Friday, August 27, 2010

St. Monica: Patron of Troubled Families

Today we are celebrating the feast day of one of the great women saints, St. Monica, who is also the mother of St. Augustine. I've had occasion to think about St. Monica a lot over the last year, largely because in the Renovacion, we get a lot of requests for prayers from parents with children who are rebellious and difficult. It has occured to me that St. Monica is the perfect saint to intercede for these troubled families.

Artist Janet McKenzie painted St. Monica as a strong African mother and Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first African-American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church and professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in reflecting on this painting, talks about how much St. Monica reminds her of all the strong African American women who have prayed and worked tirelessly to save the bodies and souls of their children and their race ("The Inspiration of St. Monica" in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: the Art of Janet McKenzie, Orbis, 2009). But one could equally think of the strong Latina mothers who have tried to keep their children in school, in church, and out of the pandillas.

St. Monica was born in 333 in Tagaste in North Africa. She married Patricius, who was not Christian and was frequently unfaithful and abusive towards her but later converted to Christianity under her influence and was baptized. The couple had three children: Augustine, Navigius and Perpetua.

From St. Augustine’s writings, we learn that, though he eventually became one of the great saints and doctors of the Catholic Church, he led a dissolute life as a young man, which greatly troubled St. Monica. She prayed for her son’s conversion but his behavior worsened steadily. He joined the Manicheans, a heretical sect, and remained with them for nine years, during which St. Monica refused to have anything to do with him. Her prayers for him, however, did not cease and she was comforted by a dream which reassured her that her son would return to the faith. "Your son is with you," she heard. She told St. Augustine about this dream. He responded that they could easily be together if she gave up her faith. St. Monica retorted, "He didn’t say that I was with you. He said that you were with me!"

In 383, St. Augustine went to Italy with his female companion of many years and their son. St. Monica tried to accompany them but St. Augustine eluded her at Carthage. When she eventually arrived in Rome, he had already left for Milan where she followed him and was befriended by the bishop of the city, St. Ambrose. There, under the bishop’s guidance, St. Monica’s spiritual life and her charitable acts grew. St. Ambrose also influenced St. Augustine. Inspired by the bishop and increasingly impressed by his mother, St. Augustine gave up Manicheism and separated from his partner. He retired to a county house with his mother, his son and several friends. There he converted to Christianity and, on Easter Eve in 387, St. Augustine was baptized in Milan by St. Ambrose. St. Augustine later said to God about St. Monica, his mother: "She saw that You had granted her much more than she had asked for in her tears, prayers, plaints and lamenting." That same year, St. Augustine decided to return to Africa and St. Monica left with him, but she passed away during the journey, dying at Ostia in Italy.

Today, the Association of Christian Mothers “Saint Monica”, founded in Spain in 1987 but active in around 10 countries with over 12,000 mothers, continues St. Monica's work of interceding for wayward children. The mothers pray for both their own children and those of other mothers who have abandoned the faith. Like St. Monica and all of our valiant mothers, they will never give up on our young people.

Prayer to St. Monica

Dear St. Monica,
troubled wife and mother,
many sorrows pierced your heart during your lifetime.
Yet, you never despaired or lost faith.
With confidence, persistence, and profound faith,
you prayed daily for the conversion
of your beloved husband, Patricius,
and your beloved son, Augustine;
your prayers were answered.
Grant me that same fortitude, patience,
and trust in the Lord.
Intercede for me, dear St. Monica,
that God may favorably hear my plea for
[Mention name(s) here]
and grant me the grace to accept His Will in all things,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Oración a Santa Mónica

A ti recurro por ayuda e instrucciones, Santa Mónica, maravillosa ejemplo de firme oración por los niños. En tus amorosos brazos yo deposito mi hijo(a) [mencionar aquí los nombres], para que por medio de tu poderosa intercesión puedan alcanzar una genuina conversión a Cristo Nuestro Señor. A ti también apelo, madre de las madres, para que pidas a nuestro Señor me conceda el mismo espíritu de oración incesante que a ti te concedió. Todo esto te lo pido por medio del mismo Cristo Nuestro Señor. Amén.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Church reform activists get ready for Pope's trip to UK

The Guardian reports that:

"A Catholic speakers' bureau is being launched ahead of next month's papal visit to provide alternative views on controversial church issues such as child abuse, women's ordination, married priests and homosexuality. Catholic Voices for Reform will go head to head with Catholic Voices, an established group which has recruited and trained 20 media-friendly "ordinary" Catholics to articulate traditional church positions before and during Benedict XVI's four-day tour. The new organisation, unlike its older and more conformist counterpart, will call for a wholesale transformation of the papacy and the Vatican. It will offer the media a chance to hear the views of Catholics who are "deeply concerned at the present state of the church"..."

According to one of the constituency groups of Catholic Voices for Reform, Catholic Women's Ordination, the new entity will be launched via a press conference at 10:30 a.m. on September 7th at St. Andrew's Church on Short Street, London.

Reuters also reports that:

"Catholic Women's Ordination (CWO), will have its message plastered on the side of the buses as they travel along key routes, including past Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster, where the pope is set to deliver a speech to Britain's civic society on September 17. The group has paid 15,000 pounds ($23,130) for 15 buses to carry the message "Pope Benedict - Ordain Women Now!" for a month."

"We do not want to be disruptive, but I think the church has got to change or it will not survive," CWO spokeswoman Pat Brown said.

Interestingly, Pat interviewed with the original Catholic Voices (the traditional one) and was rejected. She reported on her experiences and asked the reason for her rejection. She was told: “We wondered about your strongly held views on the ordination of women priests. This project is all about communicating better the Church’s teaching to people unfamiliar with Catholicism rather than opening up debates within the Church.” In other words, we want to pretend that there is no dissent in the Church and independent-minded Catholics need not apply.

From that experience came the impulse to form Catholic Voices for Reform: "We will fill in the gaps that Catholic Voices will not touch and be a group not afraid to tackle the difficult questions. CWO is initiating this media group and spokespeople, from other reform groups, have already agreed to be speakers. This will enable us all to talk on a variety of issues, especially the culture of silence and silencing of the loyal opposition to Vatican views. Clearly this will involve a wide range of issues, sexual abuse, homosexuality, women's position in the church, reform of the priesthood etc. and the present way the RC Church makes decisions and is governed. A call to find again the reforming values of Vatican II will be at the centre of our concerns."

Stay tuned because this trip should get very interesting...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tragedy upon tragedy

UPDATE 1/14/2011: Marco was sentenced today to 31 months in prison minus time already served, in spite of his attorney's statement that Marco had already begun making plans to return permanently to his native Mexico and that his family was planning to join him there. The judge said that he did not believe Marco was a danger to society or at risk of returning again illegally to the U.S. under the circumstances, he said he wasn't taking the traffic accident into consideration at all in the sentencing, but he said he wanted to send a signal to any other immigrant that just managing to keep a clean record and avoid detection for a long period of time doesn't mean they can get away with an immigration law violation. So, a man who has had no felony conviction since his drug smuggling one back in 1992, will be held behind bars at taxpayers' expense while individuals with worse records are being released every day due to overcrowded prison conditions.

Furthermore, Marco will now be turned over to the federal prison system. The judge agreed to pass on the request for Marco to be confined as close to his family as possible but there is no federal prison in Virginia and so his family won't have much chance to see him for the next couple of years. At the end of the 31 months, Marco will still be turned over to ICE for deportation.

No winners in the end. No mercy for Marco's family, no justice for Marco, no peace for Alice's mother, only sadness for all of us.

UPDATE 11/3/2010: Last week, Marco pleaded guilty to the immigration charge in a federal district court in Alexandria. He was returned to his jail cell to await sentencing which is scheduled for January 14, 2011. A number of people from his parish witnessed his plea. Unfortunately, he will be in prison, away from his family and his faith community, for the Christmas season.

UPDATE 8/30/2010: Marco has been moved to a jail that is closer to his real and spiritual family where we can visit him.

Two years ago this summer, a young woman named Alice Swanson died when her bicycle collided with a dump truck being driven by Marco Flores Fuentes at the intersection of R and 20th Streets NW in Washington, DC.

I did not know Alice Swanson. From the news reports, she sounds like the kind of young woman I might have enjoyed meeting. At the time of her death, Ms. Swanson (22) was working as a program associate with the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a not-for-profit association specializing in international education and leadership development. She had graduated from Amherst the previous year and was fluent in Spanish and Arabic. She had worked as an intern with the Middle East Institute, which described her as "a true spirit of friendship". She had also been abroad, teaching English to African refugees in Cairo in 2005 and she won a competitive internship with the Council of Elders of Monimbó in Nicaragua in 2006. As I contemplate Alice's life, I wonder how she would feel about what happened after her death, about the relentless campaign waged by her mother, Ruth Rowan, aided and abetted by two investigative reporters -- Bruce Leshan of WUSA 9 and Kate Ryan of WTOP, to punish the driver of the dump truck, even though Mr. Flores was found by DC police not to be liable for Alice's death. I'm pretty sure that Alice would have been horrified by the hornet's nest of bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment that her mother's campaign has stirred up.

I do know Marco. He is a member of my church, where he attended every Sunday with his wife Carolina and her two daughters to whom he became a father -- as Carolina tells me "more of a father than their real father" -- after the couple married. The older daughter works and is a part-time student at a local community college; the younger daughter just turned 16 and is an honor student at a local high school where she will be starting her junior year this fall. The older daughter came to this country at age 4; the younger daughter was born here and is a U.S. citizen. Both girls speak more English than Spanish and have not known any other life than America. Carolina and Marco have always been active in the church. Before his arrest by ICE last month, which was prompted by the campaign being waged by Mrs. Rowan and her media allies, Marco would help set up for Mass every Sunday as well as coordinate the lectors and the ushers who took up the collection. I am one of the lectors who served under Marco. The couple was also active in the Legion of Mary.

I am writing this column because I am disgusted with how the facts of the accident have been distorted to fit Mrs. Rowan's vindictive agenda and dismayed by the resulting portrayal of Marco as reckless and uncaring. Fortunately, the official final DC Metropolitan Police Department investigative report has been posted on the Internet. Any reasonable person who reads it can conclude, contrary to Mrs. Rowan's assertions, that the police did an adequate job of investigating this tragic accident. Some points:

1. Drug Test: Mrs. Rowan faults the police for not performing a drug test on Mr. Flores. According to the report, "the driver was administered the standardized field sobriety tests and two breath tests by intoxilyzer. The tests revealed no indication of impairment on the part of the driver." In other words, the police were satisfied that Marco was completely sober and in control at the time of the accident. They had no reason to perform any other tests.

2. Negligence: Unfortunately for Mrs. Rowan's theories, there was also no negligence found on the part of Mr. Flores. All witnesses report that Mr. Flores had his right turn signal on. One witness reported that Mr. Flores stopped before completing his right turn in order to yield the right of way to him, and even turned wide to leave safe spacing between the truck and pedestrians standing at the corner. As for speed, "roadway evidence confirmed that the truck was traveling below the posted speed limit at the time of the crash". When he felt Alice's bicycle hit his truck, Marco stopped immediately, got out to investigate, and remained at the scene until the police came. He cooperated with them fully. Based on the statement of witnesses, the police concluded that "the driver had already commenced his turn and was in "command" of the intersection at the time the bicyclist approached." On the other hand, several witnesses reported that Alice seemed to be going too fast on her bike. Alice should have slowed down, paid attention to her surroundings and yielded. Had she done so, she would be alive today.

3. Blind spot: Mrs. Rowan somehow still seems to fault Mr. Flores for not seeing Alice and yet the police report states quite plainly, as a result of a reconstruction of the accident which they performed in December 2008 using an identical vehicle voluntarily supplied by KMG Hauling, that there is no way Mr. Flores could have seen Alice. "At the area of impact, the bicyclist is not visible in the upper, larger sideview mirror. The uppermost portion of the bicyclist's head is visible in the smaller lower mirror and would be visible only for a split second as the bicyclist continued forward and the truck continued turning."

4. "He ran over my daughter": Mrs. Rowan continues to assert that her daughter died because Mr. Flores ran over her, as if it were something deliberate. The police report tells a different story: "The location of the impact reveals that the bicyclist was not riding within the bicycle lane and that the bicyclist struck the side of the trash truck in the area of the passenger door, near the step just behind the right front tire. The bicycle's impact with the trash truck would have caused the bicycle to stop forward motion and throw the rider from the bike and into the path of the right front tire as it continued to turn the corner."

The police recommended that no charges be brought in the incident which their report largely appears to attribute to Ms. Swanson's failure to observe proper speed and care in operating her bicycle. Understandably, it's difficult for a mother who idolized her daughter and now grieves for her to hear this verdict and accept it.

Ms. Swanson's family went on to file a civil suit against KMG Hauling and Mr. Flores which was settled out of court without any admission of liability in the death. The company's willingness to settle spared both parties the need to relive the tragic events of that day. While the settlement was not supposed to be disclosed, various sources on the Web state that it was settled for $5 million. Carolina has never told me the amount, only that it was a substantial sum of money. The family assumed that the case was now closed and Marco, who had not committed any violation, went back to work at KMG Hauling where his supervisors were satisifed with both his driving and his work ethic.

However, Mrs. Rowan was not satisfied. She wanted someone to blame for her daughter's death and continued to investigate Mr. Flores. She found that, even though he held a valid commercial driver's license at the time of the accident, he had previously been convicted on a drug smuggling charge (Mrs. Rowan takes care not to specify the nature of the drug charge to bolster her argument about the drug test), that he had served time in prison and been deported. At last, she had a way to get even. If she could not interest the DC Metropolitan Police, she could create a fuss and get ICE to pick Mr. Flores up and charge him with re-entering the country illegally after already having been deported. She could get him re-arrested and re-deported. She hides this desire for vengeance behind the pious-sounding pretext of getting a dangerous driver off the road. But remember, the police found no evidence that Mr. Flores acted negligently or carelessly or that he caused Alice Swanson's death. “I don’t have anything against immigrants. But it seems it was the only way to get him off the road,” Mrs. Rowan told WUSA 9 following Mr. Flores' arrest last month. She said: "This person is dangerous and I kept thinking, how will I feel if I don't say something and he kills someone else." It makes a great soundbite but, Mrs. Rowan, it's time to face facts: Marco did not kill your daughter. Alice's own inattentiveness and reckless operation of her bicycle killed Alice. And it created a tragedy with which an innocent man and his family will have to live for the rest of their lives. Getting Marco deported, breaking up his family, and jeopardizing his daughters' future, will not raise Alice back to life or bring peace to your heart, Mrs. Rowan.

Now, Marco sits behind bars in the Rappahannock Regional Jail, far away from his wife and daughters and church, waiting to possibly be separated from them permanently. Deprived of his income, the family can no longer afford to live where they have been living. Carolina is desperately trying to find a smaller place for herself and the girls, but one that will be near enough to her youngest daughter's high school so her life will not be further disrupted. She cries frequently, as she did on my shoulder during the charismatic healing Mass last Saturday where she came to ask God to work a miracle for her husband and family. Her youngest mopes and has lost her appetite due to being depressed about her missing father. The jail doesn't even allow real visitation, only videoconferencing.

Because of one woman's inability to forgive and let go, a tragedy is multiplying over and over again, a seemingly endless web of sorrow spinning out from one unfortunate accident. Every day I pray to God for everyone involved and ask for this cycle to end, and I keep coming back to the same question: What would Alice do?

Photo: A ghost bicycle that marked the spot of the accident.

The Catholic Church and the Gypsies

UPDATE 8/27/2010: More members of the Catholic hierarchy have weighed in on the question of the deportation of the Roma from France. Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, told French news agency I.Media that in deploring the deportations, the Church was not getting into politics. "When one defends human rights, when one talks about the respect for the dignity of persons, in particular women and children, one is not getting into politics but into pastoral care." Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris, told Europe-1 radio that he planned to meet with France's interior minister to tell him what Roman Catholics think, "and to remind him that there are certain lines that must not be crossed."

As France continues its controversial campaign to repatriate foreign-born Gypsies, Pope Benedict XVI called for greater acceptance of cultural differences and urged parents to teach their children tolerance. Speaking in French to pilgrims gathered in the courtyard of the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo Aug. 22, the pope said the day's Scriptures were "an invitation to learn how to accept legitimate differences among human beings, just like Jesus came to unite men and women from every nation and every language." After praying the Angelus, he urged families to teach tolerance. "Dear parents, may you be able to educate your children about universal fraternity," he said in French.

The approximately 8,000 Catholic Gypsies gathered at Lourdes for their 34th annual pilgrimage (photo), welcomed this statement of support from the Pope. While exact numbers are not available, it is estimated that the vast majority of French Gypsies are Catholic. Most Gypsies in Romania, the country to which the French government is repatriating them, are orthodox, though evangelical protestant denominations are making significant inroads into the Gypsy communities in both countries.

The French government's policy of destroying Gypsy settlements and deporting their residents has come under strong criticism from the nation's Catholic clergy and hierarchy. Msgr. Christophe Dufour, archbishop of Aix and Arles witnessed one of the raids personally and issued the following statement:

"Wishing to meet the poorest people, as I always do when visiting communities in my diocese, I was speaking with some Roma families, when a large group of police arrived. Some of the caravans were destroyed. I'm not blaming the police who were obeying orders. But I am demanding respect for people and their dignity, within the framework of French law. If crimes have been committed, they should be punished. However security speeches that might lead one to believe that there are inferior people are not acceptable. These people, who are European citizens, have lived peacefully here for the most part, some for many years. With Secours Catholique, we have organized a program of literacy and integration. In the spirit of peace, I am ready to meet with authorities and elected officials to come up with solutions, possibly arbitration."

Msgr. Raymond Centène, bishop of Vannes, and Msgr Claude Schockert, bishop of Belfort-Montbéliard, who are responsible for ministry to migrants and traveling folk for the French Bishops' Conference also deplored the hasty generalizations and stigmatizing to which the Gypsies have been subjected.
In perhaps the most dramatic rejection of the government's policy from a French clergyman, Fr. Arthur Hervet (photo above, with a Roma family), an Assumptionist priest who has been working with the Roma for the last four years in Lille, returned the National Order of Merit medal he had been awarded by Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux some four years earlier. Fr. Hervet told La Croix that "the return of my Order of Merit medal is a gesture of despair in the face of an avalanche of unsustainable decisions since the Roma are officially regarded as guilty and troublemakers by the President of the Republic."

As a result of this and other policies, President Sarkozy's approval rating among Catholic voters in his country has declined precipitously from 61% in August 2009 to 47% in July 2010. And the headline of an editorial in yesterday's Le Monde summed up the situation well: "Nicolas Sarkozy et les catholiques: le divorce?"