Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Cost of Christmas

We can be real party poopers. On Christmas Eve a prominent retailer’s commercial proclaimed, “Today Christmas is over.” Now, with hundreds of my sisters serving people in Pauline Books & Media Centers and exhibits the world over, I’m not going to get cynical about retail. There is absolutely nothing shameful or even non-ministerial about selling. But if that’s the extent of our Christmas, then I guess midnight December 25 really is the end of the road.

Fortunately, despite the way many of us Christians live, Christianity has the antidote to such spiritual malnutrition. The liturgical calendar—for those Christians who follow one—serves up a feast of days and even weeks of holiday fare. Because Advent in the Catholic calendar lasted four full weeks this year, Christmas will last only two weeks. Almost every day of the octave, though, that is, the eight days following Christmas Day, ranks as a feast day, with music, lights, the Gloria, and whatever else prolongs in prayer and life our contemplation and celebration of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. The awe expressed in the liturgy of the Word at Mass is palpable, as it highlights one or another aspect of this mystery. Yes, Christians, and especially Catholics, know how to party. I think it comes partly from our Jewish ancestry and partly from being an incarnational people bound for resurrection.

If we look closely at the Word, though, and even at the persons or events we commemorate, we see this week riddled with anguish and martyrdom: Stephen, the proto- (or first and model) martyr, John the Apostle and Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and Thomas Becket. In his homily Monday, Fr. Paul Aveni, one of our Boston chaplains, commented that in our day, “most would find it hard to bear the true cost of Christmas.” That cost, he remarked, is symbolized in the cross. The salvation definitively won in the paschal event of cross and resurrection is what gave Christmas meaning and purpose. He called our modern holiday “a sanitary celebration. That Baby was supposed to shake us up, to challenge us to fully follow him, so we can celebrate these eight days with truth.” Embracing such a sign of contradiction is the entrance fee.

That embrace was almost crushing for the scores of Catholics and other Christians who now mourn the violent deaths of their nearly 40 loved ones in Nigeria, victims of the Christmas Day terrorist bombing of two churches near Abuja, the capital. We haven’t heard yet from our sisters there, but undoubtedly they are intent on ministering from their book and media center in Abuja to those most affected in that area.

The question is not, “How do you determine who is most affected?” but, “How does it affect us?” These brothers and sisters of ours in humanity and faith have been targeted for destruction by militant anti-Christians. Nor is this an isolated case. In his insightful blog, All Things Catholic, Vatican based, NCR correspondent, John Allen, reported last week, “According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Germany, fully 80 percent of all acts of religious intolerance in the world are directed at Christians. A recent symposium organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe asserted that 200 million Christians are currently the victims of violence, oppression or harassment.”

What am I going to do about it?

This is the question Sr. Jane R. Livingston, FSP, asked herself a little over three years ago in the aftermath of a horrific attack on Catholics in the poverty stricken state of Orissa, India, south of Bengal. In telling me the story she said, “I asked, Why aren’t we in the U.S. doing something? Why is this not a priority for the U.S., the ‘champion of human rights?’” Her response was, I am the U.S.; I am not helpless. She then followed this realization with her powerful video, Orissa Burning, produced that Labor Day afternoon in Charleston, SC, with the help of a local video editor friend, plus photos from a priest-friend in Orissa. They uploaded it onto YouTube under her new brand channel, ProtectHumanRights.

Sr. Jane tried to get it exposure and notoriety, at least locally. She was told flat out by the secular media in Charleston, “If there’s no local connection, if the nun in the video, for instance, is not a member of your community, this is not news. Nobody is going to care.” In vain she countered, “If you’re withholding information, how will they know they should care?” It was an experience of what she had known in theory: the media determine what is news and what is not. I understand; I myself tried to bring it to the attention of a New York based Catholic periodical and didn’t even receive the courtesy of a reply.

Milan, though, did notice. After spotting it online, the organizers of the Sabaoth International Film Festival contacted her, asking to show it. Amnesty International would give a presentation. At her suggestion, they also included in the event representatives from Paoline, our publishing house there. But it was the UN that shed “enough world light” to get the gears of government turning. After viewing Orissa Burning, Pauline Cooperator Margie Skeels, who works at the UN, managed to get Franciscan International to make a presentation there. After a complicated process, the result was twofold: the European community, especially Britain, began to raise consciousness and funds, and the government of India opened an investigation, accepting the study of an independent group in India and implementing some of its recommendations.

Pakistani wife and mother,
Asia Bibi, confined to wretched
prison conditions and a death
sentence for speaking out
against Islam's attitudes toward
women in 2010. 
There have been some minor, but hopeful, improvements. People who stayed have begun to rebuild, and a new church in Orissa was just dedicated. Much remains to be done to build peace. Just last week, a popular Christian catechist/activist was killed, apparently because of his legal defense of the victims in the 2008 massacre, the third such leader killed there this year. In Pakistan over 2,500 police were present to protect Christian churches during the Christmas weekend. “Christians, who represent about 3% of the population, are particularly discriminated against and subjected to abuse and violence in Pakistan. As reported to Fides by official sources, over the past five years, nearly 5,000 people have been victims of attacks by fundamentalist groups in Pakistan: a quarter of the victims are Christians. (Agenzia Fides, Dec. 23, 2011).

No one seems to believe that matters will improve substantially anytime soon. The reason? Indifference. “If this were happening to any other religious community,” John Allen writes in last Friday’s All Things Catholic, “the outcry almost certainly would be deafening….In the Christian world, especially in the West, the basic response instead seems to be silence.

“Analysts of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have often speculated that one difficulty with Israeli policy is that Jews have a hard time thinking of themselves as a majority. Perhaps the equal-and-opposite problem on the Christian side is that we’re incapable of seeing ourselves as a minority, even when we are.”

In his even more detailed article of November 18, he draws attention to the deplorable ecclesial situation in Pakistan and Iraq, goading us into taking personal and communal responsibility as a nation and as a Church in this nation for addressing the problem:
“Whatever one makes of the rights and wrongs of the war, the fact is that American policy helped create a situation in which Iraq has lost two-thirds of its Christian population in just the last two decades.”

So what can we do?
1. Stay informed via the road less traveled, that is, through second or third tier news agencies. Missionary congregation web sites are very reliable. Two reputable independent news sources are the Union of Catholic Asian News and Fides News Agency (Agenzia Fides).
2. Bring it to church. The Church in Charleston got motivated. The rector of the Cathedral preached on it one Sunday and put the link to Orissa Burning in the bulletin. Especially if you’re on the parish staff, why not write a short prayer for Nigeria on the parish Web site or bulletin, or for Sunday’s General Intercessions? If you’re on staff or on the parish council, you could plan for a presentation about the issue, first to the staff, then to the parish. Let your creativity and love find a way.
3. Network even if you think people have no connections; you never can tell where one contact will lead. Pass this blog article on to those you know.
4. Pray. So that those you pray for may not remain a statistic, but become real to you, imagine the people who live through this. Put faces to them. Think of their families, their worries, and their faith. What if you had lost your family? What prayerful compassion would you want?
5. Listen to the cries of humanity. Don’t be afraid to ask God why he lets such things happen. “When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed” (Mother Teresa). Ask God for mercy, protection, and opportunity to serve.
6. Parents and teachers: Introduce the issue, especially to high school and college students, without traumatizing younger students. Introduce the theme of the globality of the Church. They’re becoming aware of the world around them and want to use their energy and creativity to make a difference. Teach them about missionary activity. Two college students in Charleston, who frequent a young adult social/spiritual group at our PBM center, went to Orissa to educate children.  They now hold responsible positions in the diocese for youth ministry.
7. Write to your bishop and those who represent you in Congress. It’s not too late to ask them to act on behalf of those who suffer. Send them the links to John Allen’s articles.
“With deep sorrow I heard the news of the attacks that, once again this year on the day of Jesus’ birth, inflicted grief and suffering on some churches in Nigeria. I wish to manifest my sincere and affectionate nearness to the Christian community and to all those who were struck by this absurd gesture, and I encourage prayers to the Lord for the numerous victims....In this moment I want to strongly repeat once more: Violence is a way that only leads to suffering, destruction, and death; respect, reconciliation, and love are the only way to reach peace” (Benedict XVI, Angelus Message, Dec. 26, 2011).

This is what Christmas costs.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate being able to learn about this complex issue. Thanks


Your turn! Share your good word with us.