WASHINGTON (CNS) — Sometimes addressing human needs means having the ability to recognize the unique suffering of women. Other times, it means being patient when someone is putting little green soldiers on the altar.
Those were two of the lessons delivered during the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington Jan. 23-26. It went on as scheduled despite the onslaught of Winter Storm Jonas that hit the Washington region.
Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, knew just how to greet the conference’s blizzard-depleted audience Jan. 24: “Good morning, faithful remnant!”
Many speakers and attendees had to cancel, but the conference moved on with the help of video links and livestreamed sessions.
This year’s theme, “Called to Live Mercy in Our Common Home,” took its inspiration from Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si'” encyclical of 2015, which addressed protection of the environment and worldwide economic inequality.
Mentioning the pope’s often-repeated warning of a “throwaway culture,” Reyes added, “If we’re going to change this culture, it’s going to have to be through witness.”
Auxiliary Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, New York, reminded the gathering, in his keynote remarks Jan. 23: “The work of charity and the Gospel, proclaiming the Gospel, is messy. And part of learning how to deal with the mess is, it’s part of the growth.
“Christ is the face of mercy, but we’re the face of Christ, right, so we’re the face of mercy, too.”
He gave examples from his own ministry.
“At my first assignment, there was this person who was mentally ill. And so the person would write these long, long letters, gibberish and stuff. He went to every daily Mass and disrupted every daily Mass. And I think God, on purpose, makes sure that every Christian community has a couple of them,” he continued.
“This person once put little green soldiers on the altar. And I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this. They didn’t teach us this in the seminary, trust me. So what’ll I do? So I just let this person be,” Bishop Perez said.
“It was tough. It got everybody on edge all the time,” he said. “But I learned early on in that experience that sometimes doing the work of the Lord is mercy. It’s mercy. And there aren’t easy answers.”
In Bishop Perez’s first pastorate, “there was a perpetual adoration chapel where the homeless would come and sleep at night. All the time I was at that place as pastor … this woman basically lived in that little chapel. She slept there every night. She sometimes screamed at statues. But she was always there.”
The reaction of other parishioners, he observed, “was interesting. Some people helped her, supported her, and I had a pretty big contingent of people who were in my face about this all the time, (saying), ‘This is not a homeless shelter, Monsignor. This is a place of reparation.’
“And I was thinking about her today because one night, it was a lot like this,” the bishop recalled. “Already there was seven or eight inches of snow out there.”
Following the Mass, “this lady gets up, and this couple gets up, and they said, ‘Monsignor, she shouldn’t be there. What you’re doing is wrong. She needs to get out of there now.'”
His response to the couple was: “So what time do you want me to drop her over at your house? Because you don’t want me to tell this human being (I can do it) because you don’t like her.”
“We don’t do it as a church because we’re nice people,” said Bishop Perez, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for Hispanic Affairs and a member of the Subcommittee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
“That’s not why the church has that preferential option for the poor. The church doesn’t do it because it’s nice. (Pope) Benedict taught us that it is implicit in our Christian faith,” he added.
On Jan. 24, Dominican Sister Kathleen McManus, who teaches systematic theology at the University of Portland, Oregon, called the global suffering of women “an ethical imperative of the church.”
“Wherever human beings suffer violence, poverty, discrimination … the women among them bear the brunt of that suffering as they struggle to maintain life in death-creating circumstances,” as well as suffering sexual violence, she observed.
At the margins of society, “there Christ is waiting to be known, and to make known the path of salvation,” she said.
Sister McManus compared the suffering of women in Third World countries to the account in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, in which Jesus healed a crippled woman so she could stand straight.
As examples of “hunched-overness,” she cited women who “procure water for their families as the expense of education and their development. Women in India who are pregnant with female children who are unwanted because of the need to provide a dowry.” Abuse from their male relatives includes torture and forced abortions, she noted.
In Luke’s account, “Jesus is teaching, and suddenly that woman appears. Really? Perhaps she was always there.”
The attention she receives from the synagogue official “is witheringly dismissive,” and he represents “the definition of fundamentalism in any religion.”
She compared that to patriarchal theology. “To say that our church is embedded in a patriarchal epistemology … is, I think, to state the obvious. It’s not conscious, it’s not intentional, and it’s not all men’s fault. It’s the result of centuries of conditioning.”
Turning professor, Sister McManus referenced eco-feminist epistemology, which teaches, “Experience begins in our embodied selves.”
“Feminism is about working for the mutual relationship, the equality and the interdependence of women and men. …”In ‘Laudato Si’,’ Pope Francis emphasizes over and over that everything is connected, everything is related.”
Jesus, she explained, “in his parables and his images of God’s reign, is constantly drawing lessons from the concrete realities of everyday life.”
The woman in Luke’s Gospel was “in her sacred space of worship. We know it was the power of divine light that sustained her throughout her steadfast resistance. She embodies in her being the glory of God.”
The Catholic Social Ministry Gathering is organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development in collaboration with several other USCCB departments and 16 national Catholic organizations, including Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors, the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators and the Catholic Labor Network.