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As immigration lawyer, woman religious helps reduce clients' anxiety

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gerald Wutkowski Jr., Catholic Spirit

By Marianne Zanko Komek

PERTH AMBOY, N.J. (CNS) -- In 2013, while volunteering in India, Graciela Colon first heard the inner stirrings of Jesus calling her to a religious vocation.

For three weeks, she helped St. Teresa of Kolkata's Missionary Sisters of Charity, minister to abandoned children, some of whom were severely disabled. They took the children off the streets and cared for them.

"It was a life-changing experience that gave me deeper insight into the preciousness of life," Sister Graciela told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. "Although I knew that I was not called to enter the Missionary Sisters, in the chaos of Calcutta, I felt such a deep peace that awakened in me the desire to become a religious."

A native of the Dominican Republic, she was born in 1985. Her parents are Fior and Rafael Hernandez. She is her mother's only child. Sugeirys Colon is her older half-sister. When she was 4, her family moved to New York, first to the Bronx then and later to Manhattan.

In 2007, Sister Graciela earned an undergraduate degree at Fordham University, majoring in political science at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. A year later, she began working with nonprofit immigration organizations including Wind of the Spirit Immigrant in Morristown, New Jersey. In 2010, she graduated from the Benjamin N. Cordozo School of Law in New York City and began a career as an immigration lawyer.

Upon returning home from India, she researched various religious communities on the internet and found one that she decided to visit -- the Sisters of Christian Charity, Daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception at the Mallinckrodt Convent in Mendham, New Jersey.

Members of the order labor in the fields of education, health care, parish ministry and social justice. Many work in the Diocese of Metuchen.

"I was drawn to the eucharistic spirituality and joy of the sisters and their enthusiasm. It felt like home to me," she said of the visit.

In August, Sister Graciela pronounced her vows as a Sister of Christian Charity during the Liturgy of the First Profession. A month later, she began working as a lawyer at the Catholic Charities, Diocese of Metuchen's Immigration Services, in Perth Amboy.

What she likes most about being a religious is being totally dedicated to God and to the service of his people in the church. She brings that sense of compassion to her clients, advocating for the poor and the immigrant who often suffer at the hands of unscrupulous attorneys and employers, and who may not speak English.

Sister Graciela, who speaks Spanish and serves many clients of Hispanic descent, also assists people born in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Catholic Charities serves all regardless of religious affiliation.

As an immigration lawyer, Sister Graciela said it is an advantage being a religious because her clients trust her because of the good experiences that they had with religious sisters. Clients say, "As soon as I saw you, I knew that everything was going to be fine."

While her daughter translated, one Middle Eastern woman who was a Muslim kept smiling at Sister Graciela. The woman had positive experiences with Catholic religious sisters who taught her.

What she likes most about her ministry as an immigration attorney is helping her clients to attain a sense of peace and reduce their anxiety, especially at this time.

"Once you're able to obtain for them a benefit status in the U.S. or adjust their documentation, they're able to move forward with their lives," she said. It reduces the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen to them or to their children.

Sister Graciela finds it a blessing to reunite families. There are many rumors that create fear of deportation and she dispels the myths. "We find solutions whenever we can and if we can't, we're honest, tell them their rights, and give them some resources. We tell them there may be reform for status in the future," she said.

Sister Graciela is at the Perth Amboy office three days a week and at Holy Family Parish Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, two days a week.

For women discerning a religious vocation, she advises, "Cast out all fear," as St. John Paul II said. "Jesus wouldn't place a desire in your heart that he doesn't want fulfilled."

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Zanko Komek is a correspondent for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

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More must be done to include women in church bodies, pope says

IMAGE: (CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Although people may have different ways of praying or of serving their parish or the poor, the Catholic Church needs laity, priests, religious, parishes and lay movements to collaborate in order to be truly "catholic," Pope Francis said.

More also must be done to include women in roles of advising and governance, but without reducing them to having just a "functional" role, he said, speaking Nov. 16 to members and consultants of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, which was holding its first plenary assembly since its creation in 2016.

The task of dicastery members and consultants, he said, is to see the world around them with "the heart of the church," that is, to go beyond one's personal, local interests to seeing the wider, "catholic" view of the universal church and the whole world.

The church, as a mother, wishes for "harmony among all her children and does not engage in favoritism or partiality," he said.

"Therefore, it is important also for (the dicastery) to always propose positive models of collaboration among laity, priests and consecrated men and women, among priests and faithful, among diocesan and parish organizations, and lay movements and associations, among young and old, to avoid sterile comparisons and rivalries and always to encourage fraternal collaboration with the aim of the common good of the one family which is the church."

The identity and mission of the lay faithful involves being able to look upon others as a fellow brother or sister. "You are not 'social engineers' or 'ecclesiastics' who draw up strategies to apply in the whole world to spread a certain religious ideology among laity," the pope said.

"You are called to think and act like 'brothers and sisters in the faith,'" rooted in a personal encounter with God, nourished by the sacraments, he said. They must have a life of prayer and closeness to God, he added.

The pope warned against the "clericalization" of the laity, pointing specifically to problems he has seen with permanent deacons. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, he said, there was a common tendency to want to turn excellent laymen into deacons or when someone became a permanent deacon he would end up as a "wannabe" priest.

Deacons are "custodians of service" in a diocese, not "first-class altar boys or second-class priests. This (issue of) clericalization is an important point," he said.

The second important point, he said, is not to be afraid to do more in putting women in advisory and governance roles.

Women can be the head of a Vatican dicastery, he said. In fact, two women were on the final list of candidates for leading the Secretariat for the Economy -- a position filled Nov. 15 when Pope Francis named Jesuit Father Juan Antonio Guerrero.

The role of women must be more than just "functional," he said.

"What is very important is women's advice," he said, citing specifically the "enriching" and very different perspective provided by women attending the abuse summit at the Vatican in February.


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Efforts to protect life include promoting disarmament, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A commitment to defending and protecting human life requires a commitment to ending wars and to promoting nuclear disarmament, Pope Francis said.

"Using nuclear weapons is immoral," the pope said in a video message released Nov. 18. The video was a greeting to the people of Japan in advance of the pope's arrival there Nov. 23.

"The theme chosen for my visit is 'Protect All Life,'" the pope said in the video. The bishops of Japan chose the theme from the prayer Pope Francis wrote to conclude his encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

In the video, the pope said that the "strong instinct, which resonates in our hearts, to defend the value and dignity of every human person acquires particular importance in the face of the threats to peaceful coexistence that the world faces today, especially in armed conflicts."

Japan knows "the suffering caused by war," he said. "Together with you, I pray that the destructive power of nuclear weapons will never again be unleashed in human history. Using nuclear weapons is immoral."

The people of Japan also know how important it is to promote a "culture of dialogue and fraternity, especially among the different religious traditions," the pope said, adding that he hoped his visit would encourage people "on the path of mutual respect and encounter."

Expressing his hope "to appreciate that great natural beauty that characterizes your nation," the pope said he also would encourage efforts "to promote and strengthen the protection of life that includes the earth, our common home."


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Having a friend who is poor will help you get to heaven, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The poor are the church's treasure because they give every Christian a chance to "speak the same language as Jesus, that of love," Pope Francis said, celebrating Mass for the World Day of the Poor.

"The poor facilitate our access to heaven," the pope said in his homily Nov. 17. "In fact, they open up the treasure that never ages, that which joins earth and heaven and for which life is truly worth living: love."

Thousands of poor people and volunteers who assist them joined Pope Francis for the Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. After the liturgy and the recitation of the Angelus prayer in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis hosted a luncheon for 1,500 of them while thousands more throughout the city enjoyed a festive meal at soup kitchens, parish halls and seminaries.

Served by 50 volunteer waiters in white jackets, the pope and his guests in the Vatican audience hall enjoyed a three-course meal of lasagna, chicken in a mushroom cream sauce with potatoes, followed by dessert, fruit and coffee.

To speak Jesus' language, the pope had said in his homily, one must not speak of oneself or follow one's own interests but put the needs of others first.

"How many times, even when doing good, the hypocrisy of 'I' reigns: I do good, but so people will think I'm good; I help, but to attract the attention of someone important," Pope Francis said.

Instead, he said, the Gospel encourages charity, not hypocrisy; "giving to someone who cannot pay you back, serving without seeking a reward or something in exchange."

In order to excel at that, the pope said, each Christian must have at least one friend who is poor.

"The poor are precious in the eyes of God," he said, because they know they are not self-sufficient and know they need help. "They remind us that that's how you live the Gospel, like beggars before God."

"So," the pope said, "instead of being annoyed when they knock on our doors, we can welcome their cry for help as a call to go out of ourselves, to welcome them with the same loving gaze God has for them."

"How beautiful it would be if the poor occupied the same place in our hearts that they have in God's heart," Pope Francis said.

In the day's Gospel reading from St. Luke, the crowds ask Jesus when the world will end and how they will know. They want immediate answers, but Jesus tells them to persevere in faith.

Wanting to know or to have everything right now "is not of God," the pope said. Breathlessly seeking things that will pass takes one's mind off the things that last; "we follow the clouds that pass and lose sight of the sky."

Worse, he said, "attracted by the latest ruckus, we no longer find time for God and for our brother or sister living alongside us."

"This is so true today!" the pope said. "In yearning to run, to conquer everything and do it immediately, those who lag behind annoy us. And they are judged as disposable. How many elderly people, how many unborn babies, how many persons with disabilities and poor people are judged useless. One rushes ahead without worrying that the distances are increasing, that the lust of a few increases the poverty of many."

The pope's celebration of the World Day of the Poor concluded a week of special events and services for the homeless, the poor and immigrants in Rome.

The poor served by the city's Catholic soup kitchens and Vatican charities were invited Nov. 9 to a free concert in the Vatican audience hall featuring Nicola Piovani, the Oscar-winning composer, and the Italian Cinema Orchestra.

From Nov. 10-17 dozens of physicians, nurses and other volunteers staffed a large medical clinic set up in St. Peter's Square. The clinic offered flu shots, physical exams, routine lab tests and many specialty services often needed by people who live and sleep on the streets, including podiatry, diabetes and cardiology.

As rain beat down on the square Nov. 15, Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to the clinic and spent about an hour visiting with the clients and volunteers.

Afterward, the pope went across the street to inaugurate a new shelter, day center and soup kitchen for the poor in the Palazzo Migliori, a four-story, Vatican-owned building that had housed a community of women religious. When the community moved out, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, began renovating it.

The building now can accommodate 50 overnight guests as well as offering a drop-in center for the poor and housing a large commercial kitchen. Meals will be served at the building, but also will be cooked there for distribution to the homeless who live around two Rome train stations.

The Community of Sant'Edigio, a Rome-based lay movement that already runs soup kitchens and a variety of programs for the city's poor, will manage and staff the shelter.


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Decline in baptisms leads Quebec church to rethink children's spirituality

IMAGE: CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence

By Philippe Vaillancourt

QUEBEC CITY (CNS) -- The great doorway to growing in the Christian faith is narrowing from year to year in Quebec as baptisms have significantly declined in since 2012 and there's no indication the trend will reverse.

Confronted with a shift away from traditional practices of transmitting the faith in childhood, leaders in the Quebec church are rethinking how to approach children's spirituality.

Data compiled by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec shows the number baptisms declined from 42,213 (of 88,933 births) in 2012 to 30,394 (of 83,900 births) in 2017. The figures represent a 28% decline in five years.

Clement Vigneault, director of the Catechesis Office of Quebec, is closely monitoring the situation. Before the question of baptizing and catechizing children is even raised, he sees a growing concern -- especially among grandparents -- to consider the spiritual life of children.

"There's a trend of waiting to baptize children in order to give them the opportunity to choose later," he said. "But how will they choose if they have never been accompanied in their spiritual life?"

Elaine Champagne, associate professor of theology and religious studies at Laval University, has been working on children's spirituality for several years. It was while working in pediatric health care for eight years that she developed her interest in the topic.

She noted that spiritual care in health facilities was mainly oriented toward parents and that children sometimes were forgotten. She said, however, that being interested in this "sacred, very personal space" in children is just as important.

"You have to be respectful and listen a lot," Champagne said.

Champagne's research has enabled her to identify three modes to better grasp children's spirituality in everyday life.

The "existential" mode is interested in how they live in the present. In the "sensitive" mode, children communicate with their bodies and senses. "Something is said all over their bodies. The whole body expresses it, their being is coherent," Champagne said. In the "relational" mode, it's about the relationship to oneself, to others, to God and to one's environment.

Champagne invites adults to go beyond the image they many have of children's spirituality, which is sometimes made up of projections. Certainly, the children have a "beautiful capacity for wonder," but it's also necessary to know how to respect that "in this state of becoming, there's fragility, a dependence."

The Rev. Jean-Daniel Williams is working on a doctorate in practical theology on children's ministries. As a part-time chaplain at McGill University and an associate priest at the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, he works with children of all ages.

"There's of course a difference between a 3-year-old and a 10-year-old child. However, it should be emphasized that children are completely human from the beginning. If we see children as adults in the making, we don't respect the reality of their current spirituality," he explained.

For Rev. Williams, children are the "most spiritual beings in the world" simply because they ask so many questions. "It's a bit cliche to talk about children always asking, 'Why,'" he said. "But isn't the very foundation of religion people asking, 'Why?'"

Curiosity and openness are, he said, two distinct marks of children's spirituality.

"It's important to understand that in institutional religion, there has been a tradition of having a normalized path: baptism, communion and so on. But the questions "Why I exist?" "How to make the right moral choice?" "Do I belong to something bigger than myself?" remain regardless of the institutional or family context," said Rev. Williams, who is the father of 11-year-old twins.

Rev. Williams reminds that it's difficult to find the right balance to recognize the child as he or she is without treating the child as an adult. He believes that churches have not always been able to set an example in this regard.

"Jesus says we must attract children with all our hearts. Otherwise we are not the church."

Author of "Entre ciel et mere" ("Between Heaven and Mother"), a book of personal reflections on her role as a mother concerned about transmitting her Catholic faith, Valerie Roberge-Dion, believes that from a Christian perspective, spirituality is marked "by the great criterion of love."

"The child awakens to love as he or she grows," Roberge-Dion, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Quebec, said of her three children, ages 7, 5 and 2. "I can see in my children that they are gradually opening up to others, becoming capable of empathy, small attentions. ... I help them to be attentive to what's stirring in them and to name the emotions that color their inner life.

"As believers, my husband and I have exposed our children to our ways of growing in faith: Masses, activities with other believing families. We also take time every evening to do a little prayer with the family, very often chaotic. But we are trying to create a moment of communion, which is the most important thing," she said.

In order to allow children younger than 5 years old to "awaken to the faith while having fun," officials from the Office of Faith Education of the Archdiocese of Montreal asked Christiane Boulva to develop what would become "La P'tite Pasto," or "little pastoral." Its English version is called Little Hearts Playgroup.

The program covers 60 themes over a three-year period. It is being used in more than 100 parishes throughout Quebec as well as in Alberta, Manitoba and Yukon.

Boulva, a mother who was interested in faith development in children, is concerned about the lack of places where children can hear about spirituality today.

"In the future, our society must succeed in reaching them where they will be and offer them and their parents activities adapted to their aspirations, their dreams and the challenges they face on a daily basis by directly meeting their needs," Boulva said.

In doing so, it is not necessary to be afraid to discuss spirituality with children at an early stage, she said, cautioning parents to beware that such efforts are not so much a question of wanting to "explain" God as it is of allowing children to "get to know him on a daily basis."

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Editors: Information about the Little Hearts Playgroup is online at

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Vaillancourt is editor of Presence info in Montreal.


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Catechism will be updated to include ecological sins, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Anushree Fadnavis, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Following through on a proposal made at the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, Pope Francis said there are plans to include a definition of ecological sins in the church's official teaching.

"We should be introducing -- we were thinking -- in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the sin against ecology, ecological sin against the common home," he told participants at a conference on criminal justice Nov. 15.

Members of the International Association of Penal Law were in Rome Nov. 13-16 for the conference, which centered on the theme, "Criminal Justice and Corporate Business."

Pope Francis also denounced the abuse of law and legislation to justify acts of violence and hatred.

Today's throwaway culture, as well as other "psycho-social phenomenon" pose threats to the common good while insidiously promoting a "culture of hate," he said. These threats, he added, often take the form of "symbols and actions that are typical of Nazism."

"I must confess," the pope said, departing from his prepared remarks, "that when I hear some speeches, some person in charge of order or the government, I am reminded of Hitler's speeches in 1934 and 1936."

"They are actions typical of Nazism that, with its persecution of Jews, gypsies and people of homosexual orientation, represent a negative model par excellence of a throwaway culture and hate," the pope said. "That is what happened in that time and today, these things are reappearing."

Today's "current of punitivism, which claims to solve social problems through the penal system," has not worked, the pope said. Instead, an "elementary sense of justice" must be applied so that "certain conduct for which corporations are usually responsible, does not go unpunished."

Chief among those crimes, he added, are acts that "can be considered as 'ecocide': the massive contamination of air, land and water resources, the large-scale destruction of flora and fauna, and any action capable of producing an ecological disaster or destroying an ecosystem."

Pope Francis also called on the international community to recognize ecocide as a "fifth category of crime against peace."

According to the Rome Statute, which was adopted by the International Criminal Court in 1998, the four core international crimes currently established are: crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

"On this occasion, and through you," the pope told conference participants, "I would like to appeal to all the leaders and representatives in this sector to help with efforts in order to ensure the adequate legal protection of our common home."

In the synod's final document, bishops defined ecological sin as a sin against God and future generations that "manifests itself in acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment."

A true model of justice, the pope said, can find "its perfect incarnation in the life of Jesus" who, after being treated violently and put to death, brought "a message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation."

"These are values that are difficult to achieve but necessary for the good life of all," the pope said. "I don't think it's a utopia, but it's a big challenge. A challenge that we must all address if we are to treat the problems of our civilized coexistence in a way that is rational, peaceful and democratic."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju


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Pastoral against racism is starting conversations, healing, bishops told

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Carol Zimmermann

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- One year after the U.S. bishops approved their pastoral letter against racism, the document is hardly just sitting on a shelf but is the basis for listening sessions in dioceses around the country and is an educational tool for individuals, schools and parishes, the bishops were told Nov. 13.

Bishop Shelton T. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, described the attention the letter is getting around the country in a presentation on the final day of the bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore.

He reminded the bishops that in the two years since the ad hoc committee was formed, it has been "hard at work as the church works to acknowledge past harms and cultivate racial reconciliation."

The document, titled "Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love -- A Pastoral Letter Against Racism," sold out its first 2,000 copies eight months after it was printed and was recently sent out for a second printing. It is available online in English and Spanish along with study guides at

Bishop Fabre said the ad hoc committee's most important work has been the listening sessions that began last August. So far there have been 13 sessions around the country, and more are scheduled for next year.

These sessions spring from the very words of the pastoral letter: "We must create opportunities to hear the painful stories of those whose lives have been affected by racism."

In these sessions, starting with the first one in St. Louis, the bishop said the committee's members have heard both the hurt caused by racism and the hope that church and society will root it out.

Some of the participants, he said, have shared experiences they have rarely, if ever, spoken of before.

Diocesan bishops attending these sessions have been linked to the laity in ways that open "new possibilities for further healing," Bishop Fabre said, adding the bishops' committee is helping these dioceses with follow-up sessions or other ways to implement the pastoral letter.

All the offices and committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are committed to ending racism, he said. He highlighted in particular, the educational outreach of the USCCB's Justice, Peace and Human Development Office, which is helping to develop a children's book in response to the pastoral on racism called "Everyone Belongs."

The ad hoc committee has addressed several national Catholic organizations about their possible use of the pastoral letter. It also is working on developing catechetical resources for schools and supporting or developing Catholic college programs, seminary training and ecumenical efforts.

In closing, he said the "single cry" committee members hear most often at listening sessions is that "the laity never seems to hear homilies on racism."

"I would ask you to work with me to change that perception," he told the bishops, "so that we all will come to hear regularly, and with one voice, that racism is opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that the Catholic Church in the United States is committed to standing against the evil and sin of racism with all its strength."

To this end, he said his committee would seek to provide more homily resources to bishops and priests.

He also stressed that the committee's work "goes beyond simply calling out the evil of racism" but involves urging "all people to see the deeper reality of God's purpose and the in creating all of us with unique and unrepeatable value."

The bishop didn't say the work was easy, but he finished his presentation by saying: "With God's grace our efforts will bear fruit in these challenging times."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim


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Tone somber at prayer vigil for those facing execution in weeks ahead

IMAGE: CNS photo/Natalie Hoefer, The Criterion

By Natalie Hoefer

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (CNS) -- Nearly 100 people were bathed in light as they gathered for a prayer vigil at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Terre Haute, not far from the Federal Correctional Complex.

Despite the lights and bright glow, the tone was heavy and somber. They were gathered to pray for the federal death-row inmates and all those affected by their pending executions scheduled for December and January at the prison.

Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson led the faithful in an hourlong prayer vigil before the Blessed Sacrament.

"It's so important that we pray before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament tonight," he said in a reflection he offered as part of the Nov. 5 service. "What needs to remain constant is keeping Christ at the center, so that we are always aware of our dignity and the dignity of others, whether it be perpetrators of horrible crimes, or their victims, or their families, or those who work in correctional facilities."

Christ must remain the constant, but church doctrine can develop, the archbishop noted. He explained that when Pope Francis announced in August 2018 that the death penalty was no longer admissible, it wasn't a decision the pontiff "just pulled out of the air."

"It was something that had been developing through the papacy of St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI," Archbishop Thompson said. "And this is a doctrine that developed along with the development of society."

Such advances in the penal system have led to the situation today, he said, of there no longer being "the threat that there was 20 or 30 years ago in (inmates) escaping."

"And so our doctrine develops along with our society -- and that's frustrating for some," Archbishop Thompson noted. "Some of us like very black and white ways of living."

So it was in the time of Christ, he said. There were clear rules with no exceptions: a woman caught committing adultery was to be stoned -- no exceptions. A tax collector, like Zacchaeus, was a traitor and therefore a sinner -- no exceptions.

"But Jesus came along and started changing things, mixing things up," said the archbishop. "People saw the sin and the sinner. Jesus knew (Zacchaeus') sin, but he also saw the dignity of a child of God. ... When they were getting ready to stone the woman caught committing adultery, people saw a sinner. Jesus saw the dignity of a daughter of God."

To give a more current example, Archbishop Thompson described how in the span of two weeks, he gave viaticum -- a term used for the Eucharist given to a dying person during their final rites -- to both his elderly aunt and to a Catholic man slated for execution.

"In the time of Jesus, when Romans buried someone, they put a coin in their mouth," he explained. "The coin was meant to pay the toll to the next life. Viaticum for Christians is the way of saying Jesus paid the price. He's paid our toll from this life to the next.

"When I gave viaticum last week to my aunt who was dying in a hospital bed in her home, and when I gave viaticum to this inmate through the prison bars, Jesus saw the same dignity in both of them."

So, he continued, "we pray that the Lord continue to not only transform society, transform our country, transform the injustice surrounding the death penalty, but to continue to transform our hearts and our witness to the dignity and sacredness of every human person."

The sermon was followed by prayers of petition for families of all those facing execution; for civic leaders to commit to respecting every human life from conception to natural death and to ending the use of the death penalty; and for those who work in the prison system.

As for the five men facing execution, they were prayed for by name, including their current execution date: Daniel Lewis Lee, Dec. 9; Wesley Ira Purkey, Dec. 13; Alfred Bourgeois, Jan. 13, 2020; Dustin Lee Honken, Jan. 15, 2020; and Lezmond Mitchell, whose execution date has been "stayed," or delayed.

After the vigil in an interview with The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese, Archbishop Thompson shared more about problems with the death penalty.

"The poor don't have the means to defend themselves (legally), so they're more likely to end up on death row," he said. "And we know there have been instances where (people) have been found guilty and found later to be innocent, sometimes after they'd already been executed.

"And we also know that the carrying out of the execution doesn't go smoothly. It tortures not just the person, but everyone who's there to witness it."

He also spoke personally about his hourlong visit recently with the Catholic inmate scheduled for execution, a visit the man requested.

"Doors closing and opening, keys rattling and all the security -- there's just a heaviness to it all," he described.

The convicted man was received into full communion with the Catholic Church about eight years ago, "a credit to the Sister of Providence who visited with him," the archbishop said.

With St. Mary-of-the-Woods, the order's motherhouse, just west of Terre Haute, several of the Sisters of Providence are involved in prison ministry at the federal correctional facility.

"I was impressed with this man," Archbishop Thompson said. He described him as "very intelligent" with "a good sense of Scripture and theology. "And yet, what he was convicted of was a horrible crime. ... It's a lot of mixed emotions," he admitted.

Sacred Heart parish life coordinator Barbara Black admits that within the parish, reactions to the upcoming executions have been mixed.

"Some think they should not do capital punishment," she said. "But those who've worked in the prison system are for it. They know what these prisoners have done. ... You kind of understand where they're coming from, but the bottom line is (that) every life is sacred."

Black helped organize the prayer vigil with Deacon Steven Gretencord, who is assigned to the parish. Prison ministry is among his several ministries at Sacred Heart.

When asked about the men scheduled for execution, he explained he only knew the one who is Catholic because "in the federal system, you only minister to people who have declared (your) faith tradition."

The man is "resigned to his fate," Deacon Gretencord said. "He is far more concerned about his family than he is about himself. He's approaching it very prayerfully. He's very calm at this point. ' He was very touched that the archbishop would take time out of his schedule to visit him."

Deacon Gretencord noted that the prayers of the people of the archdiocese, as well as those of others from around the country who oppose the death penalty, are "a powerful, powerful source of inspiration and hope" for the convicted Catholic man.

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Hoefer is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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Cardinal urges New York bishops to find solace in St. Peter's example

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With rumors swirling around about two of their members, the bishops of New York state reached the centerpiece of their "ad limina" pilgrimage to Rome: the tomb of St. Peter.

The bishops' early morning Mass in the grotto of St. Peter's Basilica Nov. 14 came the morning after media reports that Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn has been accused of sexually abusing a minor in the 1970s -- a claim he strongly denied -- and rumors that Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo would step down after an apostolic visitation of his diocese amid claims of his mishandling of abuse allegations.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York was the principal celebrant and homilist at the Mass for the group's visit "ad limina apostolorum," meaning "to the threshold of the apostles."

The New York bishops' Vatican visit began Nov. 11 and was to conclude Nov. 15 with a group meeting with Pope Francis and the celebration of Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

"To be here at the tomb of the first pope and tomorrow to be in the presence of his living successor in many ways is the goal or trophy" of the "ad limina" visit, Cardinal Dolan said in his homily.

Especially in a time of "difficulty," the cardinal said, St. Peter's life offers encouragement to the bishops because of his unwavering love for Jesus despite not always understanding exactly what Jesus meant and what he was calling his disciples to.

"He was always a bit confused by Jesus; he never completely 'got it,' never completely comprehended the teaching of Jesus," Cardinal Dolan said.

The descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost helped St. Peter, like it helped the other apostles, but as St. Peter's disputes with St. Paul show, "he was a tad stubborn" and not always a quick study, the cardinal said. "And aren't we all that way? We're all that way."

Cardinal Dolan said he often has wondered "if the moment when it all made sense for St. Peter, the moment it all came together is when his life was literally turned upside down, when he was crucified upside down."

"I wonder if then he said, 'Ah, now I get it.'"

Crucified on Vatican hill, St. Peter would have seen symbols of the Roman Empire and its "power and clout and prestige and authority and worldly success," Cardinal Dolan said, and he would have known that "none of it amounted to a hill of cold polenta."

After the Mass and prayer at the tomb of St. Peter, many of the bishops went to pray at the nearby tomb of St. Paul VI.

Coincidentally, it was the day after the 55th anniversary of Pope Paul setting his tiara on the altar of St. Peter's Basilica and renouncing the earthly power and prestige it symbolized. The pope ordered the tiara to be sold to raise money for the poor; eventually it was given to Cardinal Francis J. Spellman of New York and now is on display at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.


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Update: Bishops hear that third-party reporting system may start in February

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Dennis Sadowski

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- A third-party reporting system to field sexual misconduct allegations against bishops could be in place by the end of February, an official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the bishops during their fall general assembly in Baltimore.

The company awarded the contract for the system is working quickly to implement it so that it is in place well before the May 31, 2020, deadline set by Pope Francis, said Anthony Picarello, USCCB associate general secretary, in a Nov. 13 presentation to the bishops on the final day of their three-day meeting.

The precise date a toll-free hotline will be activated and links on diocesan and eparchial websites and the USCCB website will go live is going to depend on how quickly each diocese or eparchy can implement the program, Picarello said.

The USCCB official explained that the exact date the system will be ready will be communicated with each province, diocese and eparchy.

Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, asked how the system will filter complaints against clergy who, for example, may not exactly follow something as simple as genuflecting after the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass.

Picarello responded that complaints will be filtered so that only those concerns raised in Pope Francis' "motu proprio" "Vos Estis Lux Mundi" ("You are the light of the world") will be addressed through the new mechanism.

"The idea is we want to make sure this system is reserved for this specific, this high priority purpose," Picarello told the bishops.

Issued in May, the pope's document specifically addresses allegations of sexual misconduct and other accusations of actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil or church investigations of such misconduct by clergy.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, outgoing USCCB president, called on the metropolitan bishops -- through whom reports from the reporting system will funnel -- "to do our work very well. ... So we can move ahead and have this ready sooner rather than later."

"Our people are looking forward to having this and we will have to work hard to do it," he told the assembly.

Picarello said the USCCB awarded a two-year contract to Denver-based Convercent to implement the reporting system.

The bishops approved the establishment of the reporting system in June. Under it, people would be allowed to make reports of "certain complaints" through a toll-free telephone number as well as online.

Picarello reiterated the system would fall in line with the requirements of Pope Francis' "motu proprio," issued in May.

The "motu proprio" also requires dioceses and eparchies worldwide to establish "one or more public, stable and easily accessible systems for submission of reports."

The USCCB plan calls for all reports to be funneled through a central receiving hub, which would then be responsible for sending allegations to the appropriate metropolitan, or archbishop, responsible for each diocese in a province and to the papal nunciature in Washington. The U.S. has 32 metropolitans.

The metropolitan will be responsible for reporting any allegation to local law enforcement authorities as the first step toward investigating a claim.

The reporting system will be subject to review to determine its effectiveness in three years, as called for under "Vos Estis Lux Mundi."


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