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At synod, Sydney archbishop apologizes to young people for church failures

Thu, 10/04/2018 - 12:05pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Australian Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney used his speech at the Synod of Bishops to formally apologize to young people for all the ways the Catholic Church and its members have harmed them or let them down.

In the presence of Pope Francis, he apologized Oct. 4 "for the shameful deeds of some priests, religious and laypeople, perpetrated upon you or other young people just like you, and the terrible damage that has done."

He apologized "for the failure of too many bishops and others to respond appropriately when abuse was identified, and to do all in their power to keep you safe; and for the damage thus done to the church's credibility and to your trust."

Later, at the synod briefing for the press, Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, said several of the 25 bishops who spoke that morning asked young people to forgive the church and its members. Some spoke specifically of cases of clerical sexual abuse, he said, while others asked forgiveness for not welcoming migrants -- most of whom are young -- or for trying to "tame" young people rather than recognize their energy and enthusiasm as a gift.

Chiara Giaccardi, an Italian professor of sociology working with the synod, told reporters "at least five or six" of the 25 speeches "emphasized asking forgiveness in a strong way." Most of those, she said, mentioned "the church's lack of living its mandate fully."

The synod's communication plan is to have a few participants share each day their reflections on what was said in the hall. But the Vatican is not releasing a list of the bishops who speak during each session, is not publishing summaries of the talks and is not referring to anyone by name during the briefings.

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, secretary of the synod's information commission, told reporters the gathering "is not a parliament, but a place of discernment" where everyone is free to speak openly, "knowing that what they say will remain inside the hall."

Still, Ruffini said, each bishop is free to talk to anyone about his own speech to the assembly.

Archbishop Fisher's office shared the text of his speech.

In addition to apologizing for the church's failures with clerical sexual abuse, the archbishop also apologized for the ways in which the church had failed to "introduce you to the person of Jesus Christ, his saving word and his plan for your life."

"And for the times when you were searching for your sexual, ethnic or spiritual identity and needed a moral compass, but found church people unsympathetic or ambiguous: I apologize," he said.

The Catholic Church, Archbishop Fisher said, often "sold you short" by not challenging young people to live up to their baptismal call to holiness, by offering them "unbeautiful or unwelcoming liturgies" and by not sharing with them church traditions such as the sacrament of reconciliation, pilgrimages and eucharistic adoration.

He apologized for "poor preaching, catechesis or spiritual direction" that failed to inspire conversion and for families, dioceses and religious orders that adopted a "contraceptive mentality" that did not even try to give birth to new vocations.

In addition to his apology, the Sydney archbishop pleaded with young people: "Never give up on Jesus because of our failures. Never give up on the church that you can help make more faithful. Never give up on the world that, with Christ and the church's help, you can make a better place."

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How the synod works: Cardinal shares statistics, working rules

Thu, 10/04/2018 - 11:12am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, introduced the work of the synod on young people Oct. 3 with a variety of statistics and informational notes.

He told the gathering that the 267 voting members of the synod include: 51 cardinals (including two patriarchs and three major archbishops of Eastern Catholic churches); four other patriarchs of Eastern Catholic churches; the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church; 45 archbishops; 102 diocesan bishops; 37 auxiliary bishops; six apostolic vicars; one bishop prelate; eight religious-order priests and two religious brothers representing the Union of Superiors General; and 10 diocesan and religious-order priests nominated by Pope Francis.

The synod's working document was prepared with input from an online questionnaire for young people, responses from bishops' conferences around the world and the results of a presynod meeting of young adults in March.

More than 220,000 people accessed the online questionnaire the Synod of Bishops' office had active in June-December 2017, the cardinal said. Just over 100,000 people ages 16-29 -- 58,000 young women and 42,500 young men -- completed the survey.

Just over 50 percent of the respondents were 16-19 years old, he said. And more than 16,000 of the completed questionnaires originated with users in Uganda, making it the country with the highest response rate.

The preparatory document for the synod was released in January 2017 and included a series of questions to be answered by national bishops' conferences or bishops' synods of the Eastern Catholic churches and by the offices of the Roman Curia. Cardinal Baldisseri said 40 percent of the Eastern churches and 68.4 percent of the bishops' conferences responded.

The rate is low for a synod. For the first assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2014, more than 80 percent of bishops' conferences responded; for the 2012 synod on new evangelization, the synod office had reported that 81.5 percent of the conferences responded.

The general sessions in each of the first three weeks of the synod are devoted to one section of the three-part working document, Cardinal Baldisseri explained. Each voting member of the synod is allowed to address the general session only once and only for four minutes. His remarks must refer to the section of the working document being discussed that week.

In addition, at each working session, one of the 34 synod of observers who is between the ages of 18 and 29 will speak.

Continuing a practice begun by Pope Benedict XVI, the evening sessions of the synod end with one hour of "free discussion." Again, each synod member may speak for no more than four minutes.

The 12 sessions of the synod's working groups are where members can shake off those time limits and where experts, observers and the eight fraternal delegates from other Christian churches also are free to speak.

The synod participants will be divided into 14 working groups according to language: French, Italian, English, Portuguese, Spanish or German. Although the groups are commonly referred to by their Latin name -- "circuli minores" -- there no longer is a Latin-language small group at the synod.

In accordance with new rules published just before the synod, participants will not be working on "propositions" to submit to Pope Francis, but on "amendments" to the synod's working document with a view of transforming it into a final document to be submitted to the pope.

Pope Francis will decide whether it can be published, and he can decide whether to adopt it as his own teaching.

Bishop Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, told reporters Oct. 4 that no decision had been made yet on whether the bishops will be voting on the final document as a whole or whether they will be voting on the document's individual paragraphs. "As we move along, we will decide."

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Survivor hopes Mass intentions, help for pantries bring 'peace, comfort'

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 3:45pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Maung

By Katherine Long

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CNS) -- In the coming weeks and months, spiritual and physical support will be offered to those in need thanks to a man who as a child was abused by a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse.

The man is a participant in the diocese's Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program for those abused by clergy. Rather than keep his $5,000 settlement, he has used the money to have special Masses offered in every parish of the diocese and to stock two Catholic Charities food pantries in Binghamton and Endicott.

"Before I even was offered anything, I saw this as a possible opportunity to cooperate with God in trying to bring good from a situation that was not good for a number of people, both victims and priests alike," the man told The Catholic Sun, Syracuse's diocesan newspaper.

"I saw this as a chance to try to bring peace and comfort and good news from decades of strife and anger and sadness," he said.

The man recalls being abused sometime between 1986 and 1988, when he would have been 9 to 11 years old, by a priest known and trusted by his family. He describes the abuse as "a one-time incident."

He asked that his name not be used in making his donations nor in speaking with the Sun and Binghamton's daily newspaper, the Press & Sun-Bulletin, because he has chosen not to share the details of his abuse with many people in his life.

He reported his abuse to the diocese in 2008. "I remember writing to the victim assistance coordinator at the time that I wanted ' the church as a whole to address the problem that was at hand with clerical abuse. And I don't think any institution can tackle any challenge as effectively as possible unless they understand the scope of it and grasp all of the ways it has occurred and how it's affected people and who's involved and the breadth of it," he said.

"I felt it was my duty to report it," he said, not for his sake or the sake of his abuser, who died several years prior, but "more to empower the diocese and the church as a whole to have the facts that would be helpful to addressing this behavior and trying to prevent it going forward."

He said the victim assistance coordinator replied promptly with a warm, kind response. The diocese offered to pay for counseling should he want that, he recalled, however he declined the offer, not feeling he needed it.

The man said he was surprised when, 10 years later, he received a letter from the administrators of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, inviting him to submit a claim.

It was the first he'd heard of the program, so he read up on it. "I didn't see anything to lose by submitting the information, so I did," he said.

In July, he received from the administrators an offer of a $5,000 settlement. He executed the agreement and received a check in August.

The man had no attachment to the money, he explained, and he began to consider what to do with it.

He contacted Danielle Cummings, diocesan chancellor and director of communications, about arranging to have Masses offered, first considering Masses for his abuser, then for several priests accused of abuse in his native Broome County, he explained. He no longer lives in the county.

The man, who remains a practicing Catholic, "grew up putting priests and nuns and monks on pedestals and believing that they were slightly above human, in essence," he said.

"My experience with one priest and other experiences I've had, particularly with priests and some religious ' have reminded me that we are all sinners," he continued. "No matter what vows we profess or initials we have after our name or habits one might wear, we're all in need of God's mercy and we had better forgive one another if we want to be forgiven when we come before God."

"I feel very strongly we all have to come before God as we are, acknowledge where we fall short, and ask for his grace -- and intercede for others, including and perhaps particularly the very priests who abused individuals," he added.

He didn't want to possibly alienate or further anger faithful in the pews at the mention of these clergy, however. So, coordinated through Cummings, he arranged to have Masses offered at all 124 parishes in the diocese, each intended for "local members of the clergy who have abused and for those who have been harmed."

Each parish received a $10 check for this Mass intention and an explanatory letter from Cummings in early September. Parishes have already begun to celebrate the Masses as schedules permit.

"To be able to have a quarter-million people in the diocese praying together for victims and for their abusers, whether they're deceased or they're still with us -- to me ' I just can't imagine a more powerful step forward for everyone involved," the man said.

Msgr. John Putano, regional vicar, told the Sun in an email: "It took a lot of courage for this person to speak about his experience of being abused. It is a story of hope and forgiveness -- a message we desperately need to hear -- with so many angry and some ready to give up on the church.

"I was amazed when he mentioned that he wanted prayers not only for the healing of the victims, but also prayers of forgiveness for the priest abusers."

The priest added, "He never gave up on his faith -- and while he was deeply hurt -- he saw this as an opportunity to bring something good out of very evil actions -- reminding us all that it is Christ's mission to bring good news to those who are hurting and in pain."

The man decided to donate the remaining $3,760 of his settlement to Catholic Charities of Broome County, to be split between its food pantries in Binghamton and Endicott.

Lori Accardi, the agency's executive director, said the donation would be used to buy fruits, vegetables, and grains for the pantries and that those dollars would stretch through the end of this year and into the next.

Together, she said, the two pantries serve some 5,000 people per month; 43 percent of them are children, 6 percent are seniors.

The donation "was a gesture that, from great hardship and challenge, was meant to do great good," Accardi said. "We are very thankful and appreciative."

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Long is editor of The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Diocese of Syracuse.

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Pope asks bishops, young people to drop their prejudices as synod begins

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 1:00pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis asked bishops to be bold, honest, open-minded, charitable and, especially, prayerful as they begin a three-week meeting on "young people, the faith and vocational discernment."

While many young people think no older person has anything useful to teach them for living today, the pope said, the age of the bishops, combined with clericalism, can lead "us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything."

"Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the church," Pope Francis said Oct. 3 at the synod's first working session. "We must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated."

The pope formally welcomed 267 bishops and priests as voting members of the synod, eight fraternal delegates from other Christian churches and another 72 young adults, members of religious orders and lay men and women observers and experts at the synod, which will meet through Oct. 28.

He also thanked the thousands of young people who responded to a Vatican questionnaire, participated in a presynod meeting in March or spoke to their bishops about their concerns. With the gift of their time and energy, he said, they "wagered that it is worth the effort to feel part of the church or to enter into dialogue with her."

They showed that, at least on some level, they believe the church can be a mother, teacher, home and family to them, he said. And they are asserting that "despite human weaknesses and difficulties," they believe the church is "capable of radiating and conveying Christ's timeless message."

"Our responsibility here at the synod," the pope said, "is not to undermine them, but rather to show that they are right to wager: It truly is worth the effort, it is not a waste of time!"

Pope Francis began the synod with an invitation that every participant "speak with courage and frankness" because "only dialogue can help us grow."

But he also asked participants to be on guard against "useless chatter, rumors, conjectures or prejudices" and to be humble enough to listen to others.

Many of the synod participants arrived in Rome with the text of the three-minute speech they intended to give, but the pope asked them "to feel free to consider what you have prepared as a provisional draft open to any additions and changes that the synod journey may suggest to each of you."

A willingness to "change our convictions and positions," he said, is "a sign of great human and spiritual maturity."

The synod is designed to be an "exercise in discernment," the pope told them. "Discernment is not an advertising slogan, it is not an organizational technique or a fad of this pontificate, but an interior attitude rooted in an act of faith."

Discernment "is based on the conviction that God is at work in world history, in life's events, in the people I meet and who speak to me," he said. It requires listening and prayer, which is why the pope has added a rule that after every five speeches there will be a three-minute pause for silent reflection and prayer.

Listening to the Spirit, listening to God in prayer and listening to the hopes and dreams of young people are part of the church's mission, the pope said. The preparatory process for the synod "highlighted a church that needs to listen, including to those young people who often do not feel understood by the church" or feel they "are not accepted for who they really are, and are sometimes even rejected."

Listening to each other, especially young people and bishops listening to each other, he said, is the only way the synod can come to any helpful suggestions for leading more young people to the faith or for strengthening the faith of young people involved in church life.

"Adults should overcome the temptation to underestimate the abilities of young people and (should) not judge them negatively," he said. "I once read that the first mention of this fact dates back to 3000 B.C. and was discovered on a clay pot in ancient Babylon, where it is written that young people are immoral and incapable of saving their people's culture."

Young people, too, he said, must "overcome the temptation to ignore adults and to consider the elderly 'archaic, outdated and boring,' forgetting that it is foolish always to start from scratch as if life began only with each of them."

Pope Francis, who was asked by a couple of bishops to postpone the synod because of the clerical sexual abuse scandal, said he knows the present moment is "laden with struggles, problems, burdens. But our faith tells us that it is also the 'kairos' (opportune moment) in which the Lord comes to meet us in order to love us and call us to the fullness of life."

The goal of the synod, Pope Francis said, is not to prepare a document -- synod documents, he said, generally are "only read by a few and criticized by many " -- but to identify "concrete pastoral proposals" that would help all church members reach out to, walk with and support the faith of young people.

In other words, he said, the goal is "to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands and inspire in young people -- all young people, with no one excluded -- a vision of the future filled with the joy of the Gospel."

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Palestinian Catholic, modeling St. Francis, cares for abused animals

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 10:25am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- God gives everyone a mission, Diana George Babish said as she fielded a phone call about a dog who had been shot in Hebron. The mission God gave her is to take care of the abused and abandoned animals in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, she said.

"God is pushing me to do this work. I believe it is something sacred," said Babish, who uses an image of St. Francis surrounded by animals for her online profile.

Babish, a Catholic, admitted that it is not an easy mission in a place where, traditionally, society gives little importance to treating animals with compassion and routinely considers government-approved shooting and poisoning of stray animals as the best solution to population control.

"It is very difficult for me with the culture here; it is a very closed mentality," she said. She spoke to Catholic News Service as she was trying to coordinate the injured dog's transportation to her animal shelter in Beit Sahour, a village adjacent to Bethlehem.

"They continue to poison and shoot dogs because they don't consider their lives to be of value."

Her day began with the rescue of a 3-week-old puppy who was being kicked around like a ball by a group of schoolboys.

A few years ago, she traveled to Assisi, Italy, and she said she continues to draw strength for her work from the pilgrimage.

"Until now the pigeons still stay on his statue," she said. "If God did not want anyone to take care of animals, he would not have given that mission to St. Francis."

Last year Babish, who is in her late 40s, quit her day job as a bank manager to dedicate herself full time to running the first animal shelter in the West Bank, the Animal and Environment Association-Bethlehem Palestine, which she established in 2013.

In addition to $13,700 she received in donations, Babish used $20,000 of her own money to build the shelter. Currently it is run solely on donations and other forms of assistance, some of which also come from Israeli animal rescue organizations and individuals. Many of the dogs and cats she has rescued have been adopted or are being fostered by Israelis. By early October, she had rescued more than 400 dogs and more than 100 cats from the streets of West Bank cities. Recently she sent 15 dogs for adoption to Canada.

Babish has many critics within Palestinian society, including members of her own family, who complain that she is working with Israelis and spending her efforts on animals rather than people. Some charge her with profiting from the donations she receives, she said.

Still, Babish brushes off the insults and accusations thrown at her.

"If we had vets here in Palestine who had the proper equipment and treatments to care for the animals, or people who would adopt the dogs, I would leave them here. But Palestinians don't want street dogs, most only want pure-bred dogs," she said. "We in the rescue community put aside politics for the well-being of the animals. I tell (my critics) God gives each one of us our mission, and there are a lot of organizations taking care of people. My mission is to take care of the animals, the most vulnerable beings in the world."

It was close to 9:30 p.m. and she had not yet eaten her dinner. She was working out the logistics of how to take three puppies and one adult dog to their foster homes in central Israel, then take other animals to a veterinary clinic to be treated and neutered. She also was preparing travel papers for a cat who was to be flown to her new home in Sweden.

Babish has 11 board members, 13 general members and two workers who help her in the day-to-day work at the shelter. Slowly she is making inroads into changing societal views about animals and rescue, she said.

The reality of life as a Palestinian is never far, though, and Babish must have an Israeli travel permit to go into Israel. She and a driver make rounds in Israel several times a week.

"A lot of (Palestinians) start to see that animals are very important. I am raising awareness through Facebook, fighting animal abuse," she said. Some of her posts have received 14,000 views, she said. "Step-by-step I am creating more soldiers to fight for the sake of animals."

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Be lifeline of hope for youth alienated from church, pope tells synod

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 8:06am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Setting the stage for a monthlong gathering of bishops, Pope Francis urged synod fathers not to be crushed by "prophets of doom," but to be the signs of hope and joy for which today's young people yearn.

"Anointed by hope, let us begin a new ecclesial meeting," he said in his homily at Mass Oct. 3, opening the Synod of Bishops, which was to meet until Oct. 28 to discuss "young people, the faith and vocational discernment."

Filled with hope and faith, he said, the synod members can "broaden our horizons, expand our hearts and transform those frames of mind that today paralyze, separate and alienate us from young people, leaving them exposed to stormy seas, orphans without a faith community that should sustain them, orphans devoid of a sense of direction and meaning in life."

Among the hundreds of synod participants and thousands of guests celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Square were two bishops from mainland China, the first from the communist country to attend a synod. With his voice shaking, the pope offered them "our warm welcome: the communion of the entire episcopate with the Successor of Peter is yet more visible thanks to their presence."

Standing in front of St. Peter's Basilica, which was decorated with a tapestry depicting St. Michael the Archangel battling the devil and one of St. Joseph holding baby Jesus, Pope Francis told synod participants that young people want help in facing today's challenges and need their commitment "to work against whatever prevents their lives from growing in a dignified way."

"They ask us and demand of us a creative dedication, a dynamism which is intelligent, enthusiastic and full of hope," he said. "They ask us not to leave them alone in the hands of so many peddlers of death who oppress their lives and darken their vision."

He reminded the bishops that when most of them were young, Blessed Paul VI called on them during the Second Vatican Council to lead the way in renewing the world through Christ.

Quoting the soon-to-be saint's message to young people in 1965, the pope recalled how the church was depending on them -- as young people of the day and the future of the church -- to "express your faith in life" and faith in "a good and just God."

The late pope, he said, called on them to be open to the world, listen to and serve their brothers and sisters, "fight against all egoism. Refuse to give free course to the instincts of violence and hatred which beget wars and all their train of miseries. Be generous, pure, respectful and sincere, and build in enthusiasm a better world than your elders had."

The memory of Blessed Paul's appeal and of the bishops' own youthful faith and passion for Christ must be rekindled "and renew in us the capacity to dream and to hope," Pope Francis said. "For we know that our young people will be capable of prophecy and vision to the extent that we, who are already adult or elderly, can dream and thus be infectious in sharing those dreams and hopes that we carry in our hearts."

May this memory never be "extinguished or crushed by the prophets of doom and misfortune, by our own shortcomings, mistakes and sins," he added.

The pope asked synod members to participate in the upcoming discussions with an "attitude of docile listening to the voice of the Spirit" and to each other "to discern together what the Lord is asking of his church."

"This demands that we be really careful against succumbing to a self-preservation and self-centeredness which gives importance to what is secondary, yet makes secondary what is important," the pope said.

With love for the Gospel and the faithful, synod members must aim to follow God's will and "an even greater good that will benefit all of us. Without this disposition, all of our efforts will be in vain."

"The gift of that ability to listen, sincerely and prayerfully, as free as possible from prejudice and conditioning, will help us to be part of those situations which the people of God experience," he said.

Listening to God and listening to the people reflecting on what they hear God calling them to is the approach the synod should take, the pope said, because it will protect "us from the temptation of falling into moralistic or elitist postures, and it protects us from the lure of abstract ideologies that never touch the realities of our people."

Among the prayers of the faithful was, in Chinese, the prayer that the spirit of wisdom and discernment help the pope and bishops "seek the truth with an open heart and in all things be obedient" to God's will.

At the end of Mass, the pope walked along the rows, greeting and speaking briefly one-by-one with the bishops and special delegates attending the synod. He also greeted the faithful and visitors in the square from his popemobile as the bells of the basilica rang.

Among those in St. Peter's Square was Deacon Javier Ayala of Santiago, Chile, a member of the Legionaries of Christ, studying in Rome.

He told Catholic News Service it was now "time for the bishops to reflect on these conclusions and to find the best way to reach out to young people."

Deacon Ayala, who is to be ordained a priest in Rome next year, assisted in the presynod process of collecting thousands of responses to a questionnaire and feedback via social media from young people; he also took part in a presynod meeting of young people in Rome in March.

"The church is a mother and she knows that there are many young people outside and wants to call them; she wants to invite them because (the church) isn't just another institution. She wants to lead them to Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life," he said.

Many young people, he told CNS, said they need to be accompanied and need witnesses who are "happy, humble and close."

"We shouldn't expect precise solutions from the synod nor calculations," he said. The point of the synod is "to keep reflecting on the best pastoral ways to reach young people. I don't think this is an ending point, but rather a starting point that is part of the new evangelization of the church."

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Contributing to this story was Junno Arocho Esteves at the Vatican.

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Copyright © 2018 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

Poll: Pope's favorability numbers down, and worse for handling of abuse

Tue, 10/02/2018 - 4:58pm

IMAGE: CNS/Matthew Barrick

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- With Pope Francis midway into the sixth year of his pontificate, the percentage of U.S. Catholics who view him favorably, while still strong, is noticeably down.

And, compared to a January poll by the Pew Research Center that showed Catholics being evenly split on how well Pope Francis has handled the issue of clergy sex abuse, numbers in the new poll, released Oct. 2, show that twice as many Catholics feel he is doing only a fair or poor job on the issue than say he is doing a good or excellent job.

The overall favorability number for the pope is 72 percent, split between 42 percent of Catholics who see him "mostly favorable" and 30 percent who view him "very favorable." The latter number down a third from the last Pew poll last January, when Pope Francis had been at 84 percent favorability. The 72 percent figure is lower than Pew's favorability findings for Pope Benedict XVI except for its first poll asking the question shortly after Pope Benedict assumed the papacy in 2005.

Pope Francis' lowest favorability numbers are among Catholic men, at 66 percent, and Catholic Republicans or those who lean Republican, at 61 percent. They are highest among Catholic Democrats or those who lean Democratic, at 83 percent, and Catholic women, at 77 percent. The percentage of Catholics overall who view him unfavorably, though, more than doubled, from 9 percent to 20 percent.

"The new study also shows that U.S. Catholics' views of Pope Francis are increasingly polarized along political lines," said the Pew report on its poll. "For instance, in 2014, there was virtually no difference in views of Pope Francis" between Democrats and Republicans, with the latter giving him a 90 percent favorable rating and Democrats giving him an 87 percent mark.

The pope's favorability numbers also suffered among white evangelical Protestants, from 52 percent in January to 32 percent in September; white mainline Protestants, from 67 percent to 48 percent; and religiously unaffiliated adults, from 58 percent to 53 percent. Still, 51 percent of all Americans view him favorably.

Sixty-two percent of Catholics believe Pope Francis is doing only a fair or poor job handling the abuse crisis, compared to 46 percent in January. Those who believe he is doing an excellent or good job shrunk from 45 percent in January to 31 percent in September.

The drop is most pronounced among men and Catholics ages 18-49, with both groups registering under 30 percent in the latest poll who say he is doing a good or excellent job, although the numbers among those who attend Mass at least weekly nosedived from 71 percent to 34 percent.

In other areas of church life, Catholics gave Pope Francis higher marks, although those numbers also declined.

In terms of standing up for traditional morals, 56 percent said the pope was doing an excellent or good job, down from 81 percent in the first Pew poll assessing Catholic opinion of Pope Francis in 2014, while those who say he is doing only a fair or poor job more than doubled from 15 percent to 36 percent.

When it comes to spreading the Catholic faith, Pope Francis dipped from 81 percent in 2014 to 56 percent in September among those saying he is doing a good or excellent job, while those who say he is doing only fair or poor climbed from 14 percent to 27 percent.

On the issue of appointing new bishops and cardinals, Pope Francis dropped from 58 percent in the "good/excellent" category in January to 43 percent in that category in September, while those who say he is doing only a fair or poor job rose from 24 percent to 39 percent.

The poll was taken in the wake of allegations by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former papal nuncio to the United States, that Pope Francis knew about restrictions having been placed on the ministry of then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick over allegations of sexual misconduct yet did nothing about them. Archbishop Vigano has demanded that the pope resign in the wake of his charges.

The results were based on phone interviews conducted Sept. 18-24 of 1,754 Americans, including 336 Catholics. The margin of error for all poll respondents is 2.7 percentage points, and 6.2 percentage points for Catholics, while the margin of error is larger for subgroups within the Catholic sample, peaking at 10.2 percent for Catholics ages 18-49 and those who attend Mass at least weekly.

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Editor's Note: The full Pew Survey on the pope's favorability ratings among U.S. Catholics can be found at

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Catholic coach's story of loss and redemption told in new book

Tue, 10/02/2018 - 12:51pm


By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Longtime baseball writer and broadcaster Tim Kurkjian has called it "the greatest baseball story ever told." And one of its central characters is a Catholic who never played an inning in the big leagues, but got to coach for 30 years in the majors.

"The Chicken Runs at Midnight" tells the wildly improbable story of the strong-willed coach, Rich Donnelly, and his equally strong-willed teenage daughter Amy as she was battling brain cancer while her dad's team was making a playoff push.

To make a great story short, it's not the happiest of endings. She died in 1993, but the chicken indeed did run at midnight.

Donnelly, in a phone interview with Catholic News Service prior to the book's publication by Zondervan in early October, talked about his faith, how he strayed from it -- and how he regained it.

"I was a ridiculous Catholic," said Donnelly, now 72.

"Besides being a priest, I don't think there was anyone more religious in the world," he said, recalling his youth: "Say your morning prayers when you wake up, say a prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint to helpless causes -- which is me -- say three decades of the rosary, go to morning Mass , do the Stations of the Cross, make a May altar in your room when you are 8 and keep in there until you are 17.

"I would pray to God all day. I'd walk my hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. It had 14 Catholic churches. I felt if I didn't have a visit (when passing by), that was like a sin. So that's what I did," Donnelly continued. "When I was 8, 9 and 10 I celebrated Mass myself. I got a load of DiCarlo's Italian bread. I made little hosts up, I had an imaginary congregation. I knew all the prayers in Latin -- I was an altar boy -- so I did all the Latin prayers by myself."

Donnelly also became a standout baseball player from the tutelage of his father, who trained his sights on the boy after Donnelly's older brother, a promising pitcher, died of cancer while still playing in the minors. The lad thought swearing was uncouth, and proclaimed he would never swear once he got into the minors.

He also never thought he would have sex before marriage. Or cheat on his wife. Donnelly admitted his focus on baseball took focus away from his family, which by then included four children, including Amy, his second child and first daughter.

"I was all Catholic-ed out when I was 16," Donnelly told CNS. "There wasn't much to do, so I went in a different direction, which was bad."

He added, "My second wife, Roberta, she and Amy got me back in the baseline. I was at second base (metaphorically), and (instead of running to third) I was running to left field. I was going nuts and being wild. They got me thinking: When was I happiest? When I was a kid, when I was going to church, when I was saying my prayers."

Donnelly said he thought that going to church while being active in baseball was a sign of weakness -- until he went to church as a coach, and found one of his players at the same Mass.

It was that player, Craig Counsell -- the Catholic manager of the playoff-bound Milwaukee Brewers -- who was nicknamed "Chicken" due to his batting stance. And it was Counsell who scored the winning run in extra innings for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series right around midnight -- a fact pointed out to Donnelly by one of his sons, who was a Marlins batboy, as the rest of the team was celebrating on the field.

Yet as remarkable as all that was -- especially as it had seemingly been prophesied by Amy years earlier when her dad was coaching another team, a club that didn't even have Counsell on its roster -- it nearly pales to Donnelly's return to his Catholic faith.

"I prayed to God for funny things: 'Put a priest into my life like the priest (he had) when I was growing up,'" Donnelly told CNS. "I got connected ... in my hometown. Holy Family (in Steubenville). Msgr. Jerry Calovini." The priest, he added, is "a baseball nut. He's my confessor, he's my adviser ... someone who understands me." He added, "In the winter, I go to Mass pretty much every morning with Msgr. Jerry."

Donnelly also credits his second wife, Roberta, for his return to the fold. "When you ask for stuff, you might get more than you asked for," he said. "She's incredible. And she has become a biblical scholar, my pastors have told me. She teaches biblical classes to pastors! They give her a talk (to do) to three or four pastors. She writes notes and notes about the Bible and tries to translate what it means."

Retired from baseball, Donnelly -- who has beaten cancer twice himself -- is not one to sit still. "I'm a world-class racquetball player. I play racquetball five days a week against guys who are in their 20s and 30s. I toss batting practice every day. I've been blessed. I don't drink, smoke, use drugs. I never have and I never will. I got into racquetball. People tell me, 'You're not 70, you're 50.' But I can tell I'm 72 in the middle of the night!"

Donnelly also has a speaking tour pegged to the book's release. Plus, "I got a lot of grandkids," he said. "I spend a lot of time with them."

Curiously, going to games doesn't interest him. After three decades of big-league coaching -- 17 of them under manager Jim Leyland in Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado -- sitting in the stands is boring to Donnelly, while coaching by comparison is "a fast-paced chess game."

However, he'll waive that policy should Leyland -- whose brother is a priest in Ohio -- ever be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "Jim is my best friend in baseball," Donnelly said.

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Editor's Note: More information about "The Chicken Runs at Midnight: A Daughter's Message From Heaven That Changed a Father's Heart and Won a World Series," written by Tom Friend, is available at the publisher's website,

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Guardian angels are life's traveling companions, pope says

Tue, 10/02/2018 - 10:07am

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christians have guardian angels to encourage and guide them so they won't become sluggish on their journey in life, Pope Francis said.

Without the guidance of angels, men and women who become settled in their ways and put "their life on hold" are in danger of becoming like stagnant water, the pope said Oct. 2 in his homily during morning Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

"So many people don't know how to walk or are afraid of taking a risk and they remain still," the pope said. "But we know the rule is that a person who is stationary ends up stagnating like water. When water is still, the mosquitos come, they lay eggs and ruin everything. The angel helps us, he pushes us to walk."

Commemorating the day's feast of the Guardian Angels, the pope quoted from the Book of Exodus in which God promises the people of Israel that he is "sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared."

Guardian angels, the pope said, are the help "the Lord promises his people and us who walk along the path of life."

As companions and protectors, he continued, guardian angels are like "a human compass or a compass that resembles a human being and helps us see where we should go" to avoid dangers along the way.

Christians, he added, should heed God's command to "be attentive and obey" their guardian angel and listen to "their inspirations, which are always from the Holy Spirit."

"I would like to ask you all a question: Do you speak to your angel?" the pope asked. "Do you know the name of your angel? Do you listen to your angel? Do you let yourself be taken by the hand along the path or pushed to move?"

By obeying their guardian angels, he said, Christian men and women can avoid the dangers of taking the wrong path or, worse, leaving the path and going "from one place to another like in a labyrinth that ensnares."

He encouraged Christians to pray and speak to their guardian angel who "is not only with us but also sees God the father."

"The angel is the daily door toward transcendence, to the encounter with the Father," Pope Francis said. "The angel helps me walk along the path because he looks at the Father who knows the way. Let us not forget this traveling companion."

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Synod aims to renew the church to help young Catholics, cardinal says

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 11:11am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- To strengthen and support young people in the faith, members of the Synod of Bishops will need to listen to their real-life stories, interpret what they hear in the light of the Gospel and make decisions that will lead to an authentic renewal of the Catholic Church, said Brazilian Cardinal Sergio da Rocha.

"Often we hear voices that blame young people for moving away from the church. But many of them have lived in situations that lead them to affirm that it was the church that moved away from them," said Cardinal da Rocha, archbishop of Brasilia and relator general of the Synod of Bishops 2018.

The Brazilian cardinal will introduce the work of the synod Oct. 3 and, midway through the gathering, will summarize the speeches individual bishops have made in the synod hall.

The synod will meet Oct. 3-28 to discuss "young people, the faith and vocational discernment."

Introducing the synod at a news conference Oct. 1, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, synod general secretary, said it will have 267 voting members, including two bishops from mainland China. While Chinese bishops always have been invited to the synod, he said, the agreement signed by the Vatican and the Chinese government Sept. 22 made it possible for bishops to attend.

The synod's members include 15 heads of Eastern Catholic churches, 16 heads of Vatican offices, 15 members of the synod's permanent council, 181 members elected by national bishops' conferences and the men's Union of Superiors General and 40 members named by Pope Francis. Eighteen of the voting members are priests; two are religious brothers.

The synod released Oct. 1 a new "Instruction of the Celebration of Synodal Assemblies and on the Activity of the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops." The document specifies that religious brothers may be voting members of a synod, but women may not.

Cardinal Baldisseri said, however, that the synod observers, which include women and 34 young people between the ages of 18 and 29, can participate in the synod's working groups and are encouraged to help formulate the synod's final resolutions.

The instruction and Pope Francis' new constitution on the synods, which was published Sept. 18, looks to the future, but "first of all looks to the past, to the deposit of faith and the tradition of the church," the cardinal said. "It is the structure of the church for a synod of bishops. Obviously, there is an increasing effort to involve the entire people of God."

He also was asked about an article Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia had printed in the magazine First Things presenting an anonymous theologian's critique of the synod's working document. In a later exchange in the magazine, the archbishop wrote that he agreed with the critique, which claimed the document had a "pervasive focus on socio-cultural elements" rather than religious and moral issues, that it emphasizes the church's obligation to listen over its obligation to teach and that its understanding of vocation is heavily focused on "private meaning and truth," rather than service.

Cardinal Baldisseri, who did not refer to Archbishop Chaput by name, noted that the bishop who complained is a member of the synod's permanent committee and was present when a draft of the document was presented before publication. "If he had any objection, he could have said so; we would have included that, calmly. But I don't understand why, later, he made a declaration. It's a matter of loyalty and honesty."

Asked whether the ongoing clerical sexual abuse crisis should or will dominate the synod discussion, the cardinal said the synod is an opportunity to explain to young people and everyone that "this is not the church."

"Certainly, the scandals in the church that have come to light recently strike the mind and the heart," the cardinal said, but he is certain young people are "able to understand human fragility."

"I honestly do not think it (the scandal) is an impediment" to the synod's task, he said. "In fact, perhaps it is an occasion to awaken the church."

Having bishops from around the world gathered in Rome with the pope, Cardinal Baldisseri said, "is a unique opportunity to explain and help young people and adults understand what the church is. The church is not represented by some who make mistakes."

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Order in the court: Amid drama, Supreme Court gears up for new session

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 6:28pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

 WASHINGTON (CNS) -- After the weeks of intense drama focused on Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the nation's highest court was ready to get back to business, full bench or not.

The expression "the show must go on" certainly applies because the Supreme Court always starts on the first Monday in October, which this year is Oct. 1.

Over the summer and into September no one was talking about the court's upcoming cases. Instead, all attention has been on who would fill the seat of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement at the end of June and officially retired July 31.

When President Donald Trump announced July 9 that Kavanaugh, a federal judge, was his nominee, the divided nation responded accordingly. Many praised the judge's qualifications and were pleased that the president had fulfilled his campaign promise to nominate a pro-life judge to the Supreme Court, but the choice angered many Americans displeased that Kavanaugh's vote could potentially reverse the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Crowds on both sides assembled on the steps of the Supreme Court the night Kavanaugh's nomination was announced and they continued to protest during Senate confirmation hearings and the most recent Sept. 27 hearing concerning Christine Blasey Ford's allegation of sexual assault against him for an incident she said occurred when she was 15 and he was 17.

After that daylong hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-10 Sept. 28 to advance Kavanaugh's nomination to the Senate floor. Republicans then approved a proposal by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, that the FBI be given one week to investigate Ford's allegation, which the Republicans agreed to do.

But with or without closure on Kavanaugh, the court is set to resume what it does: listening to oral arguments and making decisions. An annual Red Mass will be celebrated at the Cathedral of St. Matthew Sept. 30 offering prayers for this new term. Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who often celebrates this Mass and has been seen afterward talking with Supreme Court justices in attendance, will not be there this year. Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville will be the main celebrant.

As the court gets back into action, it will not be facing the drama of high-profile cases on hot button issues. Instead, it will have more basic cases: critical habitats under the Endangered Species Act, if states are bound by the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines and how property owners can challenge government land acquisitions. It also will examine cases about employment discrimination and class arbitration and deal with a fair amount of criminal law.

The court usually hears about 70 cases of the nearly 7,000 that petition for review each year. To date, it has already agreed to hear 38 cases and will announce more in upcoming weeks.

So far, there is not much on the docket where Catholic leaders are likely to weigh in, but there are a few cases that the court might take up that would be of interest.

As in previous terms, the court is once again taking on death penalty cases, which may have an increased interest after Pope Francis made his announcement in April that he approved changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church saying the death penalty is no longer admissible under any circumstances.

The first death penalty case, Madison v. Alabama, comes up on the second day of the court's term. Here the court will consider whether the Eighth Amendment permits the execution of a prisoner whose mental disability prevents him from remembering his offense.

The other death penalty case, to be argued Nov. 6, examines the rules for challenging a "method of execution." The plaintiff in this case suffers from an unusual medical condition and claims Missouri's lethal injection protocol would be more gruesome and cause more suffering than if he were put to death by lethal gas, which the state lacks a protocol to use.

One case of interest that the court has not decided yet if it will take regarding the establishment of religion involves a 40-foot-tall cross memorializing soldiers who died in World War I that sits at a busy intersection in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, Maryland.

Last year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, Virginia, ruled 2-1 that the 93-year-old monument is unconstitutional and must be removed or destroyed. "(It) has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles the government in religion."

Known as the Bladensburg Cross or the Peace Cross, the cement and marble memorial was erected by the Snyder-Farmer Post of the American Legion of Hyattsville, Maryland, to recall the 49 men of Prince George's County who died in World War I. The cross, whose construction was funded by local families, was dedicated July 13, 1925.

The American Humanist Association, a Washington-based group that represents atheists and others, filed suit against the memorial because it is in the shape of a cross. It argued that having a religious symbol on government property violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Another case the court could take up that will be of interest involves two state petitions from Louisiana and Kansas asking the court to uphold the termination of Planned Parenthood's participation in the state Medicaid program.

During an American Bar Association preview of the court's upcoming term Sept. 25 at American University, the panelists acknowledged that one big slice of the picture, the new justice, was still unclear.

Beth Brinkmann, an attorney and partner at Covington & Burling, who has argued 24 cases before the court, said: "It's probably good they don't have a lot of blockbusters and I think they would prefer it that way to get back to a natural state of affairs."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Former Washington Cardinal McCarrick now living in rural Kansas friary

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 1:13pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Archdiocese of Washington announced Sept. 28 that former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who was removed from ministry earlier this year after abuse allegations came to light, is now living in Kansas in a friary for Capuchin Franciscan friars.

Archbishop McCarrick resides at St. Fidelis Friary in the city of Victoria, the archdiocese said in a statement, adding that "respect for the privacy of this arrangement is requested" out of consideration for the peace of the community of the friars who live there. 

Victoria is in a rural area of Kansas and has a population of about 1,200. The website for the friary, which is in the Diocese of Salina, lists its residents as five priests and one religious brother.

Salina Bishop Gerald L. Vincke issued a statement Sept. 28 saying Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl called him on Sept. 13 to ask for his permission to allow Archbishop McCarrick to live there after the provincial, or superior, of the Capuchin religious community in Denver consented to the arrangement.

"Please know that I agreed to this arrangement with the understanding that Archbishop McCarrick is excluded from any public appearances and ministry," as church officials investigate the accusations and they're examined in a canonical trial, Bishop Vincke said in the statement. "Our diocese is not incurring any cost in this arrangement."

Bishop Vincke said that he realizes the decision "will be offensive and hurtful to many people," especially since Archbishop McCarrick "is, in many ways, at the forefront of the recent firestorm in the church."

While allowing Archbishop McCarrick to live in the diocese, Bishop Vincke said he had to reconcile his feelings of "disappointment, anger and even resentment" toward him.

"Many of us are confused and angry by what Archbishop McCarrick is alleged to have done several decades ago," he said, while also apologizing to all victims of abuse.

On July 28, Pope Francis accepted then-Cardinal McCarrick's resignation from the College of Cardinals and ordered him to "a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial."

In June, the pope had removed him from public ministry after allegations the then-cardinal had abused a minor 47 years ago in New York was deemed credible. A second accusation that he had abused a minor followed, along with other revelations from seminarians who alleged various abuses by the prelate in a New Jersey beach house. Archbishop McCarrick has denies the accusations.

In July, The New York Times wrote about past financial settlements with two men who had accused the cardinal of abusing them.

Since then, the 88-year-old archbishop had been in seclusion in Washington. The statement from the diocese did not disclose when the move to Kansas took place.

Leadership from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met with Pope Francis Sept. 13 about carrying out an investigation of the archbishop and the allegations that surround him but have not publicly disclosed what it will entail.

In a statement Sept. 19, the USCCB Administrative Committee said it supported "a full investigation into the situation surrounding Archbishop McCarrick, including his alleged assaults on minors, priests and seminarians, as well any responses made to those allegations."

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Former nuncio claims Vatican official has evidence of cover-up

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 7:17am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former nuncio to the United States who accused Pope Francis and church officials of failing to act on accusations of sexual abuse, urged a top Vatican official to release documents that would prove his allegations.

In a four-page letter released by LifeSiteNews Sept. 27, Archbishop Vigano called on Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to release information about alleged private sanctions imposed by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI on then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.

"Your Eminence, before I left for Washington, you were the one who told me of Pope Benedict's sanctions on McCarrick. You have at your complete disposal key documents incriminating McCarrick and many in the curia for their cover-ups. Your Eminence, I urge you to bear witness to the truth," the former nuncio wrote.

He also called on leaders of the U.S. bishops' conference, who had a private meeting with Pope Francis Sept. 13, to say if the pope refused "to carry out a Vatican investigation into McCarrick's crimes and those responsible for covering them up."

Archbishop Vigano, who has been in hiding after publishing Aug. 25 his "testimony" against Pope Francis, also defended his decision to write the document and to reveal in it alleged facts that were "covered by the pontifical secret that I had promised to observe."

Pontifical secrets, he said, are meant "to protect the church from her enemies, not to cover up and become complicit in crimes committed by some of her members."

"I was a witness, not by my choice, of shocking facts and, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the seal of secrecy is not binding when very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth," Archbishop Vigano wrote. "Only the seal of confession could have justified my silence."

In the new letter, Archbishop Vigano continued his accusations about homosexual clergy having great influence in the Vatican and with Pope Francis. And he expressed disappointment at how, in his view, Cardinal Ouellet had given up his defense of Catholic orthodoxy.

"At the beginning of Pope Francis' pontificate, he had maintained his dignity, as he had shown with courage when he was Archbishop of Quebec," Archbishop Vigano wrote. "Later, however, when his work as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops was being undermined because recommendations for episcopal appointments were being passed directly to Pope Francis by two homosexual 'friends' of his dicastery, bypassing the cardinal, he gave up."

As of early Sept. 28 neither Pope Francis nor current Vatican officials had commented on the accusations in Archbishop Vigano's original document; instead, Pope Francis told journalists Aug. 26 to "read it yourselves carefully and make your own judgment."

"I will not say a single word on this. I believe the memo speaks for itself and you are capable enough as journalists to draw your own conclusions," the pope had told reporters traveling back to Rome with him from Dublin.

In the weeks that followed, preaching on the day's Mass readings, the pope delivered several homilies in which he noted Jesus' humility and silence when unjustly insulted and accused.

"In difficult moments, the moments in which the devil is unleashed -- where the shepherd is accused especially by the Great Accuser through many powerful people -- the shepherd suffers, offers his life and prays," the pope said in his homily Sept. 18 during morning Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

Archbishop Vigano said the homilies contradicted Pope Francis' initial response to remain silent, and he accused the pope of putting "in place a subtle slander against me" during the celebration of the Eucharist "where he runs no risk of being challenged by journalists."

"When he did speak to journalists, he asked them to exercise their professional maturity and draw their own conclusions. But how can journalists discover and know the truth if those directly involved with a matter refuse to answer any questions or to release any documents?" Archbishop Vigano asked.

Members of Pope Francis' international Council of Cardinals had confirmed in a Sept. 10 statement that "the Holy See is formulating possible and necessary clarifications" in response to the former nuncio's allegations against the pope.

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With vampire novel, catechist hopes to 'widen' her readers' souls

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 12:55pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Ignatius Press

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO (CNS) -- "Worms out of undead eye sockets? Really, Eleanor?"

That was the reaction that Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, director of religious education at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Charlottesville, Virginia, probably never expected to hear at the parish office.

Or, at least not until this past summer, when Ignatius Press published her novel, "A Bloody Habit," and her fellow parishioners started reading it.

The revelation that the parish's head catechist had written a Catholic-themed tale of vampires and vampire-slayers set in Victorian England has elicited a variety of reactions.

"I keep joking that it's going to destroy or make my credibility as a catechist, and I think the jury's still out," the 35-year-old author said during a mid-September telephone interview with The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.

So far, she said, most people seem to be "amused, bemused and intrigued."

"'A Bloody Habit' is a straightforward Gothic vampire story, but with a particular twist in that I'm pitting Dominican friars against the vampires and presenting it through the eyes of a nonbeliever," Nicholson said.

The novel is narrated by agnostic lawyer John Kemp, whose skepticism about the supernatural and prejudice against the Catholic Church begins to erode in the company of expert vampire-slayer Father Thomas Edmund Gilroy, whom Nicholson describes fondly as "my round-faced, bespectacled Dominican."

Nicholson, a member of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic, said the Dominicans who staff her parish found it "hilarious" that she depicted their order as having a papal mandate to dispatch vampires. The college students who serve as catechists under her supervision also were enthusiastic about the novel. Other parishioners have confided to her that they don't typically read horror fiction but decided to make an exception in her case.

A longtime aficionado of Gothic literature, Nicholson said she is "very happy reading anything written from about 1780 to about 1930."

She noted that Gothic writers often employed Catholic imagery to evoke the supernatural, despite the fact that the authors themselves were usually anti-Catholic. For her own novel, Nicholson wasn't satisfied using the trappings of Catholicism in a superficial way, but set out to craft a story in which the faith element is "much more integrated."

As a practicing Catholic, Nicholson wanted her book to be grounded in Catholic theology. She didn't want anything -- not even her depiction of imaginary creatures such as vampires -- to be at odds with the church.

Nicholson first read Bram Stoker's "Dracula" in her late teens and has been "haunted" by it ever since, returning to it many times over the years. She has written about it as a student and as a scholar, and she even served as editor of the Ignatius Critical Edition of "Dracula."

She said the non-Catholic Stoker "botched" a number of details about Catholicism in his novel. But unlike many of his contemporaries, she said, he had no animus toward the church and was often on the right path, especially with "the idea of vampires as the anti-Eucharist."

Still, Nicholson's appreciation for Stoker's novel didn't stop her from musing about how the author might have improved his story if he had given his villain a better strategy and a different adversary.

While attending a writing retreat in November 2009, Nicholson had a vivid nightmare about a Dominican friar, vampires and a lawyer on a train. Upon awakening, she wrote the first chapter of what would become "A Bloody Habit."

She said some Catholic readers have commented that her book is "not really about vampires, is it?" And she tends to agree with them.

"I think it's about good and evil, and I think it's about hope in the face of horror," she said. "The vampires are just part of the makeup of the genre and, I hope, very effective in bringing the protagonist " and, hopefully, the reader as well "to the point of something like hope."

Nicholson took great care to tell an engrossing story and not to "lapse into proselytism and preachiness." She said Gothic fiction can be an effective means of evangelization because its authors deal with subjects such as life, death, damnation and redemption, which Nicholson described as "things that you can't really get away with talking about in other genres without coming off as preachy."

When readers come to the end of the main characters' adventure, Nicholson hopes that they will be smiling, after having been "thoroughly creeped out." Beyond that she hopes her readers will receive the same thing that she gifted to her agnostic protagonist.

"I don't presume to expect conversion of hearts. This is, after all, a novel, not a theological treatise," she said.

But, she added, "The gambit of a Catholic novel, Gothic or otherwise, is an invitation to widen the soul of the reader, even slightly. And in 'A Bloody Habit' I hope to invite the reader to widen it to a greater capacity for joy and the possibility of belief."

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Grasska is assistant editor of The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.

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Top Vatican diplomat calls for universal abolition of death penalty

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 10:05am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Anne Condodina

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Abolishing the death penalty worldwide would reflect the brave and hope-filled belief that crime can be dealt with without capital punishment and that a criminal should be given the chance to reform, a top Vatican diplomat told world leaders.

"Respect for the dignity of every human person and the common good are the two pillars on which the Holy See has developed its position" of advocating for an end to the death penalty, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister, said Sept. 25 at the United Nations in New York, where he led the Vatican delegation at the 73rd session of the U.N. general assembly. The Vatican released a copy of his speech Sept. 26.

Speaking at a high-level U.N. side event on the death penalty and the role of poverty and the right to legal representation, the archbishop said that the universal abolition would be a "courageous reaffirmation" that humanity can successfully deal with crime while also refusing "to succumb to despair before evil acts, offering the criminal a chance to reform."

The archbishop cited Pope Francis' recent revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person" and the church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide."

The catechism's paragraph on capital punishment, 2267, had been updated by St. John Paul II in 1997 to strengthen its skepticism about the need to use the death penalty in the modern world and, particularly, to affirm the importance of protecting all human life.

The original text recognized "the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty." However, as Pope Francis recently highlighted, there have been steady improvements of the penal system, and countries have the capability to protect the public order and safety with means other than the death penalty.

Additionally, the pope has warned against the possibility of judicial error and the misuse of capital punishment in totalitarian and dictatorial regimes as a way to suppress political opposition or to persecute religious and cultural minorities.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center based in Washington, D.C., 56 countries still retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes. The remainder of countries have abolished it, either in law or practice.

China, Iran and Saudi Arabia executed the most people in 2016, according to Amnesty International figures. Amnesty says that China carries out judicial killings in the thousands every year, reporting the country as "the world's top executioner."

In 2016, the United States dropped out of the top five executioner countries for the first time since 2006. The U.S. put 20 people to death, which was the lowest number since 1991, according to Amnesty.

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Panel confronts church abuse crisis, urges laity to lead way forward

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 4:25pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Dawn Eden Goldstein

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A panel discussion Sept. 25 at Georgetown University on the current church crisis was akin to a very large parish town hall meeting.

Panelists and audience members alike shared their pain, shock and complete frustration with recent allegations of abuse and cover-up by church leaders and they also showed a strong desire to somehow forge a path out of this.

This wasn't a talk where audience members were scrolling through their phones to pass time or looking at their watches to see when it would be over. During the hour and a half, there were moments in the churchlike campus hall when you could hear a pin drop, particularly when panelists shared about their own experiences of being abused.

The audience also audibly gasped over references to church leaders' seemingly callous responses to the abuse crisis over the years and they also broke into applause at several points, particularly over calls for laypeople, especially women, to have more say in the church.

When it came time for question and answer session, a line formed immediately and snaked to the back of the hall. Many of the questions, from college students, recent graduates and many long since out of college, echoed frustrations and a desire to make things right but no idea how to begin.

One questioner, who said he was a seminarian, asked in almost a hushed tone: "What can we do? How can we be a solution?"

The panelists were unable to answer every question so in a sense the evening raised more questions than it answered, but as many people pointed out during the evening, this crisis has impacted the church on many levels so there are no quick fixes.

In other words, there was no handout of next steps for the 500 people who attended. The main ideas that came across were: the urgency of listening to victims, the need to speak up not only for justice for victims but for transparency in church leadership, and the importance of staying in the church and continuing its good work at a time when its moral leadership is in question.

The listening and speaking up aspects were both in full form during the discussion titled: "Confronting a Moral Catastrophe: Lay Leadership, Catholic Social Teaching and the Sexual Abuse Crisis" which was co-sponsored by Georgetown University's: Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, the Office of Mission and Ministry, and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs

Two panelists spoke directly about their experience as childhood sexual abuse victims. Kevin Byrnes, an attorney, talked about his lifelong scars from being abused by a priest. Dawn Eden Goldstein, a theologian and author of "My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints," who had been abused in a synagogue, said her faith helped her find healing. Goldstein, who goes by the pen name Dawn Eden, is an assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.

Even John Carr, director of Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, stepped out of his usual moderator role to share his own experience. He said when he was a seminarian he suffered bullying and sexual abuse.

"I did not endure the worst of what was revealed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, but this evil was a part of my life," he said, adding that he had never spoken of this to anyone until recently. And in written remarks, he noted that he recently reported this to the provincial of his abusers' community and learned that the abusers had died and that "other allegations against them supposedly came forward only after their death."

"I have to wonder whether my silence contributed to the abuse of others," he said, urging the audience to speak up. "Silence is not an option for any of us," he said.

Like other speakers in the panel, he said he felt betrayed by church leaders, especially Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, whom he described as a friend and supporter of his work. He said years ago when he heard rumors about the archbishop's abuse of power with seminarians he said he asked him directly if that could be true.

He said the archbishop told him: "If any of that were true, I would not be here," which Carr said he believed.

Robert Bennett, a Washington attorney and member of the original National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, said he felt similarly betrayed by the actions of Archbishop McCarrick, who was his good friend, and also by the church hierarchy, because as he put it: "How can someone get so high up in the church when it was well known what he was doing?"

Karen Tumulty, a Washington Post columnist and member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, said the reports of clergy abuse and cover-up revealed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report this summer is "just the beginning," noting that 12 to 15 states are looking at launching similar investigations.

She recently attended a parish town hall meeting on the abuse crisis and said the "amount of anger there was extraordinary" primarily because many people feel there has been a lot of "lip service" to the laity but that church leadership does not seem likely "to share its power with them."

But as several people said in the evening's discussion, that's where this work needs to happen. Or as Tumulty put it: "Fixing this will have to come from the pews."

And the challenge is also there for women religious, priests and seminarians.

Goldstein's response to the seminarian's questions about what they can do brought the frustration and anger so many had spoken of back to God.

"Take the pain of the victims and the pain and suffering of the church and use that to root you more deeply in your calling," she said, urging him and others to pray and meditate on that.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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God's love in charity exists even in most secularized places, pope says

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 10:26am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- During times of freedom or persecution, the Gospel is needed to bring meaning, fullness and hope to life, Pope Francis said.

Speaking about his Sept. 22-25 visit to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the pope said he visited these Baltic nations as they celebrated the 100th anniversary of their declarations of independence.

However, during these past 100 years, these countries have experienced "the yoke of occupation," beginning with the Nazis and then the Soviet Union, the pope said at his general audience in St. Peter's Square Sept. 26.

During his visit, the pope paid homage to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania, which saw more than 95 percent of its Jewish population murdered, and he visited a former Soviet KGB headquarters that is now a museum dedicated to victims of genocide, foreign occupations and political resistance.

"I stopped in prayer in the rooms where opponents of the regime were detained, tortured and killed. They killed 40 people, more or less, a night," he said, noting how upsetting it was to see how cruel human beings could be. "Let us think about that."

The situation in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is very different now compared to when St. John Paul II visited in 1993, "therefore, my mission was to newly proclaim to these people the joy of the Gospel and the revolution of mercy, of tenderness because freedom (by itself) is not enough to give meaning and fullness to life without love, the love that comes from God."

During difficult, trying times, he said, the Gospel "gives strength and enlivens the struggle for freedom."

During times of freedom, he added, the Gospel "is the light" showing the way for people's daily journey, and it is "the salt" giving ordinary life flavor and preserving it from "the corruption of mediocrity and selfishness."

A strong sign of the Gospel being alive is seeing concrete works of charity, he said.

Even where secularization has hit hardest, the pope said, "God speaks with the language of love, of care, of selfless service to those who are in need. And then hearts open up and miracles happen. In deserts, new life blooms."

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Time to heal, restore unity, evangelize, pope tells Catholics in China

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 8:07am

IMAGE: CNS photo/How Hwee Young, EPA

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The recent Vatican-China agreement on the nomination of bishops seeks the true good of the church, the promotion of preaching the Gospel in China and the re-establishment of the church's full and visible unity, Pope Francis said in a message to Catholics in China and worldwide.

With the help and prayers of all Catholics, the pope said he hopes the provisional agreement announced Sept. 22 will begin an "unprecedented process that we hope will help to heal the wounds of the past, restore full communion among all Chinese Catholics, and lead to a phase of greater fraternal cooperation in order to renew our commitment to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel."

"The church exists for the sake of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to the forgiving and saving love of the Father," not for political or personal aims, he wrote.

The pope's comments came in a special papal message addressed "to the Catholics of China and to the universal church," released by the Vatican Sept. 26.

Acknowledging the "conflicting reports" circulating about the future of Catholic communities in China as well as the wide variety of reactions, such as "confusion," doubt or hope, the pope used the message to assure the faithful in China of his daily prayers and sincere admiration "for the gift of your fidelity, your constancy amid trials and your firm trust in God's providence, even when certain situations proved particularly adverse and difficult."

He asked people to look "to the example of all those faithful laity and pastors who readily offered their 'good witness' to the Gospel, even to the sacrifice of their own lives. They showed themselves true friends of God!"

Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, a late 16th-century missionary to China, challenged the church to trust when he said that "before entering into friendship, one must observe; after becoming friends, one must trust," the pope wrote.

The provisional agreement, he said, was pursued according to that same spirit of believing that an encounter can be authentic and fruitful only when it comes through dialogue, "which involves coming to know one another, to respect one another and to 'walk together' for the sake of building a common future of sublime harmony."

The process of dialogue between the Holy See and Chinese authorities -- begun by St. John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict XVI -- has been driven by the sole desire "to attain the church's specific spiritual and pastoral aims, namely, to support and advance the preaching of the Gospel, and to reestablish and preserve the full and visible unity of the Catholic community in China," which had been divided between communities willing to cooperate with the communist government and those that refused to do so, he said.

Reaching the provisional agreement, the pope said, involved a process that required time, good will and recognizing that less than perfect conditions should never impede the call to "go out" and embrace "the people of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted."

The Old Testament patriarch Abraham was obedient to God in setting out for an unknown land, the pope said. Had Abraham "demanded ideal social and political conditions before leaving his land, perhaps he would never have set out. Instead, he trusted in God and in response to God's word he left his home and its safety. It was not historical changes that made him put his trust in God; rather, it was his pure faith that brought about a change in history."

"As the successor of Peter, I want to confirm you in this faith" in God's promise, the pope said, imploring the Holy Spirit to help everyone understand where God "would lead us, in order to overcome inevitable moments of bewilderment, and to find the strength to set out resolutely on the road ahead."

The pope said dealing first with the issue of the appointment of bishops was essential for "supporting and promoting the preaching of the Gospel in China and reestablishing full and visible unity in the church."

The existence of a clandestine or underground church like China has had "is not a normal part of the life of the church," and as Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, "history shows that pastors and faithful have recourse to (going underground) only amid suffering, in the desire to maintain the integrity of their faith."

Pope Francis said he has received "numerous concrete signs and testimonies" from Chinese Catholics of their desire "to live their faith in full communion with the universal church and with the successor of Peter." That desire was also evident in the repentance of bishops who "damaged communion in the church as a result of weakness and errors, but also, and not infrequently, due to powerful and undue pressure from without," he added.

After examining each situation, spending much time in reflection and prayer, and "seeking the true good of the church in China," the pope said that, "in continuity with the direction set by my immediate predecessors, I have determined to grant reconciliation to the remaining seven 'official' bishops ordained without papal mandate and, having lifted every relevant canonical sanction, to readmit them to full ecclesial communion."

However, he asked these seven bishops "to express with concrete and visible gestures their restored unity with the Apostolic See and with the churches spread throughout the world, and to remain faithful despite any difficulties."

The pope emphasized that the provisional agreement dealt only with some aspects of the church's life and was "capable of improvement," but on the whole, it was meant to begin a "new chapter of the Catholic Church in China."

For the first time, he said, "the agreement sets out stable elements of cooperation between the state authorities and the Apostolic See, in the hope of providing the Catholic community with good shepherds."

While the Holy See will play its part, it is critical that the bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful in China "join in seeking good candidates capable of taking up in the church the demanding and important ministry of bishop."

"It is not a question of appointing functionaries to deal with religious issues, but of finding authentic shepherds according to the heart of Jesus, men committed to working generously in the service of God's people, especially the poor and the most vulnerable," he said.

All Christians without exception, he said, "must now offer gestures of reconciliation and communion" since the faithful will be judged by God on their love.

While Chinese Catholics "must be good citizens, loving their homeland and serving their country with diligence and honesty, to the best of their ability," he said, serving the common good "may also require of them the effort to offer a word of criticism, not out of sterile opposition, but for the sake of building a society that is more just, humane and respectful of the dignity of each person."

He called on bishops, priests and religious to "recognize one another as followers of Christ in the service of God's people," to leave behind past conflicts and to work humbly for reconciliation and unity.

Calling on Catholics worldwide, the pope asked for "fervent prayer and fraternal friendship" with Catholics in China.

Addressing the leaders of the People's Republic of China, Pope Francis renewed his invitation "to continue, with trust, courage and farsightedness, the dialogue begun some time ago. I wish to assure them that the Holy See will continue to work sincerely for the growth of genuine friendship with the Chinese people."

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On plane, pope discusses sex abuse, corruption of cover-up, China pact

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 6:00pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT TO ROME (CNS) -- The Catholic Church has grown in its understanding of the horror of clerical sexual abuse and of the "corruption" of covering it up, Pope Francis said.

Returning to Rome from a trip Sept. 22-25 to the Baltic nations, Pope Francis was asked about his remarks to young people in Tallinn, Estonia, when he said young people are scandalized when they see the church fail to condemn abuse clearly.

"The young people are scandalized by the hypocrisy of adults, they are scandalized by wars, they are scandalized by the lack of coherence, they are scandalized by corruption, and corruption is where what you underlined -- sexual abuse -- comes in," the pope responded.

Whatever the statistics say about rates of clerical abuse, the pope said, "if there is even just one priest who abuses a boy or a girl, it is monstrous, because that man was chosen by God to lead that child to heaven."

The fact that child abuse occurs in many environments does not in any way lessen the scandal, he said.

But it is not true that the church has done nothing "to clean up," Pope Francis told reporters. If one looks at the Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August or other similar studies, he said, it is clear that the majority of cases occurred decades ago "because the church realized that it had to battle it in a different way."

"In olden times these things were covered up -- but they were covered up also in families, when an uncle abused his niece, or a father raped his child; it was covered up because it was a very great shame," Pope Francis said. "That was how people thought in the last century."

To understand what happened in the past, he said, one must remember how abuse was handled then.

"The past should be interpreted using the hermeneutic of the age," Pope Francis said. People's "moral consciousness" develops over time, he said, pointing to the death penalty as an example.

But, he said, "look at the example of Pennsylvania. Look at the proportions and you will see that when the church began to understand, it did all it could."

In fact, the pope said, he has encouraged bishops to report cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he "never, never" granted amnesty to a priest found guilty of abuse.

Pope Francis did not mention by name Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former nuncio to the United States, who claimed that Pope Francis knew of and ignored the sexual misconduct of former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. And the journalists' question about Archbishop Vigano was never asked because the pope insisted that most of the questions be related directly to his trip to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

But the pope did say that "when there was that famous statement from an ex-nuncio, bishops from the whole world wrote to tell me they were close to me and praying for me."

One of the letters, he said, came from China and was signed jointly by a bishop from the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and a bishop from "the, let's say, traditional Catholic Church."

Reporters also asked the pope about the Vatican-China agreement for the nomination of bishops, which was announced Sept. 22 while the pope was in Lithuania, and about the suffering of Chinese Catholics who had risked their lives to remain faithful to the pope and not accept the communist government's control over the church.

Some Catholics in China "will suffer" and feel betrayed, he said, "but they have great faith" and in the end will trust the pope.

Pope Francis praised the team of Vatican negotiators who worked "two steps forward, one step back" for 10 years, but he insisted he bore all responsibility for the agreement and, especially, for regularizing the situation of seven bishops who had been ordained without Vatican approval.

With every "peace treaty" and every negotiation, he said, "both sides lose something" and for the Vatican that was complete control over the nomination of bishops.

However, he said, people should remember that for centuries the kings of Spain and Portugal nominated the bishops of Latin America, and the Austro-Hungarian emperors did the same in their territory.

The new Vatican-Sino agreement, Pope Francis said, sets up "a dialogue on eventual candidates" for dioceses in China, "but the naming is the pope's -- let that be clear."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden

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People helping people is what attracted actor to 'God Friended Me'

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:15pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/CBS Entertainment

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Television audiences may recall seeing actor Joe Morton as Eli Rowan Pope, the father of professional Washington fixer Olivia Pope, on the hit series "Scandal."

With "Scandal" having ended last season, Morton was left with nothing to do. But a script came to him with an intriguing concept: A professed atheist who podcasts his lack of belief gets a Facebook friend request from God. The atheist accepts it, and before long starts seeing how interconnected people are to each other without even realizing it.

That's the premise behind "God Friended Me," which premieres Sunday, Sept. 30, 8-9 p.m. EDT on CBS.

Morton isn't the atheist in question; that role belongs to Brandon Micheal Hall. Rather, Morton plays the atheist's father -- a minister at a New York City church who has lamented how his son has turned away from God.

"I wanted to buy a house, so I wanted another job," Morton told Catholic News Service in a Sept. 24 phone interview from New York City, where the show is filmed, shortly before he was due back on the set.

But not just any other job. "I wanted something that would be diametrically opposed to 'Scandal.' I was really attracted to the show, of people going out of their way to help other people, and the prospect that somehow we're all connected," he said. Given the tenor of the times, and "the atmosphere in general that we're going through these days, this kind of show is just the thing."

Morton said his character, the Rev. Arthur Finer, will have his own crosses to bear on "God Friended Me." "There's two things we'll be dealing with," he noted. First is "that gap" between father and son that "has to be closed in some sort of way."

Second is the backstory affecting both the reverend and his two grown children; the character of the preacher's daughter (Javicia Leslie) also is a series regular.

"We will look at him as a human being," Morton said. "What has he gone through? He's lost his wife when his children were very young. Did he did do a good job (raising them on his own)? Did he not do a good job? What is his life now that he's been a single parent for so many years?"

He told CNS the show, which was filming its eighth episode at the time of the interview, is not merely a matter of the writers dropping off the script for that day's filming and leaving it to the actors to say their lines.

"There has been a lot of talk even before we started shooting," Morton said. "We talked to them about what their ideas were. It was a real collaboration from beginning to end. To enhance and imbue these characteristics is what we're attracted to."

He cautioned: "We're not 'Touched by an Angel,'" a hit on CBS 20 years ago. "We are not that show. This is not a show that is about God as it is a show about how people can help one another -- again, how connected we all are" as opposed to people "floating around on a little island without any connection to anyone," Morton said, adding, "It's a need we have: to re-examine and redefine how closely we interact."

Lofty goals indeed, but "God Friended Me" is going up against NBC's juggernaut "Sunday Night Football." However, Morton has a counter to even that argument about the scheduling affecting the new show.

"When you have a group of actors who are about telling the story, not 'I'm supposed to be first,' functioning like a healthy family, trying to tell these stories, I think that's such a great formula for success," he said. "That's why these Sunday shows do so well."

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison

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