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Monastery connects U.S. Catholics to Holy Land, events in Christ's life

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 5:20pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sydney Clark

By Elizabeth Bachmann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Deep inside layers and layers of heavy, cool stone lies a small chamber, about 6 feet by 3 feet, illuminated by the scarlet glow of hanging candles. Carved out of one jagged chamber wall, an unassuming bench stands empty. This is the tomb of Jesus Christ.

Zooming out and up 100 feet, one finds oneself overlooking, not the city of Jerusalem, but a tiny postage stamp of Middle Eastern horticulture and architecture in the great gray and white sea of Washington. This is the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America.

This monastery, built in 1898 by two Holy Land Franciscans, features scaled replicas of the Tomb of Jesus, the Tomb of Mary, the Chapel of the Ascension, the Lourdes Grotto, the Anointing Stone, Calvary, the Gethsemane Grotto, and others. Hemmed with a terracotta-red pergola, the courtyard and sprawling secret gardens burst with blooms or every shade, their slender green arms beckoning visitors to explore its hidden chapels, icons and statues, and to discover the disarming allure of the Holy Land.

Father James Gardiner, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, who is director of special projects at the monastery, said the gardens and the replicas are meant to "whet your appetite" for seeing the real things in the Holy Land.

"When people come here, they can get to experience how you're going to have to scrunch down to get into the tomb of Jesus, how only a couple of people can actually fit in there," Father Gardiner told Catholic News Service. "The things are to scale, so they can see the distance from the tomb and the anointing stone to Calvary, they can climb those stairs and see how high it is to get to Calvary if you were in the Holy Land. Things like that, that give people a real time experience of being over in the Holy Land."

In 1219, 800 years ago this year, the Vatican entrusted the safety and guardianship of the Holy Land to the Holy Land Friars of the Order of St. Francis, granting them the Custody of the Holy Land. The Monastery of the Holy Land in America is currently home to 11 Franciscan friars, whose vocation is to safeguard the Holy Land, its sites and its peoples.

To fulfill their vocation, the friars aim to inspire Catholics to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for real, and then to facilitate that journey. The monastery offers opportunities for pilgrimages monthly, each of which is completely organized and scheduled by the monastery, from hotel reservations to meals to itinerary.

"We do everything for you except say your prayers," Father Gardiner joked.

The friar tried to explain the experience and value of visiting the Holy Land.

"Something just happens to you," he said. "I'll tell you this. I have yet to meet anyone on any pilgrimages that ever been on who haven't said as we are at the airport leaving how they hated to leave. They never say they had a good time, you know, they say, 'I really hate to leave. Something's happened. Something has changed in some way.'"

The Franciscan's particular association with the Holy Land began when St. Francis embarked on his own pilgrimage to there in A.D. 1219. According to historian Franciscan Father Michael F. Cusato, St. Francis was determined to make contact with the Muslim people.
"Francis's intention, first and foremost, was to go and live as a brother among other peoples," Father Cusato said. "His insight, from the spirit in the scriptures, was that he was a creature among other creatures that every living breathing human person is a creature fashioned from the hand of God."

After two failed attempts, Francis succeeded in reaching the Holy Land where he was met with the violence of the Fifth Crusade. In the midst of the blood and the hate, Francis and Islamic Sultan al-Kamil spent eight day in peaceful and respectful exchange of ideas within the sultan's tent.

This year, the monastery celebrates the 800 anniversary of that fateful meeting that first brought Francis to the Holy Land and that witnessed some of the first peaceful interaction between the two faiths.

A reserved historian, Father Cusato is less gung-ho about hopping on a plane to Jerusalem than his brother priest, Father Gardiner, who is currently preparing to embark on his fifth journey of this year. Father Cusato explained that for people who can't or won't journey to the Holy Land, the monastery can be a spiritual refuge.

"I think it is important to enter into the spirit of Jerusalem, the spirit of the holy places, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, not as if you are in the Holy Land yourself although that is a very viable option today ... but it's important to walk and enter into the spirit of Jerusalem, the various holy places the events that took place there," Father Cusato said. "And you can do that here on the grounds of the monastery both within the church and the wider grounds."

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Update: Lavelle's Catholic alma mater cheers her goals, team's World Cup victory

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 5:25pm

IMAGE: NS photo/Bernadett Szabo, Reuters

By Elizabeth Bachmann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Rose Lavelle skyrocketed from a star player, loping across the soccer fields at her Catholic girls high school in Cincinnati, to a superstar, scoring three goals for the U.S. women's team at the World Cup and winning the Bronze Ball as the third-best player in the tournament.

Her high school, Mount Notre Dame, spent the days before the final excitedly cheering her on via Twitter, and it hosted a school-wide viewing party for the 2013 alumna's game against Thailand June 11. They tweeted in support before the semifinal July 2 against England: "Good Luck to @roselavelle '13 and the Team USA today in the World Cup semifinals! #GoRose."

On July 7, the U.S. won its record fourth FIFA Women's World Cup title and second in a row, beating the Netherlands 2-0 in Lyon, France. LaVelle scored the second goal.

Even as a young high schooler, Lavelle was dazzling on the field, according to Mount Notre Dame celebrated Lavelle's high school athletic accomplishments, including her four-year varsity performance, during which she earned First Team Honors, All-State player, and Cincinnati Enquirer Player her senior year.

But her passion for soccer dates back even earlier to her elementary school days. St. Vincent Ferrer School posted this along with a photo of a young Lavelle dressed as former superstar Mia Hamm:

"Once upon a time, this little girl dressed up as her hero, Mia Hamm, for a book sharing project. Today, this amazing woman won her own gold medal, wearing the number 16, as part of the United States National Women's Team that won their 4th World Cup Championship AND she won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player in the tournament! Now, little girls everywhere look up to her, and will be working hard to become like Rose."

Hamm was a forward for the U.S. women's national soccer team from 1987 to 2004. Now retired from soccer, she is a two-time FIFA Women's World Cup champion and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

After Lavelle and her U.S. teammates won an overwhelming victory in their final 5-2 game against Thailand, Mount Notre Dame celebrated in a Facebook post: "She's always been a star to us! It has been an absolute joy to watch Rose Lavelle '13 shine in the World Cup. Can't say we are surprised -- she was voted Most Athletic her senior year! Congratulations to Rose and Team USA! The MND community couldn't be prouder!

After high school, Lavelle went on to play for the University of Wisconsin, playing for the Seattle Sounders summer league team during her time off from school. That's where she was really discovered by coach Jill Ellis, who stood by her during her 2017 hamstring injury, allowing her to blossom into a successful FIFA superstar.

After watching the final with bated breath, Lavelle's hometown alma mater tweeted a joyful tribute to its local celebrity: "Congratulations @USWNT! Couldn't be prouder of our very own @roselavelle! #FIFAWWC19."

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Opioid crisis reaches all corners of West Virginia, leaving few untouched

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 2:07pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Colleen Rowan, The Catholic Spirit)

By Colleen Rowan

WHEELING, W.Va. (CNS) -- West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose death rates. With an average of 57.8 deaths per 100,000 residents, the state's drug fatality rate was nearly three times higher than the national average of 21.7 deaths.

The numbers were released in mid-June through a study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund, covering the year 2017.

The crisis has been devastating for the state, and Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said the Catholic Church in West Virginia is committed to helping those suffering.

"Through the work of Catholic Charities, the Catholic Church in West Virginia has made a commitment to helping those who have been impacted by drug addiction, most especially the children and other family members of those suffering from drug addiction," the archbishop said.

"Many parishes also have programs and efforts in place to address this crisis," he added. "My office has been in discussions with the state Department of Health and Human Resources and with our ecumenical partners through the council of churches to determine how the diocese can further help in the statewide effort to address the root causes and impact of drug addiction throughout West Virginia."

The crisis has reached all corners of the state, leaving very few untouched. "It's just sad," said Sara Lindsay, chief program officer for Catholic Charities West Virginia. "It's hard to know any person who has not had experience with the opioid crisis."

Based in Wheeling, Lindsay recently traveled four hours south to Huntington in Cabell County to attend a regional health summit which touched upon the state's opioid crisis.

"It's horrible in Huntington," she told The Catholic Spirit, the diocesan newspaper. "In Cabell County, there are 178 overdose deaths per 100,000 people. ... Is that not staggering?"

She learned of the grim numbers at the health summit she attended at Cabell Huntington Hospital, which provided the findings based upon research from 2017. The summit looked at the root causes of the epidemic -- especially poverty.

"From the Catholic Charities standpoint, we aim to address the opioid crisis on both ends of the spectrum," Lindsay said. "From a preventative standpoint, we're there to fill gaps and (meet) basic needs for people that are currently in the cycle of substance use, but also for their family members. It really affects the whole family. ... We see people coming to us that have suffered greatly.

"On the other end of the spectrum," she said, "being a safety net for folks when they do fall back, when they relapse into substance abuse -- we're there to help, to provide case management services and help them get back on track."

Case management helps individuals or families develop healthy interdependence and stability, and works with them to set goals toward improving their physical, emotional, and social well-being, program officials said.

Catholic Charities West Virginia operates career readiness services at its Community Center for Learning and Advancement in Huntington, and found a distressing trend among applicants.

"Sixty-nine percent of the people who are in our learning program reported a history of substance use in the past on their applications for our services, and then 46 percent of those individuals report long-term substance use as being a problem," Lindsay said.

Because of this, Catholic Charities is working on expanding its career readiness services in Huntington, Lindsay said, to work with substance use and mental health treatment providers in the city to serve their clients through its education and training services program.

Emily Robinson, western regional director for the agency in Charleston, said the Community Center for Learning and Advancement, or CCLA, works closely with the addiction recovery organizations in Huntington.

"This is an important relationship," she said, "because many in the addiction recovery community have barriers to enrolling in post-secondary education or entry into the workforce. The staff of the CCLA can address all these barriers through providing academic instruction, career readiness certifications, and advising. The CCLA provides an important step in aiding people working through recovery."

One individual, she said, enrolled in the learning center after receiving a referral from Cabell County Drug Court. The person was in recovery from active substance addiction and needed assistance with increasing her work readiness skills, strengthening her resume and finding a job.

"During her time at the CCLA, she was able to take full advantage of the career certifications the program offers at no charge to the learner," Robinson said. "She earned customer service, hospitality, and computer literacy certifications. She also worked with staff to create a professional resume and attended several job fairs. She has since landed a position with a local employer and now, having accomplished all her goals, has completed her work at the CCLA."

Catholic Charities West Virginia also offers adult education for McDowell County area residents in Welch.

The Catholic agency also recently wrapped up a conference series on the substance abuse epidemic through its Parish Social Ministry program. Sessions were held at four locations around the state and focused on how substance abuse it affects the brain and discussed healing in communities, reducing stigma, as well as showcasing different ways that communities have come together to respond to the crisis.

"We learned what addiction looks like, and we learned what healing looks like," said Kate Kosydar, the agency's Parish Social Ministry coordinator and organizer of the conference series.

"The goals of the conference series were to help people learn about the opioid crisis and spark their imaginations as they consider moving forward," she told The Catholic Spirit. "I think we accomplished those goals. However, there's still more work to do.

"Although this is a nationwide problem, the solution requires nothing less than local relationships and responses. We hope that people who attended the conference are passing the information along and taking action locally."

Jesuit Father Brian O'Donnell, executive director of the diocese's Department of Social Ministries, said the sponsors will be looking into the possibility of more conferences in parts of the state that were not close to the previous sites. He said there are ways the faith community can be of aid for those impacted by the opioid crisis and, through the conference series, many links were created among those attending.

"I judge folks emerged from conferences knowing that substance use abuse really is the result of brain changes due to using drugs, that there are ways of aiding those raising children whose parents have been taken out of their lives by drug usage, and that there are models of counseling which have been showing good results," he said.

In February, Catholic Charities West Virginia expanded its case management services in Wheeling to offer a new Relatives as Parents program to help meet the needs of caregivers and the children they are raising.

Thousands of children in West Virginia are currently being raised by relatives other than their biological parents, program officials said. Census data shows that this number is on the rise, and many cases are linked to drug addiction.

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Rowan is executive editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

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Migrants are people, not just a social issue, pope says at Mass

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 10:05am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christians are called to follow the spirit of the beatitudes by comforting the poor and the oppressed, especially migrants and refugees who are rejected, exploited and left to die, Pope Francis said.

The least ones, "who have been thrown away, marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against, abused, exploited, abandoned, poor and suffering" cry out to God, "asking to be freed from the evils that afflict them," the pope said in his homily July 8 during a Mass commemorating the sixth anniversary of his visit to the southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

"They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues. This is not just about migrants, in the twofold sense that migrants are, first of all, human persons and that they are the symbol of all those rejected by today's globalized society," he said.

According to the Vatican, an estimated 250 migrants, refugees and rescue volunteers attended the Mass, which was celebrated at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Francis greeted each person present after the Mass ended.

In his homily, the pope reflected on the first reading from the book of Genesis in which Jacob dreamed of a stairway leading to heaven "and God's messengers were going up and down on it."

Unlike the Tower of Babel, which was humankind's attempt to reach heaven and become gods, the ladder in Jacob's dream was the means by which the Lord comes down to humankind and "reveals himself; it is God who saves," the pope explained.

"The Lord is a refuge for the faithful, who call on him in times of tribulation," he said. "For it is indeed at such moments that our prayer is made purer, when we realize that the security the world offers has little worth and only God remains. God alone opens up heaven for those who live on earth. Only God saves."

The Gospel reading from St. Matthew, which recalled Jesus curing a sick woman and raising a girl from the dead, also reveals "the need for a preferential option for the least, those who must be given the front row in the exercise of charity."

That same care, he added, must extend to the vulnerable who flee suffering and violence only to encounter indifference and death.

"These least ones are abandoned and cheated into dying in the desert; these least ones are tortured, abused and violated in detention camps; these least ones face the waves of an unforgiving sea; these least ones are left in reception camps too long for them to be called temporary," the pope said.

Pope Francis said the image of Jacob's ladder represents the connection between heaven and earth that is "guaranteed and accessible to all." However, to climb those steps requires "commitment, effort and grace."

"I like to think that we could be those angels, ascending and descending, taking under our wings the little ones, the lame, the sick, those excluded," the pope said. "The least ones, who would otherwise stay behind and would experience only grinding poverty on earth, without glimpsing in this life anything of heaven's brightness."

The pope's call for compassion toward migrants and refugees less than a week after a migrant detention camp in Tripoli, Libya, was bombed in an air raid. The Libyan government blamed the July 3 attack on the Libyan National Army, led by renegade military Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

According to the Pan-Arab news television network Al-Jazeera, the air raid killed nearly 60 people, mostly migrants and refugees from African countries, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

Pope Francis denounced the attack and led pilgrims in prayer for the victims July 7 during his Angelus address.

"The international community can no longer tolerate such grave events," he said. "I pray for the victims; may the God of peace receive the deceased and sustain the wounded."
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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju


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With miracle confirmed in Sheen cause, plans for beatification can begin

Sat, 07/06/2019 - 8:40pm


By Jennifer Willems

PEORIA, Ill. (CNS) -- With "overwhelming joy," Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria announced July 6 that Pope Francis had approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

"Now that the miracle has been confirmed by Pope Francis, the Diocese of Peoria can formally begin planning for the beatification of Archbishop Sheen, which will take place in Peoria," according to a news release issued by the Diocese of Peoria early Saturday morning.

The pope authorized the Congregation for Saints' Causes to promulgate the decree at an audience on July 5. In addition to affirming the miracle for Archbishop Sheen, Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtues of one woman and six men, and enrolled Blessed Bartholomew of the Martyrs in the catalog of saints, which is equivalent to canonization.

The miracle concerns the healing of James Fulton Engstrom of Washington, Illinois, who was considered stillborn when he was delivered during a planned home birth Sept. 16, 2010. His parents, Bonnie and Travis Engstrom, immediately invoked the prayers of Archbishop Sheen and would encourage others to seek his intercession after the baby was taken to OSF HealthCare St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria for emergency treatment.

Just as doctors were preparing to declare that he was dead, James Fulton's tiny heart started to beat at a normal rate for a healthy newborn. He had been without a pulse for 61 minutes.

Despite dire prognoses for his future, including that he would probably be blind and never walk, talk or be able to feed himself, the child has thrived. Now a healthy 8-year-old, he likes chicken nuggets, "Star Wars" and riding his bicycle.

"It is truly amazing how God continues to work miracles," Bishop Jenky said in the statement released by the Diocese of Peoria. "I am so grateful that the Vatican acted so quickly after last week's transfer of Sheen's remains from New York to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria."

Archbishop Sheen had been placed in a crypt below the main altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York after his death Dec. 9, 1979. After protracted legal proceedings, his remains were brought to Peoria June 27 at the request of his niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, and now rest in a new marble tomb in the Peoria cathedral.

In a recent interview with The Catholic Post, Peoria's diocesan newspaper, Bonnie Engstrom said God had allowed the miracle to happen for his honor and glory.

"I really don't think it was given to us, for us," she said. "I think it was given to the church, for the church."

Although the date of beatification is not known at this time, Bishop Jenky "hopes and prays" that it will be announced soon. The statement said he continues to be hopeful that it will take place during the 100th anniversary year of Archbishop Sheen's ordination to the priesthood.

The El Paso, Illinois, native was ordained Sept. 20, 1919, at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, and would go on to teach at The Catholic University of America in Washington and lead the Society of the Propagation of the Faith. Perhaps he is best remembered for his popular television show, "Life Is Worth Living."

He died in 1979 at age 84. His sainthood cause was officially opened in 2003. The church declared his heroic virtues and he was given the title "Venerable" in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. In general, two miracles must be accepted by the church as having occurred through the intercession of a prospective saint, one before beatification and the other before canonization.

News about the beatification and the life of Archbishop Sheen can be found at

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Willems is assistant editor of The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria.

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At Capitol, faith-based organizations shine light on human trafficking

Fri, 07/05/2019 - 3:04pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- At age 9, growing up in Cameroon, Evelyn Chumbow had dreams of coming to the United States, thinking she'd live like the characters in TV shows such as "The Cosbys" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," which she believed depicted life here.

When a relative offered her the opportunity to come to the U.S. through an arrangement with a family in her hometown, she was ready to embark on that life.

"I was just excited," she said. "I could never think that I'd come to the U.S. and become a victim of modern-day slavery or end up in foster care."

But that's exactly what happened and that's the experience she talked about June 26 to participants of a daylong human trafficking conference hosted on Capitol Hill by the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the District of Columbia Baptist Convention.

Participants, who lobbied U.S. lawmakers after the conference for tougher legislation to combat the problem, learned about its complexities and its global dimensions:

-- An estimated 40.3 million people are enslaved.

-- Of those, 24.9 million are in forced labor (including sex trafficking).

-- 15.4 million are in a forced marriage.

Chumbow, who was 11 when she became a victim of forced labor, fit many of the characteristics of trafficking victims: 25% of those trafficked are children and over 70% of those trafficked are women and girls. Chumbow thought she was coming to the United States to be adopted by a family.

Instead, she was in a group of girls brought in under one passport and then sent off to become a domestic worker in a house in Maryland, where, at age 11, she cooked and cleaned and took care of other children, receiving no salary. The relative who had made the arrangement, she later found out, had sold her for $1,000 to the household where she suffered a variety of abuses.

Unknowingly, she had been brought to the country illegally and didn't know where to go and what to do about her situation. Eventually, she escaped, helped law enforcement convict her abuser and embarked on a long journey of healing, which now involves educating the public about human trafficking.

There's a lot of "separation" of different aspects of human trafficking, but to address the problem holistically, those working to eradicate it need to look at forced labor along with issues of immigration and sex trafficking, the topic which commands much of the attention in human trafficking advocacy, she said.  

"I'm a survivor of labor trafficking," Chumbow said, but there were different abuses taking place and she also was dealing with an immigration situation.

Human trafficking can affect any number of vulnerable individuals, such as incoming immigrants from the so-called "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but also vulnerable people inside the United States, including those in tribal communities, said panelist Hilary Chester, associate director for the USCCB's Anti-Trafficking Program. She said legislation to combat the problem must take those and other factors into consideration. But enforcement, which would go a long way in solving the problem, is often lagging.

"Because there aren't good opportunities in their home communities or because there's a lot of criminality, there's a lot of impunity for the perpetrators in these communities," Chester said. "People are leaving, searching for other opportunities, which then puts them in front of exploitation."

Even those already living in the U.S. can face similar situations when they leave their support networks, their communities, which is exactly the situation that makes them more vulnerable, Chester said.

Conference organizers offered a wide range of human trafficking examples, which they said can involve modern-day slavery, as well as the exploitation of a person through force, fraud or coercion, which can include sex trafficking, forced labor, domestic servitude and any person under 18 involved in a commercial sex act.

Neha Misra, of the Washington-based Solidarity Center, said that even the popular image most people have about human trafficking can prove complicated.

"When people think about human trafficking, often they first think about sex, but they also think about criminal gangs and syndicates and that it's all underground, and it's not," she said. "It's all about the way we have set up our world economy, the greed that we can see, about how corporations run their businesses and how governments do not respect human rights and worker rights, and that is what makes people vulnerable. It's not just about criminal syndicates."

Most human trafficking around the world involves forced labor, said Misra, to produce items consumers buy on a regular basis.

For example, she said, a trafficker used a group of eight boys who had entered the U.S. as unaccompanied minors in 2014 to clean cages and do other tasks for a poultry farm, one of the largest egg producers in the country. The boys had been living in squalid conditions outside Columbus, Ohio, and paid $2 a day for their work, which included debeaking hens. The company said it was unaware that the subcontractor who brought in the workers was a human trafficker, and the company was never prosecuted for the crime.

"The company said, 'Well, we didn't know,'" Misra said. "Those workers are in your workplace every day. How can you not know that? You didn't know that there was abuse in your supply chain? If they don't know, it's because they don't want to know."

Citizens can demand that government hold those companies accountable, Misra said, and consumers can go online to look for information about violations.

In "hubs" of human trafficking such as Detroit, faith-based groups such Sisters of the Good Shepherd have tackled part of the problem by offering services to female victims of human trafficking, including counseling, housing, career training, prevention programs and even educating the community about human trafficking through its Vista Maria center, formerly the House of the Good Shepherd.

Bailey, a 20-year-old who participated in one its programs, attended the conference and credited the help she received at the Vista Maria center with giving her a new outlook on life and now counts herself among one of the lucky survivors of human trafficking. The young woman, who did not give her last name, shared her story of abuse at a young age, her parents' addictions, which led to a struggle of her own with drugs.

For years, she was involved in a cycle of addiction, sexual exploitation and depression. Vista Maria helped her with housing, counseling and toward a career path as a welder, which has helped her financially stand on her own.

"I am here today to educate all of you that there isn't one kind of story for sex trafficking," she said. "Without long-term treatment, I would not be where I am today. It wasn't that long ago that I didn't want to live because of my depression. Today, my future is very promising. Please help us pass laws that support girls and women who have experienced sexual exploitation and help them have a future beyond trafficking."


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Pope meets Putin; two leaders talk about Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela

Thu, 07/04/2019 - 1:38pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring


VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Vatican July 4, and the two discussed the ongoing wars in Eastern Ukraine and in Syria, the Vatican said. Russia plays a major role in both conflicts.

At the end of the 55-minute private meeting, Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Vatican press office, issued a statement describing the discussions as "cordial."

The pope and president, he said, "expressed their satisfaction at the development of bilateral relations," which included the signing in Rome July 4 of a collaboration agreement between the Vatican's Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital and pediatric hospitals in Russia.

Pope Francis and Putin "then turned their attention to various questions of relevance to the life of the Catholic Church in Russia," Gisotti said, as well a discussion of "the ecological question and various themes relating to current international affairs, with particular reference to Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela," where Russia has been supportive of embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

It was the third time Pope Francis and Putin have met at the Vatican. They met in November 2013 and again in June 2015. Putin arrived late for each of the meetings, including July 4 when he was an hour late.

When reporters entered the room after the two had met privately, Putin told the pope, "Thank you for the time you have dedicated to me."

"It was a very substantive, interesting discussion," he said.

In the traditional gift exchange, Pope Francis gave the Russian president a signed copy of his message for World Peace Day 2019 and an 18th-century etching of St. Peter's Square "so you don't forget Rome."

Putin gave the pope a large icon of Sts. Peter and Paul and a DVD of a Russian film about the artist Michelangelo.

After the meeting with the pope, Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister.

The ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back separatists have been battling government forces since 2014, had been expected to be a major topic of discussion.

On the eve of the meeting, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow told Vatican Radio Italia, "Even though we are not aware of the program of the meeting, I can imagine that themes dear to the Holy Father, such as peace and safeguarding our common home, are likely to be on the agenda of discussion."

The archbishop also indicated it was unlikely that the visit would result in a long-awaited invitation for the pope to visit Russia, a dream that was particularly close to the heart of St. John Paul II.

Although an invitation from the government is essential, he noted, the Vatican would not plan such a trip without a separate invitation from the Russian Orthodox Church "and it is not likely the Russian president will invite the pope on his own without the backing of the Orthodox Church."

While Vatican-Russian Orthodox relations have steadily improved and Pope Francis personally met with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba in 2016, tensions continue, including over the Vatican's support for the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Pope Francis' meeting with Putin took place the day before the pope was to begin a two-day meeting with the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, members of the church's permanent synod, its metropolitan archbishops and Vatican officials.

Announcing the meeting in May, the Vatican press office had said, "The Holy Father wishes to give a sign of his closeness to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church which carries out pastoral service both at home and in various places in the world."

The meeting, it said, would look at "the life and needs of Ukraine in order to identify the ways in which the Catholic Church, and in particular the Greek-Catholic Church, can increasingly dedicate herself to the preaching of the Gospel, to contribute to the support of those who suffer and to promote peace, in agreement, as far as possible, with the Catholic Church of the Latin rite and with other churches and Christian communities."

In 2016 Pope Francis asked Catholic throughout Europe to take up a special collection for people suffering from the war in Eastern Ukraine and he made a $5-million donation of his own. The ongoing "Pope for Ukraine" project continues to assist people in the warzone and those displaced by the fighting.


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Gudziak: Celebrate America's blessings, pray for its 'spiritual' strength

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 5:56pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn


PHILADELPHIA (CNS) -- Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia reminded clergy, religious and the faithful what a blessing it is to be an American this Independence Day.

In a July 3 statement, he thanked the Lord for allowing his ancestors to immigrate to America, where they encountered opportunity, lived with dignity, and developed their God-given talents. Born in Syracuse, New York, he is the son of immigrant parents from Ukraine.

He then turned his prayer away from the past and looked to the present and future of America.

"Let's pray this Independence Day for the moral and spiritual strength of our country," Archbishop Gudziak said. "There are many challenges to the founding principles of our country. Let us pray that each of us can continue upholding the openness, the welcome, the generosity, the open-heartedness, the willingness to help, that this country stands for."

He prayed that this country continue to grow in its independence and freedom from generation to generation.

Finally, he invoked a blessing on all the priests, religious faithful, neighbors, friends and relatives of the Metropolitan Diocese.

"May we always be worth of the freedom you have given us, may we always be responsible, and may we always live in peace and joy," Archbishop Gudziak said. "God bless America! Glory to Jesus Christ."

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Chicago woman's healing is miracle in Cardinal Newman's sainthood cause

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 10:20am

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Chicago Catholic

By Joyce Duriga

CHICAGO (CNS) -- A few prayers to Blessed John Henry Newman became a "constant dialogue" and then a desperate response to an emergency for Melissa Villalobos of Chicago.

Her healing, which saved her life and the life of her unborn child, was accepted as the miracle needed for the 19th-century British cardinal's canonization.

Pope Francis announced July 1 that he will declare Blessed John Henry Newman a saint Oct. 13. Coincidentally, the miracle accepted for his beatification in 2010 also involved someone from the United States: Deacon Jack Sullivan, 71, of Marshfield, Massachusetts, was healed of a several spinal condition in 2001.

Recounting her own story, Villalobos, 42, told Chicago Catholic that in 2011, "my husband brought home a couple of holy cards with Cardinal Newman's picture on them. I put one in the family room and one in our master bedroom."

"I would pass his picture in the house and I would say little prayers to him for whatever our family's needs were at the time -- the children, my husband, myself. I really started to develop a very constant dialogue with him," said Villalobos, a mother of seven.

Her prayers had a miraculous result in 2013 when she started bleeding during the first trimester of a pregnancy. At the time she had four children -- ages 6, 5, 3 and 1 -- and a previous pregnancy that had ended in miscarriage.

"When I went to the doctor, he did an ultrasound and he said the placenta had become partially detached from the uterine wall, so there was a hole in the placenta and that hole was allowing blood to escape," she said.

Villalobos also developed a subchorionic hematoma, which is a blood clot in the fetal membrane. It was two-and-a-half times the size of the baby.

The doctors recommended bed rest.

On Friday, May 10, 2013, Villalobos went to the emergency room because the bleeding was worse.

Again, the doctor recommended strict bed rest, which was difficult to imagine with four small children and a husband who had to work. The doctor also told the couple that a miscarriage was likely, but if the baby survived the pregnancy, she would likely be born prematurely because she would be small.

Added to the stress was the fact that Villalobos' husband, David, had to leave for a mandatory business trip.

"Wednesday morning I woke up in bed in a pool of blood. My husband was already in an airplane on his way to Atlanta," Villalobos said.

She put off calling 911 because she didn't know who would care for the kids if she was taken in an ambulance to the hospital.

She made them breakfast and told them to stay put before going upstairs.

"Now the bleeding was really bad because I had just gone up the stairs, which I really shouldn't have done. I kind of collapsed on the bathroom floor out of weakness and desperation."

Villalobos laid there thinking she should now call 911, but she realized she didn't have her cellphone. She also knew the force of yelling for her kids would cause more damage and bleeding.

She was hoping one of her children would wander into her room so she could ask them for her phone to call 911, but they didn't. She heard nothing from her children and the silence made her even more worried.

With thoughts of losing her unborn baby, worry for her children downstairs and wondering if she could die, Villalobos uttered her fateful prayer.

"Then I said, 'Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop.' Those were my exact words. Just then, as soon as I finished the sentence, the bleeding stopped."

She got off the floor and verified there was no more bleeding and said, "'Thank you, Cardinal Newman. Thank you.' Just then the scent of roses filled the bathroom," Villalobos said. "The strongest scent of roses I've ever smelled."

"I thought to myself in that moment, 'Oh my goodness! My baby is OK. I'm OK. My four children are OK. We're all OK.' And I said, 'Thank you, Cardinal Newman,'" Villalobos said.

That afternoon Villalobos' cure was confirmed during a weekly ultrasound. The doctor told her everything was "perfect" and there was no more hole in the placenta.

"I was able to resume my full active life as a mom," she said.

Baby Gemma was born Dec. 27, 2013, after a full pregnancy, weighing 8 pounds 8 ounces. She had no medical problems.

Villalobos waited until after Gemma was born to report the healing to the promoters of Cardinal Newman's canonization. In fall 2014, representatives from Newman's cause visited Chicago and met with Villalobos and her husband.

Officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago conducted the local study of what was then just an alleged miracle and forwarded the case to the Vatican for another series of investigations. The outcome was revealed Feb. 13 when Pope Francis announced the miracle was accepted and that Cardinal Newman would be canonized.

"I was cured through Newman's intercession so that I could continue an ordinary life, if you will, but at the same time be completely devoted to him and especially God himself and our church," she said.

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Duriga is editor of Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.


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ChristLife event provides evangelization training, spiritual inspiration

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 4:45pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rus VanWestervelt, Catholic Review

By Rus VanWestervelt

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (CNS) -- Simon Wong's 40-hour journey to the ChristLife National Training Conference began at his parish, Cathedral of the Holy Spirit -- in Penang, Malaysia.

"The 40 hours was a blessing," Wong said of multiple jet flights, spurred by a fellow parishioner who had just initiated ChristLife at their church. "I had a lot of time for myself, silent time so I can do my reflection. In the same time, it gave me the chance to do preparation work for our parish formation when I get back to Malaysia."

The three-day conference, held June 26-28 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Ellicott City, offered two tracks for attendees: core training for newcomers and a deeper track for those returning. Even though Wong's parish in Southeast Asia is using ChristLife, he is following the core training track.

"Because we have just started running the ChristLife program," he said, "I'm here to see the next steps and prepare for the future programs."

In his 10 years as a member of his parish formation team, Wong has seen a growing emphasis on evangelization.

"This year, being the missionary year declared by Pope Francis, I want to see what else I can do in a bigger way," he told the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Baltimore Archdiocese. "It's very urgent."

A little closer to home -- or North America, at least -- eight parishioners who are part of the Elgin Roman Catholic Family of St. Thomas, Ontario, decided to take the journey to learn more about bringing ChristLife into their five parishes.

Maureen Bedek, who assists the parish pastoral council and volunteers with the staff of all five parishes, watched ChristLife videos online and believes that it is exactly what the faith community has been looking for.

"We're trying to create an atmosphere and change the culture of our parishes so that we really understand the evangelization piece, and really understand the uniqueness of each of our parishes," said Bedek. "How do we bring everyone together with a new mission vision? How do we all step forward to make that happen?"

According to Pete Ascosi, who joined ChristLife in 2005 and now serves as its assistant director, about 190 people from at least two foreign countries, 17 states, 30 dioceses and 55 parishes gathered for this year's conference.

"The majority would be parish leaders who are looking to receive the training in the three courses of ChristLife, who want to have an immersion experience in the dynamics of the course content," Ascosi said, "There is definitely a mix of spiritual inspiration and training."

According to its website,, Baltimore-based ChristLife "equips Catholics for the essential work of evangelization so that all people might personally encounter Jesus Christ and be transformed into his missionary disciples."

The conference offered sessions on facilitating small groups in evangelization; reaching new people in surrounding communities; and going deeper in faith to be a better disciple.

Keynote speakers included Dave Nodar, who founded ChristLife in 1995; Andrew Comiskey, founder and director of Desert Stream/Living Water Ministries; Father Erik Arnold, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help until July 1, when he moved to St. John the Evangelist, Severna Park; and Ally Ascosi and Dianne Davis of ChristLife.

In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Ascosi estimates that about 10 parishes are currently using the program "year after year to reach more people." Over the last decade, he said, more than 50 or 60 parishes in the archdiocese have offered ChristLife courses.

"We are continuing to move outward and to help Catholic churches incarnate the mission of evangelization in very practical ways," Ascosi said. "ChristLife gives parish leaders the opportunity to move from maintenance to mission."

Nodar delivered the opening keynote talk, which focused on going beyond the rhetoric of evangelization and examining what it takes to make missionary disciples, recognizing the many challenges Catholics face today.

"I want to present things that are logical and true to what the church teaches," Nodar said afterward. "It calls for real conversion in our thinking. We're in such a time of flux, and it is having a cultural impact on parishioners. We recognize people are going to be in a variety of places so we want to establish very clearly what the church has been teaching since Vatican II."

Nodar believes that his program provides that model for Catholics around the world.

"The founder of our church, the Lord himself, taught us to (evangelize)," said Nodar. "And the church since Vatican II has said, 'Yes, you need to do this.' We want to bring people together and say, 'Yeah, this is what the church wants you to do, and here are some practical ways to do it.'"

Many attendees nodded in agreement with Nodar, yet realize that it's not always easy for lifelong Catholics to embrace evangelization.

"We're recognizing what the pope is asking us to do and becoming more mission-oriented, which means something different than what the cradle Catholics were accustomed to and understood," said Bedek. "But this is where we need to head. This is the skill set we need to start developing and helping people journey to fulfill a different mission than what we were really comfortable with before."

Penny Rice, who joined Bedek in the journey from Ontario, is a lifelong Catholic who was encouraged to attend by her pastor.

"There is a gap between people who are 100 percent into evangelization, know the road, know the path they need to take, and us cradle Catholics who are not used to expressing our love of Jesus and being vocal and being obvious that we are Catholics," Rice said. "We pray in silence, we worship in silence, so we need to bring cradle Catholics along to know that there is a security in loving Jesus, and they can show that."

Peggy Clegg, who attends Little Flower Catholic Church in Indianapolis, is excited to evangelize to an entirely different population of non-Catholics.

"We have a school that's 50 percent non-Catholic, and we have a host of people there that we could evangelize to," Clegg said. "I'm hoping to find ways to get the parents in the school to learn more about the Catholic faith."

Ascosi sees ChristLife as the answer to the various challenges the attendees face in their home parishes and communities.

"More and more parishes are thinking about evangelization," he said, "because they are facing challenging realities such as aging populations, parish mergers and an increasingly secular culture. ChristLife is providing a Christ-centered, relational process to evangelize adults."

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VanWestervelt writes for the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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'They put a gun to my head,' says Honduran mother of six

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 3:47pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Agren

By David Agren

TENOSIQUE, Mexico (CNS) -- Maribel -- a Garifuna woman from Honduras and mother of six children, ages 6 months to 16 years -- only wanted to work.

She baked coconut bread and sold it the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, until a gang started demanding a cut -- roughly 20 percent of her earnings. After threats and violence and futile attempts at negotiating with the gang, she fell behind in her payments. Gangsters eventually showed up at her daughter's school to send a message of intimidation, forcing Maribel and her family to flee the country.

"I was being pursued," she said from a shelter run by the Franciscans in southern Mexico. "I'm scared they're going to come looking for me here," she added, noting that gang members were now threatening her sister in Honduras and asking about her whereabouts.

Maribel's plight highlights the despair and desperation of many migrants, who flee violence, poverty and, increasingly, drought and the early effects of climate change in Central America.

Mexico has sent members of its National Guard to stop migrants at its southern border, and stories of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in U.S. and Mexican migration detention centers have surfaced.

U.S. President Donald Trump -- who threated Mexico with tariffs on its exports if migration was not stopped -- has praised Mexico for its increased enforcement, telling reporters July 1: "Mexico is doing a lot right now. They have almost 20,000 soldiers between the two borders. ... And the numbers are way down for the last week."

But the migrants streaming out of Central America seem undeterred due to deteriorating conditions at home.

Few migrants grasp the geopolitics at play, focusing instead on seeking safety or escaping hunger at home. Staff at shelters in southern Mexico say the flow of migrants has remained high.

At La 72, the shelter in Tenosique, director Ramon Marquez reported receiving more than 10,000 guests so far in 2019, putting them on pace to break the record of 14,300 migrants welcomed in 2013.

Militarization, however, forces migrants to take paths less traveled to avoid police and soldiers, and this puts them more at risk, say shelter directors.

"Migrants don't come here because they want to. Migrants leave their country because they don't have any other alternative," said Franciscan Sister Diana Munoz Alba, a human rights lawyer and a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who works at a migrant shelter in Chiapas. "(There's) a paradox of risking their lives to save their lives, and this militarization (of Mexico) is not going to stop migration."

Maribel, whose name was changed for security reasons, fell victim to criminals shortly after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala in late May. Three hooded assailants spotted her and her family walking along a rural road and robbed them of their meager possessions.

"The threw us face down ... the kids face down. They were scared, crying," she recalled.

Maribel said she had never thought much about migrating, despite the difficulties of life in the Atlantida department on the Honduras' Atlantic Coast -- an area populated by Afro-Hondurans, who have been abandoning the country in droves.

After her husband suffered a disability in his construction job, Maribel started her own informal business, harvesting coconuts and baking coconut bread in Honduras.

She sold $60 of bread daily, but had to hand over 20 percent daily to the Calle 18 gang. There were other expenses, too, she said, such as the cost of sending her children to school, even though education is supposed to be free for children in Honduras.

In December, the gangs made greater demands, which she refused. As she worked one day, "They put a gun to my head and took all I had," Maribel said.

She eventually stopped paying. Then the gang came looking for her 16-year-old daughter. Maribel saved her money and left Honduras with her family.

Violence has sent thousands fleeing from Honduras. But observers say other factors are driving migration, including poverty and political factors. Migrants speak of the sorry state of services such as health and education.

"That's why we're looking to migrate, because the economy is so bad," said Elquin Castillo, 26, who left a fishing village with his pregnant wife, infant daughter and 20 relatives in June.

Javier Avila, 30, gave up after drought in southern Honduras wiped out his melon crop for the second consecutive season. He borrowed $82 to rent a small plot for his crop -- which was lost -- but could not find the funds to sow again in 2019.

"It used to be normal that it rained in the winter, but not any longer," he said from a migrant shelter.

Maribel expressed similar pessimism over Honduras. She was hoping to receive a document to travel freely through Mexico, though she was uncertain how much longer she would have to wait.

"I can't go back to Honduras," she said. "These gangs have people everywhere."


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Program works to heal Iraqi Christians suffering in mind, soul

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 12:10pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dalia Khamissy

By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (CNS) -- After enduring persecution, violence and uprooting, a group of Iraqi religious and laypeople are on the path to healing.

"They are suffering, in their minds and in their souls," said Melkite Father Gabriel Hachem, part of a team from Lebanon that conducted trauma healing sessions in Irbil, Iraq.

The world "cannot remain indifferent. We cannot stand by and do nothing," Father Hachem told Catholic News Service.

There is a "huge need" to verbalize, to share about their experiences. "They need to speak, to be supported, to be heard," he emphasized.

Eighteen people -- a mix of priests, nuns and laypeople -- participated in the mid-June program. Participants were Chaldean and Syriac Catholic, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox as well as evangelicals.

The Lebanese team providing the Middle East Council of Churches' program consisted of two Catholic priests, including Father Hachem, a nun and two lay psychologists.

The setting, at the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Seminary of St. Peter in Irbil, was "like an oasis" of peace, said Father Hachem, who serves as director of the council of churches' theological and ecumenical department.

Sessions centered around different Scriptural themes, beginning with Jesus' inquiry before the high priest Annas, in which Jesus asked, "Why do you strike me?" This opening focus, Father Hachem explained, was to help the participants express the injustice they felt because of their persecution.

"Why have you forsaken me" from the Gospel of St. Matthew was the second theme, focusing on how the participants felt abandoned during the traumatic upheaval they experienced. That was followed by "Father forgive them, they know not what they do" from St. Luke's Gospel, to promote reconciliation and forgiveness in the hearts of the participants.

The program concluded with, "I Am the Resurrection and the Life" to help participants "stand up again," Father Hachem explained.

The aim was not only to heal the participants, but to equip them with the tools needed to also address the wounds of the faithful, as well as to build an ecumenical network among Iraqi pastors.

Individual spiritual counseling and group therapy and individual counseling with the psychologists complemented the sessions.

Psychologist Samar Sayhoun said that, after listening to the participants' stories of suffering, she was inspired by their faith and attachment to their church. In relaying what they had experienced, some participants spoke of the sounds of bombs, of seeing spattered blood and beheaded corpses, of losing family members.

"I was so touched by their strong faith, despite everything they went through. They rely on their community in the church to be able to support each other, at least emotionally, spiritually. But, of course, it's not easy for them," said Sayhoun, a Maronite Catholic.

Some expressed their grief at leaving all their life behind when they were uprooted in a single night by Islamic State.

"They don't even have one photograph from their past," Sayhoun said.

Sayhoun said she was especially moved by a 31-year-old lay participant who brought "so much joy" to the sessions, despite her ordeal of fleeing Mosul with her family because of terrorist threats, then being driven out of the Ninevah Plain by Islamic State in the summer of 2014.

"She loves to sing and dance, smile and laugh," the psychologist recounted.

That's why it was important for the pastors to talk about forgiveness, about having a new life, after such a dramatic trauma, Sayoun said. "This is the Resurrection."

Some religious shared how "so many Muslims are coming to them to hear about Christ and are converting to Christianity, of course without announcing it to their (Muslim) community," Sayhoun noted.

Sayhoun stressed that Iraqi Christians need more healing opportunities.

"They were so happy that people came to listen to them," she said, adding that they need interaction with people from outside, from abroad.

"Just to regain their dignity. Just being respected, being heard, being appreciated" means a lot to Christians in Iraq, Sayhoun emphasized.

At the conclusion of the program, funded by Protestant churches and organizations in Europe and the United States, Father Hachem received notice of a pledge to fund the program through 2019 and 2020.

That means the council of churches can carry out the trauma healing sessions in Syria, Egypt and "again and again" in Iraq, the priest said.

"For me, it was a sign of hope from the Holy Spirit," Father Hachem said.


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Vatican to open tombs looking for young woman missing since 1983

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 11:17am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican City State tribunal has ordered the opening of two tombs in a small Vatican cemetery at the request of the family of Emanuela Orlandi, a young woman who disappeared in 1983.

Emanuela Orlandi, a Vatican City resident and the daughter of a Vatican employee, disappeared in Rome June 22, 1983, when she was 15.

In March, the family's lawyer revealed the family had been sent a letter with a photo of an angel above a tomb in the Vatican's Teutonic Cemetery, a medieval cemetery now reserved mainly for German-speaking priests and members of religious orders.

The letter said, "Look where the angel is pointing," according to Laura Sgro, the lawyer.

She filed a formal petition with the Vatican to investigate the matter and possibly open the tombs below the sculpture of the angel.

Italian news reports in March quoted Sgro as saying there was evidence that at least one of the tombs below the angel statue had been opened at some point, the statue is not the same age as the marble on top of the tombs and someone continues to leave flowers there.

Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Vatican Press Office, said July 2 that the Vatican promoter of justice, Gian Piero Milano, and his assistant, Alessandro Diddi, ordered the opening of two tombs.

The decision was made in response to the request of Emanuela Orlandi's family, he said, and their questioning "the possible concealment of her cadaver in the small cemetery located within Vatican City State."

The tombs will be opened by police July 11 in the presence of the Orlandi family and family members of the people buried there, Gisotti said.

The decision comes after a court review of the long process of trying to determine what happened to Emanuela Orlandi, who was thought to have been kidnapped. But, Gisotti said, the Vatican court and police are looking only at the possibility that she was buried in the Vatican. Her disappearance in Rome is a matter that falls under the jurisdiction of Italian authorities.

Opening the tombs is just the first step for the Vatican, Gisotti said. The remains in the tombs will be inventoried and catalogued before tests are conducted on the age of the remains and their DNA.


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'Migrants are persons like us': Border bishops offer prayers after deaths

Mon, 07/01/2019 - 1:00pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic bishops from both sides of the border near McAllen, Texas, issued a joint statement expressing condolences to the families of migrant children and parents who recently drowned trying to cross the river into the United States.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, and Bishop Eugenio Lira Rugarcia, of the neighboring Diocese of Matamoros, Mexico, issued the statement in English and Spanish June 28, saying their respective border dioceses "express with much pain the sorrow of the whole community upon hearing of the parents and children that have recently lost their lives upon crossing the Rio Grande River, seeking a better life."

They mentioned, in particular, the deaths of 25-year-old Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and 23-month-old daughter Angie Valeria, a Salvadoran father and daughter whose bodies were photographed after they drowned in the river that flows across Texas and Mexico and forms part of the U.S-Mexico border.

"We offer our condolences to the families and loves ones of those who have died, and we recall that over the course of years countless persons have lost their lives in a similar manner, many whose names are known to God alone," the statement said.

The statements also mentioned the recent deaths of a mother in her 20s and her three children, whose bodies were found by authorities on federal land near the U.S. side of the river close to McAllen June 28. They have not been identified.

The border community of Brownsville, where Bishop Flores serves, held a vigil late Sunday to remember the deaths of the Salvadoran father and daughter, whose bodies were repatriated to El Salvador for burial the weekend of June 27-28.

"United to the families that suffer these sorrows, with whom we have been able personally to speak and pray, we ask God the Father for the eternal rest of their deceased loved ones, and we ask that he fill loved ones who remain with strength and hope in these difficult moments," the bishops said in their statement.

"Also, as we recognize the good that many persons do for our migrant brothers and sisters, we invite everyone, governments and society, to be ever aware that migrants are persons like us; with dignity and rights, with needs, sorrows and hopes," they said. "We must extend a hand to help them have a better future, following the teaching that Jesus has given us: 'Do unto others whatever you would have them do to you.'"


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Secrecy of confession must never be violated, Vatican says

Mon, 07/01/2019 - 7:00am

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In the light of "a worrying negative prejudice" against the Catholic Church, Pope Francis ordered the publication of a document affirming the absolute secrecy of everything said in confession and calling on priests to defend it at all costs, even at the cost of their lives.

The need for the absolute secrecy of confession "comes directly from revealed divine law and has its roots in the very nature of the sacrament to the point that no exception whatsoever can be admitted in the ecclesial sphere and even less in the civil one," a new Vatican document said.

The "note of the Apostolic Penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal" was approved by Pope Francis June 21 and published by the Vatican July 1.

The note was signed by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.

Some recent challenges to the secret of confession have come from states trying to react to the Catholic Church's clerical sexual abuse crisis, the note acknowledged. The document did not mention any specific proposed legislation, such as that working its way through the California legislature or proposed in Australia in response to a government inquiry into the sex abuse crisis.

"The priest, in fact, comes to know of the sins of the penitent 'non ut homo sed ut Deus' -- not as a man, but as God -- to the point that he simply 'does not know' what was said in the confessional because he did not listen as a man, but precisely in the name of God," the Vatican document said.

"A confessor's defense of the sacramental seal, if necessary, even to the point of shedding blood," the note said, "is not only an obligatory act of allegiance to the penitent but is much more: it is a necessary witness -- a martyrdom -- to the unique and universal saving power of Christ and his church."

The new Vatican document also placed the question of secrecy in the larger context of a "cultural and moral 'involution'" that seems incapable of "recognizing and respecting" essential elements of human existence and life in the church.

Too often, it said, "the judgment of public opinion" is invoked as the highest court, and people feel free to publish or broadcast anything with the excuse of letting the public be the judge without concern for a person's conscience, reputation and right to defend him- or herself.

"In such a context," the note said, "there seems to be confirmation of a certain worrying negative prejudice against the Catholic Church," both because of "the tensions that can be seen within the hierarchy and resulting from the recent scandals of abuse horribly perpetrated by some members of the clergy."

The prejudice, it said, "sometimes translates into an unjustifiable 'demand' that the church itself, in some matters, conform its own juridical system to the civil laws of the states in which it lives as the only possible 'guarantee of honesty and integrity.'"

The Catholic Church "always has safeguarded the sacramental seal with all its moral and juridical strength," the note said. "It is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the freedom of conscience of the penitent."

When administering the sacrament of reconciliation, it said, a priest acts not as himself but "in the person of Christ." Not only is he not free to divulge anything about the confession to anyone, including the penitent outside the confessional, but he even is "obliged to suppress every involuntary memory of it."

A refusal to reveal what was said in a confession can never be described as complicity with or covering up evil, the note said, insisting that confession is "the one real antidote to evil" because it is the place where a person can abandon him- or herself to God and repent.

The document specified that when a penitent confesses to a sin that is a crime, the priest can never make turning him- or herself in a condition of being granted sacramental forgiveness, although sincere repentance and a resolution to not sin again are part of "the very structure" of the sacrament.

When the victim of a crime mentions it in confession, the document said, the confessor should instruct the person about his or her rights and about the practical steps the person can take with both civil and church authorities to report the crime.

"We must be watchful that the sacramental seal is never violated by anyone and that the necessary reserve connected to the exercise of church minister is always jealously safeguarded, having as its only purpose the truth and integral good of the person," the document said.

"Any political action of legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal," it said, "would be an unacceptable offense against the liberty of the church, which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God."

The note from the Apostolic Penitentiary said the secrecy extends to communications between a person and his or her spiritual director when dealing with matters of conscience. In fact, it noted church practice that spiritual directors of seminarians, like their confessors, are not permitted to intervene in seminary staff discussions about whether a candidate should be ordained.

And, it said, the same kind of "professional secret" or confidentiality found in relations between some professionals and their clients or patients is valid also for church officials acting on behalf of the Vatican in certain cases, particularly when the case is covered under "pontifical secret."


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