grace, to alter our habits and our hearts so that we may undo the damage—and that would be very good indeed.

Friday, March 16, 2012

God speaks to us in the silence

March 2012

I’m blessed to have a pastor that takes his time celebrating Mass. During the Eucharistic Prayers, you don’t have to be Catholic to know that something extraordinary is happening. Such is the nature of liturgy when it is celebrated with dignity – and peacefully.

I say “peacefully” because my pastor allows silence when only silence will do. This is especially true after the consecration of each species, when, with a profound genuflection, he stops, permitting a pause of living quiet, which allows the faithful to wonder at the miracle that just took place. This is a rarity in our Internet-speed world – and tragically so. Indeed, the significance of silence in our lives and liturgies was noted with gusto by Pope Benedict XVI in his Wednesday audience on March 7, the topic of which was “The Silence of Jesus.”

Elsewhere, Mother Teresa tells us that “God speaks in the silence of the heart.” These are important words, especially during Lent, which, like Advent, being a time of calm, allows us to ponder our lives, prepare for God’s glory, and prevail over our weaknesses by accepting our Lord’s invitation of grace.

But to ponder and prepare well, and for the strength to give our lives to the Lord, we benefit from a particular sort of silence that nature provides in abundance. Our Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness – which we seek to mimic during Lent – is a model for us to heed well, as are all the Gospel accounts of his retreating to pray, especially, as the Holy Father has noted, Christ’s agony in Gethsemane.

Praying in a natural setting is not some sort of pagan ritual. It is a way to remember our one-time place in Eden and the promises of a new Heaven and new Earth. As St. Bonaventure teaches, a healthy contemplation of nature is a way to recognize that all creatures share in signifying “the invisible attributes of God, partly because God is the origin, exemplar, and the end of every creature.”

Contemplating such lofty ideas doesn’t require great planning or effort. You need not visit a retreat house in the hinterlands – although that’s not a bad idea. Instead, you can pause occasionally to observe the majesty around you – even in the suburbs or city.

As I left my house the other evening to attend the Stations of the Cross, I noted that at 6:45 p.m., before we had changed the clocks, the sky still held on to a subtle blue twilight. Venus and Jupiter hovered brilliantly over nearby pines. The planets rivaled the winter constellations, which have been making their journey west these past few weeks. Under the quiet song of the spheres, the chilled air stirred with scents of spring. The sum of this cosmic and earthly beauty gave me pause as I wondered how awesome is our Father – the creator of all that I was seeing and breathing – to have given us his word in Jesus Christ, to be conceived, born, live, suffer, die, and rise for our salvation.

Nature, when seen correctly, does not take our eyes away from the Triune God. Rather, it helps us journey towards Him. Again, the words of that bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Bonaventure, who takes great inspiration from St. Paul:

“From all this, one can gather that from the creation of the world the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made. [. . .] thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has transported us out of darkness into his marvelous light, when through these lights exteriorly given, we are disposed to reenter the mirror of our mind in which divine realities shine forth.”

In other words, by taking the occasional moment to study the beauty of the created order, we can better know our creator – and better hear his voice speaking softly in the silence of our hearts about repentance and salvation and communion.

Then, in better knowing our God, we may in our lives better appreciate the words and pauses of the Mass – words like, “blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When work takes you to the woods

I met a former me this afternoon, thanks to a walk in the woods. This is to be expected in such places. God makes Himself known wherever life thrives in abundance.

This walk occurred because work required a group of us to plan an upcoming training at a state trout hatchery. This one happened to be the oldest in Rhode Island. It was my first time there.

It's a series of ponds and streams nestled in the forests of a village called Carolina. You drive in and park by a pond that sparkles at the base of a grassy knoll. A little ways up, there's a sturdy white farm house from 1736. Around you are the hatchery’s barns and shacks that look like you’d imagine barns and shacks to look when they’ve been around for close to a century, or more.

It was a warm day for March, with enough of a breeze to rouse the pines with their ghostly chorus of whisper. The ground was thawed and gave off the sweet scents of spring. Thousands of trout splashed in the clear water of the natural raceways.

These sights, sounds, and smells brought me back to when I’d been a hiker of mountains and a walker of trails. Those memories and the newness of a late winter’s spring day awoke in me much that I had, sadly, forgotten.

Nature does this.

I should also introduce the chief caretaker. He's a quiet man named Peter. Within minutes of shaking his hand you can tell his job is a vocation and his life is the waters and woods and the people that tend his trout. Peter was delighted to take us city folk around his garden. His pride was evident and his peace was something for which many strive. Peter and his crew – like the hidden treasures of their hatcheries – provide hundreds of those who fish, old and very young, with great joy. And they do it not for earthly glory, but for the love of the sport, of nature, and of helping introduce nature to those who may not ever have been swallowed up by its pine needles, light, and breezy silence. Of course, I couldn't help but think of another Peter, who also had a profession that involved fish.

As Peter led us along the paths of the Carolina hatchery, what struck me as especially poignant was that I had written and submitted my March column just days before on the topic of nature and silence in our lives and in our prayers.

The walk in the woods made the theology of all this even clearer: As Christ would retreat to the wilderness to pray, so must we. After all, we were created to live in a garden. It’s no wonder that we can respond so well to a walk in the woods.

May God guide us all to protect and preserve such forests, streams, and all natural areas. May He give us the wisdom to use the glory of creation as we should: with respect, with temperance, and without ever forgetting how calming and good such places can be.

Friday, March 9, 2012

"It’s been an interesting journey"

My good friend and colleague Chuck Conway is retiring from his second career in water pollution control – and what careers he's had. He shared reflections of his (rather colorful) life in the worlds of government and training and Vietnam. And he granted me permission to share them with you. 

It's a good read for anyone interested in the early days of water pollution control, in how government often works, and the ups and downs that got us where we are today. 

And it reminds us that the people behind the scenes are human beings made in the image and likeness of God – people who have moms, make sacrifices, are never perfect, and seek to do good. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this quite interesting journey  . . .