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Monday, March 18, 2013

A New Era in Social Services?

There are two new church leaders on the world scene: Patriarch John X of Antioch and now Pope Francis I of Rome.  Coming from different parts of the world and different churches that are undergoing entirely different experiences (the Church of Antioch is experiencing direct persecution by the ‘Free Syrian Army’ and hostility throughout the Moslem world, while the Church of Rome has experienced an increasing secular antagonism), one would assume they would have different message and dissimilar priorities.

Here are a couple of pull quotes which demonstrate that such is not the case, the first from John X’s first official statement and the second about Francis I from a Roman Catholic site:

Our institutions belong to the Church, that is to the believers. They are for the good of the believers and are not supposed to be for the individual interests. They are part of the vineyard of the Lord who says in the Gospel, "son, go today and work in my vineyard" (Matt 21 : 28). This blessed work is addressed to our people who need assistance, our youth who are working to build their future, our elderly who want to spend the rest of their lives in happiness and bliss, our orphans that they may grow in an atmosphere of tenderness, love, and stability. The aim of investing in our institutions is not for material gain or economic growth; it is primarily spiritual: it is a service to our neighbour.

Today, more than ever before, human beings are falling under the pressure of harsh circumstances, conflicts, economic interests, world commerce and technological change. Today, human beings are dealt with as machines, not as persons. This fact increases their spiritual toils and their ethical problems. Social life has changed into a life of isolation. 

We have therefore to offer a new and correct vision in addressing the affairs of this world, by working on improving the administration of the Patriarchal properties and lands, by developing their investments, by keeping all of the possessions within the framework of our religious law, harmonizing its administration with the expectations of the Church and the welfare of the community. 

And in order for our philanthropic institutions, schools, university, and hospitals, to shine with the divine light, that is always present in them, each of these institutions, be it small or large, should seek to have a clear vision of its service. It should define its raison d'etre, and have a clear plan of action leading to the realization of its goals according to a well studied methodology elaborated by specialists. The specialists are expected to gather the necessary data, to analyze it, to explain it, and to crystallize it in a manner that it can serve everyone, that we may repeat with the Apostle, "therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as the wise" (Eph 5: 14). 

Pope Francis said in his homily that mercy, is the key lesson and the Good News proclaimed this Sunday. “Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message,” he said.
Speaking without a prepared text, Pope Francis said: “If we are like the Pharisee before the altar, who said: "Thank you, Lord, for not making me like all the other men, and especially not like that fellow at the door, like that publican…,’ well, then we do not know the heart of the Lord, and we shall not ever have the joy of feeling this mercy.”

“It is not easy trust oneself to the mercy of God, because His mercy is an unfathomable abyss – but we must do it!”

Pope Francis continued: “He has the ability to forget... He kisses you, He embraces you, and He says to you: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now, on, sin no more.’ Only that counsel does He give you.”

Pope Francis concluded: “We ask for the grace of never tiring of asking pardon, for He never tires of pardoning.”

Both hierarchs are talking about service.  Sound revolutionary?  In the modern era, yes.

Here in the US ‘charity hospitals’ and other free services that were once the staples of large religious communities have been drowned out by state-run facilities that had the deep pockets that only taxation can have.  Government enterprises made charities ‘redundant,’ and so church-run facilities got squeezed out of the picture through state competition and the costly hand of regulation.

Basically, politicians love to curry favor by handing out goodies and telling everyone how much better they do things.  There is only one problem: it’s not working.

The state enterprise of social services is necessarily secular, yet a great deal of human wounding is spiritual.  Addictions and profound moral distress cannot be treated by a secular institution.  There are limits to what non-religious institutions can do.  So, rather than treating problems with medicine and prayer, which the religious charities once did, doctors up the doses and send people on their way.

At the same time, the seemingly ‘bottomless pit’ of government agencies funding (actually there is a bottom to the pit, and it is called your pocket) has allowed many agencies to spring up with lots of well-paid functionaries that are usually never held accountable for their actions.

Charities are held accountable, both by donors and by the state.  In the case of church-run facilities, many of those who work for them are inspired to forego higher salaries for the sense of service they receive in their ministries.  So, charities not only do their work better, but cheaper.

World-wide, state-run mental health facilities, like those treating addictions, are expensive flops.  Governments are going bankrupt trying to run these institutions, which aren’t known for very good success rates and have become money-laundering operations for politicians and employee unions.  Yes, when you vote for the guy who gives you the best raises, it is money-laundering…
Church communities have felt less and less of an imperative to do real charity work because, after all, we are already paying oodles of taxes to do the same thing, right?  This makes religious groups more and more self-oriented.  Evangelization is now done through entertainment than through service to those in need. 

So, we see a downward spiral in church involvement in the US, because many young people are on to the selfishness of modern religion and figure that it is easier to be totally selfish than try to look like you dig other people once a week while really resenting them. 

This is why you get ‘special children’ like Mr. Mumford who want nothing to do with a group of people that challenge his singularity…

Love the music… I just wish he’d grow up a bit more.  We'll get to him later.

You can’t serve others without being around them and identifying with them.  Once you do that, then you can join together and serve even those outside the community, which is really what Christians are called to do.

Churches must get out of the self-centered business of calling their own people ‘lost sheep’ and actually go find the really lost ones in the alleys and crack-houses.  We should be offering real services, because Christian charities can offer people God and medicine.

Government-run social services have their place, but certainly not at a national level.  Local administration is the key, as well as smaller size and genuine accountability.  If every level of government has their own hand-out program, who’s watching the system?  Right now, nobody is watching anything, and we are going bankrupt while the problems they promise to fix continue marching on.

I am glad to see Patriarch John and Pope Francis giving much the same messages.  We can only hope that the rest of the bishops in both Sees take these messages seriously and reclaim their rightful roles as ministers to all people.

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