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Faith in dignity and justice

Brian Kennedy | Sunday, November 24, 2013

Here on campus, the Center for Social Concerns selects an annual theme to emphasize a pillar of our rich Catholic social tradition, and this year the focus is on “Human Dignity and Justice in the World.” The point of the theme is to keep us from taking these terms for granted or reducing them to academic buzzwords or political abstractions. The Church will occasionally also choose an annual theme for the same reasons, and we are now approaching the end of the “Year of Faith” on Nov. 24. In his first encyclical letter, “Lumen Fidei,” Pope Francis reflects on this “Light of Faith” and makes some striking comments along the way.
Since his election this spring, the media has kept up enthusiastic coverage of this energetic new pope, with near daily reports of simple acts and ‘shocking’ sound bites. It’s clear the man knows how to phrase things in order to generate some interest. The title of a recent campus event on Pope Francis sums it up pretty well: “What did he just say?!” So, I was not surprised to read the radical claim in “Lumen Fidei” that without faith, “there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious” and that “thanks to faith, we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity.” Now, you don’t need to be a philosophy major to know that some would disagree. And the claim is, for Christians, a radical one. That is, it goes straight to the radix (root) of the issue. While secular humanism, for example, may define a defense of dignity in a philosophy of ethics, the Christian foundation for these convictions is in the good news of Christ. It is the God of the Gospel who gives meaning to the word “dignity” and makes something like justice worth fighting for. Here’s a brief story to illustrate how this happens:
    I spent time last winter at a Christian ministry called My Brother’s Keeper next to Stonehill College, a Holy Cross school near Boston, and I was inspired by the story of its founding by a husband and wife. Shortly after a powerful renewal of faith on retreat, the couple saw a film, “God Bless the Child,” that would change their lives forever. Profoundly affected by its portrayal of poverty and homelessness, they began the very next day to help those suffering in their community with simple acts of charity, delivering the love and hope of Jesus Christ – in the form of food and furniture – to those in need. Twenty-five years later, their work has expanded into two facilities with full-time staff and 3,000 volunteers serving much of southeastern Massachusetts.
Their story illustrates the journey of Christians to justice, beginning with an encounter of faith that greatly disturbed their worldview, expanded their vision of dignity and demanded a response in justice. This is the very same “education in the faith” that Blessed Basil Moreau required the schools of Holy Cross to provide so that “the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.” In his latest inspirational football advertisement, University President Fr. John Jenkins reminds us that we are “a community where education, inquiry and faith combine to respond to the demands of justice.” Infused from its founding with this spirit, Notre Dame continues to provide countless opportunities to put faith into action in class, in the dorms and off campus. But, as the founders of My Brother’s Keeper know, the demands of justice begin right where we live – on a campus with its own examples of violence against human dignity, especially in the alarming presence of sexual assault.
This Year of Faith also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, which called us to become “artisans of a new humanity.” To help you find the tools to answer this call, the Center for Social Concerns has planned a busy year around our “Dignity + Justice” theme that includes service trips, seminars and other social justice events. Learn about hyper-incarceration at a year-long series on our nation’s prison system. Join us for documentaries, speakers and dialogue on what is happening in our midst (and in our name). Explore more information and resources on our website at socialconcerns.nd.edu
Recently, Pope Francis offered this uneasy reflection: “I ask myself if the words ‘justice’ and ‘solidarity’ are only in our dictionary, or if we all work so that they become a reality?” Let us together try to ask and answer the same question.

Brian Kennedy is a Holy Cross seminarian working at the Center for Social Concerns. He can be reached at bkenned5@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.