Local Columns

What makes a person important?

Consider this, my friends. Surely you have watched the NBC early morning show with the crowds on Fifth Avenue looking through the glass wall into the broadcast room or out on the patio waving signs, yelling greetings. What’s happening here? What’s happening is that lots of ordinary folks want to be seen in the company of (so-called) important people.

“Hey, did you see me, I was 20 feet away from Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira!!” Wow, how great is that?

Again, sports fans will spend big bucks to have a box seat 20 feet behind home plate at Wrigley Field. Why? Because they know that the TV camera will swing by many times in  the course of a game, and there they will be, in living color, having a good time, but more importantly, close up to Geovany Soto, the catcher or Ryan Dempster, the pitcher. All of this for the whole world of sports to see! How great is that?

The Scriptures:

Isaiah 53:10-11

Hebrews 4:14-16

Mark 10: 42-45

By the way, have you ever noticed who’s standing next to the president when he signs a bill?

You guessed it: The supporters of the bill and other hangers-on. Hey, it’s human nature to want to be (or seem) important by association with someone who is truly important.

I imagine we are all much the same in the sense that we realize we may never achieve public acclaim on our own, but it’s nice to imagine it by being near someone who is a “public” person. Perhaps it’s even a matter of hoping that this person’s importance will rub off on us.

We can say: “Hey, listen, I was right there, up close; did you see me?”

We all long, not so much perhaps for celebrity status, but simply for recognition. We want to say: “Look, I’m an important person, too. So, it’s not such an odd desire to want to sit behind home plate.

Seemingly, it was not so different in Jesus’ time. Countless people wanted to be or get near him, partly because of his public image, but also because he was known for his preaching, his compassion and his healing power. Recall the woman in the Gospel who wanted only to touch the hem of his garment.

These were mainly common folk who seldom experienced famous Romans up close — and may not have wanted to — but in Jesus, they found a certain trust, a true caring. That’s why they crowded up so close.

But notice also the attitude of Jesus’ disciples: They falsely imagined that Jesus would eventually become a very public person with power and that having traveled with him might mean a special place at his right or left in a civil kingdom. (You see, right away, it’s a political move on their part.) They know they do not have a chance on their own of holding power, but knowing Jesus, they might be able to pull it off somehow.

All that, of course, brings up the question: What makes a person truly great?

Purely association with the “right” people cannot attain it. That hope ultimately turns into a dead end. True greatness, on the other hand, is being noticed by how we truthfully and humbly perceive ourselves as one among many, how we appreciate our unique identity as human and Christian.

Ultimately, knowing that we stand in the shadow of Jesus Christ beats sitting in a box seat behind home plate at Wrigley Field, waiting to be seen by every sports person in Chicago or the world.


The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.

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Charity doesn’t halt need for health care

She’s tiny, adorable, and a member of my parish.

Her name is Isabella Cardenas and she’s as beautiful as her name. She became a minor celebrity recently when her mom, Gabrielle, testified at an AFACT (Anchorage Faith in Action Congregations Together) action at Central Lutheran Church. A local television station ran Gabrielle’s testimony as she held Isabella in her arms.

The evening’s subject was Denali KidCare, and Gabrielle Cardenas explained to a group of state officials that Isabella needs a heart and lung transplant, and that because their income is $400 over the limit for qualifying for insurance through Denali KidCare, they may slip through the cracks — slide through that “safety net” — without coverage for what will be an extraordinarily expensive procedure.

Denali KidCare, which goes by different names in different states, is a program which provides comprehensive health insurance to children and pregnant women in low-income working families. The federal government provides 65 percent of the funding, the state about 35 percent. The state determines eligibility, and in 2003, Alaska changed the eligibility requirements. Previously, you could have income at 200 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify. Now, that level is down to 175 percent and many of the working poor are excluded from coverage. Our state ranks 49th — second from the bottom — in providing children’s health care through this program.

The fifteen congregations which make up AFACT, including several Catholic ones, have organized to push for legislation that will bring that income level back up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and provide for insurance for other working poor who make over 200 percent of the poverty level by having insurance available through premiums or co-pays.

Isabella’s family members are well known at our parish. Her grandma is a Eucharistic minister and lector. Her cousins attend our parish school. They are a hard-working family.

Before Isabella’s last hospitalization, her family raised money at our school by selling tamales for $20 a dozen through a sign-up sheet at the office desk.

After Gabrielle Cardenas’ testimony was broadcast, other parishioners took note and wondered how we could help. We have a generous parish and people are especially sensitive to needs close to home.

But what parish can afford to sponsor a heart-lung transplant? Perhaps there are other ways we can help.

The point is, of course, that charity towards one family is a good thing. But there’s a larger question of justice here. Why isn’t health care affordable for low-income working families? The system is failing us. Each year, employer-based health insurance costs rise much more than the rate of inflation. People, even many in the middle-class, are being squeezed out of insurance coverage by ever-higher premiums and deductibles.

100,000 Alaskans do not have health insurance, according to the Anchorage Daily News, yet 60,000 of those uninsured have jobs. (“Palin revisits healthcare,” ADN, Dec. 3, 2008)

A friend told me that in the early days of her marriage, she and her husband couldn’t afford to offer insurance to employees in their fledgling small business.

When one of their employees became ill and was hospitalized, the best the company could do was put out a coffee can for donations. She still feels bad about that.

Ever since Pope Leo XIII, popes have been encouraging us to base our governance on the “common good.” What kind of system works best for everyone? What changes to the system will bring justice?

Two things seem clear: First, Alaska needs to raise the income level at which the working poor can receive Denali KidCare. Because, secondly, a coffee can and a dozen tamales won’t do the trick.


The writer is a stewardship and hospitality coordinator at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage.

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Book tells how Catholics kept faith under communist rule

Catholics with Eastern European heritage will find the new book by Father Christopher Zugger, “Finding a Hidden Church” most inspiring.

Father Michael Hornick, pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church on Arctic Boulevard sent me a copy because I had been fascinated by Father Zugger’s previous book, “The Forgotten: Catholics of the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin.”

Reading these books and my two visits to our mission in Magadan gives extra meaning for the special annual collection for the church in Eastern Europe and Russia. Father Zugger made many trips especially to the Ukraine to talk to survivors of the Gulag and how they kept their faith under the communist persecutions.

We read in early church history about some of the Roman persecutions with Christians martyred by being fed to the lions or burned at the stake or having their head shopped off. The communists worked, starved and froze the people to death. Others were beaten and imprisoned for years trying to break their spirit. There are many saints’ stories here, some already beatified by the church.

Now 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Father Zugger tells the story of how the church was nearly wiped out. Bishops, priests and sisters were murdered or sent to the Gulag, but the faithful came together for the rosary at the cemetery, their churches destroyed or taken away. These are heroic faith stories we and our children need to hear. The Jewish people try to keep their stories of faithful witness alive and so should we.

Copies of the book are available from St. Nicholas of Myra Church, 2200 Arctic Boulevard, Anchorage 99503-1909 for $30. This book along with Father Mike Shields’ “Martyrs of Magadan” should be on our spiritual reading bedside stand.

The writer is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Seward.

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istockphotoHealth care debate:
There’s still time ... and a moral duty to weigh in

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly affirmed that Catholics have a moral duty to participate in the political life of this country.

In the 2007 document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops said Catholics have an obligation to take an active role in national elections. They didn’t say who to vote for but they did urge the faithful to shape the political landscape.

More recently, the nation’s bishops asked Catholics to bring their beliefs to bear in the current health care debate.

But what does that actually mean — to influence the health care debate? Most of us are not high-powered lobbyists or Washington insiders. What do the bishops expect from the rank and file laity?

Several things actually.

To figure that out, it’s best to first go back to the bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” document, which spells out who in the church should participate in political life.

The bishops start by affirming our obligation to shape the moral character of society. They call it a “requirement of faith.”

We get this from Jesus Christ, who offers a life-affirming vision of human life and dignity in Scripture, the bishops note. As Christians, we are to bring that vision to all areas of life – including politics.

That’s the big picture. But each person’s task looks a bit different.

For example, the bishops write that we should participate in society “each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good.”

That participation might mean running for office, working within political parties, communicating concerns to elected officials, joining social missions or advocacy networks or engaging other efforts to apply authentic moral teaching in the public square.

But there is also a cautionary note, that we not confuse politics with religion or blend them together into something that distorts both.

“Faithful Citizenship” states that Catholics should be guided “more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group.”

In fact, our participation in a political party should “transform the party to which we belong,” the bishops write, “we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”

In the health care debate, the bishops’ Web site lists these fundamentals elements, which any health care bill should include:


• Cover all people from conception until natural death

• Continue the federal ban on funding abortions.

• Include access for all with a special concern for the poor.

• Pursue the common good and preserve pluralism, including freedom of conscience.

• Restrain costs and apply costs equitably among payers.


This doesn’t mean that we tell our legislators to pass health reform at all costs or to rush the issue. Rather, it means we should set aside time to express our will to lawmakers so that any health care reform bill might better reflect the most basic beliefs that we hold about the human person.

The final version of a health care bill promises to have a sweeping impact on health care across this nation. We have a duty to stand for the life and dignity of the human person. Let’s act while we can.

— By Joel Davidson, Catholic Anchor editor


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