On Jan. 18, I had the privilege of opening with prayer this year’s legislative session of the state Senate. I was grateful for the opportunity and impressed that the men and women who serve as our representatives begin their work together by asking for God’s blessing, guidance, and wisdom.
Living here in the state capital, the arrival each year of our legislators and their staffs is hard to miss. Traffic downtown picks up, parking becomes next to impossible and each day the sidewalks around the capital building are filled with earnest looking men and women in suits and overcoats headed for the next committee hearing, floor session or meeting on their busy calendars.
But as the legislative session begins, I find myself reflecting on the deeper purposes of this institution for our society. Pope Benedict XVI, when he visited Britain late last year, addressed the British Parliament. Speaking before the “mother of all parliaments,” the Holy Father noted that our representative institutions (which this nation inherited from England) seek to achieve “a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it.” He noted the representative democracy that developed in Great Britain and the United States “places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of individual’s rights and duties, and the equality of all citizens before the law.”
He pointed out the rights and values upheld and safeguarded by representative democracy, have much in common with scripturally based social teaching, which has as “its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human being, made in the image and likeness of God” and which emphasizes the duty and responsibility of law and public policy to promote the common good. The Holy Father noted as well that legislation and governance must be “built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law.” That is, not on an arbitrary and shifting social consensus but on solid ethical principles that can be discovered using our God-given ability to reason.
Our citizen-legislators are called upon daily to grapple with questions of government policy and legislation that are complex. They struggle to balance the needs and interests of those whom they represent with interests of the state as a whole, of the nation and the natural world. As public servants working together for the common good, I know that our legislators make great sacrifices to serve us. With the exception of Sen. Dennis Egan, and Reps. Beth Kertulla and Cathy Mu┐oz, they all leave their home districts to take up temporary residence here in Juneau. Many of them are separated from their families during the session, either by geographical distance or by the long hours they work each day while they are here.
As I prayed for the members of the Senate as the session began, my genuine hope was that God would shower his wisdom, strength and grace upon them so they could carry out their duties and responsibilities well. As the people’s representatives, they are constantly called to serve others: their constituents, of course, but all of the people of this state.
The words of the preamble to our state constitution come to mind:
“We the people of Alaska, grateful to God and to those who founded our nation and pioneered this great land, in order to secure and transmit to succeeding generations our heritage of political, civil, and religious liberty within the Union of States, do ordain and establish this constitution for the State of Alaska.”
I appreciate those words of gratitude that begin our constitution. Our constitution expresses a gratitude to Almighty God who has endowed this great land with such magnificent beauty and rich natural resources. We can be grateful to the men and women who established the educational, economic, social, religious and governmental institutions that enable us to enable us to flourish as individuals and as a society.
Our elected representatives who serve us each year in our legislature each seek to be faithful to the vision of the founders of our nation and our state that is enshrined in the constitution. They pledge to uphold and protect the constitution and to safeguard political, civil and religious liberty while working on behalf of their constituents and to promote the common good.
This is not an easy task. They need our support and encouragement, and from my perspective, they need our prayers. It was my privilege to say one public prayer for them, but I will be praying for them throughout the session, that the good Lord will bless these women and men with a sense of peace, justice and respect for all life in Alaska.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.