This month, our statewide officials (governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general), all the members of the New York State Legislature and our state congressional representatives, as well as the county, city and village officials whom we elected in November will begin their terms of office.

I congratulate them, wish them well and assure them of my prayers. Indeed, they need the prayers of all, because they are assuming their public trust in a time of great hardship and uncertainty, with huge federal and state budget deficits and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.

There are no easy solutions to these difficult structural and systemic challenges, yet the well-being of our state, nation and world will be influenced greatly by their governance.

Five principles
Let me suggest five principles which should guide the actions of our elected leaders and our own in the days ahead.

First, there must be greater civility in our public discourse. Over the past quarter of a century, with the emergence of shock radio and TV shows and the unfiltered comments in the blogosphere, the public discourse has degenerated.

Vicious personal attacks, negative media campaign ads and unsubstantiated rumors borne of anger, fear, uncertainty and paranoia have become commonplace.

As a people in a democratic society, we can disagree and should debate issues. But, as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago asserted, in so doing we must demonstrate pragmatically that we can keep our deepest convictions and still maintain our civil courtesy; that we contest others' arguments but not question their motives; that we can presume goodwill even when we disagree strongly.

While, ultimately, politics involves the art of compromise, it should never be the vehicle for intolerance, polarization and demonization.

Second, public service is a noble profession. It is a privilege and sacred trust to represent the people and to serve the commonweal.

It is true that there have been far too many breaches of trust at all levels of government and by representatives of various political parties. This is unfortunate, because political office is to serve the needs of the common good and not to be manipulated or abused for personal gain through fraud, kickbacks, bribery or conflicts of interest.

However, we should not let the failures of a few elected officials tarnish the reputation of all. Most public servants exercise their responsibilities with professionalism, integrity, dedication and selflessness.

In addition to the direct fulfillment of their job responsibilities, they spend countless hours during nights and weekends away from home and family, attending community, social and political events, meeting with constituents, and raising funds - which, unfortunately, has become an indispensable ingredient for obtaining and retaining elected office.

Further, in today's 24-hour news cycle, the actions of our elected officials both public and private are under constant media scrutiny. These sacrifices our representatives make should be acknowledged and respected as their contribution to the life of a free and democratic society.

Third, our public officeholders need to engage in self-care. I constantly remind our priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers that to be effective servants in the Church, they need to make time for themselves - for reading, continued education, retreats, relaxation and leisure time.

These activities are necessary for a healthy and balanced life. To the extent they are neglected, to that extent is the effectiveness of their ministry likely to suffer.

The same is also true for our public officials. It is important that they carve out the opportunity for nurturing relations with family and friends; for time off; for saying no without feeling guilt; for stepping back from the daily frenzy of political life to see the trees through the forest, so to speak - and, thus, to be more relaxed, less stressed and better informed as they seek to do the people's business.

Fourth, it is important to recall the vital and essential role of government in society. There can be philosophical disputes about the nature of government and its constitutional limits, but that there is a need for government to serve the common good is indisputable: providing for public safety, education, transportation, criminal justice and a national defense system; levying taxes; regulating commerce and healthcare; overseeing labor, agriculture and human rights policy; protecting the environment and wildlife; coordinating interstate transactions; conducting foreign affairs and developing a social safety net, just to mention a few.

These policies and services are beyond the capacity of any individual or group or any single entity to provide. While government can always be reformed and must respect the principles of participation and subsidiarity, it must not be viewed as the enemy or the problem, which unfortunately seems to be the growing sentiment among many these days.

Must all programs be maintained? Must all policies remain embedded as if written in stone? Must all positions be retained? Of course not! Reimagining and redefining government are inevitable in adapting to new problems, changing fiscal realities and in eliminating what is no longer needed or beneficial.
All this requires extensive consultation, insightful analysis, and creative priority setting in making decisions which take into account all the implications of change both bad and good.

Fifth, elected officials and government policymakers must have a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. That the Good News is proclaimed to the poor and that the needs of the orphan, widow and stranger are met have always been presented in our Judeo-Christian heritage as the unfailing sign of God's kingdom in our midst.

These are difficult days for many within our society. There are 30 million Americans who are either unemployed, underemployed or who have dropped out of the pursuit of work from sheer frustration and fatigue. The poverty index this past year increased by 1.5 percent, which means there are 44 million Americans who are living beyond the federal poverty level, which is $22,000 a year for a family of four.

Even if the Healthcare Reform Act passed by the Congress and signed by the President last March survives legislative and judicial challenges, there will still be 13 million Americans who lack this basic human right.

Also, there is a growing income inequality in our society - the worst since the Gilded Age of the 19th century. The richest one percent of Americans now take home 24 percent of the income - up nine percent since 1976.

In 1980, the CEOs of the largest American companies earned 42 times as much as the average American worker, but this decade the gap has extended to 536 times as much.

In citing these statistics, I am not trying to promote class warfare. My point is simply this: There are sacrifices which will have to be made by all within our society - the rich, middle-class and the poor - if we are to find the way out of our current economic and social morass.

But the sacrifices must be fair and must not, as so often has been the case historically, be made disproportionally on the backs of those least able to afford it: the poor, the powerless and the voiceless, who so often have no one to speak for them or to advocate their interests.

As we move forward in addressing the challenges of 2011 and beyond, I hope these principles will be operative in our advocacy and public policy decision making.