Many times over the years I have asked you to pay special attention to issues and initiatives vital to our mission as church and as citizens of New York and the United States. I can think of no initiative more important and no subject more deserving of your involvement and action than one we are calling “children at risk” — an issue we will explore throughout our diocese the weekend of Feb. 10-11, which has been designated as Public Policy Weekend.
The diocesan Public Policy Committee, chaired by Father Brian Cool, has done much work this past fall to help us learn about the crucial challenges facing children. Many of you have likely seen bulletin items and reflections for several weeks leading up to this Public Policy Weekend. If you have, you know I refer in this instance not to poor children in faraway lands, but to young people in our very own communities.
These issues hit very close to home, as do the goals of this Public Policy Weekend:
* To make Catholics more aware of the startling statistics — and the real children behind those statistics who suffer poverty and other forms of deprivation in our state.
* To ask people not only to pray, but also to take concrete action by signing a petition that reads: “The first years of a child’s life are crucial to healthy development. Therefore, we urge the New York State Assembly, Senate and Governor Spitzer to budget for expanded investment in quality child care, quality early education programs and services in the earliest years of our children’s lives, including early intervention and home visiting.”
* To continue to educate ourselves about what might be done on the individual and parish levels to help children at risk.
* With this new knowledge, to monitor and speak out in the future on how our tax dollars might better be spent to help these children.
* To encourage all Catholics to get involved on a more personal basis in diocesan, parish and community programs that assist children at risk. Volunteers are needed in tutoring and mentoring programs, and for programs that help families through crises, abuse situations and other domestic and economic issues. Through personal contact and involvement, we begin to better understand the issues at a deeper level and can make a personal difference.
The issue of children at risk was chosen as a topic for study and action because evidence strongly suggests that New York state simply is not doing enough for provide quality child care and early education for all of its children. We’ve fallen considerably behind a number of other states. Sadly, nearly 900,000 children in New York state, roughly 19 percent, live in poverty. In the 12 counties of our diocese, 73,000 children are growing up in families with incomes below or at the federal poverty level.
The picture is no better nationwide: “With nearly 36 million residents, ‘Poverty USA’ is the largest state in America,” reports the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. “Today, 12.9 million children — 1 in 6 — live in poverty. Yet a recent Gallup poll found that only 5 percent of Americans believe poverty and homelessness are important problems for the country.”
Respected studies show that by advocating more, by doing more as a people and as a state government, we can begin to tackle generational poverty, which overshadows young lives and quickly snuffs out many children’s enormous potential. The studies further show that when children have a healthy and stimulating environment in their early years, they have a much better chance of succeeding in school and becoming citizens and workers who contribute to society. This, then, is about not only treating the problem but also about finding a cure.
Some of you may ask: Why should our churches tackle such an issue? Isn’t this better left to the politicians?
One answer is that helping these children and seeing to their needs really is not an option for us as followers of Jesus. I ask you to prayerfully consider the words of our late beloved Holy Father Pope John Paul II: “In the Christian view, our treatment of children becomes the measure of our fidelity to the Lord himself.”
Too, we are called as Catholics to uphold a consistent-life ethic — to build a culture that affirms and defends life from conception to death through education, personal service and, yes, public advocacy. We must absolutely oppose actions or policies that do not affirm life, such as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, violence and war, and embryonic stem-cell research.
Yet it is not enough just to believe this. If we are able to act and intervene, then we must act and intervene. And we must work hard so that our sisters and brothers in need have not only life, but quality of life.
As we explore together this crucial issue, I ask for your prayers that we will move many hearts this Public Policy Weekend in our parishes and, eventually, in the state government in Albany.
We do all this for the children and, ultimately, for our future.
Peace to all.
To learn more, visit the diocesan Web site at www.dor.org and click on “Children at Risk.”