Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Media Literacy Missionaries"

Friday was an adventure, and not just because six of us were breaking out of the house. The ninth annual Northeast Media Literacy Conference at the University of Connecticut ran from 8:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., packed with two keynote addresses, three workshops sessions with fifteen topics to choose from, and a panel presentation by four of 23 international guests from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. These guests were media educators participating in a three-week tour of the U.S. as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. According to the U.S. Embassy’s press release, “the IVLP is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. It seeks to build mutual understanding between the U.S. and other nations through carefully designed short-term visits to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders.” It marked the first time that the State Department sponsored a media literacy event.

Press “Pause.” What exactly is media literacy? Like traditional literacy, at its most basic level it’s the ability to decode communication symbols to understand and analyze the message being communicated. In the case of print, those symbols are letters and words. In our day with the variety of media within our reach, those symbols also include images, sounds, movements, colors, rhythms, and techniques.

Renee Hobbs, keynote presenter
 But there’s more. Media literacy presupposes the skills of understanding the communication systems and the cultures that are shaped by these media—whether print, broadcast, recorded, or digital. It also involves knowledge of the political, social, and economic powers behind them.

If you’re thinking that’s plenty, wait. To be really literate we need to not only have access to media and understand them and the culture, but we have to be able to evaluate them, conform our behavior to the values we’ve adopted, and then produce media messages, communicating in turn, not only for our own benefit, but for the community, family, work environment, and in our case, the Church.

“Resume Play.” The sheer scope of this aspect of modern life explains the array of topics related to this year’s theme at the conference we attended: “Media Literacy in a Digital Media Age.” We divided up the sessions among us so we could benefit from their richness and share that with each other: pediatrics and digital devices, media literacy in middle school, Facebook and mood management, trends in kids’ media, Internet privacy, toxic media, and the influence of media and incarceration are only some of the entries we found on the menu.

What we walked away with was a more complete tool kit for our mission, plus direction for planning. Three of us, in fact, serve on our FSP province’s ad hoc committee for media literacy education, or MLE, (“media mindfulness”). We’re preparing a proposal for implementing MLE at all stages of our own life, from vocational discernment through to the “senior years.” Of course, we’ll be offering mission strategies for integrating Gospel values with the principles of MLE: How do we draw people to discover the message of faith through their media encounters, then deepen it, live it, and pass it on?

Like last year—was it because the nuns were there?—one of the presenters referred to MLE educators there as “media literacy missionaries.” If my barometer reading of the room was accurate, I would say that, with its distorted image of the self-righteous Bible-thumper, “missionary,” is not the word most of the people there would ever choose to describe themselves. Yet, with MLE’s imperative to conform one’s behavior to one’s principles, as well as to exercise social responsibility, they were all, in an MLE sense, regardless of the prayers they say or the rituals they practice, as “missionary” as we were.

Several international guests were visiting from countries where the Daughters of St. Paul and the priests and brothers of the Society of St. Paul carry out their media mission for the Gospel: Romania, India, Uganda, Philippines, Russia, United Kingdom. These Paulines labor within very different political, religious, and educational environments, within diverse media parameters, attempting to bring the Church’s religious and social teaching to bear on public policy as well as into people’s private lives. Listening to and talking with the conference’s visitors, I sensed that in spite of our different perspective on ethics, spirituality, and human and religious values, when it comes to the goals of media literacy, they share a great deal in common with Paulines everywhere. Here at home, too, we can continue to work so that together, challenges can be met, and both persons and society can hear “good news.”

Photos courtesy of Thomas Goodkind, Ph.D., Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut. See all the photos at

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Water of Life

In case you missed the United Nations’ World Water Day yesterday, you’re not alone. I did too, until Sr. Christina mentioned it at supper. It’s part of the Decade for Action—Water for Life, stretching from 2005 to 2015. Celebrated annually around a set theme, it’s meant to implement UN environmental resolutions adopted at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, raise consciousness surrounding the availability and quality of fresh water worldwide, offer resources for education and advocacy, and inform the world community about activities carried out by countries and organizations.

So what? With almost six feet of snow in Boston this winter, it’s hard to picture a water shortage anywhere. I can filter all the water I want. I have hot water for a shower. Can I be—am I—concerned about fresh water anywhere else? In the words of Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General, “We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or any of the other infectious diseases that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking-water, sanitation and basic health care.” As we have seen in recent years, viruses and epidemics are not confined to developing nations or by any geographic boundaries.

Intrinsically related to this are social justice issues, especially economic ones, the very issues that religious communities, Vatican leaders, and episcopal (bishops’) conferences have directed our attention to over the past several years. When whole populations are at risk of losing sustainable living conditions because of exploitation and consumerism, we need to step back and ask a few questions of ourselves, our media, and our society. When my brand of bottled water becomes a status symbol, it’s time for a reality check. When our kids, media-induced, demand one brand over another (as one grandmother told me last year), it’s time to share with them what we really value as believers and set a different standard.

This year’s theme for World Water Day was “Water for Cities.” It’s safe to say that when the UN Water group picked it, a tsunami in Japan was not on their minds. The resulting water shortage not only in villages, but in hard hit cities like Sendai, makes such a theme worth pondering. If nothing else, we’re less likely to take what we have for granted.

The day before yesterday we received the first direct report from our Sendai community: “Water was restored to us after four days. For the first three days we went to get water at a well, standing for three or four hours in line to get our bottles filled with drinkable water. We receive two bottles and we give away one. Our good bishop came one day to bring us 60 liters of water. How moving it all is!”

Grace before meals has always been a part of my life, but it wasn’t until I entered religious life that I watched sisters bless themselves even before having a snack. Some, in what I considered fervor to the extreme, made the Sign of the Cross even before taking a sip of water. A few still do. While that isn’t part of my devotional life, I thought again this week of how it can well express a deep spiritual sense and profound gratitude for the creature that St. Francis called “Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure” (Canticle of the Creatures).

It’s significant that our Japanese Daughters of St. Paul speak of their experience in communal terms. From their testimony about how they share, their concern for each other is clearly moved by sincere love: it’s not limited to their own needs alone, but empowers them to reach out to the wider community. Here’s how they describe the source of their compassion:

“We stay very willingly together: there is mutual comfort, support and aid. Each sister is doing whatever she can. Living this experience of sisterly love is so precious, and a gift we give each other throughout the enormous difficulties we are facing.

“Every new morning we repeat, ‘Lord, today too, you have given us life! Thank you!’

“We are in the month of March, and it is still cold like winter – for two days we have had a pretty heavy snowfall. It almost feels like we are being tormented. But we still have our house and our sisters, and above all the Lord is with us.

“In the city more than 7,000 people have perished. The refugees already number 350,000. They have lost their loved ones and their homes, and now in addition to these great catastrophes, atomic radiation is threatening. It will take a long time to recover from this. We live in the hope that the reading from St. Paul spoke of in this morning’s Liturgy [2Tm. 1:8b-10].

“Once again we thank you with all our hearts for keeping near to us with your concern.”

This is the water of life.


As I mentioned in last week’s blog post, if you would like to financially support the ministry of the Daughters of St. Paul that will evolve over the months ahead, assist with their material needs, or help them plan for recovery, you can donate securely online at, or send a check, made out to the Daughters of St. Paul, to my attention (Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP) at 50 St. Paul’s Ave. Boston, MA  02130. Questions? E-mail me at or call me at 617-676-4423.

Regardless of what you may choose to do materially, we ask you to continue praying with us for the Japanese people. Prayer suggestions have been prepared by our sisters with audio and visual accompaniment, also at

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How To Help Japan

Once again the earth shuddered. A week ago the world stopped its frenetic spin, its eyes riveted on the East, as its Japanese side of the family stared death and anguish in the face—again. Photos, media reports, and speculation have brought a nation’s vulnerability uncomfortably close to home; yet we’re unable to look away. Where could we look to feel secure?

Students collect donations for quake victims.
Photo credit: David Powell,
As incredible as it seems, given the face of a crisis that changes by the hour, relief efforts have begun, starting admirably with the people themselves, though in painfully limited ways. “Neighbors are helping each other” with food and other necessities (Sister Francesca Matsuoka, FSP). Sister Madeline Nakatsu, CSJ, reports that, in a communal approach to crisis typical of the Japanese, everyone throughout the country “is cutting back on the use of electricity, gasoline, food and water in order to have more going to the affected areas” (Sr. Theresa Kvale, CSJ). News reports relate how, en masse, people are flinging their doors open to total strangers; everyone is locked in the same struggle with Nature.

A topic not yet explored in the news media is the effort of the Catholic Church in Japan and abroad to address the area’s staggering, multi-faceted needs. Catholic News Service published an excellent article summarizing the current condition of the Church in the quake zone, as well as initial relief responses from various regions of Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Caritas International is carrying out a principal role, with support from Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Their Web sites and donation pages are: and

Other reputable information sites are: Fides News Agency (Agenzia Fides), the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies, and Zenit, a Catholic news service based in Rome. Web sites of missionary religious congregations, including the Daughters of St. Paul (, are sources of current information both about their communities abroad and the people these communities serve. Such sites prove to be as accurate as any others and often, are even more so, due to their connections.

Photo credit: David Powell
I found at Charity Navigator, a secular source, its own list of non-profits that it deemed best equipped to help in Japan. There the Catholic Medical Mission Board enjoys a four-star ranking. The well-known CRS was not ranked, simply because Charity Navigator can evaluate only those organizations that file with the IRS; filing is not required of religious organizations. Also very helpful is Charity Navigator’s eleven tips for giving online carefully and with forethought after any natural disaster.

Today Japan’s bishops met in Sendai to map out the Church’s initial response. Comprising less than 1% of the total population, Catholics are sprinkled throughout the country in 16 dioceses. It’s not known how many have lost their lives, but they are very much a part of a situation that the director of Caritas Japan described as “horrifying.” Buoyed by a hope strengthened by the world’s solidarity, however, the bishops have begun to organize the Church’s support by setting up an Emergency Center to arrange and coordinate humanitarian operations under the supervision of Caritas Japan, according to Fides News Agency today.

Naturally both bishops and laity will be relying on other clergy, as well as on the women and men religious, to lead and carry out much of the Church’s response. But how do they do that if the ecclesiastical infrastructure is severely handicapped? An earthquake does not pick and choose its victims, and often enough, those who are best positioned to assist in relief are themselves hobbled by loss of resources, stamina, and even personnel. Witness Haiti, hardly a year ago. How do we help the helpers?
  • The Salesians confirm that all their communities are safe, but some students from the nursery in Fukushima are still missing.
  • The General Master of the Dominicans reports that they are unable to contact their members—men or women—in Japan. Rumor has it that they have survived, although one of their houses has apparently been destroyed.
  • Canadian missionary Fr AndrĂ© Lachapelle died as a result of the tsunami.
  • Two Catholic news services reported that three priests of the Society of St. Paul are missing, but if that was ever the case, this evening the U.S. Pauline leadership stated that all is well.
  • Though the Christian Brothers are safe, they share in the common shortage of food and fuel, a hardship for them and for the young people with them.
    Photo credit:
The Daughters of St. Paul number 13 communities and 140 sisters in the country, including a community of 7 older sisters and a book center in Sendai. This small community is living in its house, which is “in shambles, and pieces of the walls are still crumbling, since the shocks are continuing,” writes Sr. Francesca, general councilor. “As regards the book center, which is located downtown, it’s quite far from the house, and there’s no way they can know the center’s condition.*

“Even though there are no direct means of transportation by which to reach the community of Sendai, [Sister Johanna Mishima], the provincial [superior] is considering sending a sister from Tokyo to bring them necessities, traveling by various means.”

Even as the situation still unfolds, the emotional and spiritual fallout is profound, an inkling of what lies ahead once the worst is over. Even now there is a need for the evangelizing mission of the Pauline Family, for sharing the compassion of God and communicating the hope that is within us.

In fact, on March 12, Father Daisuke Narui, executive director of Caritas Japan, told Fides, “I believe [that] in Japan currently, marked by the economic crisis, struck by the social phenomenon of depression and suicide, this painful event may be an opportunity to spread the values of the Gospel, that is, the fraternity of all men and women, the building of common good, the recognition that every person has the dignity of a child of God and is important in the eyes of God.” He concluded, “If, with our work and our witness, we can communicate that, then from this evil will come good.”

If you would like to financially support the ministry of the Daughters of St. Paul that will evolve over the months ahead, assist with their material needs, or help them plan for recovery, you can donate securely online at, or send a check, made out to the Daughters of St. Paul, to my attention (Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP) at 50 St. Paul’s Ave. Boston, MA  02130. Questions? E-mail me at or call me at 617-676-4423.

Regardless of what you may choose to do materially, we ask you to pray with us for the Japanese people. Prayer suggestions have been prepared by our sisters with audio and visual accompaniment and have been posted at Join us in sharing hope and the grace of God.

Photo credit: David Powell,

* An update of Friday, March 18, states that the Pauline Center sustained major damage, and the sisters' house is almost totally destroyed. They are living on the rice and canned food they had on hand, but supplies are low. Nevertheless, "they're very grateful to the Lord, who has saved their lives. They're also grateful for the gestures of solidarity and prayer" they've received. "All of them thank and greet us" (Sr. Antonieta Bruscato, FSP, superior general).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Loving Lent

“Charity covers a multitude of sins” (1Pt. 4:8).
Once when I was a postulant, we were trying to raise money for something. (Some things never change.) I had been in religious life all of about a year. Having witnessed and experienced my parents’ generosity, I decided to write and ask them to help out. With all the zeal of a neophyte, but less than half the sense, I did them the "honor" of scribbling those words to them. That such episodes never soured them testifies to their goodness and sense of humor, as well as pure parental indulgence. If I’ve acquired any grace under fire over the years, I got it from them.

This verse from the first letter of Peter is one of those Christian proverbs that goes way back to pre-Christian days, but spoke to the early Church as it prepared itself for the final coming of Christ. Of course, like many oft-repeated bits of popular wisdom taken out of context, it has been applied in one or two ways that cause listeners to stop dead in their tracks and wonder what they missed in ethics class.

"Be reconciled to God!" (2Cor. 5:20)
One thing it doesn’t mean is that if we indulge in less than virtuous living, all we have to do is toss a few bucks in the direction of the nearest non-profit for our slate to be wiped clean. Charity presumes at least an effort to change our ways or to mend fences with someone. Unfortunately, over the past several years, charity has become synonymous with philanthropy. When I was a middle-schooler I asked my mother if they were the same thing. She told me, “Not always. Philanthropists can give to people without loving God. You can’t do that if you give out of charity.” I got it. Love covers a multitude of sins.

Last week I picked up some ribbon at a local fabric store for a project. At the counter, I spotted some craft paper on sale, but since I hadn’t brought enough money for both, I put it back. The check-out clerk noticed and asked me if I was Catholic; turns out, he himself was not and hadn’t darkened the doorstep of a church in a while. No matter; he was chatty and not at all intimidated. He offered to buy the paper for me, and as he attempted to ring it up, the register refused to cooperate. After three attempts, the words slipped out: it was quite mild as profanity goes, but he rushed to apologize. “That’s OK,” I said, spinning the proverb, “everything’s forgiven with a full discount!” He laughed, then asked for prayers. “Anything in particular?” I ventured. He hesitated. “Oh, I can tell you,” he finally answered, his eyes filling. “I have HIV.”

You can’t say a whole lot in the check-out line, and it’s probably just as well. He managed to say that he was living with someone, then added, “I know the Catholic Church doesn’t approve….” “Well,” I answered, “I don’t agree with the lifestyle, but persons are important, and I pray for persons.” He invited me back and agreed to pray for me, too. Without minimizing the precariousness of their condition, I figure that even if people don’t pray for themselves, if they pray for me, they’re connecting with God. Then I leave it to God to work out the details.

Ash Wednesday 2011,
our Boston chapel

Ash Wednesday, with its prescription of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as an antidote for our self-centeredness and self-righteousness, appeals to donors and beneficiaries both, to re-examine how we love. These practices are meant to hollow out within us a space for God and others, so we can more easily and clearly reset the priorities we opted for when we made our baptismal commitment to follow Christ. When we give, it’s not just because the IRS is looking over our shoulder or because we profit from the world’s esteem. When we receive, it’s without competition or a sense of entitlement. Love partners with repentance to help us recognize our interdependence and to reach out to others with respect and genuine compassion.

In his Lenten message this year, Pope Benedict XVI offers the image of Baptism and the Word of God from the Sunday readings as our reference points for celebrating this season. Love has been the underlying theme of his three enclyclicals. He picks up this thread in his reflections for Lent and guides us into opening ourselves to the charity proclaimed in the Gospel and first infused in us at Baptism for the forgiveness of sin.

Near the conclusion of his letter, Peter sums up his exhortation to love with practical advice on making charity feel at home in our lives: “To the extent that each of you has received a gift, use it to serve one another….so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ…” (1Pt. 4:10-11).

Pictured above, beginning at top: Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, PBM associate children's editor, Sr. Denise Cecilia Benjamin, FSP, marketing director, Anthony Ruggiero, acquisitions associate, Sr. M. Mark Wickenhiser, FSP, Rev. Joseph Mozer, Sr. Fay Josephine Pele, FSP.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New Beginnings for Redwood City Paulines

Five years ago we closed up shop in San Francisco, a magnificent place, but because of economic and demographic reasons, a city that could no longer support a Pauline Books & Media Center. Loathe to leave the archdiocese, we hung out our shingle in a rented space 25 miles south of downtown, in Redwood City, right between San Francisco and San Jose, still within the archdiocese, neighbor to San Mateo and Menlo Park. God seems to have prepared the place for us in this community of almost 75,000, because we actually found housing for six before we even found a retail space.

This year the lease was up, and since our landlord chose not to renegotiate, we hunted for one who did. We found a slightly smaller spot at 935 Brewster St. (94063), just around the corner from our previous location, with an enviable amount of free parking and a monthly bill of about half of what we had been paying.

The response of our friends has been, first, the automatic “Oh no, you’re moving!” then a sigh of relief that we’re still in the neighborhood. The only disappointed customers have been San Franciscans, who watched the prospects of our return to their fair city dwindle even more. Of course, the parking is their consolation.

Letting everyone know about the change began weeks ago with advertising in the local papers and parish bulletins. The men’s group at St. Charles Church in San Carlos, about a five-minute drive north, wasn’t satisfied with passing the word on. February 16, the day of the move, eight of them joined Lou, the maintenance director at our own parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, to haul to the new location furniture, computers, and supplies, as well as stock in English and Spanish. Apparently they were having too much fun. A customer couldn’t resist; he dropped everything and joined in!


They were amazed at how much prep work the sisters and employees had done. They also couldn’t get over how much work there still was. Even so, after a while, all that the sisters had to do was stay out of the way; the men had it under control. God pitched in, too: It was supposed to rain that day, but didn’t. To keep everyone else happy, he made up for it the rest of the week.

The only “crisis” moment came when they couldn’t get the check-out counter through the front door. They had to saw a measly two millimeters off the doorway, then repair it once the counter was in. Don’t tell anyone—you can’t even see it.

Everything was ready for the grand opening on February 22. More photos and comments can be found in the Redwood City PBM’s blog posts of Jan. 21, Feb. 20, and Feb. 23 at

Right now the sisters are in three, with the fourth member, Sr. Leonora, helping her ailing mother in San Diego. One of those three, Sr. Jamie Paula, is also a part time student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, UC Berkeley. That makes the level of their outreach even more remarkable. Besides staffing the PBM Center with two very capable employees, they host three book clubs for a total of roughly 25 readers, a monthly Faith and Film Night with a dozen people, as well as book and media displays for San Francisco and Oakland parishes whenever possible. Local pastors, educators, and parish staff members have been very welcoming. Little by little, the sisters are heading toward introducing the Pauline Cooperator Formation Program to discerning laity, who eventually will be able to take the mission beyond its present scope.

For now, though, the Paulines in Redwood City are committed to integrating their existing initiatives in the life of nearby communities and completing the PBM Center’s renovation. Chief among the needs are painting the exterior, plus what seems utterly basic, yet is unaffordable without financial assistance—a Pauline Books & Media sign. Price tag: $1,100.

At the same time, maintenance on their home is overdue and becoming more acutely felt. This includes the need to make it significantly more energy efficient. For more information, prospective donors can call either Sr. Kathleen or Sr. Jamie at 650-369-4230.

And send out the word! Copy this post, attach it to your Facebook Wall, or e-mail the address to friends in California. No effort is too small and is more than appreciated.

Information and photos from Sr. Jamie Paula Martos, FSP