A tour and a lesson in Catholic teaching from Bishop Cunningham
By Connie Berry
Hundreds of teenagers wearing school colors filled every space of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Oct. 29 as they noted the end of Respect Life Month by traveling by bus to downtown Syracuse. They came from every region of the diocese —from Bishop Grimes, Bishop Ludden, and Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, Rome Catholic, Notre Dame in Utica and Seton Catholic Central in Binghamton — to experience a tour of the diocesan mother church.
After the tour, Bishop Robert Cunningham celebrated a 10 a.m. Mass and was joined at the altar by several priests from all the regions of the diocese. The opportunity for a question and answer session with Bishop Cunningham took place after Mass. The students had sent questions pertaining to relevant social and moral issues, and Bishop Cunningham answered them in light of the church’s teaching and position.
At the beginning of the Mass, the bishop welcomed the students saying he hopes they are students who take “the protection and reverence of life seriously.” Bishop Cunningham told them, “All of life is sacred. Each and every person is a unique person loved by God.” The bishop spoke about abortion and legislation saying, “There is no such thing as a half of a person or an ‘almost’ person.”
Bishop Cunningham asked the students to remember that respecting life and loving their brothers and sisters is part of “who we are.” The truth of the teachings of Jesus has not changed, he said. What has changed are the attitudes of today.
“Society recognizes money, power and sex before marriage as a way to generate love,” Bishop Cunningham said in his homily.
He also said the world needs “missionaries of life.”
“Imagine what would happen if we proclaimed the dignity of life and dignity of sexuality in our daily life,” he said.
The bishop told the young people that it only takes one person to change hearts. “If God uses us to change hearts and minds he can also use us to change laws… .The world longs for God,” he said.
The Mass ended and the students took a 15 minute break in the Cathedral before Lisa Hall, director of the Respect Life Office, began facilitating a question-and-answer session between the students and the bishop. The questions were divided into categories — abortion, suicide, euthanasia, stem cell research and cloning, and homelessness. The bishop’s answers to the students’ questions were steeped in Catholic teaching. Hall explained that the bishop would offer a framework for the students to use to apply in their own lives.
The session began with questions surrounding abortion. The students asked if abortion is criminal, unethical or dangerous. They wanted to know if circumstances such as risk to the mother’s health or pregnancy from rape or incest changes the morality of the situation. The bishop’s answers began with an explanation about the sacred nature of sexuality. “Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “Treat your bodies with reverence. You’re special. You were created by God. So many young people make the mistake of not saving themselves for marriage. God gave you your sexuality and acts of love should take place in the sacrament of marriage.”
Even though society may not foster such an attitude, the bishop still encouraged them to wait for the man or woman they choose to be their husband or wife. “Do not dishonor your body or take away from that total gift by doing something before marriage that should take place after marriage. Everything else is fleeting, momentary, but not what counts,” he said.
Bishop Cunningham framed his answer about abortion by telling the students about Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. She was born at the end of the 19th century, was a journalist and during the Great Depression believed in socialism. Day had an unhappy relationship with the father of her daughter. She had several abortions before her daughter’s birth and experienced a conversion to the Catholic faith. This changed her life, the bishop said. Day is under consideration for sainthood now. The bishop said Day was a woman who turned her life completely around and came to understand that only God is the author of life.
“You’re bright young people,” Bishop Cunningham said. “You know the fifth commandment — thou shall not kill. It forbids murder, abortion, euthanasia and other life-threatening acts.”
The church’s teaching on abortion is as old as the church itself and will never change, he said. The church’s commitment to life also extends to those who regret having an abortion, he said.
Euthanasia was the next topic and Bishop Cunningham said, “Euthanasia is always wrong.”
“The problem comes when we try to determine through human efforts when death should take place,” Bishop Cunningham explained.
The church believes that palliative care is required for those who have little hope for survival. They should be kept comfortable and free of pain as they face death, he explained. Suicide is also always wrong, the bishop said, because
“we are setting ourselves up as God.” He acknowledged that many things can be going on in a person’s life when he or she commits suicide but that it is terrible to think that a person with promise and hope for the future all of a sudden decides “it’s not worth it.” Even though suicide is wrong, God can forgive, the bishop said.
The bishop then explained that it is important to note that the Catholic Church is in favor of stem cell research but opposed to embryonic stem cell research. The creation of embryonic cells for the sole purpose of helping someone else is not accepted by the church, he explained. “Science and faith and reason have to come together. We can’t just reduce an embryo to suit our use.” He stated the same opposition to cloning because it again requires the destruction of human embryos. “We’re trying too hard sometimes to set ourselves up as little gods. Let God create life,” he said.
As far as homelessness is concerned, Bishop Cunningham said the church has a long track record of reaching out to those in need. He said there priests in the diocese who regularly work with the homeless and others in need. The bishop reminded the students that one of Pope Benedict’s encyclicals states that there are three elements essential for the church —proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating Mass and reaching out to those in need. He noted that helping others is as important as the central elements of the Catholic faith. And, he told them, “There are all kinds of situations in every city of our diocese where hundreds are being helped by our church.”