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Catholic Charities leader voiced dreams of lay Catholics to Pope

Statement given by the late Donna Hanson, former director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane to the late Pope John Paul II on Sept. 18, 1987, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif.

Donna Hanson

Donna Hanson

We, the American Catholic laity, 98 percent of the Catholic Church in the United States, welcome you to our land of rich diversity.  I speak to you this morning from my own perspective: woman, wife, mother of two sons, social minister in Catholic Charities, and volunteer chairperson of the National Advisory Council to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.  In preparation for today, I have spent much time in consultation with my lay sisters and brothers.  They were pleased to be asked their opinions:  it is now my hope to give voice to their dreams and desires.  

The microcosm of church represented here today gives you some perspective of my difficult challenge.  In this assembly of 3,000 are people from virtually every profession, culture and ethnic diversity in the United States.  To this assembly we bring differing political perspectives and varied experiences of church.  We are young and old, rich and poor: we are unique yet unified in our love of Christ and His church.  Although our loyalty to the church is deep, we are committed to call her to even deeper gospel faithfulness.  Unity, not division, is our goal; service, not power, is our mission.  

The Native Americans, the original inhabitants of our land, provide me with a central theme for today.  Their wise counsel is:  "Never judge another's life until you have walked in their shoes for a day."  It is my hope that today we may walk together.  

On our journey, I would like to tell you about our unique American culture.  I would like for you to know how our experience and tradition has helped to form us in our faith and continues to impact us in our families and in our parishes.  

Your Holiness, the United States Declaration of Independence expresses the country's founding belief that all men, women and children are created equal.  The reason that my great-grandparents immigrated to this country was to escape the famine in Ireland and persecution in Germany.  Yet, as I grew up in the Southern United States, I watched my father and his compatriots build a church so that the black Catholics in our community could have a separate place of worship.  In 1960, I saw billboards that proclaimed:  "Why bible-reading Christians could not in conscience vote for John F. Kennedy for President."  

From these early life experiences I, like so many others, learned to question immigration practices, civil injustices, religious persecution.  Today, my culture compels me to continue questioning those in leadership positions.  I question them about public policies related to abortion, development of nuclear arms and exploitation of our environment.  Not to question, not to challenge, not to seek understanding is to be less than a mature, educated and committed citizen.  

When I come to my church, I cannot discard my cultural experiences.  Though I know the church is not a democracy ruled by popular vote, I expect to be treated as a mature, educated and responsible adult.  Not to question, not to challenge, not to have authorities involve me in a process of understanding is to deny my dignity as a person and the rights granted to me both by church and society.  

Your Holiness, within my circle of friends, there are those who are ranchers and those who are city dwellers, those who are politically conservative and avant garde liberals, some who are traditional and some who are progressive Catholics.  I rejoice that within my culture there is room for this incredible diversity.  The challenge before the church in the United States is to be welcoming of these same diversities.  Can we be as inclusive as Christ who reached out to the woman at the well, who invited a tax collector to be His apostle, who brought the centurion's daughter back to life?  Can we reach out and be more inclusive of women, our inactive clergy, homosexuals, the divorced and all people of color?  

Your Holiness, the diversity in our culture is mirrored in our families.  We are traditional families, extended families, single parents, widowed, and divorced.  In our families, we often struggle with the tensions between gospel values and the excesses of our society.  For many newly formed families, there is the challenge of being a loving spouse while at the same time making responsible decisions about parenthood.  In our young families, we often juggle the demands of homemaking with the need for employment.  In our growing families, there is the challenge of helping our young adult children understand their sexuality as well as appreciate the dangers of drugs and alcohol.  In our maturing families, there is the balance of nurturing our grandchildren while caring for our frail, elderly parents.  

Your Holiness, in our parish communities, we are also experiencing significant change.  The lay members of our church are now among the best educated and the most highly theologically trained in the world.  Yet, we hunger for spiritual education and formation.  We long for structures in which to truly share responsibility.  As the pastors in our immigrant churches worked along side of us to develop labor unions and the most comprehensive Catholic school network in the world, we were building both church and society from the bottom up.  

Today, our parishes are in transition.  Many parishes do not have a resident pastor.  Eucharistic celebrations are limited and our people cannot regularly receive the sacrament of reconciliation.  Lay ministers are involved as never before but full acceptance by both clergy and the people of God has not been realized.  

At the same time, in other parishes, the pastors, deacons, women and men religious, and professional and volunteer lay ministers work side by side.  They experience the needs of the people and together they respond: with housing for the elderly, with shelters for the homeless, with immigration counseling for the undocumented.  They reach out in love: in peer ministry to the engaged, married, widowed or divorced.  They reach out in hope: in bringing the Eucharistic Christ to the homebound.  They reach out in faith: in study and reflection on the word of God.  They create small communities of faith; they take Christ into the marketplace; they are the church in the world.  

But how does all of this come together for those of us here today?  I began by suggesting a walk.  My request now is that you permit me to walk with you.  

Let me walk with you so that I can understand the challenge of being Peter's successor.  Let me share the burdens you carry as you reflect on the pain of your people: persecution in your beloved Poland, starvation in Ethiopia, consumerism in the United States.  

Let me walk with you as you seek to preserve orthodox teachings and challenge the world with gospel values.  Let me also be at your side as you plead for peace on every continent.  

Let me walk with you as you prepare for the Synod on the Laity.  I know that we in the United States are not representative of the majority of people in the world.  At the same time, I know that our concerns are universal: family; spirituality; collaboration.  

Your Holiness, please let me know that you are also willing to walk with me.  Accustomed as I am to dialogue, consultation and collaboration, I do not always feel that I am heard.  In my cultural experience, questioning is neither rebellion nor dissent.  Rather, it is a desire to participate and is a sign of both love and maturity.

Walk with me.  My family experiences continually remind me that examples speak louder than words.  To become the Family of God, it is imperative that both as parents and as the church witness we practice the gospel we preach.  Above all, we must be just, compassionate and forgiving.  

Your Holiness, please walk with each one of us.  As you, we gladly give our lives in service to the church.  As you, we seek forgiveness seventy times seven.  Yet we know that we are a pilgrim people, that we are individually gifted, and that the Holy Spirit speaks uniquely to each one of us.  We are all children of God: may we continue to walk and talk together?  

The Fig Tree - Copyright © October 2005