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On Annunciation, Pope says God still seeks hearts like Mary

Milan, Italy, Mar 25, 2017 / 10:19 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation in Milan, telling mass-goers that even today God is still searching for hearts like Mary’s that are open to welcoming his invitation and providing hope, even when it’s hard.  

As in the past, “God continues to look for allies, he continues to seek men and women capable of believing,” remembering and recognizing that they are part of his people and cooperating with the Holy Spirit, the Pope said March 25.

“God continues to walk our neighborhoods and our streets, he pushes in each place in search of hearts capable of listening to his invitation and making it become flesh here and now,” he said.

In the end, the Lord “continues to seek hearts like that of Mary, disposed to believe even in very extraordinary conditions.”

Pope Francis offered his reflection during Mass on the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated in Milan’s Manzo Park during his daytrip to the city, marking the first papal visit there since Benedict XVI’s trip in 2012.

He kicked off the visit by stopping by the “White Houses” high-rise complex in the eastern quarter of the city, marked by acute poverty, visiting two families in the complex before stepping out to greet families gathered outside, including immigrants and some Muslims.

After greeting families in the complex, Francis headed to the cathedral, where he delivered an off-the-cuff speech to priests and seminarians of the diocese, answering three of their questions.

He then prayed the Angelus with pilgrims before heading to the city’s Casa Circondariale di San Vittore prison, which holds about 1,700 detainees, and greeted employees and police officers who work at the prison before greeting the inmates themselves. He ate lunch with 100 of them before heading to Mass at Monza Park.

In his homily, the Pope referred to the day’s Gospel reading from Luke recounting the Annunciation, saying he likes to read it alongside the “annunciation” to Zachariah of John the Baptist’s birth.

One annunciation happens to a priest in the Temple of God during a liturgy where everyone is waiting outside, while the other happens to a young woman named Mary in a small town that didn’t necessarily have a good reputation, he noted.

This contrast is “not insignificant,” he said, noting that it serves as a sign “that the new Temple of God, the new encounter of God with his people will take places in places which we normally don’t expect, on the margins, on the peripheries.”

“By now it will no longer be in a place reserved for the few while the majority wait outside. Nothing and no one will be indifferent, no situation will be deprived of his presence: the joy of salvation began in the daily life of the home of a youth in Nazareth.”

Just like he did with Mary, God also takes the initiative in our lives, inserting himself into our daily struggles, anxieties and desires, the Pope said, explaining that it’s precisely in the daily routine of our lives that we receive “the most beautiful announcement we can hear: ‘Rejoice, the Lord is with you!’”

However, despite the joy of hearing this annunciation, we can also be distracted by the “speculation” of our times, asking like Mary, “how will this be?” he said.  

Nowadays “one speculates on the poor and migrants, one speculates on youth and their future,” he said. “Everything seems reduced to figures, leaving, on the other hand, that the daily lives of many families is tinged with uncertainty and insecurity.”

“While the pain is knocking on many doors, while in many youth dissatisfaction is growing due to the lack of real opportunities, speculation abounds everywhere,” Francis continued, noting that the “dizzying rhythm” we have become accustomed to at times seems to “rob us of hope and joy.”

In the midst of the speed and pressures of society, it’s easy to lose time for family, friends and community while rushing to build a better society, Pope Francis said.

In this context, the Pope said it would be good to stop and ask ourselves how we can live the joy of the Gospel in our cities, and whether or not it’s possible to have hope in the here and now of our concrete situations.

Francis said by looking to the Gospel passage of the Annunciation, we see that the Angel Gabriel gives us three keys to finding this hope and accepting the mission entrusted to us.

The first, the Pope observed, is the importance of “evoking memory.” Just as the angel reminded Mary of the history of salvation, which she is a part of, we are also invited to look to our own past “in order not to forget where we come from,” he said.

Referring to Milan, Francis noted that “this land and it’s people have known the pain of two world wars; and sometimes thy have seen their deserved reputation for industriousness and civilization polluted by unregulated ambitions.”

However, taking time to remember helps us “to not remain prisoners of speeches which sow fractures and divisions as the only way to resolve conflicts,” he said, adding that “to evoke memory is the best antidote to our disposition in front of the magic solutions of division and estrangement.”

A second key the angel gives us is a sense of belonging to the People of God, he said, explaining that a part of remembering salvation history is remembering that we, like Mary, are among God’s chosen people.

In this sense, he pointed to the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic background of Milan, saying that because of this, they specifically are called to welcome differences and “integrate them with respect and creativity and to celebrate the novelty that comes from others.”

Finally, Pope Francis noted that the third key we get from the angel is his assurance to Mary that “nothing will be impossible for God.”

“When we believe that everything depends exclusively on us we remain prisoners of our abilities, of our strengths, of our horizons,” he said, noting that if we don’t allow ourselves to be helped, advised or open to grace, “it seems that the impossibility begins to become reality.”

However, pointing to the many missionaries who have come to the area, the Pope noted that in overcoming “the sterile and divisive pessimisms, they opened to God’s initiative and became a sign of how fertile a land can be that doesn’t allow itself to close in its own ideas, in its own limits and in its open capacity and opens to others.”

After Mass, Pope Francis will head to Milan’s Meazza-San Siro stadium to meet with youth before heading back to the Vatican.

Don't fret about numbers, but your mission, Pope tells Milan religious

Milan, Italy, Mar 25, 2017 / 06:31 am (CNA/EWTN News).- During his daytrip to Milan Saturday, Pope Francis told the diocese’s priests and religious not to fear the challenges that come with their ministry nor the increasing number of empty convents, urging them instead to focus on the core of their mission: bringing Christ to his people.

“Our congregations were not born to be the mass, but a bit of salt and yeast which would have given their own contribution so that the mass grows; so that the People of God have that ‘condiment’ they were missing,” the Pope said March 25.

He noted that for many years in the past, congregations moved forward with the idea that they needed to “occupy spaces” more than launching new processes and projects.

The perception then, he said, was that “ideas (or our impossibility to change) were more important than reality; or that the part (our small part or vision of the world) was superior to the whole Church.”

But today’s reality serves as a challenge, and “invites us to again be a bit of yeast and a bit of salt,” he said, asking “Can you imagine a meal with too much salt? Or a pasta that’s totally fermented? No one would eat it, no one could digest it.”

“I've never seen a pizzamaker use a kilo of yeast and a gram of flour” to make the dough, Francis said, and urged religious to “listen to reality, to open ourselves to the ‘mass,’ to the Holy People of God, to the entire Church.”

Pope Francis spoke to priests and religious inside Milan’s cathedral of St. Mary of the Nativity during his March 25 daytrip to the city.

He kicked off the visit by stopping by the “White Houses” high-rise complex in the eastern quarter of the city, an area marked by acute poverty where many migrants, including Muslim families, live. He then headed directly to Milan’s cathedral where he met with the priests and religious.

<blockquote class="twitter-video" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Up-close view of a papal blessing to some small pilgrims in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Milan?src=hash">#Milan</a> via <a href="https://twitter.com/andygag">@andygag</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PopeFrancis?src=hash">#PopeFrancis</a> <a href="https://t.co/lEiFe59PCE">pic.twitter.com/lEiFe59PCE</a></p>&mdash; Catholic News Agency (@cnalive) <a href="https://twitter.com/cnalive/status/845563394254082048">March 25, 2017</a></blockquote>
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The Pope took questions from three members of the audience, including Ursuline sister Mother M. Paola Paganoni, parish priest Fr. Gabriele Gioia and Robert Crespi, one of the diocese’s 143 permanent deacons.

Instead of taking notes and giving an entirely off-the-cuff speech as usual during his Q&A sessions, this time Francis decided to follow a written text due to the day’s full schedule, deviating to add a few lines here and there.

The question on numbers was posed by Sr. Paganoni, who asked the Pope how to be a prophetic sign in modern society, and to which peripheries they should go, given that religious are small in number and constitute a “minority” in the Church.  

In response, the Pope not only told the nun to not fret about numbers, but he also cautioned against the feeling of “resignation,” which he said can frequently creep up when looking at how few they are.

“Without realizing it, each time that we think or see that we are few, or in many cases elderly, we experience the weight, the fragility more than the splendor, and our spirit begins to corrode from resignation,” he said.

In turn, resignation can lead to the spiritual sin – also called a “disease” – of acedia, about which the Fathers of the Church issued sharp warnings since it essentially leads a person into despair, indifference and apathy regarding the faith and one’s vocation.

“Few yes, a minority yes, elderly yes, but resigned no!” he said, explaining that the lines in this regard are fine, are can only be recognized by a process of self-reflection in front of the Lord.

“When resignation takes hold of us,” he said, “we live with the imagination of a glorious past which, far from awakening the original charism, increasingly surrounds us in a spiral of existential heaviness. Everything becomes heavier and difficult to lift up.”

He warned religious to stay away from this attitude, as well as the temptation to use the empty structures to get money by turning them into hotels or looking for other “human solutions” to the problem. Doing this, he said, “hinders or deprives us of joy.”

And while he said he can’t tell them which peripheries to go to, since that’s the job of the Holy Spirit, who inspired their original charism, Pope Francis urged religious to choose them well and reawaken “the hope spent and sapped by a society that has become insensitive to the pain of others.”

“Go and bring the ‘anointing’ of Christ,” he said, telling them never to forget “that when you put Jesus in the midst of your people, they find joy…only this will render our lives fruitful and will keep our hearts alive.”

In response to Crespi’s question on what contribution deacons can give to the Church, the Pope said they have “a lot to give,” specifically when it comes to managing the tensions and blessings of ministry and family life.

However, Francis also cautioned against viewing deacons as “half-priests and half-laity,” because in reality “they are neither here nor there.”

Looking at them in this way “does harm to us and does harm to them” and takes strength away from their vocation in the Church, he said, explaining that the deaconate “is a specific vocation, a family vocation that recalls service as one of the characteristic gifts of the people of God.”

“The deacon is – so to speak – the guardian of service in the Church,” Pope Francis said. Because of this, his specific mission consists of “reminding all of us that faith, in its various expressions – communitarian liturgy, personal prayer, different forms of charity – and in its various states of life – lay, clerical, familial – has an essential dimension of service.”

Speaking directly to the deacons, he said they are “a sacrament of service to God and to your brothers. A vocation which like all vocations is not only individual, but lived inside the family and with the family, inside the People of God and with the People of God.”

Francis also answered Fr. Gioia’s question on what can be done in order not lose the joy of evangelizing in the face of challenges such as secularism and ministering to a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic flock with different religions.

In his response, the Pope said we shouldn’t be afraid of challenges, because they are “a sign of a living faith, of a living community that seeks its Lord and has eyes and hearts opened.”

Rather, what we must fear instead is “a faith without challenges, a faith believed to be complete, as if everything has been said and realized,” because without challenges, there is a danger that our faith becomes “an ideology.”

The Pope also spoke of the importance of recognizing the richness of the differences in the Church throughout its history, explaining that “the Church is one in a multifarious experience.”
 
Although there can also be “horrors” and errors in the ways some interpret religion, he stressed the need to separate and distinguish between the “luminous aspects and the dark aspects” of each.

He also cautioned against confusing unity with uniformity and plurality with pluralism, saying that in both cases “what is being sought is to reduce the tension and remove the conflict or ambivalence to which we are subjected as human being.”

Finally, the Pope in his last point to the priest emphasized the need for pastors to offer better formation in discernment, particularly to youth.

“The culture of abundance to which we are subjected offers a horizon of many possibilities, presenting them as valid and good,” he said, noting that today’s youth are exposed to a constant “zapping” of information.

“Whether we like it or not, it’s a world in which they are inserted and it’s our duty as pastors to help them pass through this world,” he said, explaining that because of this, “it’s good to teach them to discern, so that they have the tools and elements which help them to walk the path of life without extinguishing the Holy Spirit which is in them.”

After his audience with priests and religious, Pope Francis led pilgrims gathered outside the cathedral in praying the Angelus before heading to the city’s Casa Circondariale di San Vittore prison, which in 2012 held 1,700 detainees.

At the prison, the Pope is slated to greet employees and police officers who work at the facility before greeting the inmates themselves. He is then expected to have lunch with 100 of prisoners before heading to Milan’s Parco di Monza to celebrate Mass and meet with youth after.

Texas pro-lifers target 'wrongful birth' lawsuits, Planned Parenthood

Austin, Texas, Mar 25, 2017 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Among the targets of Texas pro-life advocates are so-called ‘wrongful birth’ lawsuits and Planned Parenthood’s alleged involvement in the sale of unborn baby parts. Both are finding some success in the State Senate.

In some cases, parents of a child born with a disability such as Down syndrome have filed lawsuits against doctors claiming that they were not informed of a disability in time to procure an abortion. Such claims aim to secure the costs of raising the child, even lifetime costs.

Senate Bill 25 would prevent parents of children born with disabilities from suing their physician.

The bill, which has the support of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, passed the state senate by a vote of 21-9 March 21. It now heads to the Texas House of Representatives for consideration.

“We are thrilled that the Senate has passed S.B. 25, because it reverses a decades-old injustice and bad public policy that devalues babies, both unborn and born, who have a disability,” Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, told CNA March 23. “In our view, S.B. 25 eliminates wrongful birth lawsuits while holding doctors accountable to practicing good medicine.”

While opponents of the bill charged it would allow doctors to withhold information from parents about an unborn child, Pojman said the bill’s text explicitly excludes such a possibility.
 
He added that the bill is consistent with tTexas’ policy of promoting childbirth over abortion.

Meanwhile, Texas Alliance for Life’s top priority is the passage of S.B. 8, provisions of which would, in Pojman’s words, “shut down Planned Parenthood's harvesting and sale of body parts harvested from the bodies of aborted babies.”

The bill passed the state senate March 15 by a bipartisan vote of 24-6. The House considered its own version March 22.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had called for such a bill in his January State of the State Address.

The bill follows an undercover investigation from the Center for American Progress which found Planned Parenthood staffers and leaders appearing to encourage the illegal sale of fetal tissue and unborn baby body parts for profit.

A Dec. 7, 2016 letter from the Select Investigative Panel of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce referred an unnamed Houston abortionist to the State Attorney General for alleged violations of a federal partial-birth abortion ban.

S.B. 8 would also bar partial-birth abortion, creating a criminal penalty for the physician and a cause for civil action for the father.

The bill has the support of the Texas Catholic Conference.

Another bill, S.B. 415, passed the state senate by a 21-9 vote.

The ban on “dismemberment abortions” would bar “dilation and evacuation” procedures, which use surgical instruments to grasp the unborn baby and remove his or her parts while he or she is still alive. The procedure is the most common second-trimester abortion procedure.

However, the Texas Alliance for Life opposed it.

“We look forward to the day when laws protect all unborn babies from abortion and the courts uphold those laws,” Pojman said. “Unfortunately,  a ban on dismemberment abortion would never be enforced, and it would save no lives.”

He said the bill had zero chance to survive a federal court challenge and could create a precedent to make overturning Roe v. Wade more difficult.

“We believe it to be naive and harmful to pursue such legislation this session given the makeup of the Supreme Court now and for the foreseeable future. Since these bills will set the pro-life movement back rather than moving us forward, we cannot support these bills.”

A loss in federal court would also fund the abortion movement, as the state is required to pay plaintiff attorney fees if the plaintiff wins on constitutional issues.

Pojman pointed to the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, which successfully challenged parts of a Texas law requiring more safety regulations at abortion clinics.

The abortion providers are asking for $4.5 million in legal costs.

“We do not know what they will end up receiving,” Pojman said. “We do know, however, that whatever the attorneys for the abortion providers receive will be used to attack other pro-life laws in Texas and in other states.”

Protection of minors event draws swath of top Vatican leaders

Vatican City, Mar 24, 2017 / 03:32 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In a significant show of unity, officials from every Vatican department – including at least half a dozen cardinals who head various dicasteries – attended a recent Rome seminar on safeguarding minors.

“I actually come from a dicastery that takes up the issue of human rights and justice,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. 

As head of an office that deals with human rights, awareness of what’s going on in the realm of abuse prevention is “very crucial,” he told CNA, stressing that “it’s so very important that we try to be on the same page with this commission and what they do.”

Every department of the Roman Curia was represented in some way at the March 23 seminar, an indication of its importance in the eyes of Vatican officials.

It is rare for the cardinals who head dicasteries to attend events outside of those hosted by their own department – more often, they send representatives to attend. The presence of several cardinals at Thursday’s event further indicated that the Vatican is seeking to place an emphasis on this issue, especially given that the one-day event was not specifically aimed at members of the Curia, but at a wider audience.

Joining Cardinal Turkson at the gathering was Cardinal Kevin Farrell, president of the Vatican’s mega-department for Laity, Family and Life.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley hosted the event in his capacity as head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and the seminar was also attended by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America; and Cardinal Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.

Cardinal Turkson said that in the case of his own department, he sent the official charged with the topic of international law, human rights, family law and other related topics, but also decided to come himself because it is “essential to see the new things that are being said about this issue.”

“There’s no pastor who is not interested in this issue, especially if he’s a bishop, because there was a way that bishops used to deal with this issue,” he said, noting that often times, priests were simply sent to treatment centers and then put into another parish once they had completed the program. 

“Now the understanding about this is deeper,” he said. “The impression in those days was that people could go to treatment centers and get help, but that was all false.”

“So it’s good to deepen our understanding about this, very, very, very deeply and very well,” he said, explaining that he came not only to support Cardinal O’Malley, a longtime friend, but also to learn and hear updates on the issue.

Cardinal Farrell agreed. “It’s important for the Church to be here because…if you look back on the history of probably the last 20 years, it’s the greatest obstacle to preaching the Word of God and the credibility of doing what we’re supposed to do,” he told CNA.

Sponsored jointly by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) and the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection, the day-long educational seminar focused on what the local church and institutions are doing to combat abuse of minors specifically in schools and the home.  

It included presentations by several members and collaborators of the commission, including Kathleen McCormack, chair of the PCPM Working Group on Education of Families and Communities. It also featured presentations by representatives from Mexico, Colombia and Argentina, as well as Australia and Italy.

The event fell just weeks after clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned from her position on the commission, citing pushback from certain Vatican dicasteries, specifically from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as one of the main reasons for stepping down.

According to Fr. Hans Zollner SJ, head of the Center for Child Protection and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, hearing and including the voice of survivors was a key point in the discussion during their plenary, which begins March 24.

In March 23 comments to CNA, Fr. Zollner said “we need to be informed by survivors and victims, we need to listen to them, and we need to take into account what has been and is their experience.” 

Regarding the involvement of survivors in the process, he noted that Collins herself said in an interview that “a certain set of skills” is needed if a survivor wants to participate in any kind of panel or commission.

“So we will see, together with survivors, what this set of skills should look like,” he said, but cautioned that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. From his perspective as someone who travels around the world trying to raise awareness on the issue, in many countries “people are not so used to speaking out about this.”

“Even if they are a survivor and victim, in some parts of the world this is still taboo and we need to help people come out of that,” he said, explaining that when their mandate is up at the end of the year, the commission will re-visit their structure and development process “so that our journey continues.”

But in the meantime, he praised the seminar as a key step, saying it was a “very successful event,” particularly in “drawing many high-ranking members of the Curia, including a number of cardinals, and (with) all the dicasteries represented.”


Hannah Brockhaus contributed to this report.
 

How do we solve crises? Put the person first, Pope Francis tells EU

Vatican City, Mar 24, 2017 / 01:04 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Being disconnected from the values of the past – which upheld the human person and the family – has placed us in a new era of crises, Pope Francis told European leaders. However, he noted, there is hope.

“Europe finds new hope when man is the center and the heart of her institutions,” he said March 24. “I am convinced that this entails an attentive and trust-filled readiness to hear the expectations voiced by individuals, society and the peoples who make up the Union.”
 
“Affirming the centrality of man also means recovering the spirit of family,” he continued, “whereby each contributes freely to the common home in accordance with his or her own abilities and gifts.”

Europe finds this new hope, he emphasized, “When she invests in the family, which is the first and fundamental cell of society. When she respects the consciences and the ideals of her citizens. When she makes it possible to have children without the fear of being unable to support them. When she defends life in all its sacredness.”

Pope Francis met with 27 European Union Heads of State and Government, as well as Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament; Donald Tusk, President of the European Council; and Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission at the Vatican.

The leaders met in Rome for celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community and is one of the two most important treaties in the modern-day European Union (EU).

In the speech, the Pope warned against having a short memory about Europe’s past – both the good and the bad – and as in previous speeches, urged a return to the roots, in this case the fundamental and founding values of the EU.

In a change from previous meetings of a similar nature, however, Francis took a very hopeful attitude toward Europe’s future, saying that while Europe is undergoing its own modern crises – in economics, migration, the institution, and the family – these don’t have to be solely destructive.

“The term ‘crisis’ is not necessarily negative,” he said. “It does not simply indicate a painful moment to be endured.”

“The word ‘crisis’ has its origin in the Greek verb krino, which means to discern, to weigh, to assess. Ours is a time of discernment, one that invites us to determine what is essential and to build on it. It is a time of challenge and opportunity.”

For Europe to move past these present crises, leaders must refocus around the centrality of the human person, solidarity, the pursuit of peace, and openness to the future and the world, he said.

The spiritual and human values present in Europe’s past are the way forward in what is becoming an increasingly valueless society, one that is very different from even just 60 years ago.

“Europe has a patrimony of ideals and spiritual values unique in the world, one that deserves to be proposed once more with passion and renewed vigor, for it is the best antidote against the vacuum of values of our time, which provides a fertile terrain for every form of extremism,” Francis said.

The Pope gave several examples of how Europe’s hope can be renewed. One major way is by investing in the future through opportunities for young people to receive a good education and to have real possibilities in the work force, he said.

In the speech, the Pope referenced at length the history of Europe, such as the “tragedy of walls and divisions,” and the efforts made to “tear down that wall” that “divided the continent from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic,” separating families as well.

He also quoted at length from addresses of founding fathers of the EU at the signing of the Treaties of Rome in 1957, including Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paul-Henri Spaak; Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Luns; Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Joseph Bech; German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer; and French Minister of Foreign Affairs Christian Pineau.

Addressing “the grave crisis of immigration,” Francis said that the issue poses deep question, that is primarily cultural, and that is: “What kind of culture does Europe propose today?”

“The fearfulness that is becoming more and more evident has its root cause in the loss of ideals. Without an approach inspired by those ideals, we end up dominated by the fear that others will wrench us from our usual habits, deprive us of familiar comforts, and somehow call into question a lifestyle that all too often consists of material prosperity alone.”

“Yet the richness of Europe,” he continued, “has always been her spiritual openness and her capacity to raise basic questions about the meaning of life. Openness to the sense of the eternal has also gone hand in hand, albeit not without tensions and errors, with a positive openness to this world.”

The Pope had strong words against modern forms of populism, which he said solidarity is the antidote to. He defined solidarity as entailing “the awareness of being part of a single body” while also involving “a capacity on the part of each member to ‘sympathize’ with others and with the whole.”

“When one suffers, all suffer,” he said, referencing 1 Corinthians 12:26.

Without Christianity, the Western values of dignity, freedom and justice “would prove largely incomprehensible,” Francis said. “In our multicultural world, these values will continue to have their rightful place provided they maintain a vital connection to their deepest roots.”

Gorsuch praised for record of building unity on religious freedom

Washington D.C., Mar 24, 2017 / 12:06 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch received a strong voice of support Thursday from a lawyer at a major religious liberty firm, who said that he shows a record of consensus building and protecting religious freedom for all.

In addition to ruling on some high profile cases, Gorsuch also defended the religious freedom of religious minorities and prisoners, “some of the most politically powerless in our society,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Smith testified about Gorsuch before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Gorsuch sits on the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was nominated by President Donald Trump in February to be an associate justice at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In her testimony, Smith pointed to Gorsuch’s ruling in favor of a Native American inmate’s request to have access to a sweat house at his prison, for religious use.

Gorsuch wrote in that Yellowbear case, “While those convicted of crime in our society lawfully forfeit a great many civil liberties, Congress has (repeatedly) instructed that the sincere exercise of religion should not be among them – at least in the absence of a compelling reason. In this record we can find no reason like that.”

He also was “a remarkable consensus-builder,” Smith added, “in an area of jurisprudence that can be quite contentious.”

Smith said she studied 40 religious freedom cases where Gorsuch, appointed to the Tenth Circuit by President George W. Bush, either wrote an opinion or took a position. She found that “judges appointed by a Democratic president agreed with him in 80 percent of those cases.”

Where Gorsuch authored an opinion in a religious freedom case, she added, he “produced a unanimous decision every single time.”

“My assessment is that Judge Gorsuch, as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, would be a jurist committed to protecting this vital freedom,” Smith said of religious liberty. “None of his religious liberty opinions has ever been reversed by the Supreme Court.”

Judge Gorsuch was a Marshall Scholar who received his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University, studying under Natural Law scholar John Finnis while there. He clerked for Supreme Court justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy before working as the principal deputy associate attorney general at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.

In 2006, President Bush appointed Gorsuch to the Tenth Circuit. In his time on the circuit, he weighed in on major religious freedom cases including those of Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate.

He was nominated by President Trump on Feb. 1 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. Senate Democrats, however, have announced their intent to hold up his confirmation through filibuster, which would require the votes of 60 senators to override.

Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate, have not yet announced if they will invoke the “nuclear option” where the Senate rules would be altered to allow for a simple majority vote in the 100-seat chamber rather than a three-fifths, or 60-seat, vote.

Smith, in her testimony on Thursday, also pointed to Gorsuch’s rulings in recent prominent religious freedom cases.

As a judge, Gorsuch wrote a concurrence with the majority decision in favor of Hobby Lobby, and joined the dissent in the case that went against the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, saying they were exempt from the contraceptive mandate, which “substantially burdened” their religious exercise and was not the “least-restrictive” means of ensuring access to contraceptives.

Later, in the middle of deciding the Little Sisters case, the Court called for the nuns and the government to outline alternative ways of allowing cost-free coverage of contraceptives while respecting the religious freedom of the nuns. After both parties submitted their answers, the Court sent the case back to the lower courts and instructed the parties to come to an agreement.

Ultimately, Smith said, Gorsuch’s record makes it clear that he will uphold the religious liberty of all people.

“His jurisprudence demonstrates an even-handed application of the principle that religious liberty is fundamental to freedom and to human dignity,” she said, “and that protecting the religious rights of others – even the rights of those with whom we may disagree – ultimately leads to greater protections for all of our rights.”

 

Americans agree: Moms and dads should have paid parental leave

Washington D.C., Mar 24, 2017 / 08:56 am (CNA).- A new report by the Pew Research Center has found that the overwhelming majority of Americans support paid family and medical leave for workers.

More than 80 percent of adult Americans surveyed believe that women should have paid maternity leave, and just under 70 percent support paid paternity leave.

When it comes to paid leave for new fathers, there are significant generational differences. Of those under 30 years of age, 82 percent believe dads should get paid leave after a birth or adoption. Support drops to 76 percent among respondents from 30-49 years of age, and 59 percent for those 50 and older.

Support for paid family leave was a rare issue of agreement between both candidates in the last presidential election, although Democrats and Republicans have general disagreement on the extent to which the government should be involved in ensuring this benefit.

The study, based on two surveys conducted late last year, found that there is currently a drastic difference in leave opportunities between higher and lower income workers.

Some 60 percent of leave takers with annual household incomes from $30,000 to $74,999 received at least some pay when they took family or medical leave. The same is true for 74 percent of those with incomes of $75,000 or more. But that number drops to 37 percent for leave takers with incomes under $30,000.

For those who take unpaid or partially paid leave, the shortfall in income often proves to be a significant financial strain. The report found that 41 percent of people in this situation cut their leave short, 37 percent took on debt, and 33 percent put off paying bills.

Among lower-income workers who took unpaid or partially paid parental leave, nearly half went on public assistance to cover lost income.

Meanwhile, a little more than half of those who took parental leave said they took less time off than they needed or wanted to take. Lost income was the top reason cited, followed by concerns about the impact that additional leave would have on their jobs.

One in four women who took maternity leave in past two years say it negatively impacted their job or career.

Another area of strong agreement: about three-quarters of respondents believed that employers who offer paid leave are more likely to attract and keep good workers than employers who do not offer paid leave.

 

California priest found guilty of embezzling donations

San Jose, Calif., Mar 24, 2017 / 06:38 am (CNA).- A priest in California has been found guilty of diverting $19,000 in donations to his personal account.

Father Hien Minh Nguyen, 57, was found guilty on 14 counts of bank fraud by U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman of San Jose, CBS San Francisco reports.

The donations, made between 2005 and 2007, had been intended for the Vietnamese Catholic Center in San Jose. Fr. Nguyen had served as the center’s director from 2001-2011. He has also served as a pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, now called Our Lady of La Vang.

The priest previously pleaded guilty to tax evasion for the years 2008-2011. He faces sentencing for all convictions on June 30. He could face a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison for each bank fraud account, and a maximum sentence of five years for each tax evasion count.

Fr. Nguyen has been a priest of the Diocese of San Jose since 1995. He has been on a personal leave of absence since December 2013. Fr. Nguyen was born in Vietnam and fled to the U.S. as a boy during the Vietnam War.

 

Insides that didn't decompose – and other stunning facts about Oscar Romero

San Salvador, El Salvador, Mar 24, 2017 / 02:49 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In his role as Vicar General, Monsignor Ricardo Urioste was one of the closest collaborators of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred for the faith in 1980 and beatified two years ago.

And this monsignor has some stories to tell.

Among the most fascinating involve details surrounding the day Romero was killed, what the late archbishop really thought about the controversial and problematic Liberation Theology, and the fact that the martyr’s insides hadn’t decomposed when they were exhumed three years after his death.

Archbishop Romero was brutally killed while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980 – a time when El Salvador was on the brink of civil war. In February 2015, Pope Francis officially recognized his death as having been for hatred of the faith and gave the green light for his beatification.

Msgr. Urioste, who currently heads up the Archbishop Romero Foundation, said that during the time the martyr lived, whenever “he preached, spoke, was a pastor, they accused him of being communist, Marxist, a politician, and a thousand things."

However, he noted how after 12 years of extensive study on the life and writings of the archbishop, the Vatican never found anything that supported these claims.

In an interview with CNA, Msgr. revealed some the of the lesser known facts surrounding the new blessed, as well as his continuing legacy on the Church and the world at large.

What happened on the day Archbishop Romero died

Msgr. Urioste can easily recall the day that Archbishop Romero was killed, saying that it was “an ordinary day of work” for him.

In the morning the archbishop had a meeting with a group of priests, and then they ate lunch together. After the meeting he went to confession with his usual confessor, which was a priest named Fr. Segundo Ascue.

Once he confessed, Archbishop Romero went to celebrate a 6 p.m. Mass in San Salvador’s hospital of Divine Providence, which was staffed by nuns. The Mass, Mons. Urioste recalled, had been widely publicized throughout the diocese.

While he was celebrating Mass in the hospital’s chapel, the archbishop was shot in the chest from outside.

Msgr. Urioste said that after getting a phone call informing him of what happened, “I immediately went to the hospital, and he was already taken to the polyclinic. A television set arrived, they interviewed me, and after I went to the hospital where he was."

He recalled how as the sisters were going to embalm Archbishop Romero’s body, he told them “please be careful not to drop his insides anywhere, but that they pick them up and bury them, and they did, burying them in front of the little apartment he had in the hospital where he lived."

Three years later, on the occasion St. John Paul II’s visit to the country, the nuns of the hospital “made a monument to the Virgin in the same place where we had buried (Romero’s) insides.”

“When they were digging they ran into the box and the plastic bag where they had placed the insides, and the blood was still liquid and the insides didn't have any bad smell,” he revealed.

“I don't want to say that it was a miracle, it's possible that it's a natural phenomenon, but the truth is that this happened, and we told the archbishop at the time (Arturo Rivera y Damas), look monsignor, this has happened and he said 'be quiet, don't tell anyone because they are going to say that they are our inventions,'” he said.

However, “Pope John Paul II was given a small canister with Archbishop Romero’s blood,” he noted.

Msgr. Urioste recalled that when John Paul II arrived to San Salvador, the first thing he did “was go to the cathedral without telling anyone. The cathedral was closed, they had to go and look for someone to open it so that the Pope could enter and kneel before the tomb of Archbishop Romero.”

John Paul II asked during his visit that no one manipulate the memory of Archbishop Romero, Msgr. Urioste recalled, and lamented how “they politicized him.”

“The left had politicized him, putting him as their banner. And the right politicized him, saying things that are untrue about the bishop, that are purely false, they denigrated him.”

One of the things that the Church in El Salvador wants, Msgr. Urioste said, is that “the figure of the archbishop, known now a little more than he was before, is a cause for reflection, a motive for peace, a motive for forgiveness, a motive for reconciliation with one another, and that we all have more patience to renew ourselves and follow the paths that Archbishop Romero proposed to us.”

“I think that (Romero’s) figure is going to contribute a lot to a better meeting and reconciliation in El Salvador,” he said.

What Archbishop Romero really thought about Liberation Theology

Despite the many accusations leveled against the archbishop of San Salvador, his Vicar General said that Romero “never had a Marxist thought or Marxist ideology in his mind.”

“If there had been, the Vatican, which has studied so much, would not have beatified him, if they had found that he had Marxist interests.”

The real backbone of his closeness to the poor, he said, was the Gospel and the teaching of the Church.

“He was a servant of the Gospel, he never read anything from Liberation Theology, but he read the Bible.”

Msgr. Urioste noted that the archbishop's library, “had all these books from the early Fathers of the Church, from the current Magisterium of the Church, but (he) never even opened any of the books from Liberation Theology, or Gustavo Gutiérrez, or of anyone else.”

“He read the Bible and there he encountered a Jesus in love with the poor and in this way started walking toward him,” he said.

What set Archbishop Romero apart

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Archbishop Romero was “his great sense of work. He was an extremely hardworking man and devoted to his work day and night – until midnight and until dawn,” Msgr. Urioste said.

He recalled how the archbishop would begin to prepare his Sunday homilies the day before, and would always include three reflections on the Eucharist. When Romero preached, he made frequent reference to the Fathers of the Church, based his comments on Church teaching and related his thoughts to the country's current reality.

“A homily that doesn't have this relation with what is happening sounds the same here as in Ireland, in Paris, as anywhere,” the priest said.

He recalled how in Romero's time the government was “a ferocious military dictatorship, which had 'national security' as it's theme.”

Everyone who either sided with the poor or expressed concern for them “was accused of being communist, they were sent to be killed without thinking more. There were 70 thousand deaths like this in the country at that time,” Msgr. Urioste noted.

“The social economic reality was of a lot of poverty, of a great lack of unemployment, of low wages.”

Ultimately, Archbishop Romero’s beatification, the monsignor said, is “a triumph of the truth.”

It is a triumph, he said, of the truth of “who Archbishop Romero really was, what he did, how he did it, from the Word of God, from the Magisterium of the Church, in defense of the poor, who were the favored ones of Jesus Christ and who were were also the favored ones of Archbishop Romero.”

A verison of this article was originally published May 23, 2015.

New campaign highlights Catholic services in Michigan

Detroit, Mich., Mar 24, 2017 / 12:14 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A new television ad campaign launched by the Michigan Catholic Conference is featuring commercials that spotlight the hand of the Catholic Church in health, education, and charitable systems throughout the state.

“The Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services, education, and health care after the government itself,” stated David Maluchnik, vice president of communications for the Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC), in a recent press release.

“This advertising project aims to reinforce the notion that faith-based health care, charitable, and educational entities here in the state are an inclusive and diverse component of our local communities that serve all in the spirit of ‘loving thy neighbor,’” Maluchnik continued.

Entitled “Freedom to Serve,” the ad campaign is the product of collaboration between the Michigan Catholic Conference and the media firm Minus Red. The commercials were originally produced as three short films, and were extracted from the films for television commercials.

The goal behind the commercials is to underscore how the Catholic Church is “free to serve” the community in Michigan through various outlets, such as the fields of health, education and charity. Currently, there is a Catholic presence in 222 schools, 33 health centers, 88 social service centers, and 73 specialized homes.

These commercials are being shown on 28 cable and network stations throughout the state, and will run from February through May. There are currently two commercials, titled “Little Simple Things” and “Hands of Service in Healing.”

Each commercial tackles big issues such as palliative care and how organizations, such as Catholic Charities, are providing much-needed water for the city of Flint. One commercial notes that Catholic Charities is “one of the largest suppliers of water in Flint,” and that they give water away for free to those who need it.

While there are only two commercials on air currently, new ads will debut over the next few months that will spotlight Catholic health centers and Catholic school systems.

“For over one hundred years, the Catholic community in Michigan has played a vital role providing our most vulnerable brothers and sisters with the material and spiritual care necessary to uphold their dignity as human persons,” Maluchnik stated.

According to the press release, the Catholic school system educated about 52,000 students during the course of 2016. The Church has also provided various social services and charity work for over 480,000 citizens in the state. Additionally, Catholic health services in Michigan have cared for over 5.5 million individuals, “all without regard to race, religion, or income.”

“Catholic institutions are administered and staffed by persons who do not leave their faith at the doorstep when serving others – it is who they are from morning until night,” Maluchnik noted.

There are about 1.8 million Catholics in the state – 18 percent of the Michigan population. The Michigan Catholic Conference is hoping that these commercials will highlight the many ways the Catholic Church is serving the greater Michigan community, and also bring light to recent government mandates which have put up roadblocks to serving those in need.

More information about the “Freedom to Serve” project is available at www.CatholicsServe.com