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Pope reassures foster kids, says life events can make adults 'fragile'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When people are unable to love or accept a child with problems or illness, many times it's because they are too weak themselves to be able to bear someone else's vulnerabilities, Pope Francis told a group of children and young people who are wards of the state.

"If I have a giant rock, I can't put it on top of a cardboard box because the rock will crush the box," he said, explaining how some adults "don't have sufficient strength to bear fragility because they themselves are fragile."

The pope met with the group, which included minors living in foster care or receiving other forms of support and help from the Romanian-based NGO, called "FDP: Protagonists in Education." The Vatican released Feb. 19 a written transcript of the meeting, which was held at the Vatican Jan. 4.

The pope said he received the group's questions beforehand so he could better prepare to answer them. One question in particular, he said, had made him cry.

The question, which the young man read aloud at the audience, was why his mother didn't want or accept him. He said he was given up when he was 2 months old and when he turned 21 he got in touch with his birth mother and even stayed with her for two weeks; but he said it didn't go well and he was forced to leave.

"My father is dead. Am I at fault if she doesn't want me? Why doesn't she accept me?" the unidentified man asked the pope.

"Your mother loves you, but she doesn't know how to, she doesn't know how to express it. She can't because life is hard and unjust, and that love that is trapped inside her, she doesn't know how to say it or how to caress you," the pope said.

He urged the young man not to despair or become cynical, but to hold on to hope. "I promise to pray that one day she can show you that love."

These terrible situations have nothing to do with anyone's fault, the pope said. "It's a question of the immense fragility in adults, due to, in your case, much poverty, many social injustices that crush the smallest and the poorest."

"Spiritual poverty," too, is to blame, he said, because it leads to "hardened hearts, and it causes what seems impossible: a mother who abandons her own child. This is fruit of material and spiritual poverty, fruit of a mistaken, inhuman social system that hardens hearts, that leads to mistakes, makes it so we cannot find the right path."

This question, the pope said, was much like another question from another young person who asked, "Why are there parents who love healthy children and not those who are sick or have problems?"

"When facing other people's fragilities, such as illnesses, there are some adults who are weaker, who don't have enough strength to bear fragility and this is because they themselves are fragile," Pope Francis said.

Some parents are fragile or weak because they are human beings with their own limitations, sins and vulnerabilities, he said.

"And perhaps they were not lucky to be helped when they were young" to find a person who could take them by the hand and help them grow, become strong and overcome their weaknesses, he added.

"It's difficult to get help from fragile parents and sometimes it's us who has to help them" and not blame life for how it turned out, he said, but use one's own strength so "the rock doesn't crush the cardboard box."

Another young person asked, "Why did we end up with this destiny" or lot in life?

While no one knows "the why" or reason that allows these situations or suffering to happen, the pope said, Christians do know "the why, in the sense of the ending God wants to give" to each person's destiny -- that is, healing and new life.

No one knows why things start out a certain way, he said, but there is no doubt where people should be headed: finding and experiencing Christ who always loves and heals; "that's the why."

Another young person said that when a friend of theirs at the orphanage had died, the priest told them the boy died a sinner and would not go to heaven.

The pope said no one can ever claim someone -- even Judas -- has not gone to heaven. "God wants to bring all of us to heaven, nobody excluded."

God doesn't just sit around waiting for things to happen, he said. He is the Good Shepherd who is always searching for the lost sheep and is never upset when he finds them, even if they are "dirty with sin" or have been abandoned their whole lives.

"He embraces them and kisses them," puts them on his shoulders and brings them home, the pope said, adding that according to what he knows about Jesus, "I am sure this is what ... the Lord did with your friend."

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U.S. bishops declare national call-in day to urge Congress to save DACA

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- After the Senate failed Feb. 15 to garner the 60 votes needed to move a bill forward to protect the "Dreamers," officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced a "National Catholic Call-In Day to Protect Dreamers" Feb. 26.

"We are deeply disappointed that the Senate was not able to come together in a bipartisan manner to secure legislative protection for the Dreamers," the USCCB officials said in a joint statement Feb. 19.

"With the March 5th deadline looming, we ask once again that members of Congress show the leadership necessary to find a just and humane solution for these young people, who daily face mounting anxiety and uncertainty," they said.

The joint statement was issued by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president; Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president; and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration.

"We are also announcing a National Catholic Call-In Day to Protect Dreamers," the three prelates said. They asked U.S. Catholics "to call their members of Congress next Monday, Feb. 26, to protect Dreamers from deportation, to provide them a path to citizenship, and to avoid any damage to existing protections for families and unaccompanied minors in the process."

They added: "Our faith compels us to stand with the vulnerable, including our immigrant brothers and sisters. We have done so continually, but we must show our support and solidarity now in a special way. Now is the time for action."

By day's end Feb. 15, members of the U.S. Senate had rejected four immigration proposals, leaving it unclear how lawmakers will address overall immigration reform and keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in place.

Needing 60 votes for Senate passage, a bipartisan measure that included a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million Dreamers -- those eligible for DACA -- and $25 billion for a border wall failed by six votes. The final vote was 54-45. A bill the Trump administration was supporting was defeated 39 to 60. Two other bills also failed.

The U.S. House was pressing on with its own bill, which by mid-day Feb. 16 was not yet up for a floor vote. Described as "hard line" by opponents, it includes keeping DACA in place, funding a border wall, ending the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, limiting family-based visas, requiring employers to verify job applicants' immigration status and withholding federal grants from so-called "sanctuary" cities.

The U.S. House and Senate will be in recess for a week following the Presidents Day holiday.

The bishops and countless other immigration advocates have urged members of Congress to preserve DACA and protect the programs beneficiaries by passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which has long been proposed. The bill is what gives DACA recipients the "Dreamer" name.

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Update: Catholics urged to appeal to lawmakers in Congress to pass DACA bill now

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA

By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- By day's end Feb. 15, members of the U.S. Senate had rejected four immigration proposals, leaving it unclear how lawmakers will address overall immigration reform and keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in place.

Late that afternoon, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, issued an urgent alert to Catholics in his archdiocese to raise their voices "to support the 'Dreamers'" and contact their senators and representatives to vote for a bipartisan measure to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which is set to expire March 5.

"Time is running out for them," he said in a statement. "Congress must pass bipartisan legislation that would provide urgently needed relief for Dreamers."

Needing 60 votes for Senate passage, a bipartisan measure that included a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million Dreamers -- those eligible for DACA -- and $25 billion for a border wall failed by six votes. The final vote was 54-45. A bill the Trump administration was supporting was defeated 39 to 60. Two other bills also failed.

The U.S. House was pressing on with its own bill, which by mid-day Feb. 16 was not yet up for a floor vote. Described as "hard line" by opponents, it includes keeping DACA in place, funding a border wall, ending the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, limiting family-based visas, requiring employers to verify job applicants' immigration status and withholding federal grants from so-called "sanctuary" cities.

"As Catholics, we believe the dignity of every human being, particularly that of our immigrant and refugee children and youth, must be protected," Archbishop Wester said in his statement. "The sanctity of families must be upheld. The Catholic bishops have long supported undocumented youth brought to the United States by their parents, known as Dreamers, and continue to do so."

Other Catholic leaders decried lawmakers' failure to provide protections for DACA recipients.

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, called it "deeply heartbreaking."

"While thankful for the bipartisan majority support for protecting DACA youth, it is unconscionable that nearly 800,000 will continue to live in fear and uncertainty," she said Feb. 15.

"As it has for more than 100 years, Catholic Charities will continue to stand with and advocate on behalf of migrants and others in need. Not because they are migrants but because they are children of God," she said.

Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, echoed that disappointment, saying: "These young women and men have done nothing wrong and have known life only in the United States. The Dreamers who are enrolled at Notre Dame are also poised to make lasting contributions to the United States.

"We pray that our leaders will end the cruel uncertainty for these talented and dedicated young people who have so much to offer our nation," he said. "Regardless, Notre Dame will continue to support them financially, maintain their enrollment, provide expert legal assistance should that become necessary and do everything it can to support them."

Even if the legislation seems to be stalling, some like Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, still see hope.

"This is a setback, but the game is not over," he told Catholic News Service Feb. 16. "The silver lining is that the president's framework was roundly rejected, which could clear a path for a narrower bill that provides citizenship to undocumented youth without decimating the family immigration system. The U.S. bishops and the Catholic community can take the lead moving forward by continuing to highlight the moral necessity of offering protection to these young people."

Since September, when President Donald Trump announced he was ending the Obama-era program and told Congress to come up with a legislative fix, the U.S. Catholic bishops individually and as a body have been urging Congress to protect DACA.

Since 2012, DACA has allowed some individuals brought as minors to the United States by their parents without legal permission to receive a renewable two-year period of protection from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals had DACA status.

Since Trump rescinded the program, many immigration advocates have urged members of Congress to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which has long been proposed. The bill is what gives DACA recipients the "Dreamer" name.

In Arizona in late January, Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson and his predecessor, now-retired Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, urged passage of a "clean" bill, like the DREAM Act, to preserve DACA. Their commentary was posted on the diocesan Facebook page.

"While all would agree that reasonable border protection is needed and while clearly countries have a right to protect their borders, it is wrong to barter the lives of these young people by making their protection contingent on a wall or stringent border protection that is unreasonable and a waste of taxpayer's money. Congress should pass the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill," they said.

"We are at a moment in our nation's history that could define who we are as a people. Traditional American values of fairness and compassion are in conflict," they wrote. "This is a situation that is a moral test for our society; we must not fail."

In a Feb. 2 letter to Arkansas' senators and representatives in Congress, Little Rock Bishop Anthony B. Taylor called for grass-roots bipartisan support for "a just and humane solution for the Dreamers whose fate is in your hands." He, too, urged they pass a narrowly focused bill to save DACA.

"If enough members of Congress commit to focusing on a narrowly-tailored bipartisan solution, DACA-only legislation is possible (to) provide urgently needed relief for Dreamers," he wrote. "They and their families who have worked hard and made valuable contributions to our country deserve certainty and compassion. Dreamers should not be used as a political bargaining chip for other legislative proposals."

In a Feb. 2 op-ed in the Daily News, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, struck the same tone, predicting that if Congress tied the fate of these young people to a broader immigration reform measure backed by Trump, it would be "a recipe for getting nothing done, at least in the short term."

"There are times that our elected leaders must act because it is the right thing to do as human beings. This is one of those times," he said. "If the Dreamers are left unprotected, it will leave a stain on our nation's character for years to come. If we pursue justice and welcome them as full Americans, it would be one of our finest hours."

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Rhina Guidos contributed to this story.

 

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Copyright © 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Nuns withdraw from ministry in Mexican city wrought by violence

IMAGE: CNS photo/Francisca Meza, EPA

By David Agren

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- An order of nuns has withdrawn from an especially violent city after the parents and sister of one of the women religious were kidnapped and killed.

The Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, where two priests were murdered Feb. 5, said in a statement that the nuns from the "Comunidad Guadalupana" (Guadalupe Community) had withdrawn because of a lack of security, leaving a school it operated in the city of Chilapa without staff.

Schools in Chilapa had suspended classes from September to December because of the insecurity, the statement said.

The nuns' withdrawal from Chilapa is but the latest hardship for the Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, which serves parts of southern state of Guerrero, where the heroin trade has exploded in recent years. At least six priests have been murdered there since 2009.

Two priests, Fathers Germain Muniz García and Ivan Anorve Jaime, were shot dead as they drove back from Candlemas celebrations with four other passengers, three of whom were injured.

State prosecutor Xavier Olea Pelaez said originally that the priests had attended the celebrations, where there were armed individuals from three states and that a criminal group and a neighboring state had shot the priests. Olea also said a photo, showing Father Muniz holding an assault rifle and posing with masked men, prompted confusion.

Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, who has had a tense relationship with the state government, rejected the prosecutor's version of events as a "fairy tale," saying the photo was at least a year old and likely taken with members of a community security force in Father Muniz's hometown. The bishop said after speaking with survivors, who included Father Muniz's sister, that there had been an "incident" on the highway coming back from the celebrations.

"What they're trying to do is blame us," Bishop Rangel said of the prosecutor's statements. "According to them, we move among narcotics traffickers, hence the murdered priests."

In a Feb. 15 statement, the state government said the priests were not members of a criminal group and confirmed details voiced by the bishop.

The priests' murders highlighted a continuing dispute between the state government and Bishop Rangel, who has sought out cartel bosses for dialogue to calm the state and to allow his priests to serve poor and isolated communities sustained by planting opium poppies.

He also has spoken critically of alleged collusion between the cartels and politicians, the police and the army.

"All of Guerrero is controlled by narcotics traffickers. This is a fact," Bishop Rangel told Catholic News Service. "The authorities themselves have been displaced."

Chilapa has turned especially violent as drug cartels fight over the city, which is considered strategically important for transporting heroin to the United States.

At least 15 drug cartels are operating in Guerrero, according to state government spokesman Roberto Alvarez Heredia, who attributed the rising violence over territory and a burgeoning illegal heroin-supply business. He said the cartels engage in kidnapping and extortion because it provides quick cash to cover the "payrolls" for their foot soldiers.

Alvarez said the authorities "did not share" Bishop Rangel's opinions and did not look well on his meeting with criminal groups, but they did "respect" the bishop and his office.

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Update: Florida school shooting an act of 'horrifying evil,' says Miami archbishop

IMAGE: CNS photo/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters

By

MIAMI (CNS) -- Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski urged community members to come together "to support one another in this time of grief" after a shooting rampage Feb. 14 at a Broward County high school left at least 17 people dead and at least 14 injured.

"With God's help, we can remain strong and resolute to resist evil in all its manifestations," the archbishop said in a statement. "May God heal the brokenhearted and comfort the sorrowing as we once again face as a nation another act of senseless violence and horrifying evil."

In a late-night telegram to Archbishop Wenski, Pope Francis assured "all those affected by this devastating attack of his spiritual closeness."

"With the hope that such senseless acts of violence may cease," he invoked "divine blessings of peace and strength" on the South Florida community.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for prayer and healing. He urged all unite their "prayers and sacrifices for the healing and consolation" of those affected by the violence in South Florida and for a society "with fewer tragedies caused by senseless gun violence."

Law enforcement officials identified the shooting suspect as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons from the school where he opened fire -- Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

On the afternoon of Feb. 14, Cruz allegedly went on the shooting rampage shortly before school was to let out for the day. He was apprehended about an hour after shots were reported at the school. He is being held without bond on 17 counts of first-degree premeditated murder in the attack.

The suspect carried an AR-15 rifle and had "countless magazines," Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said. He also told reporters that of the 17 fatalities, "12 people died in the school, two were killed outside the school, one died on the street and another two died at the hospital." Several others were transported to the hospital. Details about the shooter's motive were still being pieced together.

Thousands of mourners remembered the victims at a candlelight vigil held near the high school the evening of Feb. 15. Still others attended a prayer service at Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Parkland.

Earlier in the day Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie called the school shooting "a horrific situation. It is a horrible day for us." Florida Gov. Rick Scott said, "This is just absolutely pure evil."

Pope Francis was "deeply saddened to learn of the tragic shooting," Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state said in telegram he sent to Archbishop Wenski on behalf of the pope. "He prays that Almighty God may grant eternal rest to the dead and healing and consolation to the wounded and those who grieve."

"We are deeply saddened by the shootings in Broward County, Florida, and by the needless and tragic loss of life," Cardinal DiNardo said in his statement. "May the mercy of God comfort the grieving families and sustain the wounded in their healing.

"Catholics and many other Christians have begun the journey of Lent today," he said. "I encourage us to unite our prayers and sacrifices for the healing and consolation of all those who have been affected by violence in these last weeks and for a conversion of heart, that our communities and nation will be marked by peace. I pray also for unity in seeking to build toward a society with fewer tragedies caused by senseless gun violence."

Archbishop Wenski added in his statement: "This Ash Wednesday, we begin our Lenten Season that calls us to penance and conversion. With God's help, we can remain strong and resolute to resist evil in all its manifestations."

Via Twitter, various U.S. bishops offered condolences and urged for something to be done to stop the violence.

"We must prevent those who are mentally ill from access to deadly firearms," said Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley. "We can and must do better for each other by coming together as a society with the resolve to stop this senseless violence."

News reports said the suspect had been in treatment for depression but had stopped seeking help.

Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, New York, via Twitter reminded others of St. John Paul II's warning 25 years ago that Western society is becoming a "culture of death."

"Sadly, he was right. Can we join together and reverse this?" he asked.

U.S. President Donald Trump via television Feb. 15 urged children who feel "lost, alone, confused or even scared" to seek help.

Various reports said the suspected shooter had recently lost his mother and was living with a friend's family while dealing with depression.

Trump also expressed condolences to families whose children died in the massacre.

"To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain. We are all joined together as one American family and your suffering is our burden also," Trump said. "No child, no teacher should ever be in danger in an American school. No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning."

Amid the outpouring of sympathyand calls for gun control and other action to stop mass shootings was a statement from the Sisters of Mercy. The community said its members were united in prayer and expressed grief, sympathy and love for "the victims, the families and the witnesses whose sense of safety in their schools has been irrevocably broken."

"However, we acknowledge that our prayer alone is not enough. Our faith and mercy tradition call us to unceasingly decry the industries, systems and culture that enable this terrible hate and violence," the sisters said in a statement.

They questioned how the more than 300 school shootings reported since Sandy Hook in 2012 could occur "when the entire country was outraged" following that horrific massacre in Connecticut.

"When will this stop?" they asked. "We will raise our individual and collective voices to speak out against legislation, the gun lobby, industry and organizations that promote and perpetuate a culture of hate and violence."

In Pennsylvania, Greensburg Bishop Edward C. Malesic said: "Prayers are powerful, and prayers are a necessary part of any Christian response to evil. But we have to start taking action to stop this carnage."

"Pray to God that in addition to helping the victims and their families heal from this unimaginable tragedy, that he burn in your heart the courage to stand up and combat this problem," he continued, "whether it is by advocating for better mental health services, working to help end bullying in our schools, responding to the needs of boys and young men so they don't see a gun massacre as a solution to their problems, working to promote respect for life, and, yes, advocating for common sense gun laws."


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Updated: Pope told Jesuits he regularly meets abuse survivors, journal reports

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis told a group of Jesuits in Peru that he often meets on Fridays with survivors of sex abuse.

The meetings, which he said do not always become public knowledge, make it clear that the survivors' process of recovery "is very hard. They remain annihilated. Annihilated," the pope had told the Jesuits Jan. 19 in Lima.

The scandal of clerical sexual abuse shows not only the "fragility" of the Catholic Church, he said, "but also -- let us speak clearly -- our level of hypocrisy."

The director of the Vatican press office Feb. 15 confirmed that the pope's meetings with abuse survivors is regular and ongoing.

"I can confirm that several times a month, the Holy Father meets victims of sexual abuse both individually and in groups," said Greg Burke, the director. "Pope Francis listens to the victims and tries to help them heal the serious wounds caused by the abuse they've suffered. The meetings take place with maximum reserve out of respect for the victims and their suffering."

On his trips abroad, Pope Francis usually spends time with local Jesuit communities and holds a question-and-answer session with them. Weeks later, a transcript of the exchange is published by Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal in Rome.

The transcribed and translated texts from Pope Francis' conversations with Jesuits in Chile Jan. 16 and in Peru three days later were released in Italian and English by Civilta Cattolica Feb. 15 with the pope's approval, the journal said.

The Jesuits in Chile had not asked the pope about the abuse scandal, even though the scandal was in the news, particularly because of ongoing controversy over the pope's appointment in 2015 of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, who had been accused of covering up the abuse committed by his mentor, Father Fernando Karadima.

Pope Francis met with the Jesuits in Santiago at the end of his first full day in Chile. Earlier that day he had met with "a small group" of people who had been abused by Chilean priests, according to the Vatican press office.

The meeting with the survivors and with the Chilean Jesuits took place days before Chilean reporters asked Pope Francis about the accusations against Bishop Barros and he replied, "The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It is calumny. Is that clear?"

The pope later apologized for the remark and, soon after returning to Rome, sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, an experienced investigator, to Chile to conduct interviews.

After the pope left Chile and flew on to Peru, the topic of abuse was even more pressing. In the context of a discussion about spiritual "consolation" and "desolation," one Jesuit told the pope, "I would like you to say something about a theme that leads to a lot of desolation in the church, and particularly among religious men and women and the clergy: the theme of sexual abuse. We are very disturbed by these scandals."

Abuse, Pope Francis replied, "is the greatest desolation that the church is suffering. It brings shame, but we need to remember that shame is also a very Ignatian grace." In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, encouraged people to contemplate Jesus' goodness and their own wickedness, asking for the grace to be ashamed.

The pope told the Peruvian Jesuits that it is a temptation for people in the church to seek a "consolation prize" by comparing statistics about abuse within the church and abuse within families or in other organizations.

But even if the abuse rate is lower in the church, the pope said, "it is terrible even if only one of our brothers is such! For God anointed him to sanctify children and adults, and instead of making them holy he has destroyed them. It's horrible! We need to listen to what someone who has been abused feels."

At that point the pope told the Jesuits in Peru, "On Fridays -- sometimes this is known and sometimes it is not known -- I normally meet some of them. In Chile I also had such a meeting."

The abuse scandal is "a great humiliation" for the Catholic Church, he said. "It shows not only our fragility, but also -- let us say so clearly -- our level of hypocrisy."

Pope Francis also told the Jesuits in Peru that "it is notable that there are some newer congregations whose founders have fallen into these abuses." He did not specify which congregations, however.

In the "new, prosperous congregations" where abuse has been a problem, he said, there is a combination of an abuse of authority, sexual abuse and "an economic mess. There is always money involved. The devil enters through the wallet."

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U.S. Catholics urged to join pope in prayers for South Sudan, Congo

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops encouraged Catholics across the nation to join with Pope Francis Feb. 23 for a special day of prayer and fasting for peace, with special prayers for Congo and South Sudan.

"Tragically, violent conflict rages in both nations" and "innocent families suffer" in both countries, said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston in a Feb. 14 statement.

He noted that South Sudan won its independence in 2011 "only to find itself a victim to corruption and a bloody civil war."

In Congo, "the government fails to honor the constitution as the Catholic Church courageously promotes a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the ruling and opposition parties," Cardinal DiNardo said.

Pope Francis announced the special day of prayer as he recited the Angelus prayer at the Vatican Feb. 4.

Cardinal DiNardo quoted Pope Francis' reflecting on the suffering caused by violent conflict: "Our heavenly Father always listens to his children who cry to him in sorrow and anguish, who 'heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds' (Psalm 147:3). I make a heartfelt appeal so that we also listen to this cry and, each one of us in his/her own conscience before God, ask ourselves, 'What can I do for peace?'"

The cardinal added: "Let us answer the Holy Father's call to pray and fast for peace, especially for the church and peoples of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And let us turn our fasting into almsgiving and support the work of Catholic Relief Services in both countries."

CRS, based in Baltimore, is the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency.

"May God bless South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and our world with peace," said Cardinal DiNardo.

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Lent is time to notice God's work, receive God's mercy, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- Lent is a time for Christians to get their hearts in sync with the heart of Jesus, Pope Francis said.

"Let the Lord heal the wounds of sin and fulfill the prophecy made to our fathers: 'A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh,'" the pope said Feb. 14, celebrating Mass and distributing ashes at the beginning of Lent.

After a brief prayer at the Benedictine's Monastery of St. Anselm, Pope Francis made the traditional Ash Wednesday procession to the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome's Aventine Hill for the Mass.

He received ashes on his head from 93-year-old Cardinal Jozef Tomko, titular cardinal of the basilica, and he distributed ashes to the cardinals present, three Benedictines, three Dominicans, an Italian couple with two children and members of the Pontifical Academy for Martyrs, which promotes the traditional Lenten "station church" pilgrimage in Rome.

In his homily, he said the church gives Christians the 40 days of Lent as a time to reflect on "anything that could dampen or even corrode our believing heart."

Everyone experiences temptation, the pope said. Lent is a time to pause and step back from situations that lead to sin, a time to see how God is at work in others and in the world and, especially, a time to return to the Lord, knowing that his mercy is boundless.

Lent, he said, is a time "to allow our hearts to beat once more in tune with the vibrant heart of Jesus."

Hitting the reset button, the pope said, requires taking a pause from "bitter feelings, which never get us anywhere" and from a frantic pace of life that leaves too little time for family, friends, children, grandparents and God.

People need to pause from striving to be noticed, from snooty comments and "haughty looks," he said; instead, they need to show tenderness, compassion and even reverence for others.

"Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence," the pope said.

Use the pauses of Lent "to look and contemplate," he suggested. Christians can learn from seeing the gestures others make that "keep the flame of faith and hope alive."

"Look at faces alive with God's tenderness and goodness working in our midst," the pope said, pointing to the faces of families who struggle to survive yet continue to love, the wrinkled faces of the elderly "that reflect God's wisdom at work" and the faces of the sick and their caregivers who "remind us that the value of each person can never be reduced to a question of calculation or utility."

"See the remorseful faces of so many who try to repair their errors and mistakes, and who from their misfortune and suffering, fight to transform their situations and move forward," Pope Francis said.

But most of all, he said, "see and contemplate the real face of Christ crucified out of love for everyone, without exception. For everyone? Yes, for everyone. To see his face is an invitation filled with hope for this Lenten time, in order to defeat the demons of distrust, apathy and resignation.

The invitation, he said, is to "return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy, who awaits you."

"Return without fear to join in the celebration of those who are forgiven," the pope said. "Return without fear to experience the healing and reconciling tenderness of God."

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Copyright © 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Sisters from Minnesota Catholic schools play on separate Olympic teams

IMAGE: CNS photo/Adam Bettcher, Reuters

By Matthew Davis

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- Few schools can claim an Olympic athlete among their alumni base.

Even fewer schools have more than one, especially from the same family. But Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood and St. Odilia School in Shoreview -- both Catholic schools -- are proud to make this claim.

That's because Hannah and Marissa Brandt, graduates of both schools, play on women's Olympic ice hockey teams competing in this year's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Hannah Brandt, a recent standout with the University of Minnesota women's hockey team, is a forward for the U.S. Olympic team, which defeated Finland 3-1 on Feb. 11 and will play Olympic Athletes from Russia Feb. 13. Marissa Brandt, who was adopted as a baby from South Korea, used her birth name, Park-Yoon Jung, for the Olympics and plays defense for the combined Koreas, which lost 8-0 to Switzerland Feb. 10.

Hill-Murray and St. Odilia recognized the sisters' achievements in the weeks leading up to the games. The St. Odilia school office has a display of the Brandts' successes.

Brian Ragatz, St. Odilia principal, said students are encouraged knowing that these athletes sat in the same desks as they do. He said it "really inspires them a little bit more to go out and reach their goal, because it seems a little bit more attainable."

Students at Hill-Murray held a red, white and blue dress-up day during National Catholic Schools Week. They wore the colors to raise funds for parents of Olympians to attend the games.

Hill-Murray had T-shirts and sweatshirts made to celebrate the Brandts. The school will also televise their games in the commons area.

Principal Erin Herman said the Brandt sisters excelled on and off the ice in high school.

"Not only are they great athletes, both Hannah and Marissa were outstanding students and all-around wonderful young women," Herman said. "They are both humble and kind; you would not have known they were Olympic athletes when you met them in the hall."

At St. Odilia, music teacher Carrie Northrop told the elementary school students about the schools' two Olympians, whom she taught.

"This had been a goal of Hannah's since she was a little girl. This was something she talked about when she was going through elementary school," Northrop said.

Northrop said Marissa Brandt originally was more of a figure skater but chose hockey because of her closeness to her sister. Marissa Brandt had a standout career at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter before making the Korean team.

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Davis is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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Copyright © 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

'Monumental' FEMA shift opens door to disaster funds for religious groups

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Ginny Blasi

By David Karas

TRENTON, N.J. (CNS) -- Superstorm Sandy-weary diocesan and parish officials lauded a Federal Emergency Management Agency policy change announced earlier this year that reverses a prior exclusion for religious organizations and houses of worship from applying for federal aid to recover from natural disasters.

"This change in eligibility for FEMA public assistance to religious organizations is monumental," said Joe Cahill, director of the Diocese of Trenton's Department of Risk Management.

Cahill's comments came before the Feb. 9 passage of the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act by Congress as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act. The bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump, codifies this change in FEMA policy.

The fairness provision directs FEMA to make disaster relief assistance available to houses of worship "on the same terms as other nonprofit entities," said a statement released the same day by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had urged its passage.

These provisions ensure that houses of worship are treated fairly. That's good not only for houses of worship but for the communities that depend on them," added the statement issued jointly by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

When it announced the policy change Jan. 2, FEMA attributed it to a 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court decision last June, which held that Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri should not have been denied a public benefit just because it is a church.

In urging Congress to pass the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, the U.S. bishops and others also cited the Trinity Lutheran case.

Damage to Texas churches and Florida synagogues following hurricanes Harvey and Irma sparked additional legal challenges, as well as lawsuits filed against FEMA. In the fall, members of Congress -- including Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey -- advocated for legislative changes to allow for disaster relief funding eligibility for houses of worship.

In an interview prior to the federal budget bill's passage, Cahill said the ongoing debate over the funding has resonated across the Diocese of Trenton, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy.

"The memory of Sandy remains at the Diocese of Trenton," Cahill told The Monitor, newspaper of The Trenton Diocese. "Many parishes on the barrier islands and other coastal areas have not fully recovered. Some homes remain abandoned or have been demolished.

"Parishioner count has declined in some locations as local economies suffered from the effects of the storm and (as) people moved away for reason of employment or available housing."

Some 65 individual parish properties incurred more than $14 million in damages and cleanup costs in Superstorm Sandy, Cahill said.

Considerable funds were necessary for removing debris, pumping out flood waters, decontaminating flooded buildings and demolishing water-damaged infrastructure, with churches, chapels, schools, community centers, food pantries, rectories, convents, offices, cemeteries and other diocesan and church properties among the affected sites.

"If FEMA assistance was available early on, it would have eased the cash flow burden on the Diocese and parishes," Cahill said, "as the cost of emergency work in the early days after the storm was significant and could have covered a portion of the flood insurance deductible for a named storm."

Under the prior review process, Cahill said that a religious organization would have to prove that assistance was for flood damage to buildings that were not religious in nature -- but even then, the process was lengthy.

Msgr. Edward J. Arnister, pastor of St. Rose Parish, remembers all too well the significant damage his parish and school community sustained at the hands of Superstorm Sandy. It took four weeks before the church could reopen, and all electric, heat and air conditioning systems had to be replaced. The parish center and first floor of St. Rose High School had to be completely restored and rebuilt, and the roof of St. Rose Grammar School was torn off by wind and had to be replaced.

"I can't emphasize enough that good planning and management by the Diocese of Trenton in having adequate flood insurance saved the day," Msgr. Arnister told The Monitor. "St. Rose would have been in serious financial difficulty without that." FEMA did provide some limited funding for recovery efforts.

In Congress, Smith introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act first in 2013, and again in 2015 and 2017.

Houses of worship "are hubs in our communities for humanitarian assistance year-round, and especially during times of natural disaster," he said in an interview before the vote on his legislation as part of the budget bill.

Smith praised the Diocese of Trenton for its "professional and meticulous" response to Superstorm Sandy, noting the significant role that religious organizations play in the wake of a natural disaster.

"So many churches are directly involved in disaster relief and bring with them a cadre of committed volunteers," he said.

"In every federal disaster, local synagogues, churches -- their schools, community centers, and physical houses of worship -- provide supplies, food, medicines, shelters and coordination of volunteer services," Smith said.

"Without them, our national recovery efforts would be significantly diminished and as such, churches should not be discriminated against when applying for federal assistance," he added.

James King, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference -- the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops -- visited Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which left in its path significant devastation. King was on hand to support Catholic Charities efforts on the island.

Reflecting on his experience, King shared his observations on how church communities stepped up to provide support to victims, despite the significant damage sustained by those communities themselves.

"I worked with local parishes that converted parts of church buildings into distribution centers for essential items like food and water, despite damage to those buildings," King said. "Throughout my deployment, I heard numerous times that if it were not for the Catholic Church having numerous facilities throughout the island, some towns would not have received these essential items."

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Karas is a correspondent for The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton.

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Copyright © 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.