Saturday, January 27, 2007

We Sons of Bevy

It's part of a bigger story I haven't yet told, but on making my first public appearance in this gig, I found myself on the apron of Mary's House, surrounded by a flock of shepherds.

Just outside the circle stood Bishop Edward Cullen of Allentown, who I knew from my boyhood as vicar-general of the local church which served as my first template of, well, everything. As it'd been awhile, I knew I had to pop over and say hello. So, breaking through the mini-gaggle, I went up to Cullen and asked if he remembered me.

I'd grown about a foot-and-a-half since I last saw him, so it took just a tad of prompting, but he did. "Oh, my God," he said. "I remember you when you were this high," putting his hand up to his stomach, "coming up to see the cardinal."

"He's so proud of you," Cullen told me. And at that, I could've wept on the spot, and almost did.

A lot of us in this church are blessed to owe the inspiration for our work, what we know, what we've seen, and the things we're able to do to an extraordinary person (or, if we're really lucky, a handful of them) whose excellence, encouragement and example in our formative period calls us to a level of love, belief and commitment we strive to imitate in spite of our limitations. For me, that figure remains Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

It was on Bevilacqua's elevation to the college of cardinals 16 years back that my ecclesiastical journey has its roots. The greatest mentor I could've ever wished for, it was the cardinal who invited me at a young age into the life of the church, who gave me the keys and the vantage to explore it, to learn its ways, to see the best of its people, its work and its life, and in knowing it, to fall in love with it. Ever the teacher through the years since, what I knew first and know best I learned in his classroom, and if at the end of my days I'm able to process, integrate and live out but the half of what he imparted to me by word and example, I'll have succeeded, and I know that whatever good I've been able to do here is but the yield of His Eminence's encouragement and the love for all this he instilled in me.

One of the great blessings of this experience has been to realize that I'm far from alone in this. Every time I mention him, the e.mails seem to come out of the woodwork, each with a story, an experience, a moment from some point of his 58 years of priesthood where the cardinal taught or gave the writer something that's stayed with them long past the time it took to polish that effective homily, go that extra mile, spend that added bit of time with someone who needed it. Despite the passage of time, the continuing effect of each stands as testament to the big power of little kindnesses and a ministry of presence whose blessings and impact have remained long after they've been given.

I'll admit that few things make me happier than when the little flashes of the things I've learned from him come out in me, and others, as they sometimes do, pick them up. When word of one policy proposal was coming down the pike, I called a friend and let my inner canonist go off, saying that there was nothing in the law that allowed a subset of the church to move forward with the plan in question.

"Good God," he said, "you really are one of Bevilacqua's, aren't you?"

On another instance, sitting around a table with a group of clerics, I babbled on for a bit about how important it was for us to not lose sight of that "good" humanity at the heart of the church. We only hear that "the church is a human institution" when things go bad, but the more important, the more amazing thing is that the church is human when things are good, and the beauty in that lies in the fact that we're able to reach beyond the limitations of our nature and, in touching the face of God, we bring him to others, all the good stuff.

One of the cardinal's seminary students was there. And when he said "You really are his student," again, I could've sobbed on the spot, and almost did.

There are three aspects where the Bevy experience plays out most in my ecclesial mind and reflects itself in these pages. The first is that appointments matter -- after all, that he was my archbishop as I was coming up was nothing short of a stroke of Providence; if it'd been another, things could've panned out quite differently and I'd likely be pushing paper in a suburban office park right now. The second is that, in the life of the church, our continuing curiosity, formation, and education matters, whether we're clerical or lay, whether it's in the disciplines, the spiritual life, the news or the current trends, because it's through keeping up with things outside our particular situations that we maintain communion of mind with its life, our ability to serve and serve well is enhanced, and we become ever more able to actually think with the church, as opposed to being ahead of or, worse, behind the curve that its life and movement impels us to be mindful of.

And the last of these is arguably the most important: there is nothing so life-giving, nothing that opens more doors to good things in the work, than a bishop who says "yes," both in pushing himself and in helping others. Not only does it encourage those around him and call them to a higher standard, it simply enables beautiful things to happen.

In his episcopal ministry, the cardinal always had a tinge of aversion to the "Ecce Sacerdos Magnus," which for the three decades prior to his arrival here was, for all intents and purposes, his predecessor's theme song (along with "How Great Thou Art"). However, there's a line in it that fits perfectly, both for what he was able to entrust to so many of us and for what his years of "yes" have been able to accomplish: "Ideo iureurando fecit illum Dominus crescere in plebem suam" -- "Thus by an oath, the Lord made him grow for his people." It was his oath, his "yes," and his "growth," that gave life, growth, strength and hope to more of God's people than the Boss himself could probably realize.

It wasn't for nothing that my letter to him on the golden jubilee of his priesthood began with that line, and that in the days when these pages were a nightmare in the mind of God (let alone the hierarchy), the foundation of what you see here day in and day out was crafted and honed over years of conversations and correspondence with the first reader and sounding board of my musings on things ecclesiastical.

For my part, words fail to explain all this as it deserves, but the best nutshell is found in a recent interview, where I said that "After my father," the cardinal remains "the most influential male figure in my life."

I still owe him a long, long note and the recounting of all the tributes to him that I've received,
but he remains beside me and with me everyday, in my thoughts, my prayers, and in my heart.

All this is a long introduction to a similar testimony sent my way by one of the Big Guy's prize students and truest heirs.

Another of the Bevy alums I've found along this path is Msgr Ronald Marino, director of the Catholic Migration Office of the diocese of Brooklyn. Thirty-five years ago, the Brooklyn Migration Office -- the first of its kind in the church -- was founded, and its leadership entrusted to the then-Fr Bevilacqua. Himself the son of immigrants who struggled to build a life in this country for themselves and their ten children, the founding director emblematically went back to school in his early 50s to earn a law degree, so he could be a more effective advocate for those who came to the church's embrace in need and, in reflection of the Lord's mandate, could further give of himself that they might have life and have it in abundance.

Of all his many postings at every level of the church universal, I'd dare to say that leading the Migration Office was the job the cardinal loved the most. Despite his subsequent appointments in the Brooklyn curia as chancellor and, in 1980, auxiliary bishop, Bevilacqua remained its director until departing his hometown as bishop of Pittsburgh in 1983.

Brought aboard by the cardinal as his assistant, Marino just marked his 25th anniversary in the office and has continued our mentor's cherished work in the director's chair since 1991. This piece will soon run in the pages of the august Brooklyn Tablet. With a grateful heart, however, I'm honored to share it here first.


What I Learned After 25 Years
By Rev. Msgr. Ronald T. Marino
Vicar for Migrant and Ethnic Apostolates

I didn’t really want to work in the Catholic Migration Office. I was a very happy parish priest for nine years already and, considering the fact that I studied for years to be a parish priest, I didn’t feel prepared for a specialized ministry. I had just finished graduate school with a shiny new Master’s Degree in Counseling which I worked very hard to obtain, and I was only in my second parish assignment. Then I got the phone call.

Msgr. Anthony Bevilacqua, the Chancellor, wanted to see me. He had been my teacher in the seminary, the Director of the Catholic Migration Office, and a friend. He told me that “the Bishop wants…” me to work with him in the Catholic Migration Office on a full time basis. I was surprised and flattered, but I said “no.” I had no interest in immigration and I loved being a parish priest. He gave me one of his special looks with eyebrows raised all the way up his forehead, and said: “As for working in a 'job' the Bishop wants this and you promised obedience. As for not knowing about immigration, the immigrants themselves will teach you everything you need to know.” I began the next month.

The profound words of Cardinal Bevilacqua never left my mind. For over 25 years now I have been ministering in various capacities in the Migration Office of the Diocese and learning some of the most important lessons I could ever learn as a priest from the immigrants themselves. Here are some of the things I have learned:

• The Catholic Church stands very tall and has always done so on the issue of immigration.
• The Church views immigration as a moral issue not a political one. This has tremendous implications for what we say and do as Catholics, and what we ought to do.
• Apart from those who come here for studies, most immigrants do not really want to come here to stay. Their dream is to work hard, send money home to their children and families, and go home one day to reap the rewards of having worked hard and honestly for their families.
• Immigrants hear important things with their eyes.
• Throughout our American history, immigrants have always been blamed for every problem which exists, while most of them only work hard and want safety and security for themselves and their families like the rest of us.
• The presence of immigrants in our parishes has been the cause of constant renewal, change, and creativity in our ministry.
• Many immigrants make great sacrifices for the good of their children: leaving everything behind, often risking their lives to get here, accepting work much lower than their education qualifies them for in order to survive, and will work two and three jobs if necessary. This is not to become rich, but for the children whose pictures they carry in their pockets that they hope to see again one day.
• Migration is a complex event involving economics, sociology, psychology and theology. Through the experience of migration immigrants are in the process of finding meaning in their lives. This is theology in practice.
• While many were not the “best” Catholics in their own country, when they come here they rediscover their faith and hold onto it as their only consolation in their struggles.
• Not every immigrant comes from poverty. In fact, the poorest of the poor cannot afford to move at all.
• Immigrants do not compete with Americans for jobs, they compete with other immigrants.

These are only some of the lessons I have learned. I will write about others in the future. For now, let me explain some of these.

The Catholic Church’s position is based on moral considerations. Pope John Paul II once said: “The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership in the human family.” (October 1985) The Church does not ask first if a person is legal or illegal but rather looks at the immigrant as a human person. This is how the Church looks at everyone.

Therefore we believe that it is morally wrong for families to be separated because they cannot survive living together in their own country. It is morally wrong for people to die everyday in the desert because there are no laws available to allow people to come to work for employers who seek them. It is wrong to imprison asylum seekers without due process of law. It is wrong to prevent family members from joining each other because of tremendous multi-year backlogs in paper processing by a broken immigration system. It is morally wrong to force people to live in fear and hiding while using their labor openly without fear of punishment for the employer. It is wrong to continue to allow people to use their life’s savings to be smuggled into the US by unscrupulous trafficking. It is wrong to continue to allow people to profit from undocumented immigrants by posing as attorneys, selling them false and worthless documents, and disappearing soon thereafter. It is wrong for landlords to allow immigrants to live in horrendous conditions because they know that the immigrants are too scared to report them. The human face of the immigration debate turns the issue inside out.

For those who think that immigration is a law and order problem, I can assure you that every single undocumented immigrant would give anything to be here legally if our laws could only be reformed enough to address the human situation of immigration not just the political situation. This includes addressing the root causes of immigration as well as the situation here in the United States. People have a right to live in dignity in the place where they were born.

For those who see immigration as an economic problem, it is important to know that undocumented immigrants alone have contributed over $ 7 billion dollars into the Social Security system and over $ 1 billion more into Medicare and they will not see one penny of this money. Yes, many pay taxes. And the money which they send home each year is often more than our government’s foreign aid programs. Mexico alone in 2005 received over $ 18 billion dollars from immigrants here. This money has taken care of children and the elderly and revived many local communities more than local government social service programs can do by themselves. (UN Dept. of Public Information).

However, we must be clear. The Catholic Church strongly opposes the breaking of law and the illegal entry of people into our country except for reasons of survival. The Church recognizes the sacred right of every nation to control its borders and to establish laws to allow admission into the country. We are not in favor of “letting everybody in” as some people would say. But once they are here, the Church has a responsibility to assist those in need.

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict wrote that: "…charitable acts define the basic nature of the Church.” When Jesus, describing the last judgment, said: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” He was making it clear that this is one of the hallmarks of a true Christian. It is a simple fact that the Church is bound to obey what the Lord teaches. I am proud to say that the Diocese of Brooklyn has made heroic efforts to obey the Lord’s command. When I go to immigrant celebrations in parishes, when I hear our American priests and religious trying hard to learn and speak foreign languages, when I see our Bishops speaking out forcefully on immigration and even raising money to fund our own programs, when I watch my staff each day using all their talents and professional training to serve immigrants with the best we can offer, when I travel around the country giving speeches or attending meetings and I see how much respect there is for Brooklyn’s immigrant ministry from every corner, then I am more and more convinced that we are truly obeying the Lord’s command to welcome the stranger. Bishop Daily used to like to quote the Lord when He said: “By their fruits you will know them.”

As the Congress of the United States prepares to take on the issue of immigration reform, it is important to understand the debate as a Catholic should. Many things will be said about national security and terrorism protection, but the real debate on these issues concerns intelligence issues and defense matters, not the thousands of people who work here because we need them, or the thousands who want to be with their families again, or the thousands who are fleeing hunger, oppression and violence in their own countries to live in dignity and freedom. Immigration is not a national security issue. It is part and parcel of our American history. It is about people like those in almost every American family who came here only to provide a better existence for themselves and their children.

Cardinal Bevilacqua was right again. I have learned many things from the immigrants themselves and I take great comfort in knowing that I am obeying what is asked of me. I believe that God’s plan includes those who risk it all to leave their homelands, and I believe that His plan also includes the years of service I have been privileged to offer those who come here.