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Assassin happy for beatification of Indian Clarist nun

Tue, 10/31/2017 - 11:05am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Anto Akkara

By Anto Akkara

BANGALORE, India (CNS) -- An Indian nun stabbed to death in 1995 will be beatified Nov. 4, and one of those who will celebrate is her assassin.

Clarist Sister Rani Maria Vattalil, 41, was stabbed in front of more than 50 bus passengers on a remote jungle track in Madhya Pradesh state as she was on her way home to Kerala state to visit.

Samandar Singh, then 22, murdered her on behalf of money lenders upset with Sister Rani Maria's work setting up self-help groups in the Diocese of Indore. Singh has since been forgiven by the nun's family and was released from prison.

"Whatever happened has happened. I am sad and sorry about what I did. But now I am happy that the world is recognizing and honoring Sister Rani," Singh, a Hindu, told Catholic News Service Oct. 30 in a telephone interview from his village of Semlia.

Singh was convicted of the murder and initially was sentenced to death; the sentence was later commuted to life in prison. He said Sister Rani Maria's younger sister -- Clarist Sister Selmy -- formally accepted him as her "brother" while he was in prison and facilitated his early release. Court officials agreed to the release in 2006 after mandatory declarations were signed by Sister Selmy, her parents and church officials.

When Sister Selmy was preparing to return home to southern Kerala state in January 2007 to visit her ailing 82-year-old father, Paul Vattalil, Singh accompanied the nun an apologized to her parents.

"I am now eagerly waiting for the big day," Singh told CNS.

Bishop Chacko Thottumarickal of Indore told CNS the beatification of Sister Rani Maria "will be an inspiration for those serving the needy and poor in difficult circumstances in the country."

"Sister Rani Maria challenges all to carry on their work even if there is opposition and not to get disheartened by obstacles," added Bishop Thottumarickal.

Sister Selmy called the beatification "a miracle."

"Sister Rani urges us all to go forward fearlessly," said Sister Selmy, who serves in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh state.

Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, will preside over the beatification. Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, apostolic nuncio to India, will lead the thanksgiving Mass Nov. 5 at Udainagar, 25 miles from Indore.

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Dominican sister heard vocational call at eucharistic adoration

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 5:42pm

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Sister Anna Wray is a big fan of eucharistic adoration.

There is something about the quiet time in prayer that has spoken powerfully to her over the years making her understand God a little more and also get a clearer sense of her path in life.

It's where -- as a self-described "not particularly pious" teenager -- she said she felt God's love profoundly even though she was just joining some high school friends for early morning weekday adoration without really knowing what it was. She was drawn in by the group and the appeal of breakfast afterward before school started.

It's also where she went some evenings in college and, as she put it, parked herself one night during her senior year, desperate for direction. At the time, she was dating and had already considered a religious vocation and neither fit felt right. There, in the quiet chapel tucked between classrooms, she got a clear sense of what God wanted her to do, not with specific details or through a thundering voice, but an answer to what she had been seeking: a sense of peace and a realization she should pursue the religious life.

And now, 15 years from those college days, Sister Anna, a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia, finds herself frequently back at that chapel at The Catholic University of America in Washington while on the school's campus working on her doctorate in philosophy. A philosophy major as an undergrad, she now teaches a freshman philosophy class while writing a dissertation on Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who lived in the 300s B.C.

As a student nearly two decades ago, she might not have believed she would someday be back on campus, as a sister no less, dressed in a long white habit and black veil.

That's because when she came to Catholic University she had no sense of women religious. She hadn't known any sisters from her hometown of New Canaan, Connecticut, or from the public high school she attended. When she got to college, she was so shocked to see a Dominican friar walking in a long flowing white robe that she followed him and finally asked him who he was.

He invited her to join him at vespers with the Dominicans and Sister Anna, then simply Andrea Wray, was taken aback by the prayers and watching the priests and brothers. "I want this," she thought, and when she found out the Dominican order also had sisters, it seemed a natural fit for her.

But she also was not about to do what seemed so obvious.

Sister Anna visited the Dominicans of St. Cecilia at their motherhouse in Nashville, Tennessee, during a spring break. After her stay, which raised a lot of questions in her mind, she decided the community wasn't for her.

She wondered if she was cut out for religious life, if she needed to find a different community, or if she should pursue a relationship and even marriage.

In the confusion years later, she simply asked the question: "Lord what do you want?" that night in the chapel. The answer she felt was simple but poignant. She felt God wanted her to follow him, or as she described it: He wanted her heart. When she realized this, she felt at peace.

"It was a huge grace that it was God calling me," she said.

Sister Anna went back to the Dominicans where she professed her final vows in 2009. She even embraced teaching -- a charism of the Dominicans that she initially wondered if she could do. "Once I was in the classroom I loved it," she said of her experience teaching kindergarten and then high school and college classes.

She said the job puts you "closer to souls" than most other roles, other than parents, adding that "education is a mission field."

She also said Dominicans "go where we are sent," which for her in 2008 meant going to Australia as part of a delegation to assist with preparations for World Youth Day.

Her own World Youth Day experience in 2000 in Rome also helped influence who she is today. She said she took to heart the message of St. John Paul II who said: "Do not be afraid to live the Gospel directly."

"That is something I have tried to do ever since," she told CNS in an interview nine years ago.

And these days, as the number of young women joining the Nashville Dominicans continues to increase, Sister Anna is not surprised.

As she sees it: "The steady stream of young women are drawn by God's voice and the presence of the Holy Spirit in us."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Faith, culture fused in a day to remember deceased loved ones

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 12:35pm

By Amy Wise Taylor

BLUFFTON, S.C. (CNS) -- When Jennifer Bermejo was growing up in Aguascalientes, Mexico, her family celebrated Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, every year.

Bermejo, assistant for Hispanic ministry at St. Gregory the Great Church in Bluffton, recalls it as a fusion of culture and religion, noting that her family and neighbors always attended Mass to pray for their deceased loved ones.

Afterward, everyone joined together for La Catrina parades and gathered in cemeteries, where they continued to offer prayers but also reminisced and paid tribute to their family through song, skits, and favorite foods and drink.

Dia de los Muertos begins at midnight Oct. 31, when it is said that the gates of heaven open and the spirits of the little children ("angelitos") are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. This is Dia de los Inocentes, the Day of the Innocents, and coincides with All Saints' Day.

The following day, Nov. 2, is the actual Day of the Dead. It also is All Souls' Day.

Bermejo said that for her family, the tradition of Dia de los Muertos fell away when they moved to Bluffton in 2005, because they have no cemetery or relatives to visit here.

This year, however, she was bringing some of those cultural aspects to St. Gregory Oct. 31, having the children dress as their favorite saints and participate in Day of the Dead traditions such as painting sugar skulls in bright colors.

"We're showing them that the day is about praying for family members who have passed away and remembering them," Bermejo told The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.

The purpose of both Dia de los Inocentes and Dia de los Muertos is to remember the dead and pray for their souls in purgatory, to help them atone for their sins and move into the presence of Christ.

Dia de los Muertos evolved in Mexico from the rituals of Aztecs and Mayans. When the Spanish arrived, indigenous beliefs and Catholic religious practices merged, combining for a mix of somber celebration in homes and churches, and more lively festivities in secular spaces.

Bermejo said the heart of each day centers on prayer, but there are cultural traditions unique to Dia de los Muertos.

One of the most important aspects in Mexico is the creation of altars in homes in honor of deceased family members. The displays range from one to seven levels; from simple to extravagant. They are decorated with a cross, candles, and tissue paper cutouts, and filled with objects meant to draw the spirit of the loved one, such as photos, personal objects, and favorite foods.

Bright orange flowers, "cempasuchil," are placed all around the altars and in the cemeteries. A type of marigold, the blossoms are said to guide the spirits with their vibrant colors and scent.

Another custom are the sugar skulls. They have become so popular that they have evolved into an art form for tattoo artists. People have images of their loved ones inked in elaborate sugar skull designs, in honor of the deceased and in hopes it will bring their blessings.

Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, also is placed at altars and cemeteries. Traditional loaves have a crust shaped into crossed bones, but Bermejo said her family and others also shape the crust into a cross to represent Christ.

Another aspect that has spread far beyond Mexico is La Calavera Catrina, first created between 1910 and 1913. Bermejo said the artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, is from her hometown and the Catrina parade is a huge affair that draws artists and participants from all over.

People walk in parades to the cemetery, where they often spend the day and night. Prior to the celebration, people spend time cleaning, repairing and decorating the grave site. While there is prayer and reciting the rosary, time at the grave also celebrates the living memory of the deceased, and gatherings become family picnics, with food, drink, music, flowers and even fireworks.

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Taylor is a reporter at The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.

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On contraception, church must continue to defend life, cardinal says

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 11:50am

By Junno Arocho Esteves

ROME (CNS) -- The acceptance of artificial contraception by some Christian churches and communities beginning in the 1930s has led "to the monstrosity of what is today known as procreative medicine," which includes abortion, said German Cardinal Walter Brandmuller.

Inaugurating an Oct. 28 conference anticipating the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae," Cardinal Brandmuller told participants that in ignoring traditional church teaching men and women today have seated themselves "on the throne of the Creator."

In "Humanae Vitae," published in 1968, Pope Paul underlined the responsibility that goes with human sexuality and marriage. While he taught that couples can space the birth of their children for valid reasons, they must use only natural methods of avoiding fertility. Birth control, he said, causes an "artificial separation" of the unitive and procreative aspects of married love.

In his speech at the Rome conference, Cardinal Brandmuller said that after the Second Vatican Council, the church faced significant pressure -- including from within its own ranks -- to endorse contraception as "morally justifiable" just as the Anglican Church had done at the 1930 Lambeth Conference and the U.S. Federal Council of Churches, the precursor of the National Council of Churches, did in 1961.

Nevertheless, he added, Blessed Paul defended the sanctity of life and brought "temporary closure to a series of doctrinal affirmations on the matter of contraception."

"Humanae Vitae" proves that ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit that guides the process of "paradosis," or teaching based on church tradition, and "ensures that the faith of the church develops in the course of time" while remaining faithful to Christ's teachings, Cardinal Brandmuller said.

He prayed that the document would continue to "irradiate the 'splendor veritatis' ('the splendor of the truth'), capable of illuminating the current darkness of minds and hearts."

Cardinal Brandmuller, former president of the Pontifical Commission for Historical Sciences, was one of four cardinals who formally asked Pope Francis to clarify his teaching on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. When the four prelates did not receive a response, they released the letter -- commonly referred to as the "dubia" -- to the press.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Puerto Ricans see link between poverty, hurricane deaths

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 11:30am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Wallice J. de la Vega

LARES, Puerto Rico (CNS) -- Hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico have been attributed to drowning and illness, but many Puerto Ricans, including local media professionals, see a link between such deaths and poverty.

On a recent tour through Puerto Rico's central-western mountains, Catholic News Service found several people voicing support for this opinion.

"One has a higher probability to die in a hurricane if one is poor," said Ismael Perez Acosta, 71, who lives alone in a rural shanty in Lares. His 87-year-old house, almost completely covered by vegetation and barely seen from the road below, is a dilapidated small wooden structure built by his grandfather.

Perez has no income, surviving on donations and casual odd jobs. His water comes from a stream that flows next to the house, a structure that has no electric power connection.

"There are many people like me, who normally live (under conditions) like a hurricane went by every day," said Perez, who has some college education from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo. "But to many people we are invisible, even though maybe we are the majority (of the island's population)."

Poverty in Puerto Rico is a largely unspoken legacy of colonial times, when agriculture was the island's main source of wealth, and it goes as far back as slavery. Many of today's poor are descendants of a working class whose status has morphed since the Spanish arrival in 1493.

That line started with black African slaves and white Spanish laborers. Blacks mostly toiled on sugar cane fields in the lower coastal flatlands, and whites worked on coffee and fruit plantations in the central mountains.

After slavery ended in 1873, both groups' work and social status went through several labor-social arrangements with wealthy landowners -- including a scheme of unpaid work in exchange for use of a small plot of land for personal farming and living -- commonly known as "arrimados" or "agregados."

"My grandfather used to work on this land, and then my father," said Perez, "first as a sharecropper and then as an 'arrimao,'" living on the employer's land without a title but receiving a salary.

Jose Perez, no relation to Ismael, lives in the financially depressed Guajataca sector of Quebradillas. His old concrete house had its metal windows blown out by Hurricane Maria Sept. 20 while he was inside.

"I was very scared, listening to the noise and the wind, but didn't want to leave my house," he told CNS Oct. 21. "In the middle of the night, I felt my mattress wet, so I went to the other one I have (both on the floor), and that one also got wet. So I curled up in a corner and just waited."

Jose Perez also spoke of the relationship between poverty and deaths.

"We, the poor people, do suffer more than others, because we have no money before hurricanes and after hurricanes," he said. "We die more in hurricanes because we don't have (the means) to protect ourselves. Our lives before hurricanes and after hurricanes are the same."

With the main road following a gorge, this area of Guajataca practically became a huge muddy lake during Hurricane Maria's flooding. Weeks later, the receded waters uncovered several abandoned vehicles that had ended stuck in the foliage.

Guajataca was declared one of the most dangerous areas in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, because a nearby dam was threatening to break, which would have washed away thousands of homes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took charge of the situation and was working on the necessary repairs.

Like many poor people in central Puerto Rico, Jose Perez had relatives in the area, but over the years, most moved away. Many moved to cities like Arecibo and San Juan, but lately most move to the mainland United States.

"I have relatives around here, but most of my family moved to the U.S.," he said, "and this house was practically abandoned by one of my sisters." Although it obviously had some damage previous to Hurricane Maria, at the moment the house was completely empty, except for a tiny kerosene stove. He said relatives and friends stop by once in a while to bring him food "and other things."

"These days I spend my days here, to see what happens," he said, "and on Sundays I go to the (Catholic) chapel up that way, where I get a nice lunch."

According to 2016 Census Bureau statistics, close to 1.5 million Puerto Ricans -- 43 percent -- live below the U.S. poverty line, almost double the rate of Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state. Census figures also show that 55 percent of those 16 or older were employed before Hurricane Maria. The U.S. Department of Labor shows Puerto Rico's unemployment rate was 10 percent.

Although locally, poverty is commonly considered a rural problem, it extends to Puerto Rico's cities. San Juan, where the average tourist sees only the neatly conserved areas, has severely economically depressed pockets.

A few steps west of the territorial capitol building, for example, La Perla neighborhood is a constant reminder of the presence of extreme poverty. Located on a narrow stretch of land exposed to ocean threats outside the city walls, La Perla grew during the 19th century as a place to house freed slaves, domestic servants, a slaughter house and the city's cemetery.

Martin Pena Channel neighborhood is an example of the effects of massive exodus from the countryside in the 1930s. As highlighted by a "PBS NewsHour" show in 2016, "the area is strewn with trash, breeds mosquitoes, and is a health hazard for nearby residents. Due to the narrowing of the channel over time, the area is subject to frequent flooding, including raw sewage from buildings with insufficient sanitation."

La Perla and Martin Pena are among the San Juan neighborhoods most damaged by hurricanes.

"Those who are poor have little money," said Ismael Perez. "Little money gives us weak houses; weak houses don't survive a hurricane; more people die in weak houses. ... That's why poverty is the cause of most deaths (in a hurricane)."

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Christians have duty to revitalize, change world with hope, pope says

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 10:08am

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The joyful hope that flows from faith can change the world, which is why Christians have a crucial part to play in revitalizing Europe, Pope Francis said.

"To speak of a Christian contribution to the future of the continent means, before all else, to consider our task as Christians today in these lands which have been so richly shaped by the faith down the centuries," he said Oct. 28.

Christians, he said, must ask, "What is our responsibility at a time when the face of Europe is increasingly distinguished by a plurality of cultures and religions, while for many people Christianity is regarded as a thing of the past, both alien and irrelevant?"

The pope made his comments in a lengthy speech at a high-level meeting of politicians and church leaders in the European Union. The Oct. 27-29 meeting, organized by the Holy See and the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), was dedicated to how the church could contribute to the future of Europe.

"Christians are called to revitalize Europe and to revive its conscience, not by occupying spaces -- this would be proselytizing -- but by generating processes capable of awakening new energies in society," he said. In essence, Christians can be the soul -- the animating force -- within the body of every community.

This force of joyful hope rooted in faith can help communities understand and promote the basic, critical principles needed to thrive: the dignity of every person; the importance of community; the true place of dialogue; a culture of inclusion; and solidarity, development and peace.

"The first and perhaps the greatest contribution that Christians can make to today's Europe is to remind her that she is not a mass of statistics or institutions, but is made up of people," he said.

"Sadly, we see how frequently issues get reduced to discussions about numbers," he said. "There are no citizens, only votes. There are no migrants, only quotas. There are no workers, only economic markers. There are no poor, only thresholds of poverty."

"Soulless" statistics offer a convenient "alibi for not getting involved" because it's easier to not feel moved or responsible before "comfortable and reassuring" abstract principles, he said. Instead, when the real human faces are seen behind the numbers, "they force us to assume a responsibility that is real, personal and effective."

"The second contribution that Christians can make to the future of Europe, then, is to help recover the sense of belonging to a community," Pope Francis said.

The concept of freedom in the West "is misunderstood and seen as if it were a right to be left alone, free from all bonds," the pope said. This has led to a serious problem in which communities lack a sense of belonging and of being rooted in their own past.

Just like families, he said, communities are "alive when they are capable of openness, embracing the differences and gifts of each person while at the same time generating new life, development, labor, innovation and culture."

When it comes to dialogue, he said, it must be remembered that "religion in general" plays a positive and constructive role in building communities.

"Regrettably, a certain secularist prejudice, still in vogue, is incapable of seeing the positive value of religion's public and objective role in society, preferring to relegate it to the realm of the merely private and sentimental," he said.

"The result is the predominance of a certain groupthink, quite apparent in international meetings, which sees the affirmation of religious identity as a threat to itself and its dominance, and ends up promoting an ersatz conflict between the right to religious freedom and other fundamental rights," he added.

Even though promoting dialogue is a key responsibility of politics, "Christians are called to promote political dialogue, especially where it is threatened and where conflict seems to prevail," the pope said.

"Sadly, all too often we see how politics is becoming instead a forum for clashes between opposing forces," he said. "The voice of dialogue is replaced by shouted claims and demands. One often has the feeling that the primary goal is no longer the common good."

"Extremist and populist groups are finding fertile ground in many countries; they make protest the heart of their political message, without offering the alternative of a constructive political project," he said.

"Christians are called to restore dignity to politics and to view politics as a lofty service to the common good, not a platform for power," the pope said.

Lastly, when it comes to promoting a culture of inclusion, differences must be valued and viewed as a shared source of enrichment, he said.

"Seen in this way, migrants are more a resource than a burden," he said, and Christians, in particular, "are called to meditate seriously on Jesus' words: 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'"

"Especially when faced with the tragedy of displaced persons and refugees, we must not forget that we are dealing with persons, who cannot be welcomed or rejected at our own pleasure, or in accordance with political, economic or even religious ideas," he added.

Governments have a duty to address migration with prudence, that is, having "an open heart," but also acting in accordance to their ability to provide for the full integration of those entering their countries.

"We cannot regard the phenomenon of migration as an indiscriminate and unregulated process, but neither can we erect walls of indifference and fear," the pope said. And migrants, too, "must not neglect their own grave responsibility to learn, respect and assimilate the culture and traditions of the nations that welcome them."

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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Actor Mark Wahlberg's faith journey leaves impression on young adults

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 1:20pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic

By Joyce Duriga

CHICAGO (CNS) -- Hearing the faith journey of Hollywood actor and businessman Mark Wahlberg left an impression on the hearts of many young adults at the Archdiocese of Chicago's first (re)Encounter event Oct. 20 at the UIC Pavilion.

"It's powerful for a celebrity to feel that way about religion," said Omar Lopez, 21, from St. Gall Parish. "For me, when I think about a celebrity, I think cockiness, selfishness, but to hear an artist say that he takes time to just pray, that's an incredible feeling."

Lopez rushed to the stage at the end of Wahlberg's segment and got to shake the actor's hand.

"I came to hear him because personally I feel lost myself," Lopez told the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper. "At first I was really skeptical about it. I came here to just to hear different stories and to hear different aspects of life."

About 2,000 young adults attended (re)Encounter -- an evening of music, speakers, faith sharing and eucharistic adoration aimed at energizing the faith of young adult Catholics.

The highlight was a question-and-answer session with Wahlberg and Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich.

Star of movies such as "Transformers: Age of Extinction," "Ted" and "Deepwater Horizon" and producer of the popular HBO series "Entourage," Wahlberg takes his faith seriously, often attending daily Mass and making time for quiet prayer each morning. He emceed the Festival of Families with Pope Francis during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015.

His faith wasn't always important to him. Youngest in a family of nine children, he dropped out of school at 13, and served prison time. At 16, he was charged with attempted murder but he pleaded guilty to assault.

Today, he said, he's committed to being a good father and husband and giving his children the Catholic education he didn't have.

"I'm a street kid from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Grew up in St. Greg's and St. William's parishes," he told the crowd.

Because his parents worked a lot, he was often unsupervised and took to running the streets.

"Ended up getting into a lot of trouble, incarcerated, tried as an adult at 16, 17. That was a big wake-up call for me," he told Cardinal Cupich. "A lot of people go to God, especially when they get in trouble. When I heard the jail doors close behind me, I started praying right away."

It was then that he turned his life around.

"Still, every day it's a process. That's why I start my day, every day, by getting on my hands and my knees and starting a time of prayer and reading, reading Scripture. Then I feel like I can go out there and conquer the world or at least do my job and give back because I've been blessed so much," Wahlberg said.

He keeps in daily touch with his parish priest from when he was growing up, Father Ed Flavin, who married him and his wife and all of his siblings and baptized his four children. When Wahlberg decided to turn his life around, the priest was one of the people he looked up to.

Wahlberg, 46, said his biggest mistake was quitting school. Despite having a successful career as an entertainer and businessman, that haunted him, so he got his GED at age 42.

Responding to a young adult's question about making time for prayer and Mass in a busy life, the actor said it's a "must." He goes to bed early every night and wakes up before his family to pray in the chapel he built in his home.

Addressing another audience question about knowing when one has made the right decision in life according to God's will, Wahlberg shared how he felt God was calling him to more involvement with his faith leading up to the World Meeting of Families and his role as emcee at an event featuring the pope.

Somebody came to speak at the church ... they were saying, 'Are you a participant in the church and the community or are you a spectator?' And I was like, 'Whoa.' I felt like, yeah, I'm a bit of a spectator right now," Wahlberg said. "I'm coming and getting what I need, but I'm not really giving back, you know, reciprocating the kind of love and support I'm getting."

That encounter resulted in him saying "yes" to ushering when asked a few days later, and subsequently saying "yes" to the event with Pope Francis when asked a few days after that.

Wahlberg's commitment to prayer inspired Yunuen Arroyo of St. Odillo Parish in Berwyn.

"I can't even explain the motivation he has," she said. "The whole event is awesome. I love it. I really enjoyed the questions because I've asked those questions, like, 'How do you forgive yourself?'" said Arroyo. "You just have to keep going every day. You just have to keep trying."

Mary Kando of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Gewargis Cathedral, also connected to the actor's faith story.

"Not that my life has been anywhere near his life, but sometimes I feel like, 'How can I pull myself together?'" Kando said.

A friend invited Kando to (re)Encounter and she was glad she accepted.

"I heard about it but I wasn't really motivated to go because I didn't want to go by myself," she said. "I was looking for something to pull me back in. Not that I was away, but I was just kind of sick of the mundane, 'It's just Sunday Mass.' I wanted to get rejuvenated."

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

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Amid hurricane's devastation, Puerto Ricans' spirit seen shining through

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 11:45am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Wallice J. de la Vega

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (CNS) -- Above all material and financial considerations after Hurricane Maria's severe damage in Puerto Rico, one must highlight the brotherly spirit shown by the island's people during the ongoing recovery period, said the island's top Catholic pastor.

Although the church's financial burden has obviously become heavier as it strives to meet the increased emergency material needs of the faithful, it is the people's "huge capability for solidarity" that shines through in this disaster, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan told Catholic News Service Oct. 25.

"There are so many helping gestures, like people who don't know each other but share 'our daily bread,' and neighbors sitting down in the dark out on the street chatting," said Archbishop Gonzalez.

Due to slow government response to Hurricane Maria's victims in Puerto Rico, there has been an increase in church and neighborhood or town groups banding together to clear remote unpaved roads, remove fallen trees and debris, and provide material aid to the neediest.

"They are giving lessons of what is the essence of how to live," said the archbishop. "There's a very strong resiliency and spiritual capacity that we have seen in our people. College youngsters have taken to the streets to remove debris. ... These are touching and impressive moments we are living."

Some of those youngsters come from San Ignacio Catholic High School in San Juan. Father Andres Vall Serra, the Jesuit school's pastoral director, told CNS that the school has a special project to immerse students in providing aid to the poor. It is a class titled "Magis," which basically means universal good, or "what can one do to reach the good of all," based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

"Every Friday, all students from one grade's class are sent out to distribute filtration systems and food to poor communities," said Father Andres. "It's a moment that allows them to encounter Christ, but in a way that helps transform them."

The charity project has a grade-specific mental health counseling component, aimed to help students cope with the stress brought on by Hurricane Maria's effects.

Alvaro Carrillo, a senior at San Ignacio, spoke about how a Catholic-oriented education has helped prepare him for disasters such as hurricanes, noting "the emphasis on community impact and internal growth as a person. I mean being compassionate (in order) to recognize the worlds needs and how to react to situations like this one."

"This school has focused us on its Jesuit motto, 'Men at the service of others,'" said senior Ricardo Sanchez. "It was here, in seventh grade, where I started going out to help communities in need."

San Ignacio reopened Oct. 3, the first Catholic school to do so in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, said Father Andres. It was moderately damaged, mostly by falling trees. Its basement amphitheater and several storage units underground were flooded.

"We are at time of national mourning, trauma, after the passing of two hurricanes ... the consequences on the mood, the spirit, the emotions (of the people) are deep," said Archbishop Gonzalez, adding that "another trauma is that of shared love and solidarity."

He agreed with several pastors who had told CNS that, after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Mass attendance has risen sharply, although many still could not leave their homes because of the damage. "But yes, there's a spiritual rebirth," he said.

Church finances have been severely impacted in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. As businesses and factories shut down, families' economic stability has been affected while their financial demands have increased to cover repairs and replacement of lost property.

"We can neither ask nor expect that they continue the same level of support (to the church) when they themselves are barely surviving," said Archbishop Gonzalez. "In time, we have to see how we deal with sustaining parishes that can't sustain themselves, as well as our (television) Channel 13 and radio stations."

However, the archbishop stressed that "our focus now is direct assistance. Most people need water, food, clothing. That's our primary mission."

"The top challenge the church in Puerto Rico faces is to nurture the soul our people with God's word, Jesus' presence through our works of charity, solidarity, celebrating the Eucharist, and maintaining a perspective that keeps us anchored in reality of these tragic events and full of hope for the strength that the Holy Spirit gives us," said Archbishop Gonzalez.

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Not a Roman holiday: Pilgrims learn lessons walking to Rome

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 10:00am

IMAGE: CNS/Robert Duncan

By Matthew Fowler and Robert Duncan

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After weeks of navigating difficult terrain, avoiding wild animals and steep cliffs, the devoted pilgrims and hiking enthusiasts who manage to traverse the 155 miles between Assisi and Rome on foot arrive in St. Peter's Basilica and report a special kind of payoff.

"It's very moving when you get there and walk through the doors of St. Peter's," said Bret Thoman, director of St. Francis Pilgrimages. "It's almost like walking from the world into heaven."

The Way of St. Francis is a network of walking trails that connects Assisi to Rome. Created 15 years ago by the government of Italy's Umbria province, it attempts to mirror the path likely trod by St. Francis of Assisi when he went to Rome to meet Pope Innocent III in 1209. The actual historic route remains unknown.

"When you arrive (at St. Peter's), you're usually kind of beat up. You have blisters, your legs are sore, your feet are sore, your joints are sore," Thoman said, but still the pilgrims are grateful for the hard lessons learned along the way.

Deacon Terrance Marcell, a 79-year-old serving at Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonds, Washington, said the challenge of walking the "cammino" -- as it is called in Italian -- gave him a renewed sense of what is truly important in life.

"I'm not going to worry about my golf score anymore like I did," he said just before finishing his pilgrimage in late October. "I can think back and realize that I need a little bit more patience with people, with my family."

Pilgrims encounter true wilderness on the trail to the Rome, and Thoman said he prepares them for encounters with the dogs, wild boar, snakes and other creatures that inhabit the Italian forests.

"It's a real-life journey out in nature," said Thoman, who has been organizing Catholic tours of Italy with his wife for the past 15 years.

To keep on schedule, pilgrims walk between nine and 12 miles daily, stopping only to eat and sleep. Many of the pilgrims Thoman leads opt to stay in hotels, since, he says, "after a hard day's hiking most pilgrims have had enough penance."

Marcell said that encountering quaint scenes of rural Italian Catholic life summoned vivid memories of his youth.

"The icons, the little churches and the sanctuaries have brought an image and have reminded me of my roots as a child," he said.

Father Vincent Gilmore, the pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, said that punctuating each day of hiking with the celebration of Mass helped him feel connected to the saints who had taken similar paths throughout history.

"For me, it's a way of joining heaven and earth while I am walking," Father Gilmore said. "In the Eucharist, there is no time, you enter the space of God, which is really outside of time," and therefore it brings together "all the people who have walked these lands in the present."

"Walking the cammino is a rhythm and a silence that puts things into perspective," said Father Gilmore. "We mature along the way, we gain more wisdom and a greater sense of God and his providence."

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Pence rebukes U.N. efforts to help Christians, announces Middle East trip

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 4:22pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized the United Nations' efforts to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East in a speech Oct. 25.

Since the organization "failed" to help Christians and other minority religious communities, he said, aid from the United States from now on would be routed through the U.S. Agency for International Development and "faith-based and private organizations" to help those who are persecuted in the region.

The vice president, who was the keynote speaker at the Solidarity Dinner for the Washington-based group In Defense of Christians, did not identify any of the faith-based or private groups that will receive the money, nor did he say how much they will receive, but instead criticized the U.N. saying it had denied help to faith-based groups.

"Christians and those who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly and tonight it is my privilege to announce that President (Donald) Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding the ineffective relief efforts of the United Nations and from this day forward America will provide support directly to persecuted communities," he said.

The vice president also announced that he will be making a trip to the Middle East in December but did not release details.

"I promise you one of the messages that I will bring on the president's behalf to the leaders across the region is that now is the time to bring an end to the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities," he said.

Pence was introduced at the dinner by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus. The dinner was part of three days of prayer, workshops, meetings and a lobbying effort by the nonprofit In Defense of Christians organization, which advocates mostly for Christians in the Middle East but also calls attention to the plight of other minority groups in the region.

The organization primarily aims to call attention to disappearance of Christians from their ancestral home, prompting Christians in the U.S. to do something to help them. The organization claims "over 200,000 volunteer citizen activists" in its ranks.

Pence said Christianity is facing "heartbreaking" acts of violence as well as an "exodus" from its ancestral home, but said the Trump administration is focused on destroying "the embodiment of evil in our time: ISIS." He largely focused on the group as the source of the evils perpetrated on Christians who "are today the targets of unspeakable acts of violence and atrocities."

"The vice president is correct that Christians are under particularly brutal pressure in countries where local branches of IS are active, such as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt," said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. 

However, she said, "Christians have also faced persistent social, economic and political discrimination in some of these countries for decades, long before IS existed," Dunne continued, explaining the complexity of the problems in the region.

"I hope that when (the vice president) visits the Middle East, and particularly Egypt, Pence will discuss both the urgent problem of jihadi violence against Christians and the long-running problems of discrimination and intercommunal violence, about which the government of President Sissi has done very little," Dunne said to Catholic News Service, speaking of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. 

"I hope he will also question whether the Egyptian government's campaign against terrorism -- which involves extensive human rights abuses and political repression -- is really effective, or whether it might be fueling the very radicalization that ends up brutalizing Christians," Dunne added.

Absent from the vice president's Oct. 25 speech was the Trump administration's stance toward refugees from some of the countries where Christians are facing some of the violence he spoke about, including Iraq, Syria and Egypt.

Though the vice president said in his speech "America will support these people," meaning Christians and other religious minorities facing persecution in the Middle East, the day before, on Oct. 24, the administration announced stricter restrictions for refugees wanting to come to the United States from 11 countries. Though the countries were not named, news agency Reuters reported that they were mostly from the Middle East and Africa, which in the past included many persecuted Christians seeking refuge in the U.S.

"Of nearly 2,600 Iranian refugees resettled in the United States last year, for instance, a majority were Christian," Reuters reported.

In Defense of Christians, which hosted the speech, has repeatedly asked Congress that any relief for Christians in the Middle East, in terms of U.S. policy, include the admission of Christian refugees from certain nations where persecution is particularly grave. In this year's In Defense of Christians summit policy agenda, the organization says it supports a bill that would provide immediate relief to minority religious groups in Iraq and Syria, particularly Christians and Yezidis.

"These communities would receive special humanitarian status and refugee resettlement priority in the U.S.," the organization says on its website.

Most of the Trump administration's efforts, however, have focused on allowing fewer, not more, refugees into the United States, and have sought greater restrictions for those coming from majority-Muslim countries, including some nations where Christians in Middle East are facing peril.

In late September, Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, voiced objections about the historical low level of refugee admissions under Trump, who will limit the number of refugees the United States accepts to 45,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.

It is the lowest admission level for persons fleeing persecution that the U.S. has accepted since the 1980s, when the executive branch was allowed to set the caps under the Refugee Act.

"As I have stated before, this decision has very severe human consequences -- people with faces, names, children and families are suffering and cannot safely or humanely remain where they are until the war and persecution in their countries of origin gets resolved," Bishop Vasquez said.

"These people include at-risk women and children; frightened youth; the elderly; those whose lives are threatened because of their religion, ethnicity or race; and refugees seeking family reunification with loved ones in the United States," the bishop said.

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Pope asks U.S. to welcome migrants, urges migrants to respect laws

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 3:06pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/James Lawler Duggan, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

ROME (CNS) -- Pope Francis called on the people of the United States to welcome migrants and urged those who are welcomed to respect the laws of the country.

"To all people (of the U.S.) I ask: take care of the migrant who is a promise of life for the future. To migrants: take care of the country that welcomes you; accept and respect its laws and walk together along that path of love," the pope said Oct. 26 during a live video conversation with teenagers from around the world.

Pope Francis was speaking with teens participating in a program of the international network of "Scholas Occurrentes."

At the event, broadcast by the U.S. Spanish-language network Telemundo, the host asked the pope for a message to immigrants in the United States.

Many face difficulties after the Trump administration's recent call to tighten immigration laws, by raising the standard of proof for asylum seekers and limiting family members of current immigrants who can enter the country.

Other proposals include: constructing a wall on the southern border; cracking down on the entry of young Central Americans; criminalizing the overstay of a visa as a misdemeanor; and restricting federal grants to so-called sanctuary cities.

Pope Francis said the U.S. bishops "have told me about what you suffer" and is aware that "there are people that do not want you."

"I am a son of immigrants. And if there weren't people who helped my father when he arrived at 22 years old, I would not be here today," the pope said.

The call to welcome the migrant and the stranger, he added, is not a personal request he made as pope but a mandate given "by someone much more important than myself."

"God said it and the Bible is clear," the pope said. "Receive the migrant, receive the refugee, because you too were a migrant and refugee from Egypt. Jesus was also a refugee; they wanted to cut the little child's head off."

While video chatting with students from Houston, the pope also was asked by the host of the event if he had a message for immigrant youths in the United States known as "Dreamers."

Approximately 800,000 young men and women who have benefited from the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, are at risk of losing their legal status.

President Donald Trump has said that in any bill to legalize DACA, Congress must include funding for a U.S-Mexico border wall and more Border Patrol agents -- as laid out in his policy proposals -- or he won't sign such a measure.

The pope told the Dreamers, "The first thing I want to say is that I'm praying for you and I am close to you. Secondly, continue dreaming. And lastly, be close to people who can help you and defend you at this juncture. Do not hate anyone; look for help from those who can defend you. I am praying for you."

Pope Francis also urged Europeans to welcome migrants and refugees who arrive on the continent seeking a better life, and he reminded Europeans that they are also "mestizos" ("mixed race") from "the great migrations of the barbarians and the Vikings."

"This isn't the time to pretend this is sterilized laboratory," the pope said. "This is the moment to receive, to embrace and -- to those who arrive -- to respect the rules of the country that welcomes you."

"To the migrants who suffer," the pope added, "know that the pope is very close to you. I accompany you and I am praying for you."

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Pope says space station crew like a 'tiny U.N.' with peaceful diversity

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 12:25pm

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- One perk that comes with floating aboard the International Space Station is NASA arranges for occasional calls with celebrities to keep the astronauts' spirits high during their monthslong flights.

Before his first space mission began this year, Catholic astronaut Mark Vande Hei of Falls Church, Virginia, requested a call from Pope Francis, and Oct. 26 his wish upon a star came true.

The pope linked up live from the Vatican with the six-man crew as they orbited 250 miles above Earth.

"Good morning, good evening," the pope told the crew at 3 p.m. Rome time "because when you are in space, you never know" what the real time is.

During their 20-minute link-up, Pope Francis asked five questions about how their unique perspective from the frontier of the universe has changed or enriched them and what lessons they could share with people back on Earth.

Saying society today is very individualistic, but what is needed is collaboration, the pope asked them how the ISS is an example of that collaboration.

Flight engineer Joseph Acaba of Inglewood, California, said it is the diversity of each individual that makes the team stronger.

"We need to embrace who we are as individuals and respect those around us, and by working together we can do things much greater than we could do as individuals," he told the pope.

Pope Francis said they were like a tiny United Nations, in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Thanking them for their work, he said they were "representatives of the whole human family" working on such an important project in space.

When the pope asked what brought them joy during their long mission, Commander Randolph Bresnik from Fort Knox, Kentucky, told the pope that it was being able to see every day "God's creation maybe a little bit from his perspective."

Bresnik, a Baptist, said, "People cannot come up here and see the indescribable beauty of our earth and not be touched in their souls." His fellow crewmembers were also Christians: two Russian Orthodox and three Catholics.

"We see the peace and serenity of our planet as it goes around 10 kilometers (six miles) a second, and there are no borders, there is no conflict, it's just peaceful," Bresnik said. "And you see the thinness of the atmosphere and it makes you realize how fragile our existence here is."

The commander said he hoped the beautiful images they capture from space and their example as international crewmembers successfully working together would be an inspiration and a model for the rest of the world.

The pope said he was struck by Bresnik's awareness of the fragility of the earth and humanity's capacity to destroy it, but also the hope and inspiration the astronauts could feel.

When asked by the pope what has surprised them most about living in the ISS, Vande Hei said it was how differently things looked from such a unique perspective. He said it was also "unsettling" to be in constant rotation and have to orient himself by deciding himself what was "up" or "down."

"This is truly human thing -- the ability to decide," the pope replied.

When asked what made them want to become astronauts, Russian flight engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy said his grandfather was his biggest inspiration because he had been the chief engineer on the Soviet team that built Sputnik, the first artificial satellite successfully launched into earth's orbit. "So for me, it is a great honor to continue what he was doing to fulfill his dreams," said Ryazanskiy.

After Pope Francis asked for their thoughts about Dante Alighieri's verse in the Divine Comedy that love was the force that "moves the sun and the stars," Russian flight engineer Alexander Misurkin said only love gives you the strength to give yourself for others.

Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli said he hoped that someday people like the pope, "not just engineers, physicists," but poets, theologians, philosophers and writers "can come here to space, which will certainly be (the case) in the future, I would like for them to be able to come here to explore what it means to have a human being in space."

It was the second time a pope has called ISS crewmembers; Pope Benedict XVI spoke with 12 astronauts in 2011, praising them for their courage and commitment and for their comments on how science can contribute to the pursuit of peace and the protection of a fragile planet.

Nespoli was present on the ISS for both calls. Among the small number of personal possessions the devout Catholic is allowed onboard, he keeps a prayer card of St. Padre Pio and an olive branch he received from Pope Francis as a reminder of the importance of taking care of earth "our common home."

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Vatican City PD: Gendarmes continue centuries-old military tradition

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 10:04am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Like police everywhere, Vatican officers write dozens of parking tickets and deal with more than their fair share of petty thieves.

The Vatican's blue-uniformed police corps does not have the picturesque uniforms or the medieval halberds of the Swiss Guard, with whom they work to protect the pope and Vatican City State, but they have a 1,700-year history that is just as colorful.

The history -- spanning times of peace, war and even excommunication -- is recounted in a new book titled, "The Vatican Gendarmerie: From its Origins to our Days."

The book, released Oct. 19, draws from ancient records, archival documents and candid photos to chronicle the history of the force, which traces its origins date back to the 4th century. After the Diocletian persecution of Christians, the Emperor Constantine granted them religious freedom and allowed Pope Miltiades to have an armed military escort.

From the late 1300s to the 1600s, the Gendarmes Corps -- as it was known -- enrolled young men from Corsica, because men there were considered to be particularly "proud and courageous," the book said.

But the face of the Vatican military force changed following Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Italy in the late 1700s. According to the volume, a majority of the members of the Gendarmes Corps left to serve in the French army, a move that led to their excommunication by Pope Pius VII.

In 1816, after Napoleon's defeat, Pope Pius issued an apostolic letter that brought significant reform to the administration of the papal state, including a new force called the Pontifical Gendarmes, now known as the Vatican Gendarmes.

Two hundred years later, the "Activity of the Holy See," an annual book of reports from various Vatican offices, offers a glimpse into the actions, investigative work and arrests that occur within Vatican City State.

In 2015, for example, Vatican police carried out eight arrests. They also launched a pickpocketing-prevention program in the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Basilica and conducted investigations into 58 reports of theft. Of those thefts, 19 cases were handed on to the Vatican City court.

Throughout its history, the Vatican police force also has worked to ensure the safety of the Roman pontiff. Given the millions of people who gather in St. Peter's Square or St. Peter's Basilica for papal events every year, that is no small task.

Protecting the pope while allowing him access to pilgrims proved most challenging during a general audience May 13, 1981. St. John Paul II was riding in his popemobile greeting pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square when Turkish gunmen Mehmet Ali Agca fired four shots, severely injuring the pope.

In the ensuing chaos, Camillo Cibin, then head of the Vatican police, tackled Agca as he was attempting to dispose of the gun and flee. Cibin prevented another assassination attempt on St. John Paul one year later when a former priest tried to stab the pontiff during his pilgrimage to Fatima.

Cibin, who served in the Vatican police force for nearly 60 years and was a bodyguard to six popes, was dubbed by the Italian media as the "guardian angel of the popes," a title that remained with him until his retirement in 2006 and his death three years later.

Coincidentally, the nickname calls to mind the patron saint of the Vatican police, St. Michael the Archangel, a saint Pope Francis has encouraged today's Vatican police to emulate.

Like the archangel, a good guardian "has the courage to get rid of demons" and has the intelligence to be able to pick them out from the crowd. "He can't be, excuse my terminology, an idiot; he has to be quick on the uptake and alert," the pope said in his homily at a Mass for security personnel Sept. 27, 2014.

While Vatican police are no strangers to occasional bomb threats -- including six suspicious bags intercepted in 2015 -- Pope Francis warned them of one major bomb that they must always be on the lookout for.

"The worst bomb inside the Vatican is gossip," which "threatens the life of the church and the life of (the Vatican) every day," the pope said, because it "sows destruction" and "destroys the lives of others."

Domenico Giani served as Cibin's deputy and now is his successor as head of the force. Like his predecessor, Giani was an ever-present figure during the papacy of retired Pope Benedict XVI and now watches over his successor, Pope Francis, as head of the security detail.

In his preface to the book detailing the history of the Vatican Gendarmes, Giani recalled the pope's 2014 homily and confirmed that the officers' vocation remains what it was centuries ago: to safeguard the state so the church and the pope "can be free" to carry out their mission.

"Faithfulness to the pope, in and with the church, 'Fides et Virtus' ('Faith and Virtue') -- our motto -- and following the plans of divine providence: this is the wish and hope for today's gendarmes and those of tomorrow, with our thoughts always looking back to those who preceded us," Giani wrote.

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Puerto Rico recovery effort shows 'a church that walks with the poor'

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 1:03pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Wallice J. de la Vega

LAS MARIAS, Puerto Rico (CNS) -- By joining forces to create coalitions on behalf of those who are suffering in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico has been fulfilling Pope Francis' expressed wish to see "a church that walks with the poor."

At the parish level, that cooperation has been notable at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Las Marias, a small town nestled in Puerto Rico's western mountains.

Father Carlos Francis Mendez, pastor of Immaculate Heart, has teamed with the local Pentecostal church, Plenitud lay youth group and Samaritan's Purse to pool and distribute material resources in a coordinated way to the poorest sectors of Las Marias.

Initially, the church's parish hall became a busy warehouse and operations center full of volunteers providing relief to victims of Hurricane Irma in Haiti. Hurricane Maria refocused their mission toward the local community.

"What we have done is create Proyecto de Vida (Life Project) by joining different religious and civil organizations to gather all we have, and that way magnifying what we can give to the poor," Father Carlos told Catholic News Service.

Local and federal agencies had been notably slow distributing aid to Las Marias. Some aid was brought in during the first weeks after Hurricane Maria, but it had been sitting undelivered to the needy.

Deep off-road in Plato Indio sector Oct. 24, Father Carlos was busy leading a party of volunteers to distribute food, water filters and plastic tarps, which are mainly being used to cover torn roofs. At each stop, the group also prayed for the families they were helping.

Plato Indio is a maze of narrow one-lane roads recently cleared of landslides debris and fallen power lines. It is an area dotted with unsafe houses and extremely poor families.

"We have been doing this since day one," said the young priest. "The idea is to get to the least (because) here it has been disastrous and aid was slow."

He said that during the first weeks after Hurricane Maria, the church's delivery of aid was extremely difficult because it had to be done by foot because practically all local roads were blocked by landslides.

Nidia Sierra, parish secretary, explained that each coalition member receives donations individually and brings them to Proyecto.

"We sort them, put them in mixed bags and deliver them door to door out in the countryside," she said. "Last Saturday we went out and delivered all we had, and when we came back there was a large load of clothing items already waiting for us for the next distribution."

The last round of donations received by the coalition included $5,000 from the Diocese of Arecibo for food items, hundreds of clothing items from the Pentecostals, as well as 200 water filters and hundreds of solar-powered lightbulbs from Samaritan's Purse.

One of the parish volunteers working with the church relief operation was Martha Vega. Before the hurricane, the young mother had lost her husband, her son and her daughter. Both men are incarcerated and the girl has been placed under child protective services. Hurricane Maria took all Vega had left: her house in a nearby wooded area and her personal property.

"I have lost everything. My house was torn apart. It took me four days to make it to my house walking by way of trails because the road was impassible," said Vega. She was temporarily staying with a friend. "The only thing I can do now is start over," she told CNS. "I'm motivated because I'm here, helping others, and because all help that I have requested, I have received it here."

Luz Lamboy, 82, who has Alzheimer's, was one of the last recipients of aid in Plato Indio. Cheerful and happy to have company, she was grateful for the items received.

When Father Carlos identified himself to her as a priest, she answered with a big smile: "I don't care who you are, as long and you bring me the gift of God's word."

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In the end, everyone faces God with 'empty hands,' pope says

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 10:18am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- God waits for everyone, even the worst sinner who repents only with his dying breath, Pope Francis said.

"Before God, we present ourselves with empty hands," he said, meaning that all the good works people have or haven't done throughout their lives aren't measured to determine entry into heaven.

"A word of humble repentance was enough to touch Jesus' heart" and to make him promise eternal life in heaven even to a poor criminal, he said Oct. 25 during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square.

The pope announced the day's catechesis would be the last in his series of audience talks on Christian hope, adding that the last talk, therefore, would look at hope's final fulfillment in heaven.

A curious fact, he said, is that the word "paradise" appears just once in the Gospels; it is used when Jesus from the cross promises the thief executed with him that "today you will be with me in paradise." The "good thief," the pope said, had the courage to recognize his sins and humbly ask Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."

"It is there, on Calvary, that Jesus has his last encounter with a sinner, to open to him, too, the gates to his kingdom," the pope said.

The good thief had done no good works in his life and had nothing to show Jesus that he had earned or was worthy of heaven, he said. "He had nothing, but he trusted in Jesus, whom he recognized as someone innocent, good, so different from himself."

The "good thief reminds us of our true condition before God: that we are his children, that he feels compassion for us," that he can't resist "every time we show him we are homesick for his love."

The miracle of forgiveness is repeated continually, especially in hospital rooms and prison cells, the pope said, because "there is no person, no matter how badly he has lived, who is left with only desperation and is denied grace."

"God is father and he awaits our return up to the last moment," he said, just like the father of the prodigal son did.

"Paradise is not a fairy tale or an enchanted garden," the pope said "Paradise is the embrace of God, infinite love, and we enter thanks to Jesus who died on the cross for us."

"Wherever Jesus is, there is mercy and happiness; without him, it is cold and dark," he said.

Jesus "wants to lead us to the most beautiful place in existence, and he wants to bring us there with the little or immense good that has been in our life, because nothing is lost in that which he has already redeemed," the pope said.

Death does not frighten those who have put their trust in God, he said, because they trust in his promise and infinite mercy. They know Jesus died on the cross to redeem everyone's sins, mistakes and failings and to bring all of his children with him to the house of the father.

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Pope's November-January schedule includes new World Day of the Poor

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 10:04am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Szilard Koszticsag, EPA


VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis will celebrate a special Mass with the poor and people who assist them Nov. 19, the first World Day of the Poor.

After the 2015-16 Year of Mercy, the pope established the day to encourage new initiatives fostering encounter, friendship, solidarity and concrete assistance to the poor. Pope Francis is scheduled to offer a luncheon to 500 people attending the Mass, and the Vatican said it hoped parishes would do something similar.

The World Day of the Poor celebration was just one item on a list of papal liturgies for November through January. Other items on the list published Oct. 24 include:

-- Nov. 2, feast of All Souls, afternoon Mass at the American military cemetery in Nettuno, south of Rome.

-- Nov. 3, annual memorial Mass in St. Peter's Basilica for cardinals and bishops who died in the past year.

-- Nov. 19, World Day of the Poor, Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.

-- Nov. 26-Dec. 2, papal visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh.

-- Dec. 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception, prayer at the foot of a Marian statue near Rome's Spanish Steps.

-- Dec. 12, feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, evening Mass for Latin America in St. Peter's Basilica.

-- Dec. 24, Christmas Mass at 9:30 p.m. in St. Peter's Basilica.

-- Dec. 25, Christmas blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) at noon from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.

-- Dec. 31, evening prayer and "Te Deum" in St. Peter's Basilica in thanksgiving for the year past.

-- Jan. 1, Mass in St. Peter's Basilica for the feast of Mary, mother of God, and World Peace Day.

-- Jan. 6, feast of the Epiphany, Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.

-- Jan. 7, feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Mass in the Sistine Chapel with the baptism of several infants.

-- Jan. 15-22, papal trip to Chile and Peru.

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Mideast church leaders look to U.S., but want voice in own destiny

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 5:50pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

By Barb Fraze

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Two prominent Mideast church leaders told a U.S. audience that they were looking to the United States for leadership to obtain peace in the Middle East.

"We look to America to lead the international community in so many ways," said Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch.

At an Oct. 24 media conference kicking off the In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington, the cardinal and Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch and all the East told a crowded room of church leaders, politicians and media at the National Press Club that Middle East residents were looking for the United States to push for peace, especially in their region.

The Oct. 24-26 summit centers on the theme of "American Leadership and Securing the Future of Christians in the Middle East."

Cardinal Rai said people in the Middle East were looking to America to help solve the humanitarian crisis that is enveloping Lebanon: 1.7 million Syrian refugees, who have been coming for more than six years; half a million Palestinians, who have been in the country for 69 years; "and many Iraqis."

Yet he and Patriarch John insisted that Middle Eastern nations must be involved in coming up with a solution.

"We hope the Palestinian crisis will be resolved soon, but not at the expense of Lebanon," said Cardinal Rai, emphasizing that Lebanon needs to be involved in negotiations.

He noted that his country has been at peace for years, but that peace is fragile. Many Lebanese have said the number of refugees in Lebanon -- proportionately equivalent to about 150 million people coming to the United States and needing care -- is straining that peace, as well as the nation's infrastructure and resources.

Lebanon's proximity to conflict zones and its hospitality have made it a haven for those fleeing violence. Southern Lebanon shares a border with Israel. Eastern and northern Lebanon borders Syria; from Damascus, Syria, to the border with Lebanon is only 15 miles.

Cardinal Rai said that, throughout history, "many of our challenges came from outside Lebanon."

"We have been abandoned to solve the problems we did not create," he said.

"We have a long tradition of pluralism in the Middle East," he said, but that has eroded in recent years.

Patriarch John also emphasized the need for people of the Middle East to be involved in peace negotiations.

"I daresay that if we are talking about our destiny in our land, we have something to say," he said, noting that people do not want terms dictated to them. People want "our right to express on our destiny and our own plight."

"Living in security and peace is a right of people of all the world," said Patriarch John, noting that the hands of terrorism were stretching to Europe. However, he said, church leaders wanted Middle Easterners, especially Christians, to be able to return to their homelands.

Without specifically mentioning the exodus of Middle East refugees to Western nations, Cardinal Rai said people always speak of refugees living in human dignity, yet countries closed their borders and left families in the rain and the cold. He asked if it was enough to give a family a tent and food.

"If they really want human dignity, the first thing they have to do is stop the war" and allow people to return to their countries, he said.

Both church leaders emphasized that Christians in the Middle East were working together, through groups like the Middle East Council of Churches, but also with Muslim leaders. Responding to a question about the creation of safe zones for Christians in various countries, they said they did not want to be split from their neighbors.

"We want Lebanon to be one Lebanon, and one Syria, united, and one united Iraq," said Patriarch John.

The summit includes an ecumenical prayer service and multiple seminars, with policy advocates and politicians, as well as speakers from the Middle East.

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a banquet Oct. 25. Participants will travel to Capitol Hill Oct. 26 to lobby congressional leaders and speak with administration officials.

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Follow Fraze on Twitter: @BFraze.

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Updated: In Myanmar, Pope Francis' words will be monitored closely

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 12:33pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffery

By Paul Jeffrey

YANGON, Myanmar (CNS) -- When Pope Francis visits Myanmar in late November, church leaders will be listening nervously to his every word, specifically hoping they don't hear the R-word. Any mention by name of the Rohingya, a Muslim group widely hated in this predominantly Buddhist country, will have widespread implications here.

"The pope's visit is keeping us very anxious, as many things can go wrong. A wrong word from the Holy Father can plunge the country into chaos," said Father Mariano Soe Naing, communications director for Myanmar's bishops.

"If the Holy Father in his speech evens mentions the Rohingya, the nationalist groups will respond. This is a historic problem, and we need a lot of time to solve this problem. We cannot just say this or that. That is the reason why Aung San Suu Kyi cannot say anything," he said, referring to the de facto leader of Myanmar's civilian government, who has been criticized internationally for failing to speak out against the military's actions against Rohingya in northern Rakhine state.

Father Soe Naing told Catholic News Service that while the bishops support democracy and back Aung San Suu Kyi, they understand her silence on the Rohingya.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has no right to comment on anything. The military has the authority to decide everything," he said. "The whole world wants to criticize her, wants her to fight against the military in favor of full democracy. But that's a fight she cannot win. She might have the force of the people behind her, but the bloodshed would be terrible. The blood would flow like rivers in this country. The military is not ready to give up easily. She knows that well."

The Asian church news agency reported the country's Catholic bishops told the papal nuncio in June that they would prefer Pope Francis avoid mentioning the Rohingya by name.

More than a million Rohingya live in Myanmar, but they are widely seen by the government and the majority Buddhist population as foreigners, and they are frequently referred to as "Bengalis."

On Aug. 25, Muslim separatists launched a series of attacks on government security forces in Rakhine. The Myanmar military launched a fierce counterattack. On Oct. 18, Amnesty International issued a report blaming Myanmar's military for a "targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning" in Rohingya communities in the region.

More than half a million Rohingya refugees have fled across the border into neighboring Bangladesh, where UNICEF, in an Oct. 20 report, said conditions resemble "hell on earth," particularly for refugee children.

On Oct. 24, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement setting up a framework for the return of the Rohingya. Aid workers on the ground doubt it will make much immediate difference in the flow of Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh.

Despite the caution urged by bishops here, Pope Francis has mentioned the Rohingya by name.

"I would like to express all of my closeness to them," he said Aug. 27, asking pilgrims at the Vatican to pray for "the Lord to save them, to raise up men and women of goodwill to help them, that they may be given full rights."

Father Soe Naing said the pope's comments, just two days after the separatist attacks, created discontent in Myanmar.

"When the Holy Father said that we should pray for the Rohingya, people were really angry, because it was Burmese police posts that were attacked, and people died. The pope didn't mention the terrorist attacks when he asked people to pray for the Rohingya. Why did he leave out the rest of the people who suffered in this country?" Father Soe Naing said.

"Our people do not want to hear the word 'Rohingya.' We are not allowed to use it in our country. If the Holy Father comes and begins to speak about this conflict, then the nationalists may rise up against him. That is our fear. But we believe that the Holy Father knows what to say and what not to set say. We trust in his wisdom," the priest said.

Win Tun Kyi, director of Karuna Mission Social Solidarity, the aid and development agency of the Myanmar Catholic Church, downplayed the negative repercussions of Pope Francis' venture into Myanmar's internal strife.

"When the pope said something about the Rohingya, some of the Buddhist nationalists got very angry. But people tend to forget after two or three weeks. There are new things to get excited about on Facebook and in the media," he said.

Words have tremendous power in a county where people still argue whether they should call themselves Burma, a name dating to British colonial rule, or Myanmar, which was adapted by the country's military in 1989 in response to pro-democracy demonstrations.

Win Tun Kyi suggests Pope Francis follow the lead of former U.S. President Barack Obama who, during a visit in 2012, avoided taking sides by almost always using the phase "this country."

"Politicians are good at these things, and I hope that our pope will be sensitive in his public statements," he said.

A Protestant leader said the pope's visit would affect more than just Catholics.

"In general, people don't know the difference between Catholics and Protestants, so when the pope comes it will not just benefit the Catholics, but the whole Christian community. And if something goes wrong, it is not only the Catholics who will suffer," said Patrick Loo Tone, president of the Myanmar Council of Churches.

"Most Buddhists don't trust the Muslims, and the Muslims don't trust the Buddhists. For the time being, though, both parties trust us Christians to a certain extent. But if we do or say something that appears to favor the Muslims, then the Buddhists will become more suspicious and uneasy about us. We have to be very careful about what we say, or we Christians could be the next target."

Despite the political traps that await Pope Francis in this country, Loo Tone says non-Catholics are enthusiastically playing a supportive role in welcoming the pontiff.

"There are tens of thousands of Catholics who want to come see and hear the pope, because it's the first time that the pope has come here. They have asked us to help, and we're opening our churches and other buildings to offer hospitality. And many Buddhists, including some of the big monasteries, are also offering their spaces. Some might see the pope's visit as possibly negative, but I believe God will make it a positive experience for everyone."

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Catholic dairy farmer fears Puerto Rico's milk industry may be decimated

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 12:28pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Wallice de la Vega

HATILLO, Puerto Rico (CNS) -- Way up in the highlands of north central Puerto Rico, in an area severely damaged by Hurricane Maria, lies an untold story of an imminent economic catastrophe: the potential decimation of the island's milk industry.

That's the message Gustavo Toledo, a Catholic dairy farmer in the Naranjito sector of Hatillo, wants to get out before it is too late. Two of his three dairy farms were wiped out by Hurricane Maria.

"I woke up the day after Maria, walked over the gate at the top of the hill behind my house, and stood there, frozen in disbelief about what I was seeing," Toledo told Catholic News Service Oct. 22 while standing a few feet from a huge pile of twisted metal that was one of his milk production facilities.

The son of an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a lector, Toledo said that a few days before Maria, he had to move most of his 700 cows about five miles away, cutting through neighbors' land, to a safer location. About 20 cows that could not be moved remained at his property.

"If I take into account the lost and damaged cows, milk production unmet, structural damage like this one, destroyed equipment and everything else, I'd say we have lost just over $1 million," said Toledo. The farms' structures were insured, but the policy covers only part of them.

Considering that his farms were not the only ones destroyed, one of Toledo's main concerns is the massive unemployment resulting in the area's agricultural industry. His farms have provided employment for area workers for at least 50 years.

The local cattlemen's association has had meetings with government officials about recovery programs available, "but we have to rebuild ourself and if aid is approved, they reimburse part of it," said Toledo.

"In Puerto Rico, the only agricultural industry protected is milk production and the product has never been scarce," added Toledo, "but I anticipate that for two or three years, there will be a shortage of milk."

Toledo said that at this time, Puerto Rico's milk production is at 45 percent of normal output and the next few years "will be very difficult for the industry."

According to the trade magazine Progressive Dairyman, Puerto Rico's dairy industry yields more than $200 million annually, representing about one-quarter of Puerto Rico's total local agricultural production.

Hatillo leads the island's dairy production. Puerto Rico has close to 80 dairy farms, most of which suffered severe hurricane damage.

"The government recently announced that the milk industry is back up to 70 percent, which is not accurate," said Toledo. "Moreover, if we don´t get help fast, we might end up completely losing the Puerto Rican milk industry."

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U.S. Embassy to Vatican prepares to welcome new ambassador

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 11:21am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- A few hours before President Donald Trump was to swear in Callista Gingrich as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, the charge d'affaires of the embassy said the fight against human trafficking and the protection of religious freedom around the globe would continue to be top priorities in U.S.-Vatican relations.

Obvious differences on specific policies related to immigration and climate change, for example, have not eroded the relationship, as many pundits on social media claim, said Louis Bono, who has headed the embassy staff while awaiting Gingrich's nomination, confirmation and arrival.

He also said the Vatican and the U.S. embassy are cooperating as the Vatican carries out its criminal investigation of Msgr. Carlo Capella, a former diplomat at the Vatican nunciature in Washington, on charges related to child pornography. While the U.S. State Department requested the Vatican waive diplomatic immunity, which the Vatican declined to do, Bono said the U.S. government respected the Vatican's right to insist on handling the case itself.

Trump was to swear in Gingrich Oct. 24. She and her husband, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were expected to arrive in Rome in early November. While she will begin working at the embassy, she will not participate in official diplomatic functions until she presents her letters of credential to Pope Francis.

Bono said the embassy has been informed that there are several ambassadors from other countries already waiting for an appointment with the pope, but it is hoped Gingrich will be able to present the letters before Pope Francis holds his annual meeting with the entire diplomatic corps in January.

Gingrich has stated publicly and indicated to the embassy staff, Bono said, that she will be involved particularly in ongoing U.S.-Vatican efforts in fighting human trafficking and protecting religious liberty around the globe, not just regarding the persecution of Christians, but of any religious minority.

For Pope Francis, the crime of human trafficking also has a relationship to restrictive immigration policies that can make people think smugglers and traffickers offer them the best hope for improving their lives.

As the U.S. bishops have noted, many of the Trump administration's immigration policies are in opposition to those of the pope and the bishops.

And Pope Francis publicly has criticized political leaders who have decided, like Trump did, not to adhere to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

But Bono insisted U.S.-Vatican relations are still strong, because there is enough common agreement on fundamental values and even on the list of current problems needing urgent attention.

On the migration question, he said, "there may be some disagreement as to how we approach that, but they do realize that it needs to be addressed, and that one of the primary solutions is addressing it at the core," doing everything possible to ensure people can be free and safe at home and able to support their families.

"If you have a good relationship, you can have a frank discussion and identify where you disagree," he said. "We don't have to agree on everything, but our relationship is strong enough that it can weather disagreements."

Bono also expressed exasperation at caricatures of the new ambassador on social media and intimations there that her husband would be somehow be calling the shots at the embassy.

"People think they know the Gingriches. They see Newt on television a lot," he said. "But how many people really know Callista?"

"She's the one who is taking the oath today," Bono said. "She's the one the president nominated."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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