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Cardinal Mahony's message

Many are already sacrificing, and tough times will challenge us all.

February 25, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

However effective the federal stimulus package -- or, for that matter, the messages of optimism and hope Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and President Obama delivered Tuesday -- it seems clear that Southern California is about to be swamped by a tsunami of want.

As The Times reported Sunday, one in five Los Angeles County residents now receives some form of public assistance. That's nearly 2.2 million people who already require help of one form or another at a monthly cost of $334 million. With the county's unemployment rate at 9.5% and climbing, and despite the extensions contained in the stimulus legislation, tens of thousands more people inevitably will seek aid as their jobless benefits expire in the months ahead.

"We have the highest human service burden of any county in the country in sheer numbers," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told Times staff writer Garrett Therolf. "Two million people is the size of some countries; that's how big our problem is."

Coming to grips with a challenge that enormous will require not simply changes in public policy but profound changes in our attitude toward those policies, many of which are likely to grow more expensive even as the general anxiety over our common economic future increases. Cardinal Roger Mahony is among the local leaders who have begun to articulate what such a shift might entail. Like most Catholic prelates, Mahony sends a yearly letter to his flock on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter.

His letter this year is remarkable in its plain-spoken delineation of the season's inescapable secular context.

"According to the calendar, Ash Wednesday occurs [today] and we begin another Lent," he writes. "Except for this year. Lent actually began in 2007 for many thousands of families all across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and we have been in a long and protracted season of Lent ever since. In what sense? ...

"With the economy continuing to spiral downwards day after day, with millions of jobs being eliminated, with people unable to make their house payments thus losing their homes, and with so many fearful of what tomorrow might bring -- we have truly been on a long Lenten journey over these past two years. Incredible difficulties have burdened families: parents ever fearful that they cannot provide for their children, the unknown financial calamity that lurks just around the corner, the awful feeling of being one paycheck away from complete financial meltdown.

"In prior years when life and our financial security were far more predictable, Lent meant that we could choose which special sacrifices we wanted to undertake -- but just for six weeks, until Easter Sunday. And then back to normal.

"But now we have a new reality: We aren't choosing our sacrifices this year, they have chosen us. And they aren't just for six weeks; they have been our burden for over 75 weeks now with no sign of relief in sight.

"This reality makes Lent 2009 unique and gives us the opportunity to enter this year's Lenten journey from a fresh and life-giving spirit. Most Catholics in our Archdiocese do not need to select a special form of sacrifice this Lent; they already have more than their share. So, how do we act differently this year?

"Let me suggest that we recall the origin of the word 'sacrifice.' It comes from two Latin words: sacrum and facere -- meaning 'to make sacred.' A sacrifice, then, is accepting an ongoing or new reality -- usually burdensome -- and turning that into something sacred."

This Lent, Mahony writes, he will be mindful on a daily basis of "those out of work, families who have lost homes, parents who fear that they won't have the money needed for their children, the many who have lost health insurance, the retired people whose retirement funds have been severely diminished, and all who fear each tomorrow."

As pastor to a flock of more than 4.3 million Catholics, Mahony is firmly in the man-does-not-live-by-bread-alone camp. As a guy with a master's degree in social work, as a former head of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Board and as chief executive of the largest network of private social service agencies in the three counties his archdioceses covers, he also knows that without bread nobody lives -- at least not in this world.

As his letter suggests to all of us, this unchosen season of sacrifice through which we all now are passing already challenges many of us in body and, before it passes, will challenge all of us in spirit -- challenge us to affirm our solidarity to one another and to sanctify that affirmation with a just regard for the common good.


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