Crucial to any successful disengagement by the United States from Iraq is the resolution of the sectarian violence that continues to engulf the Shia and Sunni communities. However, a lasting and just peace in Iraq requires more than securing a truce between these two warring sects within Islam. A just peace requires that the religious freedom of all Iraqis be guaranteed and respected. At the present time, the precise opposite is occurring: the rapidly deteriorating situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq is truly alarming. And this was the point the Most Reverend Ibrahim, bishop of Chaldean Catholics here in the U.S, had planned to tell President Bush before the White House pre-empted the scheduled meeting.
The media have made us aware of the deplorable sectarian violence engulfing the Shia and Sunni communities in Iraq. Less widely reported is the deliberate violence perpetrated against Christians and other vulnerable minorities.
Today only half of the Christians who lived in Iraq prior to the war that began almost five years ago still remain there. These Iraqi Christians, mostly Chaldeans and other Eastern Rite Catholics, made up 1.2 million of the pre-war Iraqi population (4% of the entire pre-war Iraqi population). The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that approximately 44% of Iraqi refugees are Christian, even though they represent only about 4% of the total population of Iraq. While thousands have fled to Syria, Jordan and Turkey, the remainder in Iraq are increasingly leading lives of desperation. Many no longer feel safe gathering in churches and other institutions, resulting in the closing of parishes, seminaries and convents. Others are fleeing to the Kurdish north of Iraq in search of some measure of safety and sanctuary.
The recent beheading of a Syriac Orthodox priest in Mosul, the crucifixion of a Christian teenager in Albasra, the frequent kidnappings for ransom of Christians including four priests, one of whom was the secretary of the Chaldean Patriarch, Archbishop Delly, the rape of Christian women and teenage girls, and the bombings of churches are all indicators that the situation has reached a crisis point.
This is an ominous sign. It indicates not only the continued breakdown of civil order in Iraqi society; but also, it makes the much needed dialog between Muslims and their neighbors of other faiths much more difficult. Such dialog if it will prove to be constructive needs examples of inter religious coexistence and respect in the Middle East where Christians have continually lived since before the arrival of Islam.
While efforts must continue to end all sectarian violence and to make Iraq secure for everyone, the vulnerability of Christians and other religious minorities require specific action on the part of the Iraqi and U.S. governments. For example, the U.S. could support the creation of a new “Administrative Region” in the Nineveh Plain Area. This could provide Christians and other minorities with greater safety and offer more autonomy with assistance from the central government. US government must also encourage Kurdish authorities in the north of Iraq to ensure the safety of Christians in the Plain of Nineveh and to provide adequate protection and assistance for religious minorities who have fled there.
U.S. aid given for the economic reconstruction of Iraq must be carefully monitored so that all of Iraqi society, including its religious minorities benefit. And the same time, our government should adopt a more generous refugee and asylum policies, including the possible resettlement of at-risk cases to the United States, and to work with the governments of Turkey, Jordan and Syria to grant visas to allow Iraqi Christians and others access to economic, health and other necessary assistance and help until they are able to stabilize their own situation, return to Iraq or make other plans for their future.
A future of hope and peace in Iraq and the Middle East must be a future that has room for their Christian and other religious minorities – for such a future can only be built on the foundations of freedom, including the most basic freedoms of conscience and religious freedom.
A Statement of Bishop Thomas G. Wenski Bishop of Orlando Chairman, USCCB Committee on International Policy 12Jan06
The Challenge in Iraq As we begin a new year and almost three years after the initiation of war, the situation in Iraq remains complex, uncertain, and dangerous—for the Iraqi people, for the region, for our nation, and for our military personnel. The war’s toll is measured in lives lost and many more injured, in persistent violence and insurgency, and in the daily struggles of Iraqis to build a future for their torn nation. Our Conference of bishops mourns the deaths of more than 2,100 of our nation’s sons and daughters and of tens of thousands of Iraqis. We share the pain of the countless numbers of persons who have been injured and maimed and of those whose lives will never be the same. There have been achievements. A dictator has been deposed and elections have been held, but the human and social costs of these achievements must be recognized.
There is no simple or easy way forward. Stability remains elusive and rebuilding efforts are uneven, inadequate and frequently undermined by the lack of security. Our Conference is encouraged by the courage and determination of so many Iraqis who voted in the recent parliamentary elections. We hope these elections will be an important step forward, but everyone acknowledges that the elections represent just one step along a long road.
As bishops and pastors, we seek to offer some moral reflections to help guide our nation along the difficult road ahead. While we recognize that people of goodwill may disagree with specific prudential judgments that we offer, our religious tradition calls us to shine the light of faith and the Church’s social teaching on the moral dimensions of the future choices that lie ahead. We hope our reflections will contribute to a serious and civil national dialogue to help our nation chart a way forward that responds to both the moral and human dimensions of the situation in Iraq.
The Challenge to Dialogue Our bishops’ Conference regrets that discussions regarding Iraq have too often led to unproductive debates that are marked by polarization and political posturing on many sides. It is important for all to recognize that addressing questions regarding the decisions that led us to war, and about the conduct of the war and its aftermath, is both necessary and patriotic. It is equally important that these questions be discussed with civility so that necessary reflection and careful deliberation are not lost in a barrage of attacks and counterattacks. Instead our nation needs serious and civil discussions of alternatives that emphasize planning for a responsible transition in Iraq. Our Conference hopes that this statement can help contribute to such dialogue.
Since so much is at stake for Iraq, for our nation, for the region and for our world, our nation cannot allow justifications of past positions and partisan attacks on others to replace real, sustained, serious and civil debate. Dialogue is not advanced by challenging the motives or integrity of others or by over-simplifying the challenges we face.
Today some see virtually no progress in Iraq and argue for rapid strategic withdrawal. Others see enormous progress and call for continued and steady engagement. Our Conference rejects any assessment of the reality that is either too pessimistic or too optimistic. Our nation cannot afford a shrill and shallow debate that distorts reality and reduces the options to “cut and run” versus “stay the course.” Instead we need a forthright discussion that begins with an honest assessment of the situation in Iraq and acknowledges both the mistakes that have been made and the signs of hope that have appeared. Most importantly, an honest assessment of our moral responsibilities toward Iraq should commit our nation to a policy of responsible transition.
The Moral Challenge It is well known that our bishops’ Conference repeatedly expressed grave moral concerns about the military intervention in Iraq and the unpredictable and uncontrollable negative consequences of an invasion and occupation. Similar concerns were articulated powerfully by Pope John Paul II and the Holy See. The events of the past three years, the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destructions and the continuing violence and unrest in Iraq have reinforced those ethical concerns. In light of the moral criteria of the just war tradition, our Conference remains highly skeptical of the concept of “preventive war.” As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “[E]ngaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions.”1
At the same time our nation cannot just look back. We must now look around and look ahead. The intervention in Iraq has brought with it a new set of moral responsibilities to help Iraqis secure and rebuild their country and to address the consequences of the war for the region and the world. The central moral question is not just the timing of U.S. withdrawal, but rather the nature and extent of U.S. and international engagement that allows for a responsible transition to security and stability for the Iraqi people. As the late Pope John Paul II said in the wake of the Iraq war:
The many attempts made by the Holy See to avoid the grievous war in Iraq are already known. Today what matters is that the international community help put the Iraqis, freed from an oppressive regime, in a condition to be able to take up their Country's reins again, consolidate its sovereignty and determine democratically a political and economic system that reflects their aspirations, so that Iraq may once again be a credible partner in the International Community.2
Despite past missteps and current difficulties, our nation urgently needs to seek to broaden international support and participation in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq. This task will be difficult; but it is still necessary. Securing wider and deeper international support will strengthen the legitimacy and effectiveness of our nation’s efforts, but it will also require giving international partners and allies a real voice and real responsibilities. Transferring some responsibility and operational control of the stabilization and reconstruction process to a more accepted international entity, working in partnership with Iraqis, will require that the United States both provide continued financial and military support and also yield some control to others.
As Pope John Paul II said to President Bush in 2004:
It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalized as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations Organization, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq’s sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people.3
Peace thus comes to be seen in a new light: not as the mere absence of war, but as a harmonious coexistence of individual citizens within a society governed by justice, one in which the good is also achieved, to the extent possible, for each of them.5
Particular Challenges for a Responsible Transition Our bishops’ Conference believes that our nation and the Iraqi people face a number of particular challenges that arise from the complex, uncertain and dangerous situation in Iraq. These challenges include:
At the same time our Conference reiterates that terrorism cannot be fought solely, or even principally, with military methods. As the USCCB Administrative Committee has warned in 2002:
This "war on terrorism" should be fought with the support of the international community and primarily by non-military means, denying terrorists resources, recruits, and opportunities for their evil acts. … As we confront evil acts, which no cause can justify, this "war on terrorism" must not deflect us from sustained commitment to overcome poverty, conflict and injustice, particularly in the Middle East and the developing world, which can provide fertile ground in which hopelessness and terrorism thrive.7
We must heed the warning of Pope John Paul II in his 2002 World Day of Peace Message:
International cooperation in the fight against terrorist activities must also include a courageous and resolute political, diplomatic and economic commitment to relieving situations of oppression and marginalization which facilitate the designs of terrorists. The recruitment of terrorists in fact is easier in situations where rights are trampled upon and injustices tolerated over a long period of time.8
Human Rights: In light of deeply disturbing and continuing reports of persistent violations of the human rights of persons in the custody of U.S. military, and more recently of reports of similar abuses by the newly reconstituted Iraqi forces, our bishops’ Conference once again urges immediate steps be taken to end these violations, to prevent future occurrences and to discover how they came about. The abuse and torture of detainees violate human rights. They simultaneously undermine both the struggle against terrorism and the prospects of a responsible transition in Iraq. Such abuse undercuts our nation’s moral credibility and damages our nation’s ability to win popular support in other countries where backing is needed for the struggles in Iraq and against global terrorism. Defending the basic human rights of detainees can also strengthen our insistence on the humane treatment of our own military personnel who become captives.
Our nation simply must live up to our own Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 1984. As a world leader, our nation’s adherence to international standards ought to be exemplary. For these reasons our Conference has supported Congressional efforts to prohibit cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment of persons and to provide uniform standards for the interrogation of persons under detention by the Department of Defense. Our Conference also supports a proposal to appoint a special human rights officer to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Recently Pope Benedict XVI affirmed the importance of international humanitarian law and called on all countries to obey its requirements. In his 2006 Peace Message the Holy Father declared:
The truth of peace must also let its beneficial light shine even amid the tragedy of war. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, pointed out that “not everything automatically becomes permissible between hostile parties once war has regrettably commenced.” As a means of limiting the devastating consequences of war as much as possible, especially for civilians, the international community has created an international humanitarian law. In a variety of situations and in different settings, the Holy See has expressed its support for this humanitarian law, and has called for it to be respected and promptly implemented, out of the conviction that the truth of peace exists even in the midst of war.9
Religious freedom includes many rights; it cannot be limited to the freedom to practice religious rites or the freedom to worship. Religious liberty must include the right to practice religious beliefs alone or with others, in private or in public; to acquire and hold property; to educate children in their faith; and to establish religious institutions, such as schools, hospitals and charitable agencies. Religious freedom is also directly related to other freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of association, so that people of faith can freely share ideas and act together in the public square. A truly democratic Iraq must continue to accommodate its religious, especially Christian, minorities.
Refugees: The war and ongoing instability in Iraq have resulted in a significant flow of refugees from Iraq, especially among Christians and other religious minorities who suffer attacks and discrimination. Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel-Karim Delly of Baghdad has pleaded with Western governments to protect Iraqi refugees. He noted that although he hoped that people would stay in Iraq, he understood that people fled when “children get kidnapped or killed, when there's no security, no peace.”10 Our Conference urges the United States and the international community to provide greater support and attention to the plight of Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers. We continue to believe that U.S. policy toward Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers is too restrictive.
Our Conference calls upon the U.S. to protect Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers, including the Christian and other religious minorities fleeing Iraq. In particular, we call on the government to (1) designate Iraqi religious minorities as a group of special concern for the purposes of determining refugee resettlement eligibility, (2) eliminate current restrictions on family reunification eligibility in the refugee admissions program, (3) provide for expeditious, emergent refugee processing directly from Iraq for cases of particular vulnerability, and (4) carefully consider Iraqi asylum seekers’ claims, especially religious minorities and other vulnerable individuals, and not reject their asylum requests on the presumption that conditions allow for a safe return to Iraq.
Other U.S. Responsibilities: The very costly conflict in Iraq demands a major commitment of human and financial resources, but Iraq cannot become an excuse for ignoring other pressing needs at home and abroad, especially our moral responsibilities toward the poor in our own nation and in developing countries. Our Conference reiterates the need to protect the poor at home and abroad in setting our national priorities. As we noted in our Conference’s February 2005 letter to Congress:
As pastors, we believe that a fundamental moral measure of our nation’s budget policy is whether it enhances or undermines the lives and dignity of those most in need. Sadly, political pressure frequently has left poor children and families missing in the national debate and without a place at the table. Our nation needs a genuinely bipartisan commitment to focus on the common good of all and on the special needs of the poor and vulnerable in particular. These are tough times. There are few easy choices. But there are some “right” choices. In a time of war, mounting deficits, and growing needs, our nation’s leaders must ensure that there are adequate resources to protect people who are poor and vulnerable both at home and around the world.11
Our Conference wants to be clear. Raising grave moral questions regarding the decision to invade Iraq is not to question the moral integrity of those serving in the military. Expressing moral questions regarding the treatment of U.S. prisoners and detainees is not to question the professional integrity of the vast majority of those on deployment. In fact, asking difficult questions is a patriotic and moral duty that reflects our values and serves the bests interests of our nation and those who serve it with honor.
Caution and Hope Our Conference has been in continuing dialogue with U.S. policy makers regarding Iraq. We have expressed grave moral concern regarding “preventive war,” noted the new moral responsibilities that our nation has assumed in Iraq, worked to protect religious freedom in Iraq, supported efforts to address the abuse of prisoners and detainees, shared the moral elements of a “responsible transition,” and sought to contribute to a serious and civil discussion regarding the way forward in Iraq.13 We know that statements are not enough. The time has come for public reflection that leads to action.
Our nation is at a crossroads in Iraq. We must avoid two directions that distort reality and limit appropriate responses. We must resist a pessimism that might move our nation to abandon the moral responsibilities it accepted in using force and might tempt us to withdraw prematurely from Iraq without regard for moral and human consequences. We must reject an optimism that fails to acknowledge clearly past mistakes, failed intelligence, and inadequate planning related to Iraq, and minimizes the serious challenges and human costs that lie ahead.
Instead our nation must act with a constructive and informed realism that helps us to learn from the past and to move forward. Our policy makers and citizens must be willing to ask difficult moral questions regarding preventive war and to learn from our experience in Iraq. More immediately, our nation must engage in serious and civil dialogue in order to walk a difficult path toward a responsible transition that seeks to help Iraqis take responsibility for building a better future for themselves—a future that contributes to peace in the region and beyond. This national dialogue must begin with a search for the “truth” of where we find ourselves in Iraq and not with a search for political advantage or justifications for past positions.
By embracing the honesty that it takes for genuine dialogue that seeks a path to a just peace in Iraq, our nation would be striving to find “in truth, peace.” Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, reflected on this theme in his 2006 World Day of Peace Message. “In truth, peace” is a theme that “expresses the conviction that wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace.”14
I always enjoy being with friends like tonight because I can leave my Kevlar vest in Denver. I do a lot of speaking, and while most of the people I meet are wonderful folks, not everyone is always happy to hear what I have to say.
In fact, one of the distinguishing marks of debate both outside and within the Church over the last 40 years is how uncivil the disagreements have become. Being a faithful Catholic leader today - whether you're a layperson or clergy -- isn't easy. It requires real skill, and in that regard, I've admired the great ability and good will of Bishop Murphy for many years. So it's a special pleasure to be with him tonight. New York's Cardinal Edward Egan is another leader who's given extraordinary and sometimes difficult service to the Church.
I'm not really surprised by the environment in our country or in our Church because Msgr. George Kelly saw it coming 30 years ago. I read his great book, The Battle for the American Church, as a young Capuchin priest when it first came out in 1979. I remember being struck immediately by George's very Irish combination of candor, scrappiness, clarity, intelligence and also finally charity - because everything he wrote and said and did was always motivated by his love for the Church.
I also remember George's sense of humor, which was vivid and healthy, and which probably kept him so generous and sane. He was a man's man and a priest's priest -- and his commitment to Catholic family life, Catholic education and Catholic scholarship has remained with me as an example throughout my priesthood.. George and I became friends through our mutual friend Father Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., and after I became a bishop in South Dakota, he would often call me or write me with his advice -- and I was always happy to get it, because it was always very good. So I'm grateful for a chance to acknowledge my debt to him.
We have a full evening, so I'll be very brief. I want to quickly sketch for you the picture of an anonymous culture. But everything I'm about to tell you comes from the factual record.
This society is advanced in the sciences and the arts. It has a complex economy and a strong military. It includes many different religions, although religion tends to be a private affair or a matter of civic ceremony.
This particular society also has big problems. Among them is that fertility rates remain below replacement levels. There aren't enough children being born to replenish the current adult population and to do the work needed to keep society going. The government offers incentives to encourage people to have more babies. But nothing seems to work.
Promiscuity is common and accepted. So are bisexuality and homosexuality. So is prostitution. Birth control and abortion are legal, widely practiced, and justified by society's leading intellectuals.
Every now and then, a lawmaker introduces a measure to promote marriage, arguing that the health and future of society depend on stable families. These measures typically go nowhere.
Ok. What society am I talking about? Our own country, of course, would broadly fit this description. But I'm not talking about us.
I've just outlined the conditions of the Mediterranean world at the time of Christ. We tend to idealize the ancients, to look back at Greece and Rome as an age of extraordinary achievements. And of course, it was. But it had another side as well.
We don't usually think of Plato and Aristotle endorsing abortion or infanticide as state policy. But they did. Hippocrates, the great medical pioneer, also famously created an abortion kit that included sharp blades for cutting up the fetus and a hook for ripping it from the womb. We rarely connect that with his Hippocratic Oath. But some years ago, archeologists discovered the remains of what appeared to be a Roman-era abortion or infanticide "clinic." It was a sewer filled with the bones of more than 100 infants.
If you haven't done so already, I'd encourage you to pick up a little book written about 10 years ago, The Rise of Christianity by the Baylor University scholar Rodney Stark. You'll find all of this history in its pages and more.
But what does ancient Rome have to do with my topic tonight, the relationship of Church and state today?
Let me explain it this way: People often say we're living at a "post-Christian" moment. That's supposed to describe the fact that Western nations have abandoned or greatly downplayed their Christian heritage in recent decades. But our "post-Christian" moment actually looks a lot like the pre-Christian moment. The signs of our times in the developed nations-morally, intellectually, spiritually and even demographically-are uncomfortably similar to the signs in the world at the time of the Incarnation.
Drawing lessons from history is a subjective business. There's always the risk of oversimplifying.
But I do believe that the challenges we face as American Catholics today are very much like those faced by the first Christians. And it might help to have a little perspective on how they went about evangelizing their culture. They did such a good job that within 400 years Christianity was the world's dominant religion and the foundation of Western civilization. If we can learn from that history, the more easily God will work through us to spark a new evangelization.
I'm not a historian or a sociologist, so I'll leave it to others to fully evaluate Rodney Stark's work. But Stark does address a couple of key questions: How did Christianity succeed? How was it able to accomplish so much so fast? Stark is not only a social scientist, but also a self-described agnostic. So he has no interest in talking about God's will or the workings of the Holy Spirit. He focuses only on facts he can verify.
Stark concludes that Christian success flowed from two things: first, Christian doctrine, and second, people being faithful to that doctrine. Stark writes: "An essential factor in the [Christian] religion's success was what Christians believed. . . . And it was the way those doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity."
Let's put it in less academic terms: The Church, through the Apostles and their successors, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People believed in the Gospel. But they weren't just agreeing to a set of ideas. Believing in the Gospel meant changing their whole way of thinking and living. It was a radical transformation. So radical they couldn't go on living like the people around them anymore.
Stark shows that one of the key areas in which Christians rejected the culture around them was marriage and the family. From the start, to be a Christian meant believing that sex and marriage were sacred. From the start, to be a Christian meant rejecting abortion, infanticide, birth control, divorce, homosexual activity and marital infidelity-all those things widely practiced by their Roman neighbors.
Athenagoras, a Christian layman, told the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the year A.D. 176 that abortion was "murder" and that those involved would have to "give an account to God." And he told the emperor the reason why: "For we regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care."
As this audience already knows, Christian reverence for the unborn child is no medieval development. It comes from the very beginnings of our faith. The early Church had no debates over politicians and communion. There wasn't any need. No persons who tolerated or promoted abortion would have dared to approach the Eucharistic table, let alone dared to call themselves true Christians.
And here's why: The early Christians understood that they were the offspring of a new worldwide family of God. They saw the culture around them as a culture of death, a society that was slowly extinguishing itself. In fact, when you read early Christian literature, practices like adultery and abortion are often described as part of "the way of death" or the "way of the [devil]."
There's an interesting line in a Second Century apologetic work written by Minucius Felix. He was a Roman lawyer and a convert. He's talking about a birth-control drug that works as an abortifacient. He describes its effects this way: "There are women who swallow drugs to stifle in their own womb the beginnings" of a person to be.
That's what the first Christians saw around them in their world. They believed the world was snuffing out its own future. It was stifling future generations before they could come to be. It was slowly killing itself.
Since we see similar signs in our own day, we need to find the courage those first Christians had in challenging their culture. We need to believe not only what they believed. We need to believe those things with the same deep fervor.
The early Christians staked their lives on the belief that God is our Father. They respected Caesar, but they didn't confuse him with God, and they put God first. They believed the Church is our mother. They believed their bishops and priests were spiritual fathers and that through the sacraments they were made children of God, or "partakers of the divine nature," as Peter said.
It's time for all of us who claim to be "Catholic" to recover our Catholic identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and missionaries of his Church. In the long run, we serve our country best by remembering that we're citizens of heaven first. We're better Americans by being more truly Catholic -- and the reason why, is that unless we live our Catholic faith authentically, with our whole heart and our whole strength, we have nothing worthwhile to bring to the public debates that will determine the course of our nation.
Pluralism in a democracy doesn't mean shutting up about inconvenient issues. It means speaking up- respectfully, in a spirit of justice and charity, but also vigorously and without apologies. Jesus said that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free. He didn't say anything about our being popular with worldly authority once we have that freedom. In the end, if we want our lives to be fruitful, we need to know ourselves as God intends us to be known -- as his witnesses on earth, not just in our private behavior, but in our public actions, including our social, economic and political choices.
If pagan Rome could be won for Jesus Christ, surely we can do the same in our own world. What it takes is the zeal and courage to live what we claim to believe. All of us here tonight already have that desire in our hearts. So let's pray for each other, and encourage each other, and get down to the Lord's work.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
Whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, nearly every American Christian knows John Newton’s beautiful hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Believers have sung it for more than 200 years. Its words and melody speak to one of the deepest instincts of the human heart: the need for deliverance. Like St. Augustine before him, Newton discovered that “our hearts are restless until they rest in (God).”
A former slave trader, Newton converted to Christianity during a storm on the Atlantic. He later became one of the leading Christian evangelizers of his day in England as an Anglican priest. But he never forgot his role in the slave trade. He spent the rest of his life repenting for it and preaching against it. He understood from direct experience that real personal conversion must have broader consequences. If we claim to love God, then we need to prove it with our actions. Slavery, Newton saw, violated human dignity in a profound way.
Newton did more than write a memorable hymn, however. His life had a huge impact on others — among them the son of a wealthy merchant named William Wilberforce. Like Newton, Wilberforce underwent his own Christian conversion. He took Newton’s anti-slavery message into Parliament in 1789, where he became the leading voice against slavery for the next 18 years. Largely because of Wilberforce, England abolished the slave trade throughout its empire in 1807 — the same year Newton died.
Last week, the story of William Wilberforce and John Newton opened in theaters throughout the United States in the new film by Walden Media, “Amazing Grace.” It’s a compelling movie; a beautifully written, acted and directed portrait of a man — Wilberforce — on fire with his faith and its consequences. Inspired by Newton, Wilberforce literally reshaped the conscience of the modern world. Walden Media is the same company that brought the wonderful “Chronicles of Narnia” to the screen in 2005. It’s easy to recommend a film like “Amazing Grace” because the story is so powerful and so very well done. But it’s also an ideal source of personal reflection as we begin our own journey of Lent.
As long as we have breath, God offers us the chance for repentance and conversion, and through them, a path to eternal life in Jesus Christ. St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Ignatius all took that path. So did William Wilberforce and a self-described former slaver and “wretch” like John Newton. In fact, every Christian man or woman who takes the Gospel seriously must walk the same road. Lent is the season every year when the Church encourages us to repentance and conversion in a special way. We urgently need to use this time well. Fortunately, Colorado Catholics have a uniquely fruitful way to deepen their experience of Lent this year that fits very well with the message of “Amazing Grace.”
On March 9, we’ll open the annual Living the Catholic Faith conference in Denver. This year’s theme is especially powerful and rooted in Jesus’ first words from the Gospel of Mark: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” The speakers and workshops this year are outstanding for both the English and Spanish tracks: Jonathan Reyes, Curtis Martin, Juan Carlos Munoz, Tim Gray, Jesse Romero, Marissa Esparza, Terry Polakavic, Father Jorge Rodriguez, Father Andreas Hock, Alex Jones, Edward Sri, George Weigel and many others. This is one of the finest and most important events on the calendar of our local Church every year. I enthusiastically encourage every teacher, catechist, parent and pastor to take part — as I will. The story of “Amazing Grace” teaches a vital lesson for every believer. Every true Christian conversion has consequences that go far beyond the individual. A Christian life, lived well, helps to change the world in the name of Jesus Christ. That’s our vocation as Catholics. And Lent is the time to claim it.
Information on the Living the Catholic Faith Conference, March 9-10, can be found on the Web at www.archden.org (click on the Living the Catholic Faith Conference link). Or send an e-mail to
Editor's Note: Rt. Rev. Thomas Matthew Burns, Catholic Bishop of the Forces in Great Britain, issued this statement in response to the fifth anniversary of the invations in Iraq. There are 35 military ordinariates established in as many countries around the world, each responsible for the spiritual care of thier nation's Catholics who serve in the Armed Forces. - MissionCapodanno.org02April2008: We have just marked the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The politics behind that fateful decision have been well-rehearsed. My view is that the reason for the invasion has been disgraced since no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.However, the controversy around the origins of the war must not obscure the remarkable job being done by our armed forces in Iraq and also Afghanistan. In both countries, young men and women are risking their lives trying to create stability and the chance of a better future for Afghans and Iraqis. Their sacrifice, and the cost their families pay, can be obscured by the seemingly never-ending debate about politics with the tragic result that sometimes these remarkable young people can be the scapegoats for unpopular government decisions over which they have no control.Our service people do their duty and they have a right to expect us to support them in return. This relationship is at the heart of the military covenant. I fear that the commitment we make to the Services is becoming dangerously frayed.For example, the Forces are still short of over 5,000 personnel and strain to cope with the increasing pace of operational tempo. Financial incentives are thrown at recruitment and retention in a short-term fix to encourage key people to join or stay on. Not surprisingly, surveys show that such bonuses are popular, but do not record that their effects are short-lived.There are underlying reasons why there is a manpower and morale problem in the first place. Military chiefs have little control over alleviating these damaging influences, because it’s not their role to set overall policies or budgets. They continue successfully to persuade soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women to act with a high degree of professionalism, motivation, and integrity. Their stories are rarely told: of close-range fighting, of continuous bombardment by mortars and missiles, of life-changing injuries, of camaraderie in battle, of remarkable acts of bravery to save the lives of colleagues and innocent civilians, of long hours in stifling heat and deafening gunfire, of fear and heroism in the service of right and duty.Day after day they have brought about changes for the better: an educational system functioning again, a coastguard squadron re-built, a village restored, markets re-opened, Taliban and Al Qua’ida put to flight, security improved, normalization resuming, hearts and minds won over – oh so slowly but surely. Iraqis are beginning to deliver an Iraqi solution. Here in Britain, home-coming marches through city streets have brought huge pride as bystanders tumbled out of shops and offices to shout spontaneously: Well done! We’re proud of you.Church services have remembered friends and colleagues who died and will never be forgotten, but will never come back. Grieving will continue, but no coroner should have to state that soldiers died because of equipment failures. Other coroners are unable to complete inquests because certain military information is not forthcoming. Grieving is prolonged; re-building lives is delayed.When the battle is done, adrenalin is replaced with tiredness, even lethargy; targets with routines; hope with apathy; re-training with operations once again. Good training and good-will are cornerstones of current military effectiveness and the mutual covenant between the People and the Armed Forces. To avoid disillusionment, there is still room to re-enforce trust and confidence so that any credibility gap is closed more and more between perceived budget needs in Whitehall and actual combat needs in Basra or Kandahar. A hard-nosed Major says his abiding memory of Iraq will be:The dedication of my young soldiers; it was an eye-opener to me. They just got on with the job. I shall remember them forever with gratitude. If only others of their generation could be similar examples too. These young people deserve our prayers and our support.
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During the week we screen people who come in for counseling, do paperwork, whatever the chaplain needs done. And off the forward operating bases, we’re bodyguards, since the chaplain is a noncombatant.
--Sgt Michael Frickie
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