By Steve Neill, Of The Catholic Virginian
“Thank you. You saved my life.”
These few but dramatic words from a homeless man came as a surprise to Joanna Haliday but they have stayed with her ever since.
The impact of those words are what motivates her to continue her work with the AIDS ministry of Holy Rosary Parish in Richmond and motivated her to attend SHINE, the 2017 Diocesan Social Ministry Summit held March 31-April 1.
Ms. Haliday’s experience occurred when Holy Rosary took their turn housing homeless men through CARITAS, an ecumenical outreach to the homeless. A testing site for HIV/AIDS had been arranged for the overnight guests.
It was voluntary, but a number of men took advantage of it. One of them was the young man Ms. Haliday had met.
“Those who were tested got the results within half an hour,” Ms. Haliday said, adding that the testing was handled by the Fan Free Clinic, now known as the Health Brigade. Counseling was also avaliable.
“I was just passing through from the parish center when this man stopped me and said ‘Thank you. You saved my life.’”
Ms. Haliday knew then that the man had hope despite his condition.
“Early detection extends your life because you get the medication early on,” she said.
Approximately 150 participants in SHINE had various reasons which had brought them there for the opening Friday night at the Diocesan Pastoral Center and then on Saturday at the Glen Allen Cultural Arts Center.
But all were inspired by their faith in Jesus Christ and how the Gospel message engages Christians to be involved in outreach to people in need and how they can best go about it.
Bob Lesnefsky, Friday night’s keynote speaker, has been involved in youth ministry for 19 years and is married with seven children. He has a degree in theology and catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville.
With the belief that those present had a strong and firm commitment to Jesus and wanted to do his work, he urged them to keep their eyes focused on Jesus and work with Him.
“Your hand has gone up and you say ‘I’ll do it,’” Lesnefsky said.
“You take brokenness and make it beautiful,” he said.
“If we fall, if we are wounded, it doesn’t mean that God wants you out of the game,” Lesnefsky said (with the implication that this is exactly what the enemy wants).
“It is critical that these wounds do not take you out of the battle.”
Lesnefsky emphasized that one must stay focused on Jesus in their ministry with the Church.
“You can do a lot of church stuff and still lose Jesus,” he said.
Statistics don’t always tell the real story, Lesnefsky asserted.
“Call to mind what kept you going?” he asked. “Why have we remained in the battle when we’ve had so many chances to bail?”
The reasons, Lesnefsky suggested, is that “your heart must be engaged.”
Frustrations and disappointments occur, he acknowledged.
“We sometimes have to allow our heart to be re-engaged,” he said.
As Saturday’s keynote speaker, Father Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Richmond, focused much of his message on the 25th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel which addresses how Jesus loved the poor and the outcast.
“Jesus doesn’t just preach about feeding the poor—He does it,” Father Renninger said.
“Jesus doesn’t just preach about healing the sick—He does it.
“He doesn’t just preach about unbinding people, restoring dignity, confronting injustice, naming the truth in face of lies, providing dignity for the outcast, embracing the untouchable, binding wounds, providing freedom—He does it.
“And we who are the body of Christ are called to continue that mission of saying and doing.”
Catholic social teaching emphasizes the dignity of the human person.
“Catholic social teaching challenges Democrats who treat abortion as the ‘eighth sacrament,’ just as it challenges Republicans who sternly support the widespread use of the Death Penalty,” he said.
While both Democrats and Republicans argue about what they feel is more important, Father Renninger said that Catholic Social Teaching “puts us stubbornly in opposition to every political party.”
Father Renninger said he recently spoke in another state to an obviously distressed man who said he felt the Catholic Church “has failed us.”
The problem the man saw was that Pope Francis did not speak out enough against abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.
Then he criticized the pope for speaking out on what he considered political issues.
“He needs to keep his mouth shut on climate change, refugees and immigration,” the man complained.
Father Renninger pointed out that there are Catholics “who love it when the Church speaks about climate and refugees and are outraged that we still even bring up abortion or marriage.”
The Catholic Church, he maintains, “insists on consistency in its moral teaching and still has the courage to name the truth as we understand it.”
This thought seemed to be echoed by two Sisters of Life, a religious contemplative/active community founded by the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. They spoke at a break-out session about the power of prayer.
The Sisters of Life, whose outreach ministry is to women in a crisis pregnancy in poor inner city neighborhoods, come with love in their hearts.
“We have nothing to give them but Jesus’ love,” said Sister Faustina Maria Pia.
In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Sisters of Life have a fourth vow “to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.”
Dressed in a white religious habit and veil, they may seem a strange sight to many in poor neighborhoods in Manhattan, but their ready smile and joy in talking to others is apparent. Their friendly manner is what newcomers first see. It then allows many to feel safe in telling their stories of problems which weigh heavy on them. They are pregnant and often don’t know which way to turn for help.
“Most of these women feel alone and scared, they’re searching for authentic love,” Sister Faustina said.
A strong commitment to prayer guides them.
“We need to spend time with God so we can become His light,” she said.
Sister Faustina told the story of a young pregnant woman who was told by her doctors that she was carrying a girl who tests showed would be born with spinal bifida.
She readily dismissed the doctors’ suggestion to “terminate your pregnancy” and responded by saying she wanted to and would be a good mother to her daughter.
“But you don’t understand,” the doctors countered. They then outlined their vision of a young single mother raising a severely handicapped child.
“No, you don’t understand,” the woman replied with conviction. “This is my child and I’m going to be the best mother I can be for my child.”
The rest of the story is that the medical test was a false positive and the woman gave birth to a healthy daughter.
“Through greeting these women and listening to their stories, we can reflect back to them their own goodness,” Sister Faustina said. “They can come to believe in their own capacity to love, making a heroic and beautiful choice for themselves and their child.”