by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
Like any pastor preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I want to speak to you this evening of joy and hope. I want to call you to experience our risen Lord. I want to nourish you with God's words of love for you and for all of his children.
But just as Jesus suffered a painful death on the road to his glorious resurrection, many of our sisters and brothers dwell, not in joy but in sadness, not in hope but in despair. Tragically, this is true of a great many of our nation's children.
Nothing captures this crisis so poignantly and so tragically as a little known fact about this past Christmas. On the day when joy breaks out on children's faces throughout the world, there were 65 newborn infants being cared for at the Columbus-Maryville Center for Children here in Chicago. Most were cocaine babies, fighting desperately for their lives.
After his resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" After Peter's first response that he did, indeed, love the Lord, Jesus told him, "Feed my lambs." This mandate continues to guide the Church. In order to be faithful to its mission, the Church must take heed of the suffering of innocent children; we must put our faith into action. Today, we still need to carry out Jesus' command, "Feed my lambs."
Millions of the children in the United States are in need, some of them desperately so. Harsh facts and statistics reveal that the problems facing children are very widespread and apparently growing worse. Our churches and synagogues know this well because we encounter these children face-to-face each day. They are not mere statistics to us. The Archdiocese of Chicago serves them, for example, through Catholic Charities agencies like Maryville, Misericordia North and South, Mercy Homes for Boys and Girls, and the Columbus-Maryville Children's Center.
Still, the statistics are chilling. One out of every five children in our affluent nation is poor. What does this mean? It's difficult to imagine children in the United States going to bed hungry each night; we assume that that happens only in the so-called Third World. But an estimated five-and-a-half million children in the U.S. under the age of 12 do not get enough to eat each day and are ever hungry. Isn't that intolerable? When we think of the homeless in our society, we often associate them with the elderly, with persons who suffer from alcohol or other drug abuse. But at least 100,000 children in this nation go to sleep homeless every night. Statistics may seem rather cold, but you and I know that, behind each of these statistics are living, breathing children whose lives are being stunted and threatened by forces they cannot control.
Not all the needy children lack adequate food and shelter. Many are hungry for love and affection, which they do not receive. Two-and-a-half million children were abused or neglected in the U.S. in 1990. At the same time, a million children a year are the victims of their parents' divorce, and another million are born to single parents. Family breakdowns cannot help but have troubling consequences for our children.
Many young people are desperately searching for meaning and value in their lives. At current rates, one of every four teenagers will drop out of high school. The suicide rate among adolescents has tripled in the last thirty years. And gunshot wounds claim the lives of more teenagers than natural causes.
These clearcut signs of sadness and despair among our nation's children place serious demands upon people of faith. The Old Testament often witnesses to the fact that children in need, most especially orphans, are the subjects of God's special, loving care. This is why his covenant with Israel required that families and the whole society take care of widows and orphans.
Jesus himself held children dear to his heart. Think for a moment of the time he reprimanded those who were keeping children away from him, and said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." The Gospel of Mark says that, "he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them." (Mk 10:14b, 16)
So important were children to Jesus that he said, "Whoever receives one child...in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me" (Mk 9:36-37). Jesus is very clear. We love God through our love for children. By caring for these little ones, we show our faith in the risen Lord.
As I have intimated, the plight of many, many children in the United States confronts people of faith with a profound challenge. The Scriptures reveal that the love and care for children is part of our calling. The reality in our nation is that, for a great many children, we are failing to provide that love and care.
Nevertheless, we know that the joy and hope, which are at the very heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ, will come to those who say yes to this call to care for our children.
I invite you to join the U.S. Catholic bishops in making this a priority in your lives. Last November, the bishops decided to speak out very forcefully on behalf of children. Mindful of the disturbing situation of children in our country in this election year of 1992, they said, "While others are campaigning for public office, let us campaign for children. Let us insist that the needs of our children, but especially unborn children and poor children, take first place in the dialogue over the values and vision that ought to guide our nation."
A campaign for children must also be a campaign for families. As people of faith, we must do all that we can to strengthen families. As a society, we must strive to provide special assistance to families that face particularly difficult circumstances. Wholesome family life is, after all, the foundation every child needs to start life on the right foot.
A campaign for children must move beyond some of the unfortunate disagreements of the past so that we will be in a better position to help families. Both parental responsibility and broader societal responsibility must be taken much more seriously.
We must continue to teach traditional values -- those values which are an integral part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. They are not relics of the past, but the keys to a fruitful future. Parents are entrusted with a divinely ordained vocation and challenge: to raise their families in a way that respects the dignity of their children and promotes the full potential of their gifts. The Church needs to reinforce these values and assist parents in teaching them to their children.
At the same time, it is clear that the policies and priorities of our nation, our states, our municipalities have a direct impact on the lives of children and families. As the Catholic bishops acknowledged last November, "No government can love a child." However, the bishops hastened to add, "Government can either support or undermine families as they cope with the moral, social and economic stresses of caring for children."
Powerful forces have conspired -- often unwittingly -- to create the crisis that confronts our children and families. Misplaced priorities and misguided values have taken our society in directions that are quite unhealthy and counterproductive. Some would say that there is nothing we can do to alleviate poverty or strengthen families, to restore values or to set new priorities. I say that they are wrong. You and I know what needs to be done, and we know how to do it. What we need is the will to take on these problems and solve them.
Caring for children must become our first priority. When we look at the present, we see the need. When we contemplate the future, we recognize the consequences. When we reflect on our faith, we know what Jesus calls us to do. For people of faith, the place to begin is in prayer. And as we pray, let us ask ourselves, do we love Jesus? We can say yes only if we do all in our power to feed his lambs; only if we share our gifts -- both spiritual and material -- with those in need, especially our children.
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Do You Have A Genuine Love For Christ?
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Devotional Thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after the New Sunday
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