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  • Don't judge sinners who want to repent, help them come home, pope says

    By Carol Glatz

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- On the eve of sending off "missionaries of mercy" to all corners of the globe, Pope Francis told his specially appointed men that the reassuring strength of God's love -- not the "bludgeon of judgment" -- will bring the "lost sheep" back to the fold.

    "Being a missionary of mercy is a responsibility that is entrusted to you because it asks you to be a firsthand witness of God's closeness and his way of loving, not our way, which is always limited and sometimes contradictory," he said Feb. 9.

    Meeting with hundreds of missionaries who came to Rome to receive in person their special papal mandate on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis said he wanted to highlight the unique aspects of their new ministry so they would carry it out properly and be "a real help" to the people they encounter.

    The pope designated 1,142 religious and diocesan priests from all over the world to preach and teach about God's mercy and serve especially as confessors during the Year of Mercy, which ends Nov. 20. The men were to receive their special mandate during a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica Feb. 10.

    He told the missionaries that they need to recognize that people's desire for forgiveness might be obscured by their inability or embarrassment to talk about their sins.

    "It's not easy to go before another person, knowing he represents God, and confess one's sins," he said. Confessors should be respectful and encouraging, he said, because the penitents can easily feel exposed and vulnerable "with their weakness and limitations, with the shame of being a sinner."

    "Do not forget, there isn't a sin before you, but a repentant sinner," a person who wants to be listened to, forgiven, and brought home again, he told them.

    With the little strength they have on their own, sinners want to do everything to be a child of God again, therefore, do not be a judge "with a sense of superiority, as if we were immune from sin," or be too invasive with inappropriate or prying questions, the pope said.

    Help the sinner -- who may be feeling the same shame of nakedness Adam and Eve felt in the Garden of Eden when they recognized the evil they had done -- by "covering the sinner with the blanket of mercy, so they will no longer be embarrassed and can regain the joy of their filial dignity," he said.

    He said he wants the missionaries to be a living expression of "the church who, like a mother, welcomes anyone who approaches her," knowing that through her they will become one with Christ.

    In the confessional, the pope said, they must remember that it is Christ who welcomes, listens, forgives and grants peace. "We are his ministers and we always need to be forgiven by him first," he said.

    The pope said whatever sin a priest hears, he must always remember his own sinful nature and be a humble channel of God's mercy.

    He said he still feels the joyful, life-changing moment he experienced as a teenager Sept. 21, 1953, after he went to confession.

    Speaking off the cuff, he said, "I don't remember what the priest said" because what he said was not as important as his smile and the overwhelming sense of God's presence.

    "It was like being received by a father," he said.

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  • Don't judge sinners who want to repent, help them come home, pope says

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- On the eve of sending off "missionaries of mercy" to all corners of the globe, Pope Francis told his specially appointed men that the reassuring strength of God's love -- not the "bludgeon of judgment" -- will bring the "lost sheep" back to the fold. "Being a missionary of mercy is a responsibility that is entrusted to you because it asks you to be a firsthand witness of God's closeness and his way of loving, not our way, which is always limited and sometimes contradictory," he said Feb. 9. Meeting with hundreds of missionaries who came to Rome to receive in person their special papal mandate on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis said he wanted to highlight the unique aspects of their new ministry so they would carry it out properly and be "a real help" to the people they encounter. The pope designated 1,142 religious and diocesan priests from all over the world to preach and teach about God's mercy and serve especially as confessors during the Year of Mercy, which ends Nov. 20. The men were to receive their special mandate during a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica Feb. 10.

    Mass pays tribute to Scouting; program's values called 'life-changing'

    BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CNS) -- Connor Whelan was a busy young man during the Scout Sunday Mass Feb. 7 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, his parish in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of the New York borough of Brooklyn. Dressed in his Eagle Scout uniform, the 20-year-old sang with the choir, served as cantor for the responsorial psalm, and played the recessional hymn on the pipe organ. Before the end of the service, Whelan, who has a mild form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome, received a rousing ovation from the assembly after Father Ilyas Gill, the parish pastor, publicly thanked him for his active participation in the liturgy and acknowledged his recent elevation to Eagle Scout, the highest achievement or rank bestowed on a Boy Scout. More than 50 Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts in uniform, along with their adult leaders, attended the morning family liturgy, which the parish designated as the Scout Sunday Mass. The observance, held annually in early February in many churches across the country, marks the anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scouts of America Feb. 8, 1910. It also provides an opportunity for faith communities to recognize and honor their local Scout troops. Whelan is one of many individuals with special needs who have been warmly embraced and affirmed by the Immaculate Heart of Mary Scouting program.

    Communist official to religious leaders: Promote Chinese culture

    BEIJING (CNS) -- A top Politburo official told faith leaders that religious groups must promote Chinese culture and become more compatible with socialism. Yu Zhengsheng said religious leaders must form a bridge between the Communist Party and hundreds of millions of Chinese that follow the country's five officially recognized religions -- Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism, reported Xinhua, China's state news agency, said Yu "called on religious groups in China to continue adding Chinese characteristics, dig into positive elements in their religions and make more effort in building a religious ideology with Chinese characteristics." Yu, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, led the meeting. Vice Premier Liu Yandong and Sun Chunlan, head of the United Work Front Department, which manages relations with faith groups, also attended. National broadcaster CCTV broadcast Yu's instructions on its evening bulletin Feb. 4, reported. It said Liu Yuanlong, who took part in his role as vice director of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, was not immediately available for comment.

    Woman to lead theological-pastoral aspect of Vatican communications

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The director of the new theological-pastoral department of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications is Natasa Govekar, a theologian who specializes in the communication of faith through images. The Vatican announced Pope Francis' nomination of Govekar, a Slovenian, Feb. 9. At the same time, the pope named Francesco Masci, a 37-year-old official at the Vatican Internet Office, to direct the secretariat's technical office. The communications secretariat was established by Pope Francis to coordinate and streamline Vatican communications. The organizational structure also is expected to include an editorial department, but that director has yet to be named. Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the secretariat, issued a statement highlighting the youth of the two appointees as well as the pope's choice of a woman theologian to handle the theological-pastoral aspect of Vatican communications activities. Govekar, who holds a doctorate in missiology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, is a member of the staff of Rome's Centro Aletti, a study and research center focused particularly on the art and spirituality of Eastern Christianity.

    Pope names top Vatican official from U.S. to be nuncio in South Africa

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis named Msgr. Peter B. Wells, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the next papal nuncio to South Africa and Botswana. The longtime deputy chief of staff at the Vatican's Secretariat of State will be ordained archbishop. His appointment was announced Feb. 9 by the Vatican. "I am extremely humbled and honored by the faith which has been placed in me by the church and our Holy Father, especially in this Year of Mercy," Archbishop-designate Wells said in a statement. "I ask for your prayers as I prepare to embark upon this mission to the extraordinary people of southern Africa." Born in 1963, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1991 after studying at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He earned a bachelor's degree in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and a license in theology from Rome's Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. After his ordination, he served as an assistant pastor at Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa, assistant chaplain at St. John Medical Center, associate chaplain at Bishop Kelley High School, a judge on the marriage tribunal, personal secretary to the bishop and vicar for religious education.

    Forgive like Jesus, don't accuse like the devil, pope tells Capuchins

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Confessors have two choices: to be like Jesus who readily forgave sins or like the devil who always condemns, Pope Francis said. "You can either do the work of Jesus, who forgives, by giving your lives in prayer (and) through many hours seated there or you do the work of the devil who condemns and accuses," the pope said during Mass Feb. 9 with Capuchin friars from around the world. The Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica was held in conjunction with the veneration of the relics of two Capuchins, Sts. Padre Pio and Leopold Mandic; Pope Francis requested their relics be brought to the Vatican for the Year of Mercy. Both saints, the pope told the friars, spent long hours in the confessional as ministers of God's mercy and forgiveness. Recalling the day's Gospel passage, in which the Pharisees and scribes condemn Jesus and his disciples for not observing traditions, the pope reminded the Capuchins that confessors are called to be "great forgivers in the confessional."

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  • New Catholic-Muslim dialogue formed; Chicago archbishop named co-chair

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs announced Feb. 8 that it is launching a new National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, and Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich has been named its first Catholic co-chairman. "As the national conversation around Islam grows increasingly fraught, coarse and driven by fear and often willful misinformation, the Catholic Church must help to model real dialogue and goodwill," said Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, who is chairman of the committee. For over two decades, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' ecumenical and interreligious committee has co-sponsored three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues, and Bishop Rozanski said the time is right to begin a national dialogue. "Our current dialogues have advanced the goals of greater understanding, mutual esteem and collaboration between Muslims and Catholics, and the members have established lasting ties of friendship and a deep sense of trust," he said in a statement. He also thanked Archbishop Cupich for agreeing to represent the USCCB "in this crucial conversation." The Chicago prelate's tenure as dialogue co-chair will begin Jan. 1, 2017.

    Wisconsin priest to become USCCB associate general secretary

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Msgr. Jeffrey D. Burrill, a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, will become associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops March 1. The appointment was announced Feb. 3 by Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, USCCB general secretary. "I look forward to learning the job and working with the Msgr. Bransfield and the executive staff and doing the best I can to implement the bishops mission and goals at the conference," Msgr. Burrill told Catholic News Service Feb. 8. He explained that while the appointment begins March 1, he planned to commute between Wisconsin, where he is pastor of St. Bronislava Church in Plover, in the central part of the state, and Washington until his term as pastor ends July 1. "Msgr. Burrill brings a unique combination of pastoral skills and leadership experience to complement and strengthen our service to each bishop and to the conference as a whole," Msgr. Bransfield said in a statement announcing the appointment.

    Archbishop Gomez calls Latinos to build pro-life culture, not political coalition

    SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) -- Saying the future of the pro-life movement is "cultural not political," Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles called upon Catholic Latinos to work toward a "new Christian humanism, a new vision of society and human destiny that is rooted in the Gospel. We want a new culture, not a new political coalition," he told participants at the Hispanic Pro-life Congress Jan. 30 at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, pointing to the necessity of changing society's views on the "fundamental injustice" of abortion and euthanasia. Archbishop Gomez said that the practice of abortion and euthanasia raises concerns about "what kind of society we are and what kind of people we want to be." He expressed unease that society is losing a sense of its common humanity and responsibility for others, especially when it comes to abortion and euthanasia, which he called the most important issues facing the country. While running through a list of social sins and the importance of addressing racial discrimination, deportations and unjust immigration policies, unemployment, homelessness, pollution of the environment, neighborhood violence, drug abuse, decrepit prisons and the death penalty, the archbishop said the church must place abortion and euthanasia foremost in its efforts.

    Pope sends condolences after earthquake in Taiwan

    TAINAN, Taiwan (CNS) -- Pope Francis sent condolences to Taiwan following an earthquake that left at least 37 people dead as the island prepared to celebrate Chinese New Year, reported "The Holy Father was saddened to learn of the suffering caused by the deadly earthquake which struck Tainan, leaving many people dead or seriously injured," read a message sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, on behalf of the pope. The magnitude-6.4 quake hit the southern city of Tainan early Feb. 6. Two people were rescued from the ruins of an apartment building on the morning of Feb. 8, more than 48 hours after it collapsed on itself. A woman was pulled out of the rubble underneath the body of her husband with their 2-year-old son also found dead nearby, Taiwanese media reported. A man was found alive shortly afterward, but he had severe injuries. At least 527 people have been injured and many more have lost their homes as the quake also forced the cancellation of trains a day before the island began celebrating Chinese New Year.

    U.S. mission dioceses prepare youth, young adults for leadership roles

    BOISE, Idaho (CNS) -- It was early on a Sunday morning near Jerome, Idaho, and Esmeralda Orozco was busy helping her daughters get ready for church. "We want you to look nice," Orozco said to one of her girls as she brushed her long, dark hair. She said her daughter's appearance was especially important that morning because she was getting ready to be an altar server for Mass at nearby St. Jerome Catholic Church. Orozco believes it's her duty as a parent and as a Catholic to prepare her children to be future leaders in the church. She and her husband, Jorge, both play principal roles at their parish. She is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion; he plays the organ and operates the audiovisual apparatuses. Both volunteer in other ways in their faith community, having served on various boards and committees. So now they are laying the foundation for their children to do the same by getting them involved in the church as young as possible. It's not enough for them just to go to Mass and religion class, it's their duty as Catholics to serve the church as well, Orozco told Catholic News Service.

    Papal commission on sex abuse votes that member take leave of absence

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The papal commission on child protection voted that one of its members -- a survivor of abuse and victims' advocate -- take a leave of absence and consider other ways to contribute to the advisory body. Peter Saunders, founder and chief executive officer of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, told reporters, however, that he would not leave his position on the commission. "I was appointed by His Holiness Pope Francis and I will talk only with him about my position," he said Feb. 6. Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 to recommend better ways to protect minors and vulnerable adults and how best to promote "local responsibility in the particular churches" concerning abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed Feb. 8 that the 17-person commission, which includes another abuse survivor, "approved unanimously with one abstention" that Saunders take a leave of absence to think about other ways to help the commission externally.

    European bishops welcome EU classification of Islamic State 'genocide'

    MANCHESTER, England (CNS) -- A European bishops' commission has welcomed a move by the European Parliament to classify atrocities and religious cleansing by the Islamic State as genocide. Father Patrick Daly, general secretary of COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops' Conference of the European Community, said the designation represented progress in halting the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq. "Steps to prosecute criminals and bring them to justice are also imperative," Father Daly said in a Feb. 4 statement. The statement was issued the same day the European Parliament adopted the resolution proposed by Lars Adaktusson, a Swedish member, which stated that Islamic State was "committing genocide against Christians and Yezidis and other religious and ethnic minorities, who do not agree with the so-called ISIS/Daesh interpretation of Islam, and that this, therefore, entails action under the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." The Parliament also recommended that "action should be taken" for the activities of Islamic State to be recognized as genocide by the U.N. Security Council.

    Vatican updates papal itinerary for Cuba, Mexico visit

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis is scheduled to have more than two hours alone with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba in addition to signing a declaration with the patriarch before flying on to Mexico for a Feb. 12-17 visit. The Vatican announced the pope-patriarch meeting Feb. 5 and, on Feb. 8, released an updated itinerary for Pope Francis' trip. The pope will leave Rome almost five hours earlier than originally scheduled so that the meeting in Havana with Patriarch Kirill will not impact his schedule in Mexico. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters that in addition to official events on the schedule in Mexico, the papal motorcades are expected to be long and lively. For example, he said, the route from the airport to the nunciature in Mexico City, where the pope will sleep, is about 12 miles, and people are expected to line most of the route when he arrives from Cuba. Five popemobiles will be on hand because papal flights to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Morelia and Ciudad Juarez would make it difficult to move the vehicles efficiently each day. Two of the popemobiles are being shipped down from the United States where they were used in September, the spokesman said. No evening event is planned for Feb. 13 after Pope Francis' Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the spokesman said. Instead, the pope will have all the time he wants and needs to pray before the image of Mary preserved there, something the pope said he wanted to do. "He did not want to feel under pressure because of his program," Father Lombardi said.

    Celibacy helps priests to 'travel light,' serve freely, cardinal says

    ROME (CNS) -- Celibacy helps priests to "travel light" as they minister and serve free from attachments that could hinder them in bringing Christ's love to the faithful, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state. Giving the keynote address Feb. 6 at a conference on priestly celibacy, Cardinal Parolin said the call to celibacy is not "antithetical to marriage," but rather a different way of giving one's self completely in a loving relationship. Although celibacy is not demanded by the "very nature of the priesthood," he told the conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University, there are some "special advantages" that help priests in their pastoral ministry, including the "freedom to serve." Celibacy, he said, is "suitable for those called to the priestly ministry" and allows priests to "travel light" to "reach everyone, carrying only the love of God. It is an opportunity for the priest to live a rich affection for his own personal journey and for the exercise of his mission. It is not the absence of profound relationships, but a space for them. It is a 'path of freedom' that the priest disciple fulfills together with Christ, by his sustained and animated grace, for the church and the world," the cardinal said.

    Negotiating table is only way to bring peace to Syria, pope says

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A negotiated political resolution is the only answer to the crisis unfolding in Syria, Pope Francis said, urging world leaders to do everything possible to kick-start talks. Inviting people to intensify their prayers, he also asked everyone to be generous in offering the kind of help needed to guarantee the "survival and dignity" of Syrians fleeing the conflict. "With great concern I am following the tragic fate of civilians caught up in violent battles in beloved Syria and forced to abandon everything to flee the horrors of war," he said after praying the Angelus with those gathered in St. Peter's Square Feb. 7. The pope launched an "appeal to the international community to not spare any effort in urgently bringing the parties concerned to the negotiating table. Only a political solution of the conflict will be capable of guaranteeing a future of reconciliation and peace." He also called for greater efforts in ending human trafficking by "destroying this crime and this intolerable disgrace."

    Pope says he goes to Mexico as a 'missionary of mercy, peace'

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis said his reasons for going to Mexico are "easy and simple. I want to come as a missionary of mercy and peace," the pope said in a video message to the Mexican people released by the Vatican Feb. 7. "I want to meet with you to profess our faith together and share a fundamental truth in our lives: that God loves us very much, that he loves us with an infinite love, beyond our merits." The pope said he was "very happy" for his apostolic visit Feb. 12-17 and that he carries the people of Mexico in his prayers and in his heart. "I want to be as close as possible to you, but in a special way to those who suffer, to hug them and tell them that Jesus loves them very much, that he is always at their side," he said. One of his "greatest desires" during the six-day visit, he said, is to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which houses the image of Mary that was miraculously imprinted on the cloak of St. Juan Diego. The pope said that to feel the "tenderness of her gracious presence" would be a "beautiful" experience.

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  • Open God's heart with prayer, pope tells Padre Pio Prayer Groups

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Praying is not like taking an aspirin, something one does just to feel a little better, Pope Francis told thousands of members of Padre Pio Prayer Groups from around the world. Prayer is not a business negotiation with God, either, the pope told more than 60,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square Feb. 6. Prayer is a "work of spiritual mercy," a time to entrust everything to the heart of God, he said. The pilgrims were in Rome for the Year of Mercy and a week of special events that included veneration of the relics of St. Padre Pio and St. Leopold Mandic, both Capuchin friars who often spent more than 12 hours a day hearing confessions. Although many faithful believe the body of Padre Pio, who died in 1968, is incorrupt, church officials have never made such a claim. When his body was exhumed in 2008, church officials said it was in "fair condition." Chemicals were used to ensure its long-term preservation and the face was covered with a silicone mask. Pushed through the center of Rome Feb. 5 in glass coffins on rolling platforms, the relics of Padre Pio and St. Leopold were escorted by Italian military police, dozens of Capuchin friars and thousands of faithful.

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  • Charlotte priest Super Bowl-bound; Catholic players invite him along

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CNS) -- Father Joe Mulligan, a warmhearted, gregarious priest with 40 years of ministering to people in the Diocese of Charlotte, is seldom at a loss for words. But a phone call a week ago left him speechless. That phone call came from the Carolina Panthers' director of player engagement, Mark Carrier, who told Father Mulligan that the Panthers' Catholic players had chosen him to go to Super Bowl 50 Feb. 7 as their chaplain. Carrier said the players were inviting the priest to accompany them on their historic trip to Santa Clara, California, and would he like to go? Father Mulligan replied, "It's a good thing I'm sitting down. As a person that usually has a lot of things to say, I'm just filled with gratitude and overjoyed to be able to go. That was as much as I could get out," he told the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte. A Philadelphia native of Irish descent, Father Mulligan has ministered to the Catholic families in the Panthers' organization since the team joined the NFL and played their first pre-season game in 1995. Once among several Catholic chaplains who rotated in serving the team, Father Mulligan has served as the permanent Catholic chaplain since 2013. He offers Mass for them, ministers to their families and prays for them. Father Mulligan said he celebrates Mass before every home game for about half a dozen Catholic players, including team captains Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Ryan Kalil; some of the coaches; the team's trainer and assistant trainer; and some of their family members.

    As a young seminarian, priest recalls 'kidnapping' Blessed Teresa

    PONTIAC, Mich. (CNS) -- There aren't many people who can get away with kidnapping a soon-to-be-saint, but Father Jim Kean managed it. Technically, it wasn't kidnapping -- he was following his passenger's orders -- but when the passenger is Blessed Teresa, alarm bells are sure to ring when you suddenly turned down a narrow Roman alley as the other cars in the caravan wiz by. It was the late 1980s, and Father Kean was a member of the Brothers of the Word, a community in Rome affiliated with Blessed Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Father Kean had the honor of driving the order's founder from place to place "about eight times." During one of their trips, "I was driving Mother Teresa, and there was a priest beside me telling her about this mother who was terminally ill," recalled Father Kean, now pastor of St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac. "Mother asked if we could go visit this village, so I turned rapidly down a side street, ditching the rest of the convoy." In an era before cellphones, the rest of the cars must have been confused; did a 22-year old American seminarian just kidnap Blessed Teresa in Rome?

    Study says most entering religious life had parish ministry experience

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A study issued Feb. 4 by the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that "a great majority" of those entering religious life had prior experience serving in at least one parish ministry. "The most common ministry service reported was liturgical ministry," said the report, "followed by some form of faith formation." The study said 84 percent had taken part in some form of ministry either as a volunteer or in a paid position. The survey was sent to 411 men and women entering religious institutes -- a catchall term encompassing religious congregations and orders -- with 278 responding, for a response rate of 68 percent. While half had attended a Catholic grade school, a bit more than the 42 percent for the total U.S. adult Catholic population, the differences were more pronounced for Catholic high school (39 percent vs. 22 percent) and college (40 percent vs. 6 percent) attendance. Those entering religious life were well educated, with 49 percent having an undergraduate degree and another 21 percent having a graduate degree. One troubling note in the report was that 68 percent, or more than two-thirds, of all U.S. religious institutes reported no one entering religious life last year. One in seven institutes had one entrant, and about one in five reported having two or more.

    Spanish-speaking catechists finish novel program in pastoral theology

    ATLANTA (CNS) -- The first class of 60 students from the Archdiocese of Atlanta has completed a three-year formation program in Spanish through the University of Dallas, earning a pastoral theology certificate. In a recent graduation ceremony at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama sent forth the Spanish-speaking church leaders to catechize and evangelize the faithful from Gainesville to Jonesboro and fortify Hispanic ministries across the archdiocese. The online program aims to form leaders and strengthen the Spanish catechetical foundation in the Church of the archdiocese where 68 of 100 parishes offer Mass in Spanish and nearly half -- 44 percent -- of Catholics are Hispanic. A second class of 70 students will complete studies this December. Registration will open in April for the third class to begin this fall. "This program has really made a difference in reaching out to the leaders in the diocese. It has provided this formation for them and raised awareness of the importance of forming these Hispanic leaders," said program coordinator Monica Oppermann of the Atlanta archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. "Our mission is to equip parish leaders for ministry. This program has fulfilled the mission in equipping them with formation and resources and networking with each other."

    Priest serving in Detroit says Blessed Teresa was his 'spiritual sister'

    DEARBORN, Mich. (CNS) -- Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, India, had a profound effect on just about everybody. Whether it was her healing touch, her ministry to the poorest or the poor, or the millions of Catholics from around the world moved by her words, almost everyone felt like they "knew" her. But one Detroit-area priest has a unique tie to the soon-to-be-saint: He was her driver. On the bustling streets of Rome -- where many aspire to be Ferrari's next Formula 1 driver -- Father Ben Luedtke, a guest priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit who gives missions and assists other priests across the archdiocese, was Blessed Teresa's driver whenever she visited Rome from 1975 to 1982. "Italians drive like crazy and I had a universal driver's license," Father Luedtke said. "I tended to go slower, not take the corners as sharp. So I got to know her through that." Not quite a "Driving Miss Daisy" story, but Father Luedtke and Blessed Teresa got to know each other over the years. Father Luedtke was studying in Rome to become a priest, being ordained by St. John Paul II in 1982. Upon his ordination, Father Luedtke and Blessed Teresa's relationship continued in a special way -- they became spiritual brother and sister.

    Mission dioceses welcome the stranger, disenfranchised

    RALEIGH, N.C. (CNS) -- When Aida Sarkisian and her family left their home in Iraq for the U.S., it wasn't because they wanted to. It was because their survival depended on it. The refugees received death threats as far back as 2006 in their homeland because of Sarkisian's work as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Baghdad. They applied for refugee status with the International Organization for Migration to relocate to the United States in 2008, but they were not approved until mid-2015. Their long journey to Raleigh included a move into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where they endured the continuing dangers of increasing violence from the Islamic State, and as Christians they were more vulnerable to attack. Sarkisian and her husband, son, daughter and mother left behind their loved ones, their careers, their culture, their church and all of their belongings to start a new life in an unfamiliar land where they knew no one. But, they were free of danger. They met another Iraqi family living in the U.S. who invited them to attend Sunday Mass at St. Sharbel Maronite Church, a mission chapel on the grounds of the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh. Though the Maronite Catholic faith wasn't the same denomination as their Armenian Apostolic Church, the traditions were similar and the celebration of Mass in Arabic allowed them to worship in a familiar language.

    From gangs to God: In Ciudad Juarez, youth express hopes for papal visit

    CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (CNS) -- Esteban Alanis, 23, once ran with a local gang known as "Los Parqueros," which would accost people for their cash and cellphones in a working-class neighborhood of southeast Ciudad Juarez. He called the crimes "easy money," while gang activities offered a sense of belonging and an adolescence of parties, girls and underage drinking. Then Alanis survived a shootout in 2010 outside his home -- and he turned his life to God, got out of the gang and likely saved himself from further involvement in the cycle of violence consuming Ciudad Juarez. "That's when my conversion started," he said recently outside Corpus Christi Parish, where he teaches catechism classes. "I prayed to God that if I survived, I would give up gang life." When Pope Francis visits Ciudad Juarez Feb. 17, he is expected to address issues such as migration, victims of violence and conditions in the factory economy. Alanis and others working with young people expressed hopes the pope will have positive words for them, too, as they go about working with a population still somewhat scarred by the violence that claimed more than 10,000 lives between 2008 and 2012. Ciudad Juarez was once murder capital of the world, an image now out-of-date, according to statistics from the citizen-run Security Roundtable of Ciudad Juarez, which shows a 92 percent decline in the homicide rate since 2010.

    Kentucky governor signs abortion-related measure 'years in the making'

    LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CNS) -- Year after year, a bill related to informed consent prior to an abortion has languished in the Kentucky House. Not this year. The proposal was approved by the Senate Feb. 1 in a 33-to-5 vote after the House added an amendment. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who took office in December, signed it into law Feb. 2. Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz and the state's three other Catholic bishops, along with their public policy arm, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, were among those who welcomed the new law. It amends Kentucky's informed consent statute, which requires women seeking an abortion to be informed of its risks at least 24 hours prior to the procedure in a private setting with a medical professional. Previously, that requirement was interpreted as allowing the information to be shared in a recorded message. The new law requires a face-to-face meeting with a health care provider. The House amendment makes it permissible to have this face-to-face meeting via real-time video conference. Jason Hall, executive director of the state Catholic conference in Frankfort, said he was pleased with the outcome, but expressed some concern about the House amendment.

    Papal academy award: Young artists called to vie for cash prize

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- There's another kind of academy award being hosted this year. A pontifical academy founded during the Renaissance has announced a cash prize of $22,000 in a contest for young artists whose work promotes "Christian humanism." Pope Francis was scheduled to award the "Prize of the Pontifical Academies" to the winner or winners at the Vatican later in the year. In partnership with the Pontifical Council for Culture, the contest is handled by the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters -- a papal association founded in 1542 to recognize the achievements of individuals in art, architecture, literature and music. The contest "is open to young artists and institutions of any nationality, active in the fields of literature, poetry and music and also to institutions dedicated to artistic formation in these fields. Their work or activity must contribute to the development of Christian humanism and its artistic expressions," the academy said in a press release.

    Orthodox say pope-patriarch meeting not an 'all-clear' sign

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Russian Orthodox officials said the planned meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is not a signal that decades of tension have been resolved, but emphasizes the need to work together on behalf of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. As the Vatican was announcing the Feb. 12 date for the meeting of the pope and patriarch in Cuba, the Russian Orthodox also held a news conference to speak about it. Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, director of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, told reporters the activity of the Ukrainian Catholics that prevented the Russian Orthodox from agreeing to a meeting in the past is still a problem today. In a statement on the website of Metropolitan Hilarion's office, he referred to the Ukrainian Catholics with the pejorative term "uniates," and said, "Regrettably, the problem of the uniates is still there, with uniatism remaining a never-healing, bloody wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two churches."

    God triumphs by being humble, pope says at morning Mass

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The ways of man are not the ways of God, who triumphs through the grace of humility, Pope Francis said during his morning Mass. This humility is exemplified in the life and death of St. John the Baptist who "did not seek his own glory, but the glory of God, the pope said Feb. 5 during the Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence. The pope focused his homily on the day's Gospel reading (Mk. 6: 14-29), which recounted John the Baptist's arrest and beheading -- both ordered by King Herod. John was the last of the great prophets and was considered by Jesus to be "the greatest man born of a woman." However, he not only suffered from the tortures of imprisonment, but also from "the interior torture of doubt" that made him question if Jesus was the Messiah, he said. "He invited his disciples to ask Jesus: 'But tell us, tell us the truth: are you he who is to come?' because that doubt made him suffer. 'Was I mistaken in proclaiming someone who isn't (the one I thought)?' (This is) the suffering, the inner solitude of this man," the pope said.

    Pope, Russian Orthodox patriarch to meet in Cuba, Vatican announces

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After almost three decades of tense Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations, Pope Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill of Moscow Feb. 12 in Cuba on the pope's way to Mexico. It will be the first-ever meeting of a pope and Moscow patriarch, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters Feb. 5. As Pope Francis travels to Mexico and as Patriarch Kirill makes an official visit to Cuba, the two will meet at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport and plan to sign a joint declaration, Father Lombardi said. The pope will leave Rome earlier than planned to allow time for the meeting without forcing any changes to his schedule in Mexico, he added. The meeting "will mark an important stage in relations between the two churches," said a joint declaration on the meeting. The Cuba meeting was not an "improvisation," Father Lombardi said; it took two years of intense planning and negotiations to schedule. Even when the idea of a meeting was just a vague hope, both Catholic and Orthodox officials insisted it would have to take place on "neutral" territory rather than at the Vatican or in Russia.

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  • New bishop ordained for Houston-based ordinariate for former Anglicans

    HOUSTON (CNS) -- Envoys of the Vatican along with dozens of U.S. Catholic prelates gathered Feb. 2 with the faithful at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston for a history-making Mass -- ordination and installation Mass for Bishop Steven J. Lopes. He is the first bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, established by the Vatican in 2012 to serve former Anglicans living full communion with the Catholic Church. Bishop Lopes assumed his new post, declaring "Magna Opera Domini -- Great are the works of the Lord." Appointed by Pope Francis in November, Bishop Lopes, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, succeeds Msgr. Jeffrey N. Steenson, who announced his retirement last year. "We thank God for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his spirit-prompted vision of unity and faith in a diversity of expression which informs the apostolic constitution 'Anglicanorum coetibus,'" Bishop Lopes said. "We thank God for our Holy Father Pope Francis for putting his vision into concrete expression." With "Anglicanorum coetibus," Pope Benedict established the ordinariate Jan. 1, 2012, in response to requests by Anglicans in the U.S. and Canada seeking to become Catholics.

    'Risen': The Resurrection from a skeptic's point of view

    ROME (CNS) -- Hollywood is no stranger to movies depicting the life and death of Christ, trying to present Jesus from the perspective of the Gospels, which are the written accounts of Jesus' life and ministry from those closest to him. Joseph Fiennes, the actor starring in "Risen," said his new project seeks to illustrate the story of Christ's death and resurrection from a unique perspective. "We're seeing this narrative play out, which is dear to millions of us and means so much, through the eyes of a skeptic, through the eyes of a nonbeliever," Fiennes told Catholic News Service Feb. 4. The film will be released Feb. 19. Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune charged by Pontius Pilate to investigate the events following Christ's death. His character, he said, begins as an enemy "who is there to put down any zealot insurrections; so from his point of view, Yeshua (Jesus) is just another terrorist." The film, Fiennes said, departs from other depictions by picking up where most movies leave off: the crucifixion. Additionally, Clavius sees Jesus' execution as acceptable punishment for threatening the established order. "For (Clavius), the crucifixion is just another day at the office, so he's deeply conditioned to think in one way," he said.

    Traditional Candlemas celebration still alive in rural Puerto Rico

    SAN GERMAN, Puerto Rico (CNS) -- Although environmental restrictions have put a damp on Catholic Candlemas celebrations in many countries, some devotees in rural Puerto Rico still hold traditional ceremonies centered on bonfires. That is the case of 36-year-old Jose Padilla, a former seminarian who has been "a Marian devotee since age 6." He runs a little family shrine tucked high up in the hills south of San German, a colonial city in southwestern Puerto Rico. For the past 21 years, Candlemas has been celebrated here exactly in the same centuries-old fashion as part of a popular Marian devotion. "I was 15 when I started this place," Padilla told Catholic News Service. "From the beginning, it evolved slowly, but for the past two years it has improved rapidly." The site is set in his family backyard, against a steep karst mountainside dotted with porous white boulders on which small niches have been built to house a variety of saints' statutes. The focal point of the layout features an elevated concrete platform with overhead steel cover and a statue of Mary on the back wall. A bright yellow, Spanish mission-style outer wall, gate and bell housing, rounds the perimeter of the site.

    Bread for Our Brothers saves baked goods from landfill, gives to needy

    ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) -- You hungrily scan the rows of plump bagels and cinnamon-and-sugar covered pastries at your favorite cafe, carefully selecting the perfect paring for your midday coffee or post-Mass outing. But what happens to the bread-based items at the end of the day or after they've reached their sell-by date? Much of it likely will go from display case to trash can to landfill, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group. The study found that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. Tossing out edible food does not sit well with Jim McCracken, a parishioner of St. Louis Church in Alexandria, especially given that food insecurity across the Diocese of Arlington ranges from 5.2 to 17 percent of the population, according to diocesan Catholic Charities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a state in which "consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year." To divert at least some food from landfills into hungry stomachs, McCracken began what he refers to as a "food gleaning ministry" 15 years ago. Called Bread for Our Brothers, the ministry is a partnership between the Mount Vernon Knights of Columbus Council in Alexandria and St. Louis Parish that gathers unsellable bread products from five food vendors to take to 20 food pantries, shelters and churches.

    Vast distances create trials and joy for Catholics in mission dioceses

    DRIGGS, Idaho (CNS) -- Father Adrian Vazquez bolted out of his rectory in St. Anthony on a cold November morning, brushed a thin layer of snow off of his Subaru Outback, started the engine and raced down the road to make the 50-mile drive to his mission chapel in Driggs. The scenery along the way was stunning, with spectacular vistas of the Grand Teton mountain range. Father Vazquez said he never gets tired of being surrounded by the rustic beauty of rural eastern Idaho. It's the amount of driving he does each week that wears on him. He makes the 100-mile round-trip drive to Driggs at least twice a week to tend to his flock. That's in addition to 30-mile-round-trip drive Father Vazquez makes to another mission chapel in Rexburg and the 85-mile-round-trip drive to another in Island Park. That's right, this priest is the administrator of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in St. Anthony and three mission chapels located in about a 200-mile radius. Seem like an enormous job for one U.S. priest? It's not uncommon in U.S. Catholic home mission dioceses for a lone cleric to care for several faith communities spread out over great distances.

    U.S. priest, in England, says church's ministry to gays expands rapidly

    WARRINGTON, England (CNS) -- The Catholic Church's pastoral ministry to gays is rapidly developing and expanding as Western societies become more secular, said a U.S. priest at the forefront of working with gay people. Father Philip Bochanski, a Philadelphia priest who serves as associate director of Courage International, said increasing numbers of people who "experience same-sex attraction" but who wished to live chaste lives were turning to the church for help. The demand has resulted in Courage, a Catholic organization dedicated to the pastoral care of homosexuals, spreading from a single chapter founded in New York in 1980 to more than 150 chapters worldwide, with increasing interest from dioceses around the world seeking to set up their own chapters. Each year, the group works with more than 2,000 people who experience same-sex attraction to conform their lives to the demands of the Gospel. "As the culture becomes more secular, we find individuals in the culture making decisions for themselves to come and seek help," Father Bochanski told Catholic News Service Feb. 2. "We are not trying to fix or cure anybody. We are just trying to walk with them."

    Vatican joins international appeals for increased aid to Syria

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican joined international appeals for raising money to provide emergency and long-term assistance to the millions of people affected by the crisis in Syria. Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with states, attended the Syria Donors Conference in London Feb. 4 and said the Catholic Church would continue to help the region through its fundraising efforts. The Vatican released a copy of the archbishop's address the same day. The meeting -- co-hosted by the United Kingdom, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations -- was meant to gather together leaders from world governments and NGOs to raise funding and support to address the six-year-long humanitarian crisis. The conference website said there are 13.5 million vulnerable and displaced people inside Syria, and 4.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries in need of assistance. U.N. agencies have appealed for $8.4 billion to help those in Syria and refugees in host countries.

    Relics of St. Padre Pio, St. Leopold arrive in Rome for jubilee

    ROME (CNS) -- Thousands of people waited hours outside a Rome church to glimpse the mortal remains of St. Padre Pio and St. Leopold Mandic, two Capuchins popular as miracle workers and known particularly for the long hours they would spend hearing confessions. Pope Francis asked the Capuchins to bring the relics of St. Padre Pio and St. Leopold to Rome for the Year of Mercy, particularly the Feb. 10 celebration of Ash Wednesday and the commissioning of the official "missionaries of mercy." The hearse carrying Padre Pio's crystal coffin was about 90 minutes late getting to Rome's Basilica of St. Lawrence Feb. 3 because pockets and clusters of faithful repeatedly forced it to slow down as it drove from San Giovanni Rotondo, 235 miles to the southeast. Posters pasted up all over the center of Rome giving the detailed schedule for Masses, prayer services and other devotions feature a large photo of Padre Pio and a smaller photo of St. Leopold.

    Turkey reinstates ambassador to Vatican after yearlong recall

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Turkey reinstated its ambassador to the Vatican nearly a year after recalling him to Ankara. The diplomat had been called back to Turkey "for consultations" April 12 -- the same day Pope Francis used the term "genocide" in reference to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during their forced evacuation by Ottoman Turks in 1915-18. Turkey rejects accusations of genocide and disputes the number of Armenians who died. The pope's remarks to Armenian Christians gathered in St. Peter's Basilica, including Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, came ahead of a Mass last year commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The pope lamented the forced expulsions and atrocious killings of Christians in the world in his brief address. He said humanity has lived through "three massive and unprecedented tragedies the past century: the first, which is generally considered 'the first genocide of the 20th century,'" struck the Armenian people, quoting a joint declaration signed in 2001 by St. John Paul and Catholicos Karekin II of Etchmiadzin, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Pope Francis said atrocities from the past had to be recognized -- not hidden or denied -- for true reconciliation and healing to come to the world.

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  • Group says it will issue congressional scorecard on religious freedom

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A religious freedom advocacy group said Feb. 2 that this summer it would issue a scorecard grading all members of Congress on religious freedom issues. "You can flunk," warned Lou Ann Sabatier, director of communications for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. The point, though, Sabatier added, is for lawmakers to improve their grades. The first scorecard will be issued in July; Sabatier described it as a "midterm" grade, with a final scorecard coming out in January. Sabatier said lawmakers will get "extra credit" for introducing and co-sponsoring legislation. They'll even get credit for being a member of the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus. Lawmakers may be able to get on the Wilberforce Initiative's good side fairly quickly. Frank Wolf -- a former member of the House who left Congress at the end of his 17th term last year to focus on religious freedom issues -- said during the news conference that a bill was to be introduced soon that would establish a "protectorate" in Iraq's Nineveh Plain for Christians. Wolf added 70 percent of the world's population, or an estimated 5.5 billion, live in a "religiously repressive situation."

    New Mexico, Texas bishops to represent USCCB during pope's Mexico trip

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, will officially represent the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during Pope Francis' visit to Mexico Feb. 12-17. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who is USCCB president, appointed them as representatives. Both of their dioceses border Mexico. Bishop Flores, 54, has headed the Brownsville Diocese since 2009. Catholics number more than 1.2 million, making up 85 percent of the total population in the 4,300-square-mile diocese. Bishop Cantu, 49, has been bishop of Las Cruces since 2013. The diocese covers more than 44,500 square miles and has a Catholic population of close to 235,000, or 42 percent of the total population. A Feb. 2 news release from the USCCB said Archbishop Kurtz was invited to appoint representatives by Cardinal Jose Francisco Robles Ortega of Guadalajara, president of the Mexican bishops' conference, and Bishop Eugenio Andres Lira Rugarcia, the conference's general secretary.

    Jordan says it cannot continue to bear brunt of Syrian refugee crisis

    AL-KHALDIYA, Jordan (CNS) -- As a donors conference to stem the Syrian refugee crisis opens in London, Syria's neighbors, which have hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees for the past five years, say they cannot continue to bear the brunt of the burden. King Abdullah II of Jordan, one of dozens of world leaders set to participate in the Feb. 4 gathering, has warned that his country is now at a "boiling point. Sooner or later, I think, the dam is going to burst," he told the BBC, saying the refugee influx engulfing Jordan is draining it of funds, vital social services, education and health care. And it's not just Syrians coming: Iraqis and others fleeing violence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings still seek shelter in the cash-strapped, oil-poor kingdom. The Syrian crisis has cost Jordan $6.6 billion over the past five years, Jordanian officials recently reported. In 2016 alone, Jordan can expect to spend $2.7 billion on refugee assistance. But officials said that international aid pledges for the refugees have remained underfunded.

    Makeup of mission dioceses reflects U.S. church's changing demographics

    BOISE, Idaho (CNS) -- In the 1980s, a wave of migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries began to settle in Idaho. The agricultural industry made the state a prime location for these immigrants, who could work on the farms and ranches, often without having to know too much English or provide legal documents to secure employment. It also presented the statewide Diocese of Boise -- one of the Catholic home mission dioceses in the U.S. -- with a set of challenges. Before the big migration, Idaho had a predominantly white population and there was little need for Spanish-speaking priests, religious sisters or deacons. The church, schools and government were not prepared for their arrival, said Father Jesus Camacho, parochial vicar of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Boise, who was ordained in his native Mexico in 1975. When Father Camacho arrived in Boise in 1981, he was one of only two priests from Mexico in the diocese and there was no Hispanic ministry. He had been invited to come to Idaho by then-Boise Bishop Sylvester W. Treinen, who was trying to address the language and cultural barriers presented by the new Mexican arrivals, most of whom were Catholic and were looking to the church to meet their pastoral needs and to establish community.

    Priests say Mexican prisons have improved, but still have problems

    CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (CNS) -- When Father Alberto Melendez began ministering at the prison in this once-violent border city nine years ago, rival gangs ran criminal operations from behind bars. Riots broke out regularly; a 2009 tragedy claimed 20 lives. "There was no system of control inside," Father Melendez recalled. Inmates "were the ones giving the orders." Pope Francis will visit the prison, known as Cereso No. 3, during a day trip Feb. 17 to Ciudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, Texas, and once held the dubious distinction of murder capital of the world. That is an image local leaders are eager to shed and a reality no longer reflected in crime statistics. The prison, meanwhile, has undergone renovations, and security officials say the situation inside has calmed considerably. The pope also plans to celebrate Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border while in Ciudad Juarez to draw attention to migration issues and will meet with some of the employers and workers from the maquiladoras, factories for exports that underpin the economy but cause complaints over low wages and questionable labor conditions. The prison visit is expected to draw attention to the shortcomings of Mexico's prison system -- the credibility of which was challenged by cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who tunneled out of a maximum security facility in July and was recently recaptured. Issues such as overcrowding, inmate control and corruption are rife, along with violence, according to an annual report on prisons from the National Human Rights Commission.

    Pope asks Mexican people for time alone with Our Lady of Guadalupe

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In a video message one week before his apostolic visit, Pope Francis asked the people of Mexico for some time alone during his visit to pray before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. "I would like to ask -- as a favor from you -- that this time, which will be the third time I will step on Mexican soil, to leave me alone a few minutes in front of the image. That is the favor I ask. Can you do that for me?" he said in the video released Jan. 3 by the Mexican news agency NotiMex. The video featured men and women from different cities in Mexico asking the pope questions about the visit he has planned to their country Feb. 12-17. "I'm going to Mexico not as a wise man bearing things, messages, ideas or solutions to problems," he responded, but as a pilgrim in search of something from the Mexican people. "I am not going to pass around the collection basket so don't worry about that," the pope said. "But I will seek the wealth of faith that you have; I want to come in contact with that wealth of faith."

    Lebanese priest to lead new Maronite Catholic Exarchate of Colombia

    BEIRUT (CNS) -- A Maronite priest is leaving Lebanon to become the first exarch of the newly erected Apostolic Exarchate of Colombia. Father Fadi Abou Chebel, 46, will begin his new assignment in April, based in Bogota, the Colombian capital. "I felt how much God loves me to have chosen me a second time after having chosen me a first time to join the order and become a priest," Father Abou Chebel told Catholic News Service after Pope Francis made the appointment in Rome. "I feel blessed because the church has entrusted me with this new mission." The pope erected the exarchate to serve Maronites in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru at the request of the Maronite Synod of Bishops. In addition, Father Abou Chebel was appointed a delegate of the Congregation for Eastern Churches representing the Maronite community in the three nations. Father Abou Chebel said he planned to meet with the Maronites in the region and "to assess their religious engagement and involvement," as well as examine the practical feasibility of establishing Maronite parishes.

    Haitian bishops call for quick, negotiated solution to pending political crisis

    PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (CNS) -- Haiti's Catholic bishops urged political leaders to reach a negotiated solution to the country's looming political crisis as President Michel Martelly's term ends Feb. 7 and elections to find a successor have been indefinitely delayed. "It is high time that the people know how we will run the country after that date," the bishops said in a statement released Feb. 1 after meeting in an extraordinary assembly. The church leaders urged that a "mutually acceptable" agreement must be reached quickly "with wisdom, insight, moderation and patriotism. It is imperative to prepare all the Haitian people to manage the coming days as responsible citizens," the bishops said in calling the country "to come together in order to reach an agreement based on the constitution and Haitian wisdom to ensure the continuity of the state and political stability of country in the respect for life, property and fundamental rights of the human person." The bishops pledged to accompany Haitians on "the path to dialogue, peace and development."

    God wants to save you; will you let him? pope asks

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- God doesn't want to condemn anyone; he wants to save every person in the entire world, Pope Francis said. "The problem is letting him enter one's heart" to transform one's life, the pope said during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square Feb. 3. "This is the heart of God, the heart of a father who loves his children and wants them to live rightly and justly and, therefore, to live in fullness and be happy," he said. The pope continued a series of talks dedicated to divine mercy, looking specifically at how divine mercy and divine justice go hand in hand. "It might seem that they are two things that contradict each other," he said, but they don't because "it is precisely God's mercy that brings true justice to fruition." God's justice is different from the human administration of legal justice, which is "retributive, that imposes a penalty on the guilty," the pope said.

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  • Catholic colleges practice and keep learning about interfaith efforts

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Many Catholic colleges seem to value interfaith work and are willing to keep learning how to do this more successfully. This is true for big universities, like DePaul in Chicago with an enrollment of nearly 24,000, and small campuses, like Alvernia in Reading, Pennsylvania, with about 2,400 students, even if their approach is different. "It's in our DNA to be open to other religions," said Mark Laboe, associate vice president of university ministry at DePaul, who said the university has Muslim and Jewish chaplains and provides sacred spaces for prayer for many faiths. "We've done something, but we have long way to go," he said Jan. 29 during a conference sponsored by the Interfaith Youth Core in conjunction with the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities' meeting in Washington. The Interfaith Youth Core is a Chicago-based organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues.

    'Young Messiah' filmmakers had blessing from author who inspired it

    MCLEAN, Va. (CNS) -- The director and one of the producers of the upcoming movie "The Young Messiah" said they had the blessing of author Anne Rice, whose novel, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," inspired the screenplay. Rice had seen director Cyrus Nowrasteh's previous film, 2008's "The Stoning of Soraya M.," and given it a rave review. The film, dealing with execution by stoning in Iran, proved so powerful that, even though the Iranian government had banned it, so many bootlegged copies came in to the country that Iran had to call for a temporary halt to the punishment. Rice's agent sent the "Christ the Lord" to Nowrasteh's agent, and, more than five years later, "The Young Messiah" is set to premiere March 11. The Rice connection, acknowledged Nowrasteh and Tracy K. Price, one of the movie's producers, can be troublesome. Rice, born a Catholic, became an atheist in her teens, and later wrote a series of best-selling novels, among them "Interview With the Vampire." But in 1998, she rejoined the Catholic Church. However, in 2010, five years after "Christ the Lord" hit The New York Times best-seller list, Rice left the church. It was widely reported she supposedly left because she opposed the church's stance on government-sanctioned same-sex marriage. However, in a Feb. 2 email to Catholic News Service, she said "did not leave organized religion" over the marriage issue but "left for a series of reasons," without describing the reasons. "I would never dream of leaving religion over a single social policy," she added.

    Catholic college leaders urged to promote school charisms

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The best way for Catholic colleges to move forward is to look back, said speakers at the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. They were not stressing the need to reminisce but instead emphasizing the importance of tapping into the charisms particular to the orders that founded many Catholic colleges and universities and making sure they are understood and embraced by school communities. "Our charisms should be revered as much as possible," said Mercy Sister Susan Sanders, founding director of the Center for Religion and Public Discourse at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Sister Susan, a member of the leadership team of the Mercy Sisters' Midwest Community, gave the closing address Feb. 1 at the ACCU meeting in Washington attended by Catholic college presidents and leaders from around the country. Speaking at a podium in front of pictures of the men and women religious who founded many of the religious congregations that sponsor Catholic colleges nationwide, the Mercy sister emphasized that charisms of each school set them apart and provide a distinctive campus culture.

    Show world God's closeness and care, pope tells religious

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- An encounter with Jesus changes people's lives, and that should be especially noticeable in those who are consecrated completely to serving God, the church and others, Pope Francis said. "One who has this encounter becomes a witness and makes the encounter possible for others, too," he said Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Overlapping by two months, the Catholic Church's special Year of Consecrated Life has led to the Jubilee Year of Mercy, emphasizing God's love and mercy for each individual and the mission to share that experience with the world, the pope told thousands of consecrated men and women who joined him in St. Peter's Basilica and hundreds of others who watched on screens outside once the basilica was full. The Mass in St. Peter's Basilica began with the traditional blessing of candles and a prayer that God would guide his people toward his son, "the light that has no end." The feast day commemorates the 40th day after Jesus' birth when, in accordance with ancient Jewish practice, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple and presented him to the Lord. The feast's Gospel reading from St. Luke recounts how the aged Simeon and Anna were praying in the temple at the time and recognized Jesus as the Messiah.

    USCCB among parties filing friend of the court brief in Texas abortion law case

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Texas Catholic Conference joined other faith-based groups in filing a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Texas law requiring health and safety standards protecting women who undergo abortions. The filing comes in the case of Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt, on which the Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on two provisions of the law regulating abortion clinics in the state later during its current term. The 2013 Texas law requires that clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers when performing abortions and also requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital near an abortion clinic. The brief argued that the Texas law should be upheld in its entirety. The document said the Supreme Court has held since the advent of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case legalizing abortion in the U.S., that states may enforce standards regarding the qualifications of doctors who perform abortions and the conditions of facilities in which abortions are carried out. The case is the first involving abortion that the high court has taken in eight years. In 2007, the court in a 5-4 decision upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, which was signed into law in 2003.

    Door of Mercy opened at juvenile detention center near L.A.

    SYLMAR, Calif. (CNS) -- The young man stood at the end of a table, reading a letter he had received from Pope Francis. The words echoed off the walls of the cavernous room at the Barry Nidorf Juvenile Hall for teen offenders. "I was pleased to receive your recent letter and to learn that Archbishop Gomez will be opening a Holy Door of Mercy at the Barry Nidorf Juvenile Hall," read Carlos, wearing the hall's winter garb: bulky light gray sweatshirt, dark blue loose pants, black slipper-sneakers. "It brings me great joy to know that you and the other residents are united with the whole church in celebrating this Jubilee of Mercy." The horn-rimmed glasses gave Carlos a bookish look, but his hair combed straight back was the style similar to that worn by gang members. He spoke quickly to the half-dozen young men sitting with elbows on the table when Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez walked in, accompanied by his priest secretary, Father Brian Nunes; Jesuit Father Mike Kennedy, juvenile hall chaplain; Javier Stauring, co-director of the Los Angeles Archdiocese's Office of Restorative Justice; and others. "Know that the Holy Father is thinking of you and praying for you," Carlos continued, still not glancing up. "And please remember to pray for me, because I greatly need your prayers. May our Blessed Mother watch over you and our Lord grant you every blessing in this Jubilee Year."

    Church must respect, dialogue with China, pope says in new interview

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Catholic Church must respect "with a capital 'R'" China's rich traditional culture and "age-old" wisdom, Pope Francis said. Dialogue between China and the rest of the world, including the church, is necessary because it is the only way to achieve peace, he said. "Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me. No, dialogue means 'Look, we have got to this point, I may or may not agree, but let us walk together.' This is what it means to build," he said in a lengthy interview with Asia Times. The interview, published online in English Feb. 2, took place at the Vatican Jan. 28 with Francesco Sisci, a longtime Italian correspondent based in China and senior researcher at China's Renmin University. The pope also included "my best wishes and greetings to President Xi Jinping and to all the Chinese people" for Chinese New Year Feb. 8. "I wish to express my hope that they never lose their historical awareness of being a great people, with a great history of wisdom, and that they have much to offer to the world," the pope said.

    Catholic Church has an extensive history of missions in the U.S.

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- There is an extensive history of Catholic missions in the U.S. Though the original 13 British colonies in what is now the U.S. largely had Protestant populations, Catholic missionaries helped shape the economic, political and religious values as other parts of the territory were settled. Religious orders began to establish missions in Spanish Florida as early as the 16th century as a way of attracting members of Native American tribes to Catholicism. Dominicans founded missions in other parts of the South, the Jesuits began setting up theirs in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley regions in the 17th century, and Franciscans began building theirs in California in the 18th century. North American missionaries came into full focus last year when Pope Francis canonized St. Junipero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan who established nine of California's 21 missions. Many Catholic scholars consider St. Junipero and other North American missionaries -- such as Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette -- to be founding fathers in U.S. history, nearly as much as George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

    Carolina Panthers linebacker says faith impacts his outlook on life

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CNS) -- Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers, the team going up against the Denver Broncos in the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, credits his parents and his Catholic faith for making a positive impact on his NFL career and his outlook on life. "I went to a Catholic grade school, Jesuit high school and a Jesuit college, and I think you just learn certain things growing up in that environment. Really, the biggest thing I learned from it is respect and to treat people correctly," he said after a Jan. 28 practice. "Your background has something to do with it, but my parents I think were the biggest impact on that, as far as to be a good person. You know, it's not that hard, as long as you're nice to people, everything works out," he told the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte. "Treat people how you want to be treated. It's pretty straightforward stuff, and I think it makes things easier." Kuechly, a product of St. Xavier High School, a Catholic boys school, near his hometown of Evendale, Ohio, and a graduate of Boston College, is known as a fierce competitor who does not give up, a natural and humble leader, the person everyone calls "the nicest guy on the team." When he was in the fourth grade, Kuechly first played organized football with Cincinnati's Catholic Youth Organization. In high school, he was a two-time All Greater Catholic League selection. Kuechly, a three-time All America linebacker for Boston College, was the ninth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

    Canadian nun tells of spiritual experience while captive in Cameroon

    MONTREAL (CNS) -- Notre Dame Sister Gilberte Bussiere, 76, was kidnapped in the middle of the night in April 2014, in Tchere, a small hamlet in northern Cameroon. The Canadian nun said she was shivering with fear when she realized a man was entering her house through the window that night. "I was wearing a nightdress. He grabbed my arm, pulled me out of my cabin and dragged me through the bushes, then tossed me into a car," said Sister Bussiere. "I ended up in the backseat of a car, with seven armed abductors. One of them constantly pointed a gun at me. They were laughing and humiliating me, making fun of the fact that I screamed furiously during my capture. They were very disrespectful, trying to lift my nightdress." Sister Bussiere, who had served as a missionary in Cameroon since 1979, returned to Canada after her June 1, 2014, release. During a public lecture delivered in Montreal in January, she disclosed some details about what she went through during her captivity. She said the first two hours of her abduction were stressful. Then, she said, she "chose to let things go."

    Sisters' billboards bring pope's environmental message to Iowa caucuses

    DUBUQUE, Iowa (CNS) -- As the eyes of the nation focused on the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1, the 13 congregations of Catholic Sisters of the Upper Mississippi River Valley wanted to capture the attention of participants to call for an end to environmentally destructive policies and practices. They did so by placing more than 20 billboards in strategic locations throughout state, southwest Wisconsin and western Illinois. The billboards, posted in January and into February, carry the message "Standing with Pope Francis; Caring for Our Common Home." In his latest encyclical, "Laudato Si'," Pope Francis urgently calls people all over the world to take action to protect the earth. Environmental issues have not yet gotten much attention with the candidates and many voters. The billboards are an effort to change this. The Catholic Sisters for a Healthy Earth Committee, which represents the communities of women religious sponsoring the campaign, initiated the plan for the billboards. "Our big hope is that people see that caring for the climate, caring for the earth is a moral obligation," committee member Sister Joy Peterson said in an interview with National Catholic Reporter's Global Sisters Report. "It's not political, even though we need to influence politicians, but it's an issue so important to the future of all creation. We also want to stimulate further response to the encyclical reminding people of that message that earth is our common home."

    Bioethics center says Britain moving toward genetically modified babies

    MANCHESTER, England (CNS) -- A Catholic bioethics institute has accused the British government of moving toward the creation of genetically modified babies after scientists were given permission to alter the DNA of embryos in experimentation. The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, an Oxford-based institute serving the Catholic Church in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, denounced the development as "yet more destructive experimentation on human embryos. Experiments to edit the genes of human embryos represent a further step towards the creation of GM babies," said a Feb. 1 statement by David Jones, director of Anscombe. "This move is only the latest step after attempts to clone human embryos, to create human-animal hybrid embryos and to create three parent embryos," he said in a statement sent to Catholic News Service. "Each step has been accompanied by exaggerated promises to cure or prevent diseases, but the real result is simply more unethical experimentation on human beings at the earliest stage of their development," Jones added.

    Vatican downplays film promo, says pope will not have movie debut

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis will not be an actor in a proposed movie based on the Gospels, a Vatican spokesman said. While details about how the pope may or may not be involved in the movie project are not yet known, it was clear the pope was not an actor and would not have an acting role as claimed by a film production company, the spokesman said Feb. 2. A Los Angeles-based entertainment publicity and marketing firm said in a press release Feb. 1 that the pope would be "playing himself in the family film 'Beyond the Sun' from AMBI Pictures." Monika Bacardi, AMBI Pictures co-founder, was quoted in the press release as saying, "We appreciate Pope Francis' permission to film him and use his image in our movie." The press release included undated photos of the pope meeting at the Vatican with the other AMBI-Pictures co-founder, Andrea Iervolino.

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  • Festivity, solemnity mark installation of bishop in Ponce, Puerto Rico

    PONCE, Puerto Rico (CNS) -- During a five-hour celebration that was mix of solemnity and festivity, Bishop Ruben Antonio Gonzalez Medina was installed Jan. 31 as the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Ponce. He was installed in a ceremony at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral; a Communion service was celebrated at the city's Pachin Vicens Coliseum. Before starting the entrance procession at the cathedral with Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, "Father Bishop Ruben," as he prefers to be called, joyfully sang with young musicians from the local Neocatechumenal Way Catholic community. Inside, he was greeted by his five fellow Puerto Rican bishops, more than 200 fellow priests from throughout the island, visiting priests from the Dominican Republic, government dignitaries, and an overflow crowd of the faithful. "We are grateful to the Holy Father for this democratic gesture of the apostles' successor toward the Ponce Diocese in the person of Bishop Ruben," said Archbishop Gonzalez in opening the ceremony. He also thanked and commended now-retired Bishop Felix Lazaro Martinez for his 12-year tenure as bishop of Ponce.

    Erlandson departs from Our Sunday Visitor after nearly 27 years

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Saying he has "learned ... seen so much," Greg Erlandson is stepping down from his position as publisher at Our Sunday Visitor Inc., after nearly 27 years with the company. His last day on the job was to be Jan. 31. Erlandson told Catholic News Service that he was proud of efforts to raise the profile of the weekly newspaper and its associated publications and services in parishes around the country. "It turned out to be a great gift," he said of his years with the Huntington, Indiana-based company. "I'm resigning to pursue other opportunities. I still have a daughter who is going to start college in the fall so I have got to find work," he said. The longtime Catholic press journalist said he will most miss his colleagues. "We built up a great staff. It's a profound sadness that I won't be working so closely with them," he told CNS Jan. 29 from a train platform on New York's Long Island, while on his way to a presentation on the Year of Mercy in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

    Salvadoran priests: Government can't tell women when to get pregnant

    SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) -- The Salvadoran bishops have made no comment on a government recommendation to women to delay pregnancy because of the Zika virus, and priests contacted by Catholic News Service gave varied responses on their reaction. The recommendation to not get pregnant "is illusory, the state doesn't have a say regarding the private matters of the citizens, especially in regard to the procreation of children," Father Jose Antonio Ventura, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in San Juan Opico, told Catholic News Service. He added that the Salvadoran state has unsuccessfully tried to eradicate the mosquito, and their efforts should continue to focus on that direction. "If someone asks me for advice, I would say that the important thing is to get rid of the larvae, but I can't say do not get pregnant," he added. Health officials have urged women to postpone their pregnancies for two years, because the Zika virus can produce microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes smaller heads in newborns, affecting the normal development of their brain.

    Mission dioceses minister to Catholics scattered over great distances

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic missionaries played a large role in bringing European values and religion to North America in the 18th century. The role of the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans and other Catholic religious orders was to set up missions that became economic, political and religious centers. The mission church hasn't gone away. It's a vibrant part of the U.S. Catholic fabric. It's just evolved during the course of the past few centuries. The primary function of the 21st-century mission church no longer includes proselytizing the indigenous people, but is aimed at bringing Catholicism to populations throughout the land, regardless of the challenges to do so. Catholics living in most of the territory of the U.S. are actually shepherded by a Catholic home mission diocese. So, what is a Catholic home mission? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops defines a home mission as a "diocese or parish that can't provide the basic pastoral services to Catholics without outside help."

    Vocations crisis needs prayer, not despair or lax admissions, pope says

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Respond to the crisis of vocations with intensified prayer, not despair or a lax admissions process, Pope Francis told women and men religious. He said he is tempted to lose hope, too, asking God, "What is happening? Why is the womb of consecrated life sterile?" But he warned against fast fixes, saying some religious "congregations experiment with 'artificial insemination,'" in which they accept anybody, leading to a host of problems. The vocations process must be done "with seriousness, and one must discern well that this is a true vocation and help it grow," he told members of religious orders, secular institutes and consecrated virgins Feb. 1 in the Vatican audience hall. The pope met with some 5,000 men and women taking part in events in Rome to mark the close of the Year for Consecrated life, which began Nov. 30, 2014, and was to end Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord and the Jubilee of Consecrated Life.

    At close of congress, pope urges Catholics to be missionaries to world

    CEBU, Philippines (CNS) -- Pope Francis urged Catholic families and young people, especially in the Philippines, to go out and be missionaries to the world. In a video message to the closing Mass of the 51st International Eucharistic Congress, the pope said Christ's presence is a promise of everlasting joy and peace, and a summons. "It is also a summons to go forth as missionaries to bring forth the message of the father's tenderness, forgiveness and mercy to every man, woman and child," he said as the crowd of about 1 million focused on large video screens. "How much our world needs this message." With conflicts, injustice and "the urgent humanitarian crisis" of today, "we realize how important it is for every Christian to be a true missionary disciple, bringing the good news of Christ's redemptive love to our world in such need of reconciliation, justice and peace," the pope said Jan. 31. Pope Francis said Filipinos have been an example of fidelity and deep devotion. "They have also been a people of missionaries, spreading the light of the Gospel in Asia and to the ends of the earth," Pope Francis told the Massgoers, who included delegates from more than 70 countries.

    Humiliation and humility go together on path to holiness, pope says

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The connection between humiliation and humility is "mathematical," Pope Francis said; being put in one's place is the only path to being humble. "When someone says something awful about us, I think every one of us" immediately wants to react by saying, "That's not true" or even by giving "a response that's even more cutting," the pope said Feb. 1 in his homily at Mass in the chapel of his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. But, "if you are not able to bear humiliation in your life, you are not humble," the pope said. "It's mathematical." Citing the day's first reading of the story of King David suffering jeers and the insult of his son trying to take his throne, Pope Francis said, "David's destiny, which is holiness, comes through humiliation." David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and tried to cover it up by having Bathsheba's husband killed. In the end, the pope said, David recognizes he is a sinner and repents. "God forgives the sin; David converts, but the wounds of corruption are difficult to heal," the pope said. "We see this in many parts of the world."

    Cardinal confirms some priests decline appointment as bishop

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Although the number is not high, it is no longer "exceptional" to have priests turn down an appointment as bishop, said Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Speaking Feb. 1 about the annual course his office sponsors for new bishops, the cardinal was asked about rumors that more and more priests are saying they do not want to be a bishop and declining an appointment even when the pope, on the recommendation of Cardinal Ouellet's office, has chosen them. "Yes, that's true. Nowadays you have people who do not accept the appointment," he said, adding that he would not provide statistics on how often it happens, although he insisted the number was not huge. Priests decline for a variety of reasons, Cardinal Ouellet said, pointing to the example of a priest who was chosen, but then informed the congregation that he had cancer and had not told others of his illness. "It was a sign of responsibility not to accept the appointment," he said. Others decline because of something in their past or because they think they cannot handle the responsibility, he said. In the latter case, he said, "normally we insist" because often people are not the best judges of their own abilities. But when a person makes "a decision in conscience," the Vatican respects that.

    Faith is a revelation, not an investment, negotiation with God, pope says

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Faith is not an "investment" people make in God, thinking that eventually they can negotiate special favors from him, Pope Francis said. A true experience of God's love can be found in "abandoning oneself in his hands" without privilege or protection, he said Jan. 31 before praying the Angelus with visitors in St. Peter's Square. The day's Gospel reading, which recounted Jesus being driven out of the synagogue of Nazareth after declaring that "no prophet is accepted in his own native place," was not just a simple story of a fight within a community like what can happen in any neighborhood today, the pope said. Rather, it sheds light on a temptation that religious people are often vulnerable to and must avoid, he said. Religious people in Nazareth, like many people today, are tempted to think they can negotiate with God for their own special interests, he said. However, the pope said, "true religion is about receiving the revelation of a God who is a Father and who cares for each one of his creatures, even the smallest and most insignificant in the eyes of humankind," he said.

    Italy: 'Family Day' rally draws hundreds of thousands

    ROME (CNS) -- Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Rome's Circus Maximus to protest against a proposed bill that would grant legal recognition to nonmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples and give them the right to adopt children. Although not officially sponsored by the Catholic Church or any other religious group, the rally Jan. 30 did include men and women religious and at least one Italian bishop. Most of the participants were families, many carrying signs defending the rights of children to be raised by both a mother and a father. The legislation, known in Italy as the "Cirinna" bill, includes a proposed clause that would allow for a nonbiological parent in a homosexual union to adopt a child conceived by his or her partner, either through artificial insemination or with a surrogate mother. The event's organizer, Massimo Gandolfini, told the crowd that the rally's aim was not "to make war against anyone" and that traditional families are the backbone of society.

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  • Mercy, mission go together, pope says

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Mercy and mission have a close relationship that calls all Christians to be missionaries who share the joy of the Gospel without trying to force others to believe, Pope Francis said. The joy that comes from conveying God's love and mercy is "the concrete sign that we have met Jesus," the pope said during his first jubilee audience Jan. 30. However, he added, "this does not mean proselytizing. This is making a gift: 'I am giving you what gives me joy.'" An estimated 30,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square for the jubilee audience, an event that will be held one Saturday each month throughout the Holy Year of Mercy. In his talk, the pope said the Holy Year is a reminder for Christians to never tire of feeling the need for God's forgiveness "so that when we are weak his closeness makes us strong and allows us to live our faith with greater joy." Christians are called to be missionaries of the Gospel like the first disciples, feeling the need to share the good news they have received. "We feel within us that we cannot hold back the joy that has been given to us and we want to spread it," the pope said. "The joy that arises is what pushes us to communicate it."

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