Imitate St. Pio's life, don't forget poor, marginalized, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy (CNS) -- Many people admire St. Padre Pio, but too few imitate him, especially in his care for the weak, the sick and those who modern culture treats as disposable, Pope Francis said during Mass at Padre Pio's shrine.

"Many are ready to 'like' the page of the great saints, but who does what they do?" the pope asked March 17. "The Christian life is not an 'I like,' but an 'I give myself.'"

Pope Francis celebrated the Mass outside the Shrine of St. Pio of Pietrelcina with about 30,000 people after visiting children in the cancer ward of the hospital St. Pio founded, Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (House for the Relief of Suffering).

In his homily, the pope reflected on three words that both summarized the day's readings and, he said, the life of Padre Pio: prayer, smallness and wisdom.

Smallness, he said, calls to mind those whose hearts who are humble, poor and needy like the young patients cared for in Padre Pio's hospital and those who in today's world are unwanted and discarded.

Departing from his prepared text, Pope Francis said he remembers being taught in school about the Spartans, who, "when a boy or girl was born with malformations, they would take them to the top of the mountain and throw them over."

"We children would say, 'How cruel,'" the pope said. But, "brothers and sisters, we do the same. With more cruelty and more knowledge. Whatever isn't useful, whatever doesn't produce, is thrown away. This is the throwaway culture. The little ones are not wanted today."

"Those who take care of children are on the side of God and defeat the throwaway culture, which, on the contrary, prefers the powerful and considers the poor useless," he said. "Those who prefer the little ones proclaim a prophecy of life against the prophets of death of every age."

Only with wisdom, motivated by love and charity for others, can true strength be found, he said. Christians aren't called simply to admire great saints like Padre Pio, but rather to imitate their way of fighting evil wisely "with humility, with obedience, with the cross, offering pain for love."

Prayer, he said, is "a gesture of love" that is often stifled by excuses and leads to Christians forgetting that without God "we can do nothing."

"We must ask ourselves: do our prayers resemble that of Jesus or are they reduced to occasional emergency calls? Or do we use them as tranquilizers to be taken in regular doses to relieve stress?" the pope asked.

Padre Pio recognized throughout his life that prayer "heals the sick, sanctifies work, elevates healthcare and gives moral strength," he said.

Pope Francis began his day of tribute to St. Pio with an early morning visit to Pietrelcina, where the Capuchin saint was born in 1887.

Thousands waited outside the square of the Chapel of the Stigmata which houses a piece of the elm tree Padre Pio sat in front of when he first received the stigmata -- wounds on his feet, hands and side corresponding to those Jesus suffered at the crucifixion -- in September 1918.

Pope Francis entered the chapel where he prayed privately for several minutes before making his way to the square to greet the faithful.

Standing in front of an iconic image of a young Padre Pio bearing the wounds of Christ's crucifixion in his hands, the pope said that it was in Pietrelcina that the future saint "strengthened his own humanity, where he learned to pray and recognize in the poor the flesh of Christ."

"He loved the church, he loved the church with all its problems, with all its woes, with all its sins -- because we are all sinners; we feel shame -- but the spirit of God has brought us here to this church which is holy. And he loved the holy church and its sinful children, everyone. This was St. Pio," Pope Francis said.

Recalling the time in Padre Pio's life when he returned to Pietrelcina while he was ill, the pope said the saintly Capuchin "felt he was assailed by the devil" and feared falling into sin.

Departing from his prepared remarks, the pope asked the people if they believed the devil existed. When only a handful of people responded, he told them it didn't seem "they were totally convinced."

"I'm going to have to tell the bishop to give some catechesis," he said jokingly. "Does the devil exist or not?"

"Yes!" the crowd responded loudly.

Christians, he continued, should follow the example of the Capuchin saint who did not fall into despair but instead found refuge in prayer and put his trust in Christ.

"All of theology is contained here! If you have a problem, if you are sad, if you are sick, abandon yourself in Jesus' arms," the pope said.

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Update: Vatican tribunal finds Archbishop Apuron of Guam guilty of abuse

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By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A Vatican tribunal found Archbishop Anthony S. Apuron of Agana, Guam, guilty of some of the accusations made against him, accusations which included the sexual abuse of minors.

After a canonical trial conducted by the apostolic tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Vatican judges imposed the following sanctions on the 72-year-old archbishop: the removal from office and a prohibition from residing in Guam. The archbishop can appeal.

In a statement released later in the day by his lawyer, Jacqueline Taitano Terlaje, Archbishop Apuron confirmed he is appealing the verdict.

"While I am relieved that the tribunal dismissed the majority of the accusations against me, I have appealed the verdict," the archbishop said. "God is my witness; I am innocent and I look forward to proving my innocence in the appeals process."

Supporters of the archbishop, conversing anonymously with journalists, claimed the archbishop was found guilty on only two of six charges and that the sentence implies those charges were not the most serious ones. Generally, clerics found guilty of sexually abusing minors face either removal from the priesthood or are sentenced to a life of prayer and penance and banned from any public ministry.

Archbishop Apuron is among the highest-ranking church leaders to have been tried by the Vatican for sexual offenses.

In a press statement released March 16, the Vatican tribunal said, "The canonical trial in the matter of accusations, including accusations of sexual abuse of minors, brought against the Most Reverend Anthony Sablan Apuron, O.F.M.Cap., Archbishop of Agana, Guam, has been concluded."

"The apostolic tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, composed of five judges, has issued its sentence of first instance, finding the accused guilty of certain of the accusations and imposing upon the accused the penalties of privation of office and prohibition of residence in the Archdiocese of Guam." U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, a noted canon lawyer, was the presiding judge in the canonical investigation of Archbishop Apuron.

The statement did not specify the number of charges the archbishop faced, how many of them he was found guilty of or even the nature of the offenses for which he was convicted.

"The sentence remains subject to possible appeal," the Vatican statement said. "In the absence of an appeal, the sentence becomes final and effective. In the case of an appeal, the imposed penalties are suspended until final resolution."

Archbishop Apuron had been accused of sexually abusing several boys in the 1970s, and, in early January, one of the archbishop's nephews publicly claimed the archbishop had sexually abused him in 1990. Archbishop Apuron continually has denied the abuse allegations.

Pope Francis placed Archbishop Apuron on leave in June 2016 after the accusations were made public. The pope named an apostolic administrator to run the archdiocese for several months and then named Coadjutor Archbishop Michael J. Byrnes, a former auxiliary bishop of Detroit, to take over.

Until the Vatican court handed down its sentence, Archbishop Apuron had continued to hold the title of archbishop of Agana, but did not hold the faculties, rights or obligations pertaining to the office, because they had been granted to Archbishop Byrnes.

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Blurred lines: Vatican manipulation of photo becomes the story (commentary)

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By Greg Erlandson

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- What was meant to be an intellectual tribute to Pope Francis has instead become the backdrop to the latest tempest over transparency and this pontificate.

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, the Vatican publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, unveiled a series of 11 books focusing on the intellectual roots and thought of Pope Francis.

Numerous theologians contributed to the volumes, and they are being published in several languages.

In a news conference attended by Catholic News Service, Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication who oversees LEV, explained that he had asked retired Pope Benedict XVI to "write a page or a page and a half of dense theology in his clear and punctual style that (we) would have liked to read this evening."

Pope Benedict responded with "a beautiful, personal letter," Msgr. Vigano said. The retired pope explained that he could not write a theological reflection on the 11 volumes because he had not read them and would be physically unable to do so in time for the March 12 presentation. However, he expressed the hope that the series would contradict "the foolish prejudice of those who see Pope Francis as someone who lacks a particular theological and philosophical formation '"

Pope Benedict said the books "reasonably demonstrate that Pope Francis is a man with profound philosophical and theological formation and are helpful to see the interior continuity between the two pontificates, even with all the differences in style and temperament."

So far, so good.

However, when the Secretariat for Communication released a photo of the first page of the letter, two lines at the end of the first page were blurred out, making it look as if someone had intentionally obscured the fact that Pope Benedict had not read the series, and leaving only the words defending his successor.

Two days later, some Vatican watchers began writing about the blurred photo.

At this point, the blurring, not the book series, became the story. As reported by the Associated Press' lead Vatican reporter, Nicole Winfield, "The Vatican admitted Wednesday that it altered a photo sent to the media of a letter of retired Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis. The manipulation changed the meaning of the image in a way that violated photojournalist industry standards."

Sources at the Vatican explained that the letter itself was never intended to be made public, which was why the second page was obscured in the carefully staged photo. One source called it a "photo illustration."

U.S. photojournalists adhere to strict standards regarding any sort of manipulation of a photographed image. AP norms, which are followed by Catholic News Service, state that "no element should be digitally added or subtracted from any photograph."

Whatever the intention on the part of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication, the obscuring of a portion of the letter suggested something they did not want everyone to see. Read in this context, Pope Benedict could be seen to be qualifying his generic support for the publication of the series.

For those who attended the news conference, the context of Pope Benedict's comments was clear, and the fact that Msgr. Vigano read out loud the lines that were subsequently obscured in the image makes the incident sound more like a matter of poor judgment than deception.

The controversy comes on the heels of the publication of Pope Francis' World Communications Day message, which criticized the phenomenon of "fake news," defining the phrase as "false information based on nonexistent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader."

The entire incident is a reminder that in a media-sophisticated age, with a media-omnipresent pope, the Vatican communications apparatus must be committed both to transparency and to best journalistic practices. Anything less is a disservice to the church.

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Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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Human trafficking called 'one of darkest, most revolting realities' today

IMAGE: CNS photo/Lilian Muendo, courtesy GSR

By Beth Griffin

UNITED NATIONS (CNS) -- Mely Lenario quietly described her harrowing journey from ambitious, naive rural girl trafficked to hopeless, drug-fueled urban prostitute, through slow rehabilitation to a new life as an outreach worker.

After she finished her story, hundreds of people in a U.N. conference room jumped to their feet in a sustained ovation.

Lenario spoke March 13 on "Preventing Human Trafficking Among Rural Women and Girls," a panel co-sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.

As an 8-year-old, Lenario was abused by her stepfather in the Philippines. He threatened her at knife point after she watched him rape her sister. When she confronted her mother and neighbors about it, she was placed into a Jesuit-run orphanage for seven years.

As a teen, she accepted an offer of work and a free education from an elegant woman visitor who arranged transportation to Cebu, a city distant from her hometown. In Cebu, she was prostituted and forced to use drugs to stay awake all night and improve the glum demeanor that discouraged customers.

Lenario begged for release but was told she had to pay for the transportation and other expenses incurred by her traffickers.

She resigned herself to a life of prostitution. "I felt hopeless and worthless. I felt already ruined," Lenario said.

Ultimately, she met compassionate women and men religious who introduced her to the Good Shepherd Welcome House in Cebu. With their help and five years of effort, she overcame her drug habit, finished high school and trained to be a nurse's aide.

"I had to learn how to forgive myself and the people who caused me pain," she said.

Lenario now studies social work and serves as an outreach counselor to trafficked women and girls at the Good Shepherd Welcome House.

"I want to give them hope. I want to be an inspiration and give voice to all the abused women out there. I want to show them that if I could change my life, they can, too," she said.

The U.N. panel was a side event to the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

It focused on the contributions of women religious to prevent trafficking by providing educational and employment opportunities for rural girls, women and their families, disrupt the "supply chain" of the trafficking business, and help survivors tell their stories.

Trafficked women are "marginalized by an environment that can't meet their needs," Mercy Sister Angela Reed said. Therefore, anti-trafficking strategies must address the root causes of the problem, which include poverty, unemployment, discrimination, violence, rural isolation and lack of access to education, she said. Sister Reed is the coordinator of Mercy Global Action at the United Nations.

"Human trafficking is one of the darkest and most revolting realities in the world today," said Msgr. Tomasz Grysa, Vatican deputy ambassador. Vulnerable rural women and girls suffer "compounded marginalization" and are at a "cumulative disadvantage prior to being trafficked," he said. "Their dignity and rights are not adequately respected before they're trafficked, something that makes them more susceptible to much worse violations of their dignity and rights later."

Religious sisters are "going to the existential peripheries" to do heroic work, but they cannot do it alone, Msgr. Grysa continued. Trafficking is "a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country. To eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself."

Sister Annie Jesus Mary Louis, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, is executive director of Jeevan Jharna Vikas Sanstha in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. She said, "Sexual exploitation is big business, governed by the same principles of supply and demand as any commercial activity."

The sex industry treats people like products and the sex trade has a supply chain of exploitation driven by demand and fueled by greed, vulnerability and deception. It is an illusion that women and girls freely choose prostitution, she said.

The supply chain can be disrupted and trafficking prevented when families have opportunities and feel like society cares about them, Sister Louis said. Families need loving accompaniment and rural women and girls should be protected with at least the same level of investment that is put into labor exploitation, she said.

The rural population is disproportionately affected by trafficking, said Mercy Sister Lynda Dearlove, founder of Women at the Well in London. Religious groups with long-term enduring local relationships have an advantage over large organizations in preventing trafficking, she said.

"Individuals hold the key to empowering women and girls," she said. Large international funding groups sometimes create an unnecessary layer between donors and those in need, she said.

Sister Reed said women must be seen as anti-trafficking advocates. The Religious Sisters of Mercy help women share firsthand accounts to bring women's voices into public policy discussions and prevention efforts. "We need to change the dominant narrative that trafficking is a random act" to an understanding that it is a sign of systemic marginalization and oppression, she said.

Successful preventive approaches counter the vulnerability of potential trafficking victims, Sister Reed said. They include providing an adequate standard of living and quality education, fostering human attachment and a sense of belonging in adolescents, and supporting decent work and full participation in society for adults.

Sister Sheila Smith, a Sister of the Sacred Heart, who is co-founder of Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in Humans in Ottawa, Ontario, described the mutual relationship between human rights and human dignity in the context of rural trafficking.

"We work tirelessly for prevention because we value each other," she said.

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It takes more than one 'Our Father' to ask for God's help, pope says

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By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Praying for God's intercession takes courage, dogged persistence and patience, said Pope Francis.

"If I want the Lord to listen to what I am asking him, I have to go, and go and go -- knock on the door and knock on God's heart," the pope said in his homily March 15 at morning Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

"We cannot promise someone we will pray for him or her and then say an 'Our Father' and a 'Hail Mary' and then leave it at that. No. If you say you'll pray for another, you have to take this path. And you need patience," he said.

Pope Francis' homily focused on the day's reading from the Book of Exodus (32:7-14), in which God tells Moses how angry he is that his people have created a golden calf to worship as their god. God threatens to unleash his wrath on them and promises Moses, "Then I will make of you a great nation."

Pope Francis said Moses does not take the bait or get involved in "games of bribery." Moses sticks by his people and does not "sell his conscience" for his own gain, the pope said.

"And God likes this. When God sees a soul, a person who prays and prays and prays for something, he is moved."

Moses had the courage to speak "face-to-face" and truthfully to the Lord, he said, and successfully implored God to relent and not punish his people.

"For prayers of intercession, you need two things: courage, that is, 'parrhesia,' and patience," he said.

People's hearts must be truly invested in the thing or person they are praying for; otherwise not even courage and patience will be enough to keep going, he added.

People should ask God for the grace to pray frankly and freely to God, as sons and daughters would talk to their father, knowing that "my father will listen to me," Pope Francis said.

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Second Update: Retired pope says criticism against Pope Francis is 'foolish prejudice'

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By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- On the eve of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis' election, retired Pope Benedict XVI defended the continuity of the church's teaching under his successor and dismissed those who criticize the pope's theological foundations.

In a letter sent to Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication, Pope Benedict applauded the publication of a new book series titled, "The Theology of Pope Francis."

"It contradicts the foolish prejudice of those who see Pope Francis as someone who lacks a particular theological and philosophical formation, while I would have been considered solely a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete lives of today's Christian," the retired pontiff wrote.

The Secretariat for Communication released a photograph of the letter in which the final lines of the first page were blurred. While Pope Benedict said early in the letter that he hoped the 11 volumes would put an end to the "foolish prejudice" against Pope Francis, in the blurred lines the retired pope said he could not write a complete theological reflection on the 11 volumes because he had not read them and would be physically unable to do so in time for the presentation of the volumes to the public.

Msgr. Vigano read from the letter, including the blurred lines, during a presentation of the 11-volume series March 12.

The Vatican press office did not say why the lines were blurred, but said the Vatican never intended to publish the complete text. In fact, the second page of the letter -- except for Pope Benedict's signature, is covered by books.

Before reading the letter, Msgr. Vigano said he sent a message to Pope Francis and Pope Benedict regarding the publication of the book series.

He also asked if Pope Benedict would be "willing to write a page or a page and a half of dense theology in his clear and punctual style that (we) would have liked to read this evening."

Instead, the retired pontiff "wrote a beautiful, personal letter that I will read to you," Msgr. Vigano said.

Pope Benedict thanked Msgr. Vigano for having given him a copy of "The Theology of Pope Francis" book series, which was authored by several notable theologians.

"These small volumes reasonably demonstrate that Pope Francis is a man with profound philosophical and theological formation and are helpful to see the interior continuity between the two pontificates, even with all the differences in style and temperament," he wrote.

Pope Benedict has made no secret of his affection for and admiration of Pope Francis.

During a Vatican celebration for the 65th anniversary of Pope Benedict's priestly ordination June 28, 2016, the retired pope expressed his sincere gratefulness to Pope Francis, saying that his goodness "from the first moment of your election, in every moment of my life here, touches me deeply."

"More than the beauty found in the Vatican Gardens, your goodness is the place where I live; I feel protected," Pope Benedict said.

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Irish-born religious recall leaving homeland to devote lives to U.S. kids

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jerri Donohue

By Jerri Donohue

BRECKSVILLE, Ohio (CNS) -- When Sister Anne McCrohan said goodbye to her parents and most of her 10 siblings at a train station in County Kerry, she thought it was forever.

At age 18, Sister McCrohan had agreed to go to America to teach parochial school students.

"I just had the desire to do something special with the life God gave me," the 86-year-old Religious Sister of Mercy said of her youthful commitment.

After World War II, American classrooms swelled with baby boomers. Desperate for English-speaking sisters, some bishops turned to Ireland for help. Sister McCrohan arrived in the Diocese of Sacramento, California, in 1949, but Irish Sisters of Mercy had been working there since 1857. For more than 100 years, none returned home.

Sister McCrohan adapted to religious life, college and a new country -- all at the same time.

Because they lived with American and Mexican sisters, she and her four companions made an immediate adjustment.

"We couldn't talk Irish all day long and ignore everybody else," Sister McCrohan said in a phone interview from Auburn, California.

Four Irish-born pastors eventually urged the Mercy sisters' superiors to permit home visits. Somehow the priests arranged for funds for four or five sisters to make the trip each summer.

When Sister McCrohan's turn came in 1963, she already had made final vows, graduated from college and become an American citizen. She fondly recalls her family's first joyful reunion.

"It was amazing," she said. "There was a group of about 22 at the airport to greet me."

Sister Fabian Quigley left Tipperary, Ireland, in 1949 as a 15-year old postulant of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word. Religious vocations were common in her family.

"My father had four sisters as nuns and a brother a priest," Sister Quigley said.

In Cleveland, she graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school and started college. She didn't struggle with homesickness because there were many other Irish sisters in the community.

"What used to be a little more difficult was 'visiting Sunday' for the postulants and novices, when their families came and we had nobody coming," she recalled.

Sister Quigley received her first teaching assignment, a class of 65 sixth-graders, as soon as she completed two years of college. She then went to school on Saturdays and during the summer until she earned her degree. She was excused from work the day she and 11 other Sisters of the Incarnate Word became U.S. citizens. Sister Quigley rode the bus back to the convent, clutching her little American flag.

She returned to Ireland nine years after her departure.

"I couldn't believe my brother, because he had grown up," she said. "I forgot I had grown up, too."

Trips home became more frequent for Sister Quigley and other Irish sisters in later years.

"Our community was absolutely wonderful to us," she said.

Loreto Sister Josephine O'Brien was a 31-year-old teacher when she and four other Loreto sisters arrived in Phoenix in 1954. They wore long serge habits, lived without air-conditioning and suffered in the hot weather. But Sister O'Brien remembers their happiness.

"We had great fun among ourselves," she said. "We did Irish dancing and things like that. We were still Irish."

When her students misbehaved, Sister O'Brien sometimes reprimanded them in Gaelic, a successful ploy to quiet them.

She taught for two decades in Arizona and California before encountering a quirk of American culture when she transferred to the Chicago area. Another woman religious asked Sister O'Brien if she was a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan. Sister O'Brien was neither, and so the sister advised her to be a Sox fan like everyone else in the house.

"And so I'm a Sox fan, even though I don't know a thing about it," Sister O'Brien said.

She returned to County Offaly several times. Her doctor ruled out travel for health reasons 14 year ago. Six nephews and her brother, a missionary priest home on leave from Africa, came to America for her 60th jubilee.

Now 95, Sister O'Brien misses the sisters who came to the States with her in 1954.

"They have all gone to God," she said.

She spends St. Patrick's Day listening to Irish music alone in her room.

"I'm never not lonely on St. Patrick's Day," Sister O'Brien said. "I'm at home that day in my own mind."

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National School Walkout is time of prayer for many Catholic schools

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Davis for the Flor

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- March 14, exactly one month since the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students from around the country planned to walk out of their schools in protest of the nation's gun laws for 17 minutes.

The time is meant to pay tribute to the 17 students and staff members killed that afternoon by gunfire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The national movement, at 10 a.m. in all time zones in the U.S., was organized primarily by youths working with EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women's March, which organized marches for women's rights in Washington and many other cities after President Donald Trump took office. 

Another nationwide school walkout is scheduled for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. A related event is the "March for Our Lives" a youth-led demonstration March 24 in Washington, where 500,000 are expected to attend. Other demonstrations will take place in several U.S. cities to protest current gun laws.

The school walkouts are intended to make a statement and vary from simply walking out of school for the allotted time or attending an organized rally.

Most Catholic schools across the country did not sanction walkouts, but they planned to mark the somber anniversary of the deadly school shooting in Florida and also support youth-led advocacy of anti-gun violence in a different way -- through prayer.

Instead of walkouts, some schools were hosting "pray-outs," saying "rosaries for our lives" or attending school Masses to pray for recent shooting victims and their families and for an end to violence.

The focus is in "keeping with who we are as people of faith and a community of believers," said Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Sister John Mary, a member of the Dominicans' St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, said Catholic schools that are providing alternative school walkout events are teaching their students to pray for a situation that needs a response and encouraging them to take action by writing to legislators about gun legislation.

She sent Catholic school superintendents an email March 5 acknowledging that "many dioceses have chosen to support student participation in this important dialogue and discussion through a clear presentation of Catholic social teaching and peaceful civic engagement."

For many diocesan and private Catholic school leaders, balancing student advocacy and safety was a critical decision not made lightly.

The principal at St. Francis High School in Sacramento, California, wrote to parents in early March saying: "Like other schools and districts across the nation, we have been wrestling with the type of action we should take as a school community" to the walkout, recognizing that many students want to show solidarity and express their views but also noting there are "serious safety issues presented by students leaving campus in the middle of the school day."

The decision, announced by Elias Mendoza, who is principal of the all-girls school, was to "provide students with an alternative avenue to express their viewpoints in a constructive and meaningful way, while remaining on campus." The school planned a prayer service for peace and healing at 10 a.m. and said parents who wanted to allow their students to participate in a political rally that day would have to contact the school office.

The letter echoed what other Catholic school leaders have expressed: "At the end of the day, we know our focus is educating students and keeping them safe, not taking sides in politics or creating policy. Additionally, our staff is aware that we're tasked with the responsibility of maintaining political neutrality in our role as educators, regardless of our own political views."

Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Atlanta Archdiocese, said students walking off campus "cannot occur" because of concern that administrators wouldn't be able to keep students safe if they left the school property.

In an email to The Georgia Bulletin, the archdiocesan newspaper, she said local high school administrators were talking with students "to allow them opportunities for solidarity with other students across the country who share the same concerns regarding gun control and mental illness issues as well."

On the day of the national walkout, students at some Catholic high schools in the Atlanta area will have the chance to exchange their uniforms for clothing with the school colors of the Parkland high school -- maroon and silver - and funds donated for this will be set aside for the victims of the Florida shooting.

Archdiocesan high schools also are amending some courses as students have expressed concern for the Florida high school community and want to talk about gun laws. Theology classes, for example, will examine these shootings from the Catholic perspective, asking questions about injustice and violence in the world and how believers are to respond.

In Michigan, students from throughout the Detroit Archdiocese planned to hold prayerful gatherings to remember the Parkland shooting victims and also a mother and father fatally shot allegedly by their son March 2 at Central Michigan University in the neighboring Saginaw Diocese.

"The Archdiocese of Detroit adamantly detests gun violence of any kind, and I have encouraged our schools to discuss as a community, ways to prayerfully respond to these tragic events," said Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of schools. "The result is a range of Catholic, faith-based responses to gun violence and a united appeal to the Lord for assistance during these difficult times."

In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, all Catholic schools have been asked to have 17 minutes of prayer during the National School Walkout -- beginning with a rosary, followed by an archdiocesan prayer against violence, murder and racism -- a prayer that is said aloud by Catholics at every Mass in the archdiocese.

"We didn't hear of any schools or students participating (in the walkout), but we were hearing from our school communities,'What could we do, what could we offer in support of lessening gun violence?'" said RaeNell Houston, the archdiocese's superintendent of Catholic schools.

Houston told the Clarion Herald, New Orleans' archdiocesan newspaper, that children deserve to be safe in our school communities and school officials felt that "intentional, dedicated prayer would yield more fruitful results than a walkout."

Chicago archdiocesan schools also were encouraged to take part in "peacebuilding activities" March 14.

"We believe this is a time to come together and work as a community of Catholic schools to help achieve a lasting peace," said Jim Rigg, archdiocesan school superintendent, in a March 6 letter to school principals.

The Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, planned school prayer services March 14 as a "positive way to respond to the concerns of students, for the safety of schools and to recognize the mourning of a country for so many lost," a diocesan statement said.

Father Edward Quinlan, diocesan secretary for education, said the time of prayer should not just be focused on the effects of gun violence. "School violence takes many forms," he said, "from the tragic assaults we saw in Florida to the day-to-day bullying and harassment of other students."

For some Catholic schools, the alternative walkout day event was simple. St. Saviour High School in Brooklyn, New York, was having a prayer service in the school gym that would include reading the names aloud of those killed in the Florida school shooting. Chaminade College Preparatory High School in West Hills, California, was inviting students to participate in a 17-minute walk at lunch around the track as an opportunity to show unity "and honor the students and faculty who lost their lives."

A week before the national school walkout, hundreds of students at St. Teresa's Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, walked out of school in one of the first area school protests of gun laws joining the national discussion about gun legislation, the Kansas City Star reported.

"We wanted to make a statement," said a student of the all-girls school who was one of the organizers for the event where there were speeches against gun violence and a letter to local political leaders urging them to take a stand against gun violence was read aloud.

These students will not be taking part in the March 14 walkout, nor did their school plan an alternative event, because they are currently on spring break.

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Contributing to this report was Christine Bordelon in New Orleans and Andrew Nelson in Atlanta.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Five years a pope: Francis' focus has been on outreach

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope just a few days after telling the College of Cardinals that the Catholic Church faced a clear choice between being a church that "goes out" or a church focused on its internal affairs.

After the cardinal from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected March 13, 2013, and chose the name Francis, he made "go out," "periphery" and "throwaway culture" standard phrases in the papal vocabulary.

Catholics have a wide variety of opinions about how Pope Francis is exercising the papal ministry, and many of his comments -- both in informal news conferences and in formal documents -- have stirred controversy. But, as he wrote in "Evangelii Gaudium," the apostolic exhortation laying out the vision for his pontificate: "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

But there are two areas of internal church affairs that he recognized needed immediate attention: the reform of the Roman Curia and the full protection of children and vulnerable adults from clerical sexual abuse.

The organizational reform of the Curia has been taking place in stages, but Pope Francis has insisted that the real reform is a matter of changing hearts and embracing service.

On the issue of abuse, nine months into his pontificate, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection to advise him on better ways to prevent clerical sexual abuse and to ensure pastoral care for the survivors.

While Pope Francis has emphatically proclaimed "zero tolerance" for abusers and recently said covering up abuse "is itself an abuse," as his fifth anniversary approached serious questions arose about how he handled accusations that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who was a priest at the time, covered up allegations of abuse against his mentor.

The new scandal threatened to undermine the widespread popularity of Pope Francis and his efforts to set the Catholic Church on a new course.

For Pope Francis, that new course involves evangelization first of all.

"Evangelizing presupposes a desire in the church to come out of herself," he had told the cardinals just days before the conclave that elected him. "The church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery."

Mercy is the first thing the Catholic Church is called to bring to those peripheries, he says.

Although in 2013 he told reporters he would not be traveling as much as his predecessors, Pope Francis has continued their practice of literally "going out," making 22 trips outside of Italy and visiting 32 nations.

But he also regularly visits the peripheries of Rome, both its poor suburbs and its hospitals, rehabilitation centers, prisons and facilities for migrants and refugees.

His desire to reach out has inspired innovations that were noteworthy at the beginning of the papacy, but now seem to be a natural part of a pope's day. For example, after beginning with Vatican gardeners and garbage collectors, the pope continues to invite a small group of Catholics to join him most weekday mornings for Mass in the chapel of his residence.

The residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, is a guesthouse built by St. John Paul II with the intention of providing decent housing for cardinals when they would enter a conclave to elect a new pope. Pope Francis decided after the 2013 conclave to stay there and not move into the more isolated papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

On Holy Thursday each year, he has celebrated Mass at a prison, care facility or refugee center and washed the feet of patients, inmates or immigrants, both men and women, Catholics and members of other faiths. He also ordered the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments to clarify that the feet of both women and men can be washed at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper.

During the 2015-16 Year of Mercy, he made a visit one Friday a month to people in particular need, including those at a school for the blind, a neonatal intensive care unit, a community of recovering alcoholics, a children's group home and a community for women rescued from traffickers who forced them into prostitution. Once the Year of Mercy ended, the pope continued the visits, although not always every month.

In September 2015 as waves of migrants and refugees were struggling and dying to reach Europe, Pope Francis asked every parish and religious community in Europe to consider offering hospitality to one family. The Vatican offered apartments and support to a family from Syria and a family from Eritrea. Then, seven months later, Pope Francis visited a refugee center on the island of Lesbos, Greece, and brought 12 refugees back to Rome on the plane with him.

Less than three months into his pontificate, he began denouncing the "throwaway culture" as one where money and power were the ultimate values and anything or anyone that did not advance money or power were disposable: "Human life, the person are no longer seen as primary values to be respected and protected, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful -- like an unborn child -- or are no longer useful -- like an old person," the pope said at a general audience.

In the first three years of his papacy, he published three major documents: "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel); "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," on the environment; and "'Amoris Laetitia' (The Joy of Love), on Love in the Family," his reflections on the discussions of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015.

People skeptical about the scientific proof that human activity is contributing to climate change objected to parts of "Laudato Si'," but the criticism was muted compared to reactions to Pope Francis' document on the family, especially regarding ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and the possibility that, under some conditions, some of those Catholics could return to the sacraments.

The strongest criticism came from U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke and three other cardinals, who sent to the pope and then publicly released in November 2016 a formal, critical set of questions, known as "dubia," insisting that allowing those Catholics to receive the sacraments amounted to changing fundamental church teaching about marriage, sexuality and the nature of the sacraments.

Pope Francis has not responded to the cardinals, two of whom have since died. But in December, the Vatican posted on its website the guidelines for interpreting "Amoris Laetitia" developed by a group of Argentine bishops, as well as Pope Francis' letter to them describing the guidelines as "authentic magisterium."

The guidelines by bishops in the Buenos Aires region said the path of discernment proposed by Pope Francis for divorced and civilly remarried couples "does not necessarily end in the sacraments" but, in some situations, after a thorough process of discernment, the pope's exhortation "opens the possibility" to reception of the sacraments.

In the document and throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized God's mercy and the power of the sacraments to spur conversion and nourish Christians as they try to progress in holiness.

Like all popes, Pope Francis frequently urges Catholics to go to confession, telling them it is not a "torture chamber." And he repeatedly gives priests blunt advice about being welcoming and merciful to those who approach the confessional.

Like St. John Paul did each Lent, Pope Francis hears confessions in St. Peter's Basilica. But, he surprised even his closest aides beginning in 2014 when, instead of going to the confessional to welcome the first penitent, he turned and went to confession himself.

He also has surprised people by being completely honest about his age. In April 2017, when he was still 80 years old, he told Italian young people that while they are preparing for the future, "at my age we are preparing to go." The young people present objected loudly. "No?" the pope responded, "Who can guarantee life? No one."

From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has expressed love and admiration for retired Pope Benedict XVI. Returning from South Korea in 2014, he said Pope Benedict's honest, "yet also humble and courageous" gesture of resigning cleared a path for later popes to do the same.

"You can ask me: 'What if one day you don't feel prepared to go on?'" he told the reporters traveling with him. "I would do the same, I would do the same! I will pray hard over it, but I would do the same thing. He (Pope Benedict) opened a door which is institutional, not exceptional."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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Wonder and wit: Five years of Pope Francis' unique turns of phrase

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A native-Spanish speaker who grew up with Italian-speaking relatives in Argentina, Pope Francis has a striking way with words.

Bringing a background in literary themes and devices with him to the papacy five years ago, the pope has shown himself to be a master of metaphor and allegory.

His cross-cultural and eclectic knowledge of literature and cinema has supplied him with numerous visual elements that he mixes and matches with a religious message, creating such compound concoctions as "the babysitter church" to describe a parish that doesn't encourage active evangelizers but only worries about keeping parishioners inside, out of trouble.

"Armchair Catholics," meanwhile, don't let the Holy Spirit lead their lives. They would rather stay put, safely reciting a "cold morality" without letting the Spirit push them out of the house to bring Jesus to others.

The Ignatian spirituality that formed him as a Jesuit also comes through many of his turns of phrase. Just as a Jesuit seeks to use all five senses to find and experience God, the pope does not hesitate to use language that involves sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.

And so he urges the world's priests to be "shepherds living with the smell of sheep" by living with and among the people in order to share Christ with them, and he tells his cardinals that all Catholic elders need to share with the young their insight and wisdom, which become like "fine wine that tastes better with age."

No chorus is as wonderful as the squeaks, squeals and banter of children, he once said before baptizing 32 babies in the Sistine Chapel, assuring the parents that the commotion and chaos of new life was not only welcome, but wonderful.

The pope's visual vocabulary dips into the everyday with sayings and scenarios from daily routines: like sin being more than a stain; it is a rebellious act against God that requires more than just a trip "to the laundromat and have it cleaned."

Even country living holds some lessons. He once told parishioners to bother their priests like a calf would pester its mother for milk. Always knock "on their door, on their heart so that they give you the milk of doctrine, the milk of grace and the milk of guidance."

Food and drink hold numerous lessons. For example, to convey the corrosive atmosphere a bitter, angry priest can bring to his community, the pope said such priests make one think, "This man drinks vinegar for breakfast. Then, for lunch, pickled vegetables. And, in the evening, a nice glass of lemon juice."

Christians must not be boastful and shallow like a special sweet his Italian grandmother would prepare for Fat Tuesday, he has said. Explaining how it is made from a very thin strip of pastry, the crunchy dessert bloats and swells in a pan of hot oil. They are called "bugie" or "little lies," he said, because "they seem big, but they have nothing inside, there's no truth, no substance."

Pope Francis' frequent focus on the evils of living a hypocritical or superficial life has meant employing descriptions such as showy as peacocks, frivolous as an over-primped star and fleeting as soap bubbles. "A soap bubble is beautiful! It has so many colors! But it lasts one second and then what?"

To explain the kind of "terrible anxiety" that results from a life of vanity built on lies and fantasy, the pope said, "It's like those people who put on too much makeup and then they're afraid of getting rained on and all the makeup running down their face."

Pope Francis does not shy away from the gory or gross, calling money -- when it becomes an idol -- the "devil's dung" and saying the lives of the corrupt are "varnished putrefaction" because, like whitewashed tombs, they appear beautiful on the outside, but inside they are full of dead bones.

For the pope, who sees Christ as a "true physician of bodies and souls," there is no shortage of medical metaphors.

Of the most well-known, the pope pines for "the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds."

Speaking elsewhere about people who have done evil and know it, Pope Francis said, they live "with a constant itch, with hives that don't leave them in peace."

The consequence of pride or vanity, he warned on another occasion, "is like an osteoporosis of the soul: The bones seem good from the outside, but on the inside they are all ruined."

Another medical problem afflicting souls diagnosed by Pope Francis is "spiritual Alzheimer's," a condition that renders some people incapable of remembering God's love and mercy for them and, therefore, unable to show mercy to others.

If people were to get a "spiritual electrocardiogram," he once asked, would it be flatlined because the heart is hardened, unmoved and emotionless or would it be pulsating with the prompting and prods of the Holy Spirit?

And whether people recognize it or not, God is their true father, he has said. "First of all, he gave us his DNA, that is, he made us his children; he created us in his image, in his image and likeness, like him."

Meeting with cardinals and the heads of Vatican offices for an annual Christmas greeting, the pope explained the reform of the Roman Curia as more than just a face-lift to rejuvenate or beautify an aging body, but a process of deep, personal conversion.

Sometimes, he said the next Christmas, reform "is like cleaning an Egyptian Sphinx with a toothbrush."


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A small sampler of Pope Francis quotes

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In his formal documents, many speeches and unscripted morning homilies the past five years, Pope Francis has given the church plenty of "food for thought" on many issues of great importance.

Here are a baker's dozen of quotes from the pope, organized by topic:

-- On clerical sexual abuse: "Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness. I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused, and it endangered other minors who were at risk." (Homily at Mass with survivors, July 7, 2014).

-- On communication: "Communication has the power to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society. How beautiful it is when people select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony." (Message for World Communications Day 2016).

-- On creation: "We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters." ("Laudato Si', On Care for Our Common Home," May 24, 2015).

-- On economics: "Let us say 'no' to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth." (World Meeting of Popular Movements, July 9, 2015).

-- On faith: "Please do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. We dilute fruit drinks -- orange, apple or banana juice -- but please do not drink a diluted form of faith. Faith is whole and entire, not something that you water down. It is faith in Jesus. It is faith in the son of God made man, who loved me and who died for me." (World Youth Day, July 25, 2013).

-- On the family: "No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. ... May we never lose heart because of our limitations or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us." ("Amoris Laetitia," April 8, 2016).

-- On life: "Human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil right rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that of life, which is not subordinate to any condition, be it quantitative, economic or, least of all, ideological." (Speech to the Italian pro-life movement, April 11, 2014).

-- On mercy: "Mercy: the bridge that connects God and humanity, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness." ("Misericordiae Vultus," April 11, 2015).

-- On migration: "Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life far from poverty, hunger, exploitation and the unjust distribution of the planet's resources, which are meant to be equitably shared by all. Don't we all want a better, more decent and prosperous life to share with our loved ones?" (Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016).

-- On religious freedom: "It is incomprehensible and alarming that, still today, discrimination and restrictions of rights continue for the single fact that one belongs to and publicly professes an unwavering faith. It is unacceptable that real persecution is actually sustained for reasons of religious affiliation! Wars as well! This distorts reason, attacks peace and humiliates human dignity." (Speech, June 20, 2014).

-- On Satan: "The devil exists even in the 21st century and we shouldn't be naive. ... We have to learn from the Gospel how to fight" against him. (Homily, April 11, 2014).

-- On vocations: "A vocation is a fruit that ripens in a well-cultivated field of mutual love that becomes mutual service, in the context of an authentic ecclesial life. No vocation is born of itself or lives for itself. A vocation flows from the heart of God and blossoms in the good soil of faithful people, in the experience of fraternal love." (World Day of Prayer for Vocations 2014).

-- On young people in the church: "I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses. I want the noise to go out. I want the church to go out onto the streets. I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves." (World Youth Day, July 25, 2013).


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Haitian immigrant back home working for CRS says faith gives her hope

IMAGE: CNS photo/Denis Grasska, The Southern Cross

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO (CNS) -- When Cassandra Bissainthe left Haiti for the United States some 17 years ago, it seemed unlikely that she would ever return.

Political instability and economic insecurity were rampant in her homeland, and extreme poverty had driven desperate people to do terrible things.

Shortly after her relocation to Miami, Bissainthe discovered that she had been in danger of being kidnapped. Around that same time, her aunt actually was kidnapped and held for a week until the family paid a ransom.

"I never thought I would go back," Bissainthe, now 33, said during a visit to the Diocese of San Diego earlier this year.

Today, she is stationed in Haiti with Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. church's overseas relief and development agency. She is the agency's church partnership and capacity strengthening manager.

In the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in early 2010, she reflected on what she could do to help the suffering people of her homeland. She began working in Haiti for Trocaire, the international development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and then in 2015 joined the staff of CRS, the organization's U.S. counterpart.

Bissainthe holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from Florida International University. She was drawn to development work both by the example of her mother, who had worked for the U.N. Development Program, and by her experience at her all-girls Catholic high school in Haiti, where community service requirements awakened within her a desire to work for a mission-driven organization.

In Haiti with CRS, Bissainthe has her work cut out for her. The country is ranked as the poorest in the Western hemisphere, with some 80 percent of the population subsisting on less than $2 a day. In addition to an unstable economy and political climate, Haiti also is still recovering from the damage caused by the 2010 earthquake, coupled with the devastation of Hurricane Matthew, which impacted more than 2 million people in late 2016.

"I like to be in the field," said Bissainthe, who added that her co-workers will confirm that she is rarely found behind her office desk. But, she said, "in the field, you get to meet people that have nothing, so those situations can (bring) you down."

Encountering people who are struggling amid poverty and natural disasters can be challenging, but in those moments, she relies on her Catholic faith, which inspires her "to look for the positive." Past experiences of CRS' life-changing work have given her reason for this hope, she told The Southern Cross, San Diego's diocesan newspaper.

She has seen, in villages where most of the youth used to drop out of school by the sixth grade, an increasing number asking for high school recommendations. After major disasters, she has encountered people whose entire livelihoods have been wiped out; yet, several months later, she has witnessed them rebuilding their lives with whatever support CRS was able to offer them.

A key component of CRS' approach to development and a reason for its success is its collaboration with local partners in the various regions in which it serves.

CRS only has three offices in Haiti, Bissainthe said, and it's only because of community partners that the organization is able to assist as many people as it does. Those partners continue to be key players in the community, even after CRS pulls up stakes and leaves the region, carrying on the programs that CRS put in place.

Bissainthe's job places her at the center of cultivating relationships with these partners, particularly the local Catholic Church, from the national to the parish level.

"It's truly crucial that we maintain a strong relationship with the church, because they are our eyes and our knowledge of the field," she said, adding, "They know these communities ' and they might know the needs better than (we do)."

Bissainthe visited San Diego in late January as part of a two-week U.S. tour to promote CRS Rice Bowl, a Lenten faith-in-action program that encourages U.S. Catholics to show solidarity with the poor through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Some 75 percent of the funds raised through CRS Rice Bowl support the organization's programs around the world, including agriculture, water and sanitation, microfinance and education projects. The remaining 25 percent benefits the poor and hungry in the communities where those funds were raised.

Just as she enjoys meeting the people CRS serves in Haiti, Bissainthe said she is grateful for the opportunity to meet the U.S.-based donors whose generosity makes CRS' work possible. During her recent tour, she was able to hear their stories while also sharing her own.

"I think it makes you even more humble about the work that you do," she said of her experience on the tour, "and also see the value in what we do."

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

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Christian activists warn of slaughter of Syrian civilians in Afrin

IMAGE: CNS photo/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters

By Dale Gavlak

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) -- Christian activists warn that 1 million Syrian civilians will face certain slaughter in northwestern Afrin, where they allege Turkey and its militant allies have already carried out "war crimes" and "ethnic cleansing."

They have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials to stop the bloodshed, warning that failure to act jeopardizes the hard-fought U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria.

Civilians from other parts of Syria and outside the country have reportedly offered to stand as "human shields" between the Kurdish-backed fighters and Turkish forces set to storm Afrin.

Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, said, "I have never seen so much violence as in Syria." In remarks March 9, he likened the situation to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The nuncio called the situation in the war-ravaged land "hell on earth," especially for vulnerable children.

In March, Syria's conflict entered its eighth year. More than 350,000 people have died, 5 million are refugees and 6.3 million civilians are displaced within the country.

Syria is currently "one of the most dangerous places for children," Cardinal Zenari said. "It's terrible. I always say, it's a massacre of the innocents."

Two Christian activists, Bassam Ishak and Lauren Homer, told Catholic News Service of the relentless assault by Turkey and militants from hardline jihadist movements, including the so-called Islamic State.

"Turkey has committed war crimes and ethnic cleansing already in Afrin and the Federation of Northern Syria," or FNS, they told CNS.

Ishak heads the Syriac National Council and is a member of the political bureau of the Syrian Democratic Council. He is a graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Homer, an Anglican, is a Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer.

"Turkey has already 'cleared' villages of Yazidis, Kurds, Christians and others, promising to replace them with Syrian refugees. In fact, Afrin already has enlarged its population by 50 percent to house (internally displaced) Syrians, who are among those being killed, injured or captured," they said.

People in and around Afrin are facing the warplanes, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons of NATO's second-largest standing army, Turkey.

A local health authority reported more than 220 dead and 600 civilians injured in this mainly Kurdish area of northwestern Syria, some 30 miles from Aleppo.

Videos and photos from Afrin taken by both Kurds and members of the Turkish forces depict bombed-out houses, mangled bodies of children killed by the blasts and civilians being herded away.

Largely untouched by Syria's deadly conflict until recently, this part of the Federation of Northern Syria succeeded in creating a nonsectarian, pluralist, inclusive government system not seen elsewhere in the Middle East in which there is religious freedom and equal rights are granted to all.

Activists are calling for an immediate no-fly zone over Afrin, enforced by U.S. drones or warplanes; implementation of the Feb. 24 U.N. Security Council resolution requiring a cease-fire by Turkey in Afrin; humanitarian aid and safe passage out for civilians; and mediation of a long-term cease-fire and withdrawal of Turkish troops to its own borders -- potentially with promises of U.S. or U.N. border monitors.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish council that governs Afrin demanded the U.N. Security Council establish a no-fly zone over Afrin and forcibly respond to the Turkish offensive.

"This U.N. and U.S. and NATO inaction will go down in infamy as an inconceivable abandonment of our 'allies' the SDF and the FNS. Genocide seems to be only something we are interested in in retrospect, to mourn and wring our hands over," Homer warned.

Anti-aircraft weapons are needed to stop the attacks, observers say, but the Syrian Democratic Forces, composed of Kurdish and Christian fighters, were never given the necessary arms. At this point, U.S. aerial patrols would be needed. The Kurds and Christian fighters largely won the U.S.-led battle against Islamic State in Syria.

"Military solutions are no real solutions. Taking Afrin will not solve any problems, neither the internal problems for Turkey in the long run, nor will it help solve any issue that is part of the Syrian question," Ishak told CNS. Turkey says it is battling Kurdish "terrorists" as its pretext for invading Afrin.

"Instead, it will just further complicate the situation and increase the level of competition between actors jockeying for influence in Syria," Ishak said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian military, backed with Russian airpower, carried out intensive ground and aerial assaults on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Syrian government forces have reportedly captured more than half of the area.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders said more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in the area since late February, while almost 400,000 residents are living under heavy bombardment, after having been subjected to nearly five years of siege, lacking food and medicines.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the international community to intervene in Syria to help end the violence. Calling the war in Syria "inhumane," Pope Francis urged for an end to the fighting, immediate access to humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the injured and infirm.

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Confessors should seek to bring penitents closer to Jesus, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A good confessor is a good listener, Pope Francis said.

By truly listening to the penitent during confession, "we listen to Jesus himself, poor and humble; by listening to the Holy Spirit, we put ourselves in attentive obedience, becoming listeners of the Word" in order to know what God wants to be done, he said.

This is how priests can offer "the greatest service" to all penitents, especially the young, because "we put them in touch with Jesus himself," he said March 9.

The pope spoke to hundreds of confessors and other participants attending an annual course on the sacrament of reconciliation, sponsored by the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the absolution of sin.

He warned confessors to avoid the temptation of becoming "masters" over other people's consciences, especially the young, who are very easily influenced.

A confessor must never forget his is not the source of mercy or grace, but he is, however, an "indispensable instrument, but always just an instrument," the pope said.

Being a conduit between the Holy Spirit and the penitent does not diminish this ministry, rather it leads to its fulfillment, he said.

The more the priest "disappears and Christ, the supreme and eternal priest, appears more clearly," the more the priest fulfills his vocation as "unprofitable servants."

In light of the October Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment, the course this year looked at the relationship between the sacrament of reconciliation and helping others discern their vocation.

The pope said young people should be able to hear what God is saying to them, both in their own conscience and by listening to the word. To achieve this, young people need wise accompaniment by a confessor, he added.

With priest and penitent both prayerfully listening to God's will, confession can become an occasion for discovering God's plan for the individual, he said. Vocations, he added, are never about what form they take, but are about building a life-giving and inseparable relationship with Jesus.

The pope asked confessors to be witnesses of mercy, "humble listeners of young people and of God's will for them; always be respectful of the conscience and freedom of those who come to the confessional, because God himself loves their freedom."

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Sisters minister to intellectually disabled people, offer catechesis

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Daughters of St. Mary of Providence

By Joseph Albino

SYRACUSE. N.Y. (CNS) -- In the nautical world, a "spar" is the straight pole used to support the sails and rigging of a ship.

In the world of faith and the ministry of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence in the Syracuse Diocese, SPAR is the support offered to Catholics with intellectual disabilities to help them to recognize the presence of God in their daily lives and to act in light of the Gospel message.

The sisters' Special Adult Religious Formation Program apostolate, better known as SPAR, operates in accordance with the Catholic Church's teaching that "all baptized persons with disabilities have a right to adequate catechesis and deserve the means to develop a relationship with God."

In Syracuse, the sisters concentrate on offering support for older teens and adults with intellectual disabilities who, when they were of school age, were not able to receive the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and confirmation. They are offered a catechetical program designed with them in mind.

The foundation of the sisters' apostolate is "respect for life and dignity of every human person," according to the sisters' Guanellian ethics code, named for the congregation's co-founder, St. Louis (Luigi) Guanella.

"We hope to contribute to the good of every person who must be helped to live his or her life with conditions that require support, attention and care," the code says. "The centrality of every human person continues over time and cultural changes in our world today."

The Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence traces its roots to 1881 when a group of young women in the community of Pianello del Lairo, near Como, Italy, wanted to pursue a ministry for needy individuals including those with disabilities. They rented a house, which they eventually were able to buy, and named it the Little House of Divine Providence and began an apostolate modeled on the Gospel example of the good Samaritan.

The house became known as "Noah's Ark," because the sisters took in orphans, young working women looking for a place to live, people living with epilepsy, the elderly and those living with intellectual disabilities, among others.

The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence came to the U.S. in 1913, arriving in Chicago. Being Italian themselves, the first sisters to arrive assisted Italian immigrants. They established a motherhouse in Chicago for the congregation's U.S. province and opened a residential facility for intellectually disabled children.

The congregation has different missions in various countries, but in the U.S., the sisters made their primary concern caring for and teaching the faith to those with intellectual disabilities.

They also minister to the elderly in nursing homes and those in assisted living and independent living arrangements. Some of the sisters also may serve in parishes as teachers and directors of religious education programs and as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to provide the Eucharist to the homebound. In years past, they taught in Catholic elementary schools.

After the order became established in Chicago, it spread to East Providence, Rhode Island; Syracuse, New York; Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; Milbank, South Dakota; and Elverson, Pennsylvania, where the sisters operate a retreat center. The U.S. province now encompasses Mexico and the Philippines. There are more than 500 sisters around the world.

The congregation has a male counterpart, the Servants of Charity, founded in 1908. Its priests and brothers pursue similar apostolates in various countries. In the United States, they serve in Chelsea, Michigan; Springfield, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence were invited to come to the Diocese of Syracuse at the invitation of the late Bishop James M. Moynihan because of a Holy Family Church parishioner, Mary Lou Coons, who was seeking a way to help the intellectually disabled, often praying before the Blessed Sacrament for an answer.

In answer to her prayers, she felt God led her to the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence. She communicated with them through emails and visits and then brought them to the attention of diocesan officials.

Three of the sisters have a home near Holy Family Church in Fairmount, a western suburb of Syracuse.

"It was because of her faith and perseverance in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and her love for the intellectually disabled that Mary Lou Coons searched and found a community that served that category of persons," said Sister Caryn Haas, one of the three sisters.

Sister Haas provides pastoral care for the homebound, which includes helping families prepare for the baptism of their children or for other sacraments through monthly classes. She also can make arrangements for the homebound to receive the Eucharist.

Another of the sisters, Sister Beth Ann Dillon, teaches religion at nearby Bishop Ludden High School and also is campus minister there. Another, Sister Arlene Riccio, schedules faith activities for people with intellectual disabilities on the first floor of the sisters' residence, called the SPAR Center.

For those adults with intellectual disabilities who have received religious and sacramental education through their parishes, SPAR offers a continuing formation program once a month to help deepen the faith planted and grown in their families and parishes.

As the head of the SPAR apostolate, Sister Riccio strives to deepen the faith of those with intellectual disabilities whom she encounters in parishes in the greater Syracuse area.

In addition, for those individuals whose disabilities make classroom learning difficult, Sister Riccio offers small group or one-on-one sessions in a sacramental preparation program. The individuals with intellectual disabilities come to the meetings from a number of different parishes in the area as well as from group homes.

Individuals who live at home are invited regularly to monthly meetings at the SPAR center through a phone call or a mailed flier.

Classes may be held once a week for those individuals who are preparing to receive any of the Sacraments. Often, a sister will go to the home of a person with intellectual disabilities who may not be able to attend a regularly scheduled meeting because of transportation and/or health problems.

Sister Riccio's other goals through the SPAR apostolate include going to group homes to teach general spirituality to residents who are Christian and to teach the Catholic faith to those who are Catholic. Another goal is to line up volunteers who could assist group home residents to go to a church of their choice for Sunday services.

Participants in SPAR programs have different levels of capability, ranging from needing just a little bit of help to needing to learn the difference between ordinary bread and the consecrated eucharistic bread for Communion.

Some need to be taught that reverence is called for at church. Those with intellectual disabilities can be prepared to receive the sacrament of reconciliation if they are able to tell right from wrong and know to confess committing an act that was wrong.

Catechetical materials Sister Riccio uses include the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program, the recognized full curriculum for people with intellectual disabilities, and "Seasons of Grace," which concentrates on the church's seven sacraments. Loyola Press of Chicago also offers an adaptive religious education program in the faith and in the sacraments.

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Miracles attributed to Pope Paul VI, Romero clear way for sainthood

IMAGE: CNS photos/files/Octavio Duran

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis has cleared the way for the canonizations of Blesseds Paul VI and Oscar Romero.

At a meeting March 6 with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, Pope Francis signed decrees for the causes of 13 men and women -- among them a pope, an archbishop, two young laywomen and a number of priests and nuns.

He recognized a miracle attributed to Blessed Paul, who, according Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, will be declared a saint in late October at the end of the Synod of Bishops on youth and discernment. Blessed Paul, who was born Giovanni Battista Montini, was pope from 1963 to 1978.

Pope Francis also formally signed the decree recognizing the miracle needed to advance the sainthood cause of Archbishop Romero of San Salvador, martyr.

El Salvador's ambassador to the Holy See, Manuel Roberto Lopez, told Catholic News Service March 7 that the news of the pope's approval "took us by surprise."

"They told us before that the process was going well and that all we needed was the approval of the miracle, and it turns out the pope approved it yesterday," he said.

Lopez told CNS that he was happy that Blessed Oscar Romero's canonization was imminent and that his holiness was recognized alongside one of his earliest supporters.

"To see that he will be canonized along with (Blessed) Paul VI, who was a great friend of Archbishop Romero and supported his work, is a great blessing," Lopez said.

The Vatican did not announce a date for Blessed Romero's canonization.

The pope also recognized the miracles needed for the canonization of: Father Francesco Spinelli of Italy, founder of the Sisters Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament; Father Vincenzo Romano of Italy; and Mother Maria Katharina Kasper, founder of the religious congregation, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

He recognized the miracle needed for the beatification of Maria Felicia Guggiari Echeverria, a Discalced Carmelite from Paraguay whom Pope Francis has upheld as a model for the youth of Paraguay. Affectionately called, "Chiquitunga," she died from an unexpected illness in 1959 at the age of 34 before she could make her final vows.

The pope also recognized the martyrdom of a 16-year-old laywoman from Slovakia. Anna Kolesarova, who lived from 1928 to 1944 in the eastern town of Pavlovce, was murdered during Slovakia's occupation by the Soviet army in World War II after refusing sexual favors to a Russian soldier.

In causes just beginning their way toward sainthood, the pope signed decrees recognizing the heroic virtues of Polish Redemptorist Father Bernard Lubienski, who entered the congregation in England and then returned to Poland to re-found the Redemptorists there in the 20th century, and Sandra Sabattini, a young Italian lay woman who was active in helping the poor with the Pope John XXIII Community. She was hit by a car and died in 1984 at the age of 22.

The pope also recognized the heroic virtues of Antonio Pietro Cortinovis of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (1885-1984) and three Italian women -- two who founded religious orders and a laywoman who founded a lay fraternity.

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Junno Arocho Esteves in Rome also contributed to this story.


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U.S. Catholics' political leanings affect their approval ratings of pope

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the advent of Pope Francis' fifth anniversary in the papacy, a new Pew Research poll of U.S. Catholics shows their regard of the pope is, for the first time, colored by their political leanings.

The survey, released March 6, said it saw "signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholics on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavorably, and that they think he is too liberal and naive."

In 2014, one year into Pope Francis' papacy, "there was no discernible difference between the share of Catholic Republicans (90 percent) and Democrats (87 percent) who expressed a favorable view of Francis," the survey said. "Today, by contrast, the pope's favorability rating is 10 points higher among Catholic Democrats (89 percent) than among Catholic Republicans (79 percent)."

"In our polling about John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when we look at them we don't see any falloff from them over time," Greg Smith, a Pew senior researcher, told Catholic News Service. "What's interesting about this survey that this is the first one where this political polarization among American Catholics really stands out."

The March 6 poll was the eighth time Pew had asked Catholics their views about the pope. Pew had asked Catholics about Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict eight times total over 25 years -- five times for Pope Benedict and three for Pope John Paul.

Pope Francis still maintains marks any religious or civil leaders would covet: 94 percent of Catholics say he is compassionate and 91 percent say he his humble -- numbers unchanged from a 2015 Pew survey. His overall favorable rating is down one point, from 85 to 84 percent, from a 2014 poll. Those with unfavorable views of the pope were double that of 2014, but still in the single digits at 8 percent.

But "the share of American Catholics who say Pope Francis is 'too liberal' has jumped 15 percentage points between 2015 and today, from 19 percent to 34 percent," the poll said. And 24 percent of U.S. Catholics now say he is naive, up from 15 percent in 2015.

Since 2014, "the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a major, positive change for the Catholic Church has declined from 60 percent to 37 percent. By contrast, there has been little movement since the end of Francis' first year as pope in the share of Catholic Democrats who view him as a major change for the better," the poll said -- 71 percent today vs. 76 percent four years ago.

Other groups hold Pope Francis in high esteem, although not as much as Catholics do. Of white mainline Protestants, 67 percent approve of Pope Francis' tenure, as do 58 percent of religiously unaffiliated adults.

Slimmer majorities of black Protestants (53 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (52 percent) also approve of the pope. Nine percent of white evangelicals were unfavorable toward Pope Francis when he was chosen pope in 2013. That number has since tripled to 28 percent; it had been 31 percent last year.

The survey introduced new questions not asked in past polls.

Fifty-five percent of Catholics said the priests at their parish are "very supportive" of Pope Francis. Another 23 percent say their priests are "somewhat supportive" of the pontiff.

Similar approval numbers were generated when Catholics were asked whether Pope Francis was doing an "excellent" or "good" job appointing new bishops and cardinals; 58 percent said so. And 55 percent say he is doing an "excellent" or "good" job addressing environmental issues.

A somewhat larger majority -- 63 percent -- said Pope Francis "has done at least a little to promote acceptance of homosexuality," the survey said, adding he has done "about the right amount" or that they would like to see him "do more" on this issue. Also, 64 percent of Catholics say the pope has done at least a little to increase acceptance of divorce and remarriage.

The survey further asked Catholics to describe the most significant thing Pope Francis has done in his time as pope. In response, American Catholics named a broad range of accomplishments without being prompted as to specific issues. Nine percent noted Francis' work in setting a good Christian example, another 9 percent cited his "opening up the church and becoming more accepting." Eight percent said helping the poor; 7 percent said Pope Francis has made the church more accepting toward gays and lesbians; 6 percent mentioned his global outreach; and 5 percent said he is uniting the Catholic community and encouraging open communication and dialogue.

Four percent each cited two negative or neutral actions: becoming overly involved in politics or alienating conservative Catholics. Another 4 percent of respondents said he hasn't done anything significant at all, or that they are still waiting to see what he will do. And 29 percent either did not know or could not name any significant thing that Pope Francis has done.

The Pew survey was conducted Jan. 10-15 by phone among 1,503 adults, including 316 Catholics -- three times as many being contacted by cellphone than by landline. The margin of error was 2.9 percentage points for the full survey, and 6.4 percentage points for Catholics.

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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Don't hold grudges; forgiveness comes from forgiving others, pope says

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christians must let go of resentments and forgive those who have wronged them so that they may experience God's forgiveness, Pope Francis.

This can be particularly difficult when "we carry with us a list of things that have been done to us," the pope said in his homily March 6 at morning Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

"God's forgiveness is felt strongly within us as long as we forgive others. And this isn't easy because grudges make a nest in our heart and there is always that bitterness," he said.

The pope reflected on the day's first reading from the prophet Daniel in which Azariah, one of three young men condemned to death in a fiery furnace, courageously prays for deliverance from God.

"Do not let us be put to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy. Deliver us by your wonders, and bring glory to your name, O Lord," Azariah prayed.

Although Azariah is innocent of the crime he is condemned for, the pope explained, his attitude of recognizing his own personal sins is the same attitude Christian men and women should have when approaching the sacrament of penance.

"Accusing ourselves is the first step toward forgiveness," the pope said. "To accuse one's self is part of the Christian wisdom. No, not accusing others; (accuse) ourselves. 'I have sinned.'"

God, he added, "welcomes a contrite heart" and when Christians readily admit their faults, "the Lord covers our mouths like the father did to the prodigal son; he does not let him speak. His love covers it, he forgives all."

"These are the two things that help us understand the path of forgiveness: 'You are great Lord, unfortunately I have sinned' and 'Yes, I forgive you 70 times seven as long as you forgive others," Pope Francis said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Claims of heresy over 'Amoris Laetitia' are out of place, cardinal says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis' exhortation on the family should prompt discussion and even debate, but accusing him and others of heresy is completely out of place, said German Cardinal Walter Kasper.

"A heresy is a tenacious disagreement with formal dogma. The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage has not been called into question on Pope Francis' part," the cardinal, a theologian, told Vatican News March 5.

Cardinal Kasper was interviewed about his new book, "The Message of 'Amoris Laetitia': A Fraternal Discussion." The interview was published just a few days after Italian Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington issued detailed guidelines for accompanying couples, including those who are divorced and civilly remarried.

In his book, Cardinal Kasper describes "Amoris Laetitia" as "a creative renewal of traditional teaching."

Vatican News asked Cardinal Kasper specifically about the path of discernment Pope Francis sees for some divorced and civilly remarried to return to the sacraments, including Communion, in some circumstances.

"Sin is a complex term. It not only includes an objective principle, but there is also the intention, the person's conscience. And this needs to be examined in the internal forum -- in the sacrament of reconciliation -- if there is truly a grave sin, or perhaps a venial sin, or perhaps nothing," the cardinal responded. "The Council of Trent says that in the case in which there is no grave sin, but venial, the Eucharist removes that sin."

"If it is only a venial sin, the person can be absolved and admitted to the sacrament of the Eucharist," the cardinal said. "This already corresponds with the doctrine of Pope John Paul II and, in this sense, Pope Francis is in complete continuity with the direction opened by preceding popes. I do not see any reason, then, to say that this is a heresy."

Catholic tradition, he insisted, "is not a stagnant lake, but is like a spring, or a river: it is something alive. The church is a living organism and thus it always needs to validly translate the Catholic tradition into present situations."

Speaking more generally about "Amoris Laetitia," Cardinal Kasper said that reading the document has helped many engaged and married couples come to a deeper appreciation of the church's teaching on marriage and family life and about the joys and challenges facing families today.

"It is not high theology incomprehensible to people," he said. "The people of God are very content and happy with this document because it gives space to freedom, but it also interprets the substance of the Christian message in an understandable language."

In a world where there is so much violence, the cardinal said, "many people are wounded. Even in marriages there are many who are wounded. People need mercy, empathy, the sympathy of the church in these difficult times in which we are living today. I think that mercy is the response to the signs of our times."

Also in early March, Bishop Semeraro, secretary of Pope Francis' international Council of Cardinals, released a pastoral instruction on "welcoming, discerning, accompanying and integrating into the ecclesial community the faithful who are divorced and civilly remarried."

The guidelines for the Diocese of Albano, Italy, were published after every meeting of the diocesan presbyteral council in 2016-17 was dedicated to discussing the pastoral care of such couples.

The discussions made it clear that welcoming and integrating into parish life "those who approach us with the desire to be readmitted to participation in ecclesial life requires an appropriate amount of time for accompaniment and discernment that will vary from situation to situation," Bishop Semeraro wrote. "Therefore, expecting a new general, canonical-type norm, the same for everyone, is absolutely inappropriate."

No "right" to the Eucharist exists, the bishop said, but there is a right to be welcomed and to be heard. Couples who have remarried civilly without an annulment of their sacramental marriage and who have started a new family will be asked "to make a journey of faith starting from becoming conscious of their situation before God" and looking at the obstacles that would prevent their full participation in the life of the church.

Couples who have recently divorced and remarried, those who "repeatedly fail" to uphold responsibilities toward their children and original spouse and those who pretend that there is nothing wrong with divorce and remarriage should be encouraged to spend time studying and praying before trying to begin the process, the guidelines said.

"Amoris Laetitia," Bishop Semeraro wrote, "never speaks of a generalized 'permission' for all divorced and civilly remarried to access the sacraments; nor does it say that the path of conversion initiated with those who want them must necessarily lead to access to the sacraments."

At the same time, he said, priests must recognize that "it is no longer possible to say that all those who find themselves in a so-called 'irregular' situation are living in a state of mortal sin, deprived of sanctifying grace," precisely because, as "Amoris Laetitia" taught, a host of factors are involved in determining the degree of guilt of the individuals involved.

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Update: Immigrants, advocates navigating post-DACA-deadline landscape

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jorge Duenes, Reuters

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The last government shutdown -- well, threatened shutdown, anyway -- seems so long ago.

The nine-hour "funding lapse" of Feb. 9, like the three-day shutdown that began Jan. 20, hinged on how Congress was going to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Donald Trump said he would end March 5. He also called on Congress to pass a measure to save the program, created in 2012 by President Barack Obama via executive order.

In the January shutdown, Democratic lawmakers backed down on their threat to keep the government closed until a DACA deal was reached. In the February funding lapse, Democrats and Republicans agreed to conduct a debate and vote on DACA in the weeks to come, as a six-week continuing resolution to keep the government funded through March 23 was overshadowed by the $1 trillion spending package of which it was a part.

The congressional sidestepping of DACA prompted the U.S. bishops to declare a "National Call-In Day to Protect Dreamers" for Feb. 26, one week before the program's expiration date. The day resulted in thousands of phone calls to lawmakers.

That, in turn, was overshadowed by the Supreme Court declining that same day a request by the administration to bypass federal appellate courts and rule on whether the administration has the right to shut down DACA.

The justices' action wiped out the March 5 deadline date, leaving DACA up and running at least until the high court accepts the case for the appeals court -- and possibly renders a decision -- or until Congress finally deals with it. The high court's action only keeps DACA intact for those currently with DACA status; two federal judges have blocked Trump, saying the administration must continue to accept renewal applications for the program. The rulings do not make DACA available to those who had not already applied for it.

While the exact path ahead is unclear, at least there is a path.

"I think a lot of people feel a little insecure, they don't feel safe and they're unsure what's going to happen because things are up in the air," said Michelle Sardone, director of strategic initiatives for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

"They're feeling fear about whether or not to apply: 'Will the government use information they have on me to use against me?' If you submit your application with the application fee, will it be adjudicated or ... will it be a waste of your money?" Sardone said. "Each person has a particular case. They should go to an accredited legal services provider to find out the best situation for them and for their family."

"We just buried a man in his 60s who came from Ireland in a house with no electricity, no plumbing. He came over to the U.S. without a trade, became a pipe fitter and a coach," said Mary Harkenrider, a member of the Southside Catholic Peace and Justice Committee in Chicago, which sponsored a forum March 1 to show support for the city's DACA holders.

In talking to Catholic News Service, she used the example of this Irishman to illustrate what immigrants bring to this country.

"As a coach and a family man, he affected people throughout the city and across the country and at his funeral there were thousands of people who pay respect to this immigrant, who came to this country without a STEM education or highly advanced skills," Harkenrider added. 

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Some arguing for the reform of U.S. immigration laws say preference should be given to the highly educated immigrants.

She added: "We would be amiss without the talents of the immigrants in our communities. ... whether it's the Irish or the Polish or the Hispanic. I think we have to continue to recognize our history and build on it."

Chicago, Harkenrider said, is "a city of immigrants."

Nor is Chicago the only town that can claim that mantle.

Camden, New Jersey, is such a town. Mexican-born Monica Perez Reyes, 20, has lived there since her parents brought her to the United States at age 2. They entered the country without legal documents. She has kid sisters born in the United States who are U.S. citizens. As for Perez, "I'm good for two years" with DACA.

She admits to frustration with Congress, though. "I'm kind of offended. They're sort of playing around with my future," she said. "And the manner they're handling it, one day they may say they'll do something to make it better like have a path to citizens, ship, but the next day they say they're going to terminate it altogether."

Perez added, "I know some people are scared, but I'm not necessarily scared unless something is set in stone. I have a plan A, a plan B, a plan C. If worse comes to worst, I have a plan; I'll have to go to Mexico and make my new life there."

She was accepted to study art at a California college, but her status as an immigrant without documents left her ineligible to receive scholarship money. So Perez is attending community college in Camden while planning to major in art therapy, working to make money to pay her tuition.

Another such town of immigrants is Pasadena, Maryland. Hector Guzman, 19, also born in Mexico, was brought here by his parents, he said, when he was 1 year old. A soccer goalie and midfielder, a German scout recommended he go to England to try out for professional soccer there. He had to decline. "I could get there on my Mexican passport, but I couldn't come back," he said.

Guzman has his own plan B. Like Perez's, it involves going to a community college and working as a butcher and chef to pay tuition. He'll add landscaping work as the weather warms. He's starting up a small business already. At some point, he said, he'd like to open a restaurant, maybe several of them, "and maybe have a ranch or a farm." He said the DACA process was easy.

Patricia Zapor, a CLINIC spokeswoman, said a January check of DACA applications showed the government was still processing applications from 2016. Renewals ordinarily took two to three months; Zapor said without DACA, immigrants in the country without legal permission cannot legally work in the United States.

Guzman said he's not worried. "My parents are a little worried," he said. An older sister, who like him has DACA status, "doesn't act like she's worried," he added.

With the days winding down until Trump's original March 5 deadline, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said the upper chamber would debate a banking bill in early March, making no mention of DACA -- deferred action, indeed.

How to deal with this interim period is "tricky, right?" said Ian Pajer-Rogers, communications and political director for Interfaith Worker Justice, which has more than 30 affiliated worker centers around the country.

"We have taken the position that only a clean DREAM Act will do with no riders or add-ons from the right -- no wall, no border security measures. We'll continue that. Where that leaves us with the party in power and the party that is trying to negotiate for our people, the Democrats, is less clear." 

The DREAM Act he referred to stands for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. The bill is what gives DACA recipients the "Dreamer" name.

Anxiety among DACA families cuts both ways, he said. "What I've seen among the undocumented folks is a very willingness to self-sacrifice. Among the DACA recipients I've worked with they don't want to trade their parents' safety and security for their own. ... I think you find the parents who are willing to say the opposite, almost. They're willing to see more enforcement and risk detention if their kids are safe. We're really going for the starting point that all are protected."

"The more pressing thing might be the (Feb. 26) Supreme Court ruling," Pajer-Rogers said, "that folks who are in detention can be detained indefinitely without bond. So if there's something on the mind of workers today, it's probably that."

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