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Clergy ‘connect’ on religious freedom
archived from: 2012-04-30
by: Chuck Moody, Associate Editor

Solidarity experienced at spring convocation

Since Bishop David Zubik returned to Pittsburgh, he has worked hard to strengthen the radical “communitarian form” within the ordained ministry of the diocese, said Father Joseph Mele, rector of St. Paul Seminary, who also serves as director of pre-ordination formation and director of post-ordination formation.

“He believes it is the only way for a bishop and his priests and deacons to connect,” Father Mele said. “That is, by carrying out all that we do as a ‘collective work’ in communion with each other. By strengthening solid human relationships, our clergy develop the art of building up community or communion of the faithful in their local parishes and institutions where they serve.”

A prime example of that occurred at the Spring Clergy Convocation April 19 at St. Paul Seminary, Father Mele said.

“The spring convocation was originally planned so that priests could spend an entire day reviewing and deepening how we interpersonally partner with persons with disabilities within ministry,” he said. “My office worked for months in collaboration with the Secretariat for Catholic Education and the Department for Persons with Disabilities to prepare for a convocation with the theme ‘Have in You the Same Attitude of Jesus Christ! Partnering with Persons with Disabilities.’

“As April 19 drew closer, I started to receive phone calls and e-mails from priests and a few deacons sharing with me their concerns over the recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services health insurance mandate, and the questions people in their parishes and institutions were asking regarding the leadership role that Bishop Zubik was taking by speaking out against an unprecedented situation that threatens the essence of religious freedom.”

Many Catholics and citizens who are not Catholic understand the mandate forces Catholic organizations to provide insurance coverage for sterilization, contraception and abortifacient drugs for their employees, Father Mele said. “Priests were calling the Continuing Formation Office to register their solidarity with Bishop Zubik’s stand against an unjust government mandate,” he said. “Some asked for help in knowing what to tell parishioners so everyone would understand the seriousness of this moment in the history of our nation.

“When Bishop Zubik found out the degree of concern among priests and deacons, he convened diocesan leaders from several offices, and, after consulting these advisers, authorized me to postpone the original very important program and begin immediately to design a different convocation on the critical role of priests, deacons, parishioners and people of all faiths in defending our religious liberty.”

It was not an easy issue to tackle, Father Mele said.

“Our priests and deacons have very diverse beliefs and opinions,” he said. “We are a cross-section very typical of the society around us when it comes to secular or political issues. Nothing divides our sacramental relationship with Christ and the church, but on issues in the public square, priests and deacons are often as fractured as society itself. Our speakers did a fantastic job.”

The speakers were: Helene Paharik, director of the Department for Human Dignity; Rita Ferko Joyce, general counsel of the Office for Legal Services; Maureen Lally-Green, director of the Office for Church Relations; and Amy Hill, communications director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Joyce said the purpose of her and Lally-Green’s presentation was to provide an understanding of why the church’s opposition to the HHS mandate is grounded in “our right as a church to religious liberty.”

“We have a basic constitutional right (employers included) to not be compelled by our government to violate our religious beliefs,” Joyce said. “The mandate burdens the Catholic Church in a critical way as it interferes with our church’s essential teachings on the sanctity of life by demanding that we cooperate with measures that the church opposes.

“This is unprecedented, and the government has never asked this of us before. We discussed the need to expand the very narrowly crafted definition of ‘religious employer,’ because as it is presently defined, it excludes our Catholic charitable organizations, hospitals and universities, since they serve people of all faiths. The mandate in its current form requires compliance of our Catholic facilities if they do not exclusively employ Catholics and serve only Catholics, since a narrowly constructed definition does a disservice to our Catholic agencies and institutions who provide critically needed services regardless of faith of the receivers of care.”

The speakers were articulate about their subjects and spoke with conviction, but avoided charged language or biased rhetoric, Father Mele said. “They gave the facts and explained exactly what the issues are and what we are dealing with,” he said.

Not only was this a difficult issue handled with respect and civility, something else happened among the clergy that hasn’t happened for a long time, Father Mele said.

“There really was a deep moment that everyone gathered together in that auditorium became aware how much we all loved the church, our country, our liberty and especially the people we serve,” he said. “We all began to realize that there are many concerns we need to support each other about, even though we might disagree to the exact priority of importance, but here was an issue where we could start.

“I believe we all were aware this is how priests and deacons are supposed to respect each other and stick together for the sake of the people we serve. I imagine we will have a much easier time supporting one another on many other issues that need our solidarity and mutual assistance. ... We connected with our bishop who led us in the day, and then we connected with each other and the agenda of the day ended by us all committing to stay strong, joyful and peace-filled. It was fantastic.”

The clergy of the diocese experienced “what I hope will happen in every convocation ahead,” Father Mele said.

“These gatherings present issues of general interest related to clergy on matters that pertain to the ordained ministry,” he said. “... Our diocese has a unique and long history of the diocesan bishop convening convocations that enable the clergy to draw their priestly identity from being in communion with the diocesan bishop. Priests exist as priests in a presbyterate gathered with its bishop. In his apostolic exhortation ‘Pastores Dabo Vobis’ (‘I Shall Give You Shepherds’), Pope John Paul II called the ordained minister a ‘man of communion.’ This is true on many different levels.”

The presenters were encouraged and gratified to see the support and responsiveness of the diocesan clergy, Joyce said.

“On this effort it became clear to us that we are a united front in demanding that our government uphold and protect our constitutional guarantee of religious liberty,” she said. “This is a matter sacred to persons who profess any faith, it is not ‘just’ a Catholic issue.”

 

 

 



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