Why Camden

Published by Monsignor Robert T. Mc Dermott

Thu, January 31 2008
Why does Camden get special treatment from the church?

This is a question that frequently divides us and alwaysdefines us as a Catholic community. It is a question asked by angry parents and parishioners in letters to local newspapers. I hear the comments from brother priests and colleagues within the diocesan structure. I ask it in my own heart as well.

There is often a conflict about who has more and gets more.Think of our family squabbles and fights. We hear children say things like:“She got more than I did,” or “His presents are bigger than mine.” We hear it when a child is ill whether chronically or temporarily. We even see it in the distribution of estates and will, when families are torn apart by selfishness.

One of the treasures of our faith is the commitment to follow Jesus in his ministry and to care for all people, especially the poor.

Jesus came to establish a new Kingdom on earth, one of compassion and love, healing and forgiveness, generosity and service. He called us to care for those most in need of our love. He said: “Whenever you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” He went to the outcasts, the poor, the sinners, the maligned of his society and he went there first.

This ministry to his neighbor, the least and the poor,defined Jesus’ life. He died at the hands of those who found his mission and message challenging, then unacceptable, and then blasphemous.

Camden needs our special attention because this is where Jesus would want us to be. The statistics and the condition of life in Camden should not be a secret to anyone in this diocese. Yet, after the ABC news program “20/20” aired a segment on the city in February 2007, many people said to me: “I didn’t know that it was that bad; that is was the poorest city in the country.”

The case for Catholic education in a city where more Catholics live than in most areas of our diocese is well documented. A public school system that performs well below standards hardly compares to what our parish schools accomplish with far less.

When you realize the condition of life for children in the city of Camden, it makes sense that education plays an important role in their future. If they are able to receive a good education in a safe and nurturing environment, they will more than likely be successful. If not, another child is lost to poverty. While it is in the best interests of society to raise the level of existence for the poor, our Catholic heritage and mission calls us todo so as well.

The U.S. bishops, in their 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” state,“Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions,policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people,especially the poor.”

It is true that it costs us something to keep our schools open in Camden. It is a sacrifice on the part of the whole that the weakest should be cared for first. Our faith calls us to be present to the poor as our first choice and not once we’ve taken care of ourselves (the preferential option for the poor). We can say that it’s not fair or that we have needs as well. But the truth is that few, if any of us, would change places with the people of Camden, nor want our children to be at risk as the children of Camden are each day.

Camden City has not been exempt from Catholic school closings. Over the past 25 years, the church in Camden City has closed eight schools.

Can you imagine how much better off the children of Camden will be if we choose not to count the cost, but to respond as Jesus would, and keep schools open where possible? And the truth is that we can afford to keep a Catholic school presence in Camden City. We cannot afford to abandon this commitment and call ourselves Catholics. As is always the case, we must place resources where they are most needed, which means sacrificing something else.

Is there sacrifice in giving to those who have less than we have? It should be a sacrifice. Otherwise what virtue is there in it? We enable children who have been abandoned by society to become better people and productive members of our society. We engage as brothers and sisters, as Christ would have us do.

Bishop Galante’s Christmas message in the Dec. 21 edition of the Star Herald clearly unveils the message of Christ born in a manger in Bethlehem. The message was intentional and instructional, as was every thingsaid and witnessed about Jesus in the New Testament.

We cannot let the sinful human nature or the American ethic define our faith. We are Catholic because we follow Christ, as St. Paul says“in times convenient and inconvenient.” Let us make sure we follow him by helping those who are most in need of our love and resources.

To give special treatment to the poor with actions and not just words challenges so much of what is drilled into us by the economy, the American way, the materialistic culture, the sinful human tendency to place ourselves first. No one escapes these adver-tease-ments! But we are church by calling and choice; it must define not just who we are but what we do and how we live. Let us live as Catholics, faithful to who we say we are.

The U.S. bishops, in their pastoral letter on racism,“Brothers and Sisters to Us” said they “urgently recommend the continuation and expansion of Catholic schools in the inner cities and other disadvantaged areas.”

Today, nearly 30 years later, their reasoning is more timely than ever:

“No other form of Christian ministry has been more widely acclaimed or desperately sought by leaders of various racial communities. For a century and a half the Church in the United States has been distinguished by its efforts to educate the poor and disadvantaged, many of whom are not of the Catholic faith. That tradition continues today in — among other places —Catholic schools, where so many blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians receive a form of education and formation which constitutes a key to greater freedom and dignity. It would be tragic if today, in the face of acute need and even near despair, the church, for centuries the teacher and the guardian of civilization, should withdraw from this work in our own society. No sacrifice can be so great, no price can be so high, no short-range goals can be so important as to warrant the lessening of our commitment to Catholic education in minority neighborhoods.  More affluent parishes should be made aware of this need and of their opportunity to share resources with the poor and needy in a way that recognizes the dignity of both giver and receiver.”

Msgr. Robert T. Mc Dermott is vicar general, Diocese of Camden, and pastor of St. Joseph, Pro-Cathedral, Camden.