Event offered another side of Washington

Last Thursday, Feb. 2, I was privileged and heartened to participate in an event that showed me a side of Washington, D.C., I had not seen before — the side of prayer. The National Prayer Breakfast gave folks of various religions and political stripes the opportunity to come together in faith to honor God, submit to his wisdom and ask his blessing on our country and the world. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a Christian, and Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a Jew, were co-chairs of this year’s breakfast.
Although this was the 54th “national” breakfast, the event traces its roots to a group of Seattle businessmen in the 1930s who gathered regularly for prayer when their city was facing a crisis. Later their practice spread to a group of senators and congressmen who met separately in Washington, D.C., evolved to its present form during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and now has international representation. The breakfast is a public version of what happens weekly in the Senate and House, where groups of lawmakers meet across party lines for prayer and support.
The format of the National Prayer Breakfast is similar to local events, but the speakers were senators and congressmen, the singer Bono, King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and President George W. Bush. Scripture readings came from John 21, Romans 3, 2 Corinthians 4, Isaiah 58:6-14 and Numbers 6:22-27. King Abdullah quoted the Quran. Inspirational music was supplied by talented singers from Arkansas.
For many years I have been discouraged by the nature of public discourse in our country, too often characterized by the sound-byte politics of polarization, sarcasm and rancor, and by what Pope Benedict has called “the tyranny of public opinion.” I have wondered and hoped that there is a better way, one that seeks to do as the prophet Micah wrote: “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Last Thursday I got a glimpse of those in Washington who want just that.
The Catholic approach to political life is based on our sense of duty as citizens to participate in that which makes our world just and that which seeks the common good. Our approach is humanitarian in the most profound sense of that term, for it recognizes that all men and women are God’s image and likeness, that all deserve to be treated in a way that is consistent with that God-given dignity, and that the only valid path to the fullness of life God intends for this world is to seek and believe his wisdom and do what he asks. That calls for humility. That calls for unity. That calls for prayer.
Catholic teaching challenges us to develop well-formed consciences and to exercise our rights as citizens according to the truth God has revealed. He knows what is best for us and shows us the destiny for which life in this world is the beginning. He shows us how the “not yet” of heaven is to be mirrored and experienced in the “already” of earth. Catholic teaching is very clear about a variety of issues surrounding the sacredness of life and human dignity, and like all citizens we should make our voices heard. Moreover, the very nature of the Catholic Church reminds us that we are citizens of the world, not merely citizens of the United States of America. Our reach and our concern should circle the globe.
The Catholic voice, the voice of the Church as well as the voice of the individual Catholic, even as it proclaims God’s truth and commandments with clarity and conviction, should always be spoken in peace, respect, hope and prayer. We should never add to the rancor, never feed the sarcasm, never provoke needless division. The National Prayer Breakfast, simple in intent though more than 3,000 were in attendance, struck me as a sign of progress and a model for public discourse in every place where politics is discussed. I was pleased that several of the speakers commented about how their Catholic faith deeply affects their political lives.
At one of the first breakfasts, President Eisenhower said, “You can’t explain free government in any other terms than religious. The Founding Fathers had to refer to the Creator in order to make their revolutionary experience make sense; it was because ’all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’ that man could dare to be free. They wrote their religious faith into our founding documents, stamped their trust in God upon the faces of our coins and currency, and put it boldly at the base of our institutions. And when they drew up their bold Bill of Rights, where did they put freedom of worship? First, in the cornerstone position. That was no accident … Without moral and spiritual awakening, there is no hope for us.”
When we citizens humbly turn to God in prayer and accept his invitation to the moral and spiritual awakening of which President Eisenhower spoke, our power for good goes beyond our strength, beyond our vote. We work together to build God’s city, where it is natural and expected to seek his guidance, where human life is sacred, and where those in need rise to the top of our common preoccupations.
Do you have an intention for Bishop Sartain’s prayer? If so, send it to him at Bishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Diocese of Little Rock, 2500 North Tyler St., P.O. Box 7239, Little Rock, AR 72217.

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