Society took a beating in 2017. There were record-setting hurricanes, mass shootings and wildfires, sexual abuse scandals, marches promoting racist ideologies, rampant distrust of the media and widespread division between anyone with an opposing opinion.
But amid the darkness, God’s love shined through: in the charity of first-responders; the bravery of abuse victims to no longer remain silent; counter-protests preaching love and acceptance; support of the truth and those who share it; and knowing that living in the light means there are no divisions.
Catholics throughout Arkansas came together and lived out the Beatitudes in ways big and small. As 2017 ends, Arkansas Catholic is looking back at the moments that defined the year and stories that continue to inspire.
On Sept. 23, Father Stanley Rother, known as an ordinary martyr, the shepherd who didn’t run, was beatified in Oklahoma City. He is the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified, the first recognized martyr for the United States and Guatemala and it was only the second beatification to be held in the United States. Blessed Stanley’s life was humble, growing up on a farm in Okarche, Okla. His heart for serving God’s people overcame both his educational struggles in seminary and death threats he received from rebels in Guatemala, should he remain there serving his flock. At 46 years old, he was shot in the head in his rectory in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, on July 28, 1981, what is now his feast day. Before being named bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock in 2008, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor served as the first episcopal delegate for his canonization cause, interviewing people in Guatemala and the U.S.
More than 200 Arkansans took a pilgrimage to the beatification. On Sept. 24, the Blessed Stanley Rother Mission in Decatur, a community of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, became the first Catholic church in the world named for the martyr.
“Everything I know about Blessed Stanley tells me that he would be delighted to have you as the first community in the world named after him,” Bishop Taylor said during his homily in Decatur.
In April, Arkansas captured the world’s attention after resuming executions of death row inmates after a 12-year break. Contrary to pro-life Catholic teaching, protecting life from conception to natural death, Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight executions in 10 days, from April 17-27, the first scheduled the day after Easter Sunday. The executions were set before the state’s supply of lethal drugs expired. Out of the eight scheduled, four men were killed: Ledell Lee, April 20; Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, April 24, the first double execution in the state since 1999 and the first in the country since 2000; and Kenneth Williams, April 27.
National and worldwide news outlets, like the BBC, came to Arkansas, including to cover a Good Friday rally on the capitol steps April 14 that saw everyone from Bishop Anthony B. Taylor to actor Johnny Depp speak in defense of life. Sister Helen Prejean, famed author of “Dead Man Walking,” pled on Twitter for an end to the death penalty. A letter signed by more than 200 Jewish and Christian leaders in the state was delivered to the governor’s office, asking to commute the sentences. The Catholic Mobilizing Network delivered more than 150,000 signatures following an online petition drive. The Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty held vigils outside the governor’s mansion during the executions and marched in protests leading up to them, attended in part by members of Pax Christi Little Rock, a chapter of the national Catholic social justice organization that promotes peace.
Msgr. Jack Harris, who has worked in prison ministry for 43 years since his ordination, spoke to Pax Christi members following the executions, saying, “If you leave a man in prison for 20 years and he’s no longer the same man who committed the crime, do you really have a right to kill him?”
Though the words “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are still etched on a bronze plaque dating to 1903 on the Statue of Liberty, 2017 set a different tone for the world’s immigrants and refugees. On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from war-torn countries like Iraq and Sudan from traveling to the United States for 90 days and suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days. It immediately sent refugees hoping to be settled through Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office and the nonprofit Canopy NWA, both in Springdale, into despair and a waiting game. Court rulings have gone back and forth and on Dec. 4, the third version of the travel ban was allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court to go into effect while its validity is tied up in the justice system.
Though varying in restrictions, most citizens of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, North Korea and some from Venezuela cannot enter the United States, according to a Dec. 4 New York Times article.
According to NPR.org, the presidential administration dropped the refugee cap to accepting only 45,000 refugees, the lowest since presidents began setting a cap in 1980.
In February, Frank Head, director of the Catholic Charities refugee office, said, in part, “from my personal experiences with the incredible, wonderful families who have settled here, many of whom are now U.S. citizens, I know these are not the people we need to protect ourselves from.”
On Sept. 5, Trump announced he was ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program (DACA) within six months. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and 10 other state attorneys general threatened to sue the federal government if Trump did not rescind DACA, a federal program put in place via executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Congress can now either save, terminate or change the program, meant for those who came to the United States when they were younger than 16 and were 31 years old or younger as of June 15, 2012, along with other requirements. As of March, there were 787,580 undocumented DACA immigrants, also called “Dreamers.”
If a solution is not agreed upon, many youth could be deported to a country they do not know.
Of the 6,000 young DACA recipients in Arkansas benefiting the state’s economy, Bishop Taylor said in a letter to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, “Their dream is to become citizens in the country in which they were raised, in which they were schooled, for which some have served in the military and in which they call home,” he said.
In a two-month span, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria left death, destruction and catastrophic flooding in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane with winds reaching 130 miles per hour. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria debilitated the U.S. territory, destroying its electrical infrastructure, utilities, buildings and roadways.
Stories of perseverance and hope in the face of tragedy dominated the news cycle and Catholics were a part of it.
Twice in September, Bishop Taylor asked parishes in the diocese to take up a special collection when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops organized emergency collections to aid church relief agencies, including Catholic Charities, that provided humanitarian aid locally for those hit hardest by the storms. Even three months after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico, buildings and homes are still collapsed and many are still without electricity.
Thanks to help from special collections, Catholic Charities USA donated $2 million each to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
In addition to Arkansas parishes donating, Catholic school children donated care packages and wrote cards to students in Texas.
Hispanic Catholics in Arkansas have been on a mission since October 2016, spreading the faith while also growing spiritually in their own lives. The Fifth National Encuentro, known as V Encuentro (translated to “Encounter”) is an evangelization initiative by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meant to energize the Hispanic/Latino communities to raise their voices for their faith.
About 30 parish teams across the state evangelized in their local communities and the prison system, sharing how God has worked in their own lives. A parish Encuentro was held for each and culminated in a Diocesan Encuentro attended by 2,000 at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock Nov. 18. Next steps include a regional and nationwide Encuentro.
Sister Norma Edith Muñoz, MCP, director of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Little Rock, said ahead of the diocesan event, “I think that the Encuentro will make us more aware of what the Church as a whole needs to do in order to respond to the needs of this community, which has become really strong in our diocese. (It’s about) sharing our values, sharing our traditions and sharing our way of celebrating our faith.”
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