Make persecution 'difficult for others to ignore,' cardinal says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- With religious persecution against Christians on the rise worldwide, it is important for other Christians to stand in solidarity with them, said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington.

Christians in the United States and elsewhere must raise their voices on behalf of "the millions who are suffering," he said April 20 during a symposium held in connection with the release of "In Response to Persecution, Findings of the Under Caesar's Sword Project on Global Christian Communities," a report detailing the nature of persecution against Christians in different nations across the globe. 

"Make it difficult for others to ignore," the cardinal said.

Doing so, Cardinal Wuerl noted, may require Christians "to be aware" of the persecution their fellow believers face on different continents.

He suggested one response should be to "continue to support the flow of material assistance" to persecuted Christians through aid agencies like Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international aid agency; Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican umbrella agency for different nations' Catholic relief organizations; or their counterparts run by other Christian denominations and organizations.

"And we must, of course, continue to pray," said Cardinal Wuerl, who has just had a new book published, "To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness."

He lamented the rise of intolerance in the Middle East. In Egypt, the cardinal said, "all found a way, until recently, to live together. Under the rise of ISIS ... things have just continued to get worse." He added he believes that, despite last year's declaration by then-Secretary of State John Kerry that the Islamic State group had been responsible for genocide in the regions it controlled in Iraq and Syria, most Americans are not aware of it.

"This is not a Christian crisis of concern only to Christians," Cardinal Wuerl said. "This is a human crisis."

Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame and the principal author of the report, expressed surprise that few persecuted Christians resort to violence. He said there were limited instances of Christian groups forming militias to protect their people and property and, given the situations they face, that reaction may be "understandable and justifiable."

Philpott outlined five contexts in which persecution exists: Islamic persecution, such as applying Shariah law to Christians; communist persecution such as that found in China, Vietnam and North Korea; state-supported persecution, such as in Turkey; religious hostility such as that seen in India; and the West's reaction to a secularizing influence. Philpott quoted Pope Francis, who called the secularization "polite persecution."

Beyond these, there are nongovernmental actors like Islamic State; Philpott called them "Little Caesars" who persecute Christians.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, a country where 3 percent of the country's 120 million people are Christians, said working together with the Muslim majority is the best course of action.

While Pakistan's blasphemy law has resulted in the deaths of many Christians, Archbishop Shaw said he does not want to have the law repealed, but he wants it modified so mob justice is eliminated.

He told the story of a poor Christian couple working in indentured servitude at a brick kiln in the country. Somehow, a rumor spread that the couple had blasphemed Allah. Word got to the local imam, and "within 20 minutes there were 4,000 people" ready to exact their own justice against the couple, who had two children. Soon, both were thrown into the kiln furnace and "within five, seven minutes, they were both burned to death," the archbishop said.

Later, officials discovered that the Christian woman was pregnant, and that both husband and wife were illiterate and could not have committed the blasphemy of which they were accused. "They did not have a Quran in their home," Archbishop Shaw said. "They didn't even have a Bible in their home."

The archbishop said he gives the "two-F" instruction to his Catholics: "Don't fear. Jesus said, 'Do not be afraid,'" he told his audience. "The second F is do not fight, do not fight. No fear, no fight." He said he encourages Catholics to "know your purpose. You were born in Pakistan" for a reason, Archbishop Shaw added. "Know your religion and your religious values, and express them in your life."

The symposium also featured a 27-minute documentary, "Under Caesar's Sword," which explored religious restrictions and violence in Turkey and in India, along with glimpses of situations in Myanmar, Pakistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Syria.

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.


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Special collection translates into missionary work for U.S. regions

IMAGE: CNS/Nancy Wiechec

By Chaz Muth

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- American Catholics will have an opportunity to become modern-day missionaries during the weekend of April 29-30 by simply dropping money in a collection plate.

That is the weekend the Catholic Home Missions Appeal is being conducted as a second collection in many parishes throughout the U.S. The money raised from it will help bring the religion to people throughout the country.

Contributing to that collection really is a way for Catholics to do missionary work without ever leaving their home or parish, said Richard Coll, director of Catholic Home Missions in the U.S. bishops' Office of National Collections.

The annual Catholic Home Missions Appeal helps support more than 40 percent of the dioceses and eparchies in the United States and its territories in the Caribbean and Pacific.

These dioceses tend to be rural with enormous territories within their borders.

Without the subsidies that come from the annual appeal established by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1998, it would be difficult or impossible to support many of the religious programs in these regions or even some basic pastoral functions.

It's why they are called mission dioceses, because they depend on missionary efforts to help bring Catholicism to these populations in a meaningful way.

The theme of the appeal this year is "Strengthening the Church at Home," Coll told Catholic News Service during an April interview.

The U.S. Catholic Church has a long history of sending missionaries to serve people in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania, said Bishop Peter F. Christensen of Boise, Idaho, which is a mission diocese.

Home mission dioceses in the U.S. need the same kind of care, which is why the grants that come from the annual appeal are so vital to Catholics in the mission dioceses, which also include Gallup, New Mexico, and Little Rock, Arkansas, Bishop Christensen said.

"For many dioceses, it is challenging to support ministries because of fragile financial situations or isolated communities," said Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee on Catholic Home Missions. "It is through the Catholic Home Missions Appeal that we can make a difference here at home and help our mission dioceses offer places for people to encounter the loving and merciful Christ." 

The Subcommittee on Catholic Home Missions in 2016 allocated more than $9 million to 84 dioceses for programs of evangelization, Hispanic ministry, seminary education, lay ministry formation and other essential pastoral ministries.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops defines a home mission as a "diocese or parish that can't provide the basic pastoral services to Catholics without outside help."

Those basic pastoral services include Mass, the sacraments, religious education, and ministry training for lay ministers, deacons, religious sisters and priests.

So, Catholics who support this collection end up contributing to the pastoral outreach in the mission dioceses in places such as Alaska, New Mexico, Idaho, the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico and parts of Texas.

Here's an example to put the struggles of a mission diocese into context.

Salt Lake City, one of the U.S. mission dioceses, consists of 85,000 square miles, which is the entire state of Utah, and some of the Eastern Catholic eparchies, which also are considered Catholic home missions, cover the entire U.S. and consist of millions of square miles.

Bishops, priests, deacons, religious sisters and dedicated lay ministers can put 50,000 miles a year on their cars just to reach the Catholics they are charged with providing pastoral care to, Bishop Christensen said.

The ministry of Father Adrian Vazquez, a priest in his diocese, illustrates the situation. He is charged with the pastoral care of four Catholic communities in eastern Idaho, a parish in St. Anthony and three mission stations located in Rexburg, Driggs and Island Park.

He divides his time between all those locations, driving hundreds of miles a week.

Sometimes the priest relies on the kindness of his parishioners in Driggs and Island Park to put him up for the night, since his residence is at the rectory in far off St. Anthony.

"The travel can be a real challenge, especially in the winter when there is a lot of snow," said Father Vazquez, a native of Mexico. "My parishioners have to be patient with me sometimes if I'm running behind and we just start when I arrive."

The Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, has a total of 10 priests who serve a geographic region that is about the size of the state of Florida, said Bishop Edward J. Burns, then head of the Diocese of Juneau and now the bishop of Dallas.

"The communities are small," Bishop Burns told CNS during an interview in Juneau. "We can have just a handful of people who gather for Mass at the kitchen table, because we don't have a chapel or church in some of our villages."

The priests, deacons, religious sisters and lay ministers say it's important to get into the small communities in the far reaches of these mission dioceses, not only to bring them the sacraments, but to help them prepare for marriage, strengthen their relationships, sometimes cope with poverty, mourn the dead and become positive models for their children, he said.

The U.S. mission church of the 21st century faces some of the same challenges 18th-century missionaries encountered in that the faith remains poorly established in several parts of the country, including the Rocky Mountain states, the South, areas along the Mexican border and in the Pacific islands, Bishop Christensen said.

Along with evangelization efforts, mission dioceses receive money for programs involving faith formation, cultural diversity, strengthening marriage, repairs to churches, prison outreach, as well as priestly and religious vocations.

In recent years, the mission dioceses have seen an increase in religious vocations, which is desperately needed, but that too brings its own set of challenges for financially strapped institutions in those areas.

"To educate a seminarian today costs an average of $37,000," Bishop Christensen said. "That's not small change for a diocese that can't support that.

"There's a (mission) diocese in Texas that has 23 seminarians," he said. "Multiply that out by $37,000 and that gets into some pretty amazing figures."

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Follow Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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Pope in Egypt: Strengthening weary Christians, reaching out to all

IMAGE: CNS photo/Olivier Douliery, EPA

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis' visit to Egypt, a land increasingly marked by terrorist-led bloodshed, stands as part of his mission to inspire and encourage today's actors in theaters of violence to change the script and set a new stage.

Just as the pope did when he raised the curtain of the Year of Mercy in war-torn Central African Republic, he goes to strengthen and "confirm his brothers of the Coptic Catholic Church and other churches present in Egypt," said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.

He will be able to show, in person, his support and solidarity for the beleaguered Christian minorities who continue to be targeted by terrorist fanatics and increasingly feel vulnerable and unsafe in their own land, said Maryknoll Father Douglas May, who worked in Egypt for two decades.

Even though Christianity there traces its roots to the times of the apostles, being a Christian in Egypt today "is like being black in the United States before civil rights or being a Jew in Germany before Hitler. You're tolerated. But people don't want to be tolerated, they want to be accepted as citizens with equal rights and equal possibilities," said the 67-year-old priest, who grew up near Buffalo, New York.

To make things even more difficult, there is "still a very low level of ecumenical spirit" among many priests and bishops of the different Christian communities, even though laypeople already have a sense "that everybody is one: Protestants, Catholic and Orthodox."

Church leadership "worries about who's what" Christian denomination, he said. But when Pope Francis goes to Cairo April 28-29 to embrace Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, Christians will see "that we are all one family, even though we might have different last names," he told Catholic News Service April 20 by phone from a small village in Upper Egypt.

"I think the biggest thing" that will come from the trip, he said, is Pope Francis "will affirm that there is a certain solidarity among Christians" and that "we are all related together by Jesus."

An official visit by the Roman pontiff -- the second in history -- will bolster lay Catholics, he said, just like St. John Paul II's landmark trip in 2000 did.

Many Catholics feel mistreated or maligned, he said; they often are seen as "heretics" by biased Orthodox and "referred to as infidels or idol worshippers" by prejudiced Muslims.

But "when John Paul came, it was the first time a Catholic could be proud and excited to be a Catholic and a Christian at the same time," said the priest, who was in Egypt at the time. That joyful pride should be "the biggest impact" Pope Francis will make.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, former nuncio to Egypt and past president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said the Catholic presence "is both enriched and weakened by the fact of being made up of seven distinct churches: Coptic Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean and Latin."

While that shows Catholicism's rich diversity, it comes "at the price of a lack of cohesion," he told CNS in an email response to questions.

Egypt has the largest Christian population in the Middle East, but the Roman Catholic Church is the country's smallest, with about 250,000 members compared to the 9 million-10 million Coptic Orthodox, he wrote.

However, the presence of so many men's and women's religious congregations working in the fields of education, medical care and social work and the important and much respected work of Caritas Egypt mean the Catholic Church "punches over its weight," said Archbishop Fitzgerald.

Father May spent many years doing priestly formation for the Coptic Catholic Church, and, in fact, he taught and was the spiritual director of Msgr. Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, one of the pope's personal secretaries in Rome and the man who will be translating for the pope in Egypt.

Father May said he sought to teach the seminarians to leave the church walls, actively work in the risky world of social justice and be open to the help and goodwill of all people.

The impact on the Coptic Catholic priests he taught has been huge, he said. One of his many former students who are now paving new paths of interreligious and ecumenical initiatives powered by the participation of lay men and women, he said, is Father Boulos Nassif, whose work is featured in a Prison Fellowship International documentary titled "A Story of Friendship," which can be found on YouTube.

Father Nassif founded the Hand in Hand prison ministry when Muslim families wanted the same kind of services and care he was offering Catholic and other Christian prisoners and their families. But fears of being accused of proselytizing led him to ask for help from the local sheik, Father May said, and now the two communities work together, not separately, which is highly unusual.

Father May said the problems facing Egypt's Christians come from "several sources," including al-Alzhar University, which is considered the world's highest authority on Sunni Islam.

Many Christians feel "the voice from al-Alzhar is not strong enough against all this fanaticism, and it may even be affirming it," he said.

The country's huge economic difficulties and high unemployment also make minorities an easy target as "someone to blame," he added.

"My hope is that Francis, with that smile of his, when he shakes hands" with the many dignitaries and religious leaders, all the negative baggage and attitudes "can maybe erode a little bit" and the whole nation can see what respect, dialogue and friendship look like.

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Follow Glatz on Twitter @CarolGlatz.


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Retiring CUA prof plans to continue engaging in public policy debates

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- For all his love of politics and the "frothy media excitement" that surrounds it, Stephen F. Schneck is hardly a political animal.

He's more the thoughtful type, bringing a calm demeanor and insights formed by his Catholic faith to the high-volume and often contentious debates on important public policy issues since becoming director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in 2005.

Schneck, 63, was set to retire April 28, but he doesn't expect to go silent.

While he won't have quite the stage the institute offered in exploring various aspects of the ever-changing political scene through symposia, lectures and guest columns, he is expecting to draw from a network of contacts nationwide to seek new opportunities to accentuate that politics must be a moral endeavor working for the common good.

Schneck admitted that such a basic standard in the country's current polarized political environment may be difficult to achieve right now. But he's not giving up and he will continue to share what he considers to be the key guiding principle for politics in any form. It's a principle that he also hopes will reach the hearts and minds of those who have chosen politics as a career.

"At some point I came to realize that politics is the doing of civilization. It really is," he told Catholic News Service in mid-April. "It's not really about who's ahead in the polls or who wins or loses. Politics in the broadest sense is about building civilization."

It's a concept that students, public officials, bishops and the broader public have heard from Schneck since he joined the university faculty in 1984 after completing work on a doctorate degree from the University of Notre Dame. Schneck, who describes himself as a political philosopher, said he also has worked to build the institute around that essential understanding with a healthy dose of Catholic social teaching mixed in.

"I see what we're trying to do here (through politics) isn't just about who gets what when and how," he explained. "It's not just about divvying up resources, but it's really about building civilization. Politics, when it's working, achieves that. When it does happen, it's really magical."

Schneck originally became director of the institute's forerunner, the Life Cycle Institute, 12 years ago. The institute's name changed in 2009 to more accurately reflect its mission as Schneck began transforming the program into the highly regarded think tank that it is today. Schneck also expanded the institute's list of fellows to include experts from a wider array of disciplines and from other organizations and schools.

As the reputation of the institute grew, Schneck gained wider notice in the political realm as well. He was invited to meet with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at times. Several institute fellows have testified on key issues on Capitol Hill.

Of course, CUA's institute was not the only program to bring Catholic social teaching to public policy discussions. But coming from the U.S. Catholic Church's official national university, the messages shared through the institute's programs seemed to carry a bit more weight, sending a message to Capitol Hill and the White House that Catholic social thought was relevant to the key issues facing the country.

Schneck said such emphasis on church teaching had been the goal of CUA's president at the time, now Bishop David M. O'Connell of Trenton, New Jersey. The bishop credited Schneck for wanting to "grapple with some of the substantive issues that were being faced by the church within the broader marketplace."

"Steve articulated that purpose very well, to engage society and the political world and the movers and shakers in contemporary political life," Bishop O'Connell told CNS. "Steve has a very good insight for that. He brought it forward at the right time."

Schneck's work in the classroom has been recognized as well. He has received several teacher of the year awards from the university.

University President John Garvey said Schneck gained respect across campus because of his selfless commitment to service.

"He's been such a great university citizen," Garvey said, citing a period in 2012 and 2013 when Schneck agreed to serve as acting dean of the National Catholic School of Social Service despite numerous other responsibilties. "He was someone who had immediate credibility with the faculty and did such a fabulous job."

Schneck leaves his position with a couple of unattained goals. He said he would have liked the institute to develop its own capacity to conduct polling to measure public perception on key issues affecting the country. He also thinks history is important to understanding modern-day politics and having more historians in the ranks of institute fellows who could connect the dots from years past to today's realities to create better understanding of the political process, he said.

For now, though, Schneck is ready to move on to the next phase of his career.

"I can't imagine that I'm ready to abandon my effort to bring Catholic insights into American public life," he said. "I have some offers to write columns for some Catholic magazines. I have a book that remains unfinished ... that I'll be turning back to."

Schneck has been traveling around the country as he prepares for retirement, visiting friends at universities and meeting bishops with whom he has worked on institute programs to gain a better sense of how important the Catholic voice can be in influencing public policy choices. He thinks he may work to help bridge the polarizing gaps that exist across political party lines and within the church as well.

"If we can't figure out a way to achieve solidarity or find a way of healing this rift, then I worry profoundly about both American political life and our church," Schneck said. "This I think is the biggest task, the biggest challenge facing us. There are lots of challenges, but none of those challenges can be addressed until we address this and find a way to work together with one another."

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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Pope to canonize Fatima seers May 13; October date for other saints


By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis will declare the sainthood of Blessed Jacinta Marto and Blessed Francisco Marto, two of the shepherd children who saw Mary in Fatima, Portugal, during his visit to the site of the apparitions May 13.

The date was announced April 20 during an "ordinary public consistory," a meeting of the pope, cardinals and promoters of sainthood causes that formally ends the sainthood process.

Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, addressing the assembly noted that of the future saints considered at the consistory, five were children or young teenagers.

"In our time, where young people often become objects of exploitation and commerce, these young people excel as witnesses of truth and freedom, messengers of peace (and) of a new humanity reconciled in love," the cardinal said.

At the same consistory, the pope set Oct. 15 as the date for the canonizations of two priests and two groups of martyrs, including Blessed Cristobal, Blessed Antonio and Blessed Juan -- also known as the "Child Martyrs of Tlaxcala" -- who were among the first native converts in Mexico. They were killed between 1527 and 1529 for refusing to renounce the faith and return to their people's ancient traditions.

Pope Francis will preside over the canonization ceremony of the Fatima visionaries during his visit to Fatima May 12-13.

The pilgrimage will mark the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions, which began May 13, 1917, when 9-year-old Francisco and 7-year-old Jacinta, along with their cousin Lucia dos Santos, reported seeing the Virgin Mary. The apparitions continued once a month until Oct. 13, 1917, and later were declared worthy of belief by the Catholic Church.

A year after the apparitions, both of the Marto children became ill during an influenza epidemic that plagued Europe. Francisco died April 4, 1919, at the age of 10, while Jacinta succumbed to her illness Feb. 20, 1920, at the age of 9.

Francisco and Jacinta's cause for canonization was stalled for decades due to a debate on whether non-martyred children have the capacity to understand heroic virtues at a young age. However, in 1979, St. John Paul II allowed their cause to proceed; he declared them venerable in 1989 and beatified them in 2000.

The children's cousin entered the Carmelites. Sister Lucia died in 2005 at the age of 97. The diocesan phase of her sainthood cause concluded in February and now is under study at the Vatican.

The other canonizations set to take place Oct. 15 include:

-- The "Martyrs of Natal," Brazil, including: Blessed Andre de Soveral, a Jesuit priest; Blessed Ambrosio Francisco Ferro, a diocesan priest; Blessed Mateus Moreira, a layman; and 27 others. They were killed in 1645 in a wave of anti-Catholic persecution carried out by Dutch Calvinists.

-- Blessed Faustino Miguez, a Spanish priest and a member of the Piarist Fathers born in 1831. He started an advanced school for girls at a time when such education was limited almost exclusively to boys.

While he taught a variety of subjects and wrote numerous textbooks, he also honed an interest in botany, which led him to find a cure for a professor so ill that he was thought to be beyond hope. People then came to him from all parts of the country seeking relief from their sicknesses.

-- Blessed Angelo da Acri, an Italian Capuchin priest who was born Luca Antonio Falcone. A famed preacher, he was known for his defense of the poor. He died in 1739 and was beatified by Pope Leo XII in 1825.

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All hands on deck: Franciscan idea can expand church leadership pool

IMAGE: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For St. Francis of Assisi, following Christ meant imitating his humility and forsaking riches, power and status; the men who call themselves Franciscans today believe they are called to embrace the same attitudes, including in their governance.

In early April, the ministers general of four men's branches of the Franciscan family -- the Friars Minor, Capuchins, Conventual Franciscans and the Third Order Regulars -- asked Pope Francis to give the Franciscans the "privilege" of allowing religious brothers to be elected to leadership positions, including those with authority over ordained priests.

The word "privilege" means special permission for something not generally envisioned by church law. In canon law, governance in the church usually is tied to ordination.

The Franciscans' request is about recovering the notion of fraternity and service St. Francis gave his first companions, said Father Michael Perry, minister general of the Friars Minor. But it also has implications for leadership, authority and governance in the wider church.

At its root, it raises the question: "Is leadership about organizing things in such a way that one has absolute control over everything? Or is leadership about empowering people so that there's a synergy, a bringing together of all the strengths within a community?" Father Perry told Catholic News Service.

The core identity of ordained ministry is involved as well.

Because of its unique connection to the Eucharist, the ministerial priesthood has a special and irreplaceable role within the Catholic Church and within a Catholic religious community, Father Perry said. The Franciscans' request "is not a question of challenging spiritual authority or the role of the shepherd; it's actually about liberating the shepherd so that he can be focused on the sheep and not have to be worried about the gates and the fences."

The Franciscan ideal for leadership is that it should invite and challenge the friars -- brothers among themselves, whether ordained or not -- "to 'minority,' to not going up, but going down," Father Perry said. Minority is the opposite of clericalism, which is "a drive upwards as if upward mobility offered something, some security and guarantee of fidelity, a way of controlling people so they remain faithful to the truth. Franciscans, we don't see it this way."

From 1208 to 1209 when Pope Innocent III approved St. Francis' initial rule for his order and up until 1239, Father Perry said, the Franciscans were allowed to elect brothers to leadership roles, including as minister general, and they did so.

Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and professor of theology at Villanova University, said that if Pope Francis grants the friars' request, "it would signal to the whole church a shift in the sense of a de-clericalization of the religious orders and the return to the original inspiration of the founders: Francis was not a priest but a lay person, and the clericalization of the Franciscans came later."

Some people have argued that St. Francis was a deacon, but Father Perry said even that is hotly debated among Franciscan scholars. What is certain is that he received the "tonsure," a ritual cutting of hair that often signified preparation for ordination. But Father Perry is convinced that in St. Francis' case, it was simply the official sign that he had been granted permission by the bishop to preach in churches.

Loosening the link between ordination and governance increases the possibilities for recognizing the dignity, gifts, skills and call to service of all the baptized, Father Perry said.

Reserving most leadership roles to the ordained, he said, "has not permitted space for women and also, at times, squelched competence. It has not promoted competence and, in fact, has awarded incompetence."

A model of church leadership in which the ordained are spiritual shepherds, who also have oversight to ensure administrative and financial matters are handled appropriately, is "a different model than one in which leadership controls, that has to make sure 'I'm in charge.' That comes from personal insecurity and a lack of faith, not from the presence of faith," Father Perry said.

In his view, he said, "clericalism is a sign of a lack of faith, a lack of trust -- a lack of trust in God, a lack of trust in others and, ultimately, a lack of trust in oneself."

Faggioli, the church historian, told CNS that "the clergy-centered church was part of the tight relationship between church and state in the Western world of established Christendom. It was more a social and political necessity than a theological one: the state or the political authority needed to count on a reliable professional class of clergy faithful to the political authority."

But the world has changed, he said, and "the church's mission in this secularized world needs all the hands, not only the clerical ones."

While "governance is still canonically tied to ordination," the professor said, "in the real life of the Catholic Church worldwide today many key decisions are made by laypeople: Catholic education, health care, media, social work, etc. are largely in the hands of laypeople."

"We have to come to terms with what is the nature of church and what is the nature of ministries in the church?" Father Perry said. "Francis of Assisi called for a new model, a model that would not challenge at all the nature of the church and the distinct roles within the church, but would remind the church that these are all in service to something higher, something greater."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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Vatican says it would welcome visit by Trump

IMAGE: CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters


VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- If U.S. President Donald Trump requests a meeting with Pope Francis in May, the Vatican will try to make it work, a top Vatican official said.

"Pope Francis always is willing to welcome heads of state who ask," Archbishop Angelo Becciu, Vatican substitute secretary of state, told the Italian news agency ANSA April 19.

Trump is scheduled to be in Taormina, in southern Italy, May 26-27 for a summit of G-7 leaders and representatives of the European Union.

Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, told reporters April 19, "We will be reaching out to the Vatican to see if a meeting, an audience with the pope can be accommodated. We'll have further details on that. Obviously, we would be honored to have an audience with his holiness."

Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has visited the Vatican to meet the pope. Eisenhower met St. John XXIII at the Vatican in December 1959.

But Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting U.S. president to meet a pope at the Vatican. He met with Pope Benedict XV in 1919 while on a European tour after World War I.

The visits are a mix of policy discussions and protocol, very civil and even warm affairs where, however, serious policy differences are raised. Depending on the president, his party and policies, the divergences run from issues related to the sacredness of the unborn to the obligation to care for creation and to welcome refugees.

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Supreme Court seems to lean toward church in Lutheran playground case

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Supreme Court justices seemed to side with the church in a separation of church and state case argued April 19 about a Missouri Lutheran preschool barred from receiving state funds for playground resurfacing using recycled tires because it is a church property.

In his first minutes before the court, David Cortman, arguing for the church in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, said: "The question is why would someone's religious status matter in the first place to receiving a government benefit?"

The justices seemed to settle on that point, questioning the state's decision to exclude the church from a grant program when there are federal programs in place that provide funding that could benefit religious institutions including a Department of Homeland Security program to improve security near synagogues or mosques and a program to repair buildings damaged by the bombing at the federal building in Oklahoma City.

James Layton, arguing for the state, said Missouri also would be against such programs because they similarly grant funds to religious institutions.

Layton, former solicitor general of Missouri, said the state would not block police and fire protection to churches because public safety is different since it is a service.

He said the state bars funding from religious institutions to avoid the appearance that it chooses among different churches or makes physical improvements to them.

The justices acknowledged the playground resurfacing issue was more than meets the eye.

"This church-state divide, it's a fraught issue. It's a hard issue," Justice Elena Kagan said, also calling the case a "clear burden on a constitutional right."

A crowd, including handfuls of children, gathered outside the court and those favoring the church position held aloft balloons that spelled out "play fair."

During the 70 minutes of arguments, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor didn't seem to buy the church argument.

Sotomayor said: "This church is not going to close its religious practices or its doors because its playground doesn't have these tires. So I'm not sure how this is a free exercise question, because there is no effect on the religious beliefs. No one is asking the church to change its beliefs."

One reason cited for preventing the church from getting the grant funding is the Blaine Amendment in the Missouri Constitution, and in 36 other states, which bars public money from going to churches:

The amendments date back to the 19th century and are named for Rep. James Blaine of Maine, who tried unsuccessfully in 1875 to have the U.S. Constitution prohibit the use of public funds for "sectarian" schools.

When Justice Samuel Alito brought up the state amendments, he asked if they were based on "anti-Catholic bigotry?"

Cortman, an attorney with Christian religious liberty group Alliance Defending Freedom, said history shows "anti-Catholic bigotry that's behind this specific provision," but the establishment clause was really what was being argued here.

The Lutheran church said its exclusion from the program violated the Constitution because it discriminates against religious institutions, but the state has argued that Constitution's free exercise clause does not require the government to subsidize churches or provide equal funding opportunities for religious and nonreligious groups.

In 2015, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state's decision to deny the preschool's grant application.

The case has been a longtime coming to the Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case more than a year ago, a month before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The court, which has been divided on separation of church and state questions, is now back to a full bench, with the addition of Justice Neil Gorsuch just days before the oral arguments in this case.

Gorsuch, in his first week on the court, was viewed as a key supporter for the church in this case since he ruled in favor of religious freedom in 2013 on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, siding with Hobby Lobby stores that fought against the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

The new justice did not ask any questions until near the end when he asked Layton how the "discrimination on the basis of religious exercise is better in selective government programs than general programs."

On religious discrimination, he said: "There's no -- no line-drawing problem there. We know that's happened in this case, right?" He also pointed out later that "the line is moving."

The playground case almost didn't make it to court, because just days before the oral argument the state's new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, reversed the state policy and said churches would be eligible for the type of grant the Lutheran school sought in the future.

The court asked both sides April 14 to submit their views on whether the case should move forward and they both agreed it should. With the new twist, the Missouri attorney general's office recused itself and asked the former state solicitor general to defend the state's position.

The case began five years ago when the school applied for a grant reimbursing nonprofit groups for the cost of purchasing and installing playground surfaces using recycled tires. The program is funded from a fee on the sales of new tires meant to reduce the number of tires in the state's landfills and provide safe playground surfaces.

Missouri's Department of Natural Resources, which administers the playground resurfacing program, ranked Trinity Lutheran's grant application fifth out of the 44 it received. The department, which funds 14 grants, denied Trinity Lutheran's application because the state constitution prohibits state funds from going "directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed an amicus brief supporting the preschool, joined by the Missouri Catholic Conference, the National Catholic Educational Association, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America and the Salvation Army.

University of Notre Dame Law professor Richard Garnett said separation of church and state "is supposed to advance religious freedom, by keeping the government from interfering in religious affairs; it is not supposed to be a warrant for crude discrimination."

"The Missouri provision, and many others like it, reflect a deep and pervasive, but regrettable and misplaced, hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholic schools. This hostility was prevalent in 19th-century America, but there is no reason its influence should continue to block initiatives that serve the common good," he added.

A decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer is expected by late June.

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Fatima at 100: Story of apparitions continues to attract attention

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paulo Cunha, EPA

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- While conversion and prayer are at the heart of Mary's messages at Fatima, Portugal, the miracles and unexplained phenomenon that accompanied the events 100 years ago continue to intrigue believers and nonbelievers alike.

The apparitions of Mary at Fatima in 1917 were not the first supernatural events reported there.

Two years before Mary appeared to the three shepherd children -- Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto -- they saw a strange sight while praying the rosary in the field, according to the memoirs of Sister Lucia, who had become a Carmelite nun.

"We had hardly begun when, there before our eyes, we saw a figure poised in the air above the trees; it looked like a statue made of snow, rendered almost transparent by the rays of the sun," she wrote, describing what they saw in 1915.

The next year, Francisco and Jacinta received permission to tend their family's flocks and Lucia decided to join her cousins in a field owned by their families.

It was 1916 when the mysterious figure appeared again, this time approaching close enough "to distinguish its features."

"Do not be afraid! I am the Angel of Peace. Pray with me," Sister Lucia recalled the angel saying.

The three told no one about the angel's visit and received no more heavenly visits until May 13, 1917. While the children tended their sheep and played, they were startled by two flashes of lightning.

As they made their way down a slope, the children saw a "lady all dressed in white" standing on a small tree. It was the first of six apparitions of Mary, who gave a particular message or revelation each time:

-- May 13, 1917. When asked by the children who she was and where she came from, the lady said she was "from heaven" and that she would reveal her identity later. She asked the children to come back to the Cova da Iria on the 13th day of the month for the next six months, and she asked them to pray the rosary every day "in order to obtain peace for the world" and the end of World War I.

-- June 13, 1917. The lady said she would take Francisco and Jacinta to heaven soon while Lucia would remain on earth for "some time longer" to establish devotion to the Immaculate Heart.

-- July 13, 1917. The lady said she would reveal her identity in October and "perform a miracle for all to see and believe." After telling the children to make sacrifices for sinners, she revealed three secrets; two of the secrets were not shared publicly until 1941 and the third secret, written down by Sister Lucia and sent to the Vatican, was not released until 2000.

The first secret involved a vision of hell in which the children saw "a sea of fire" with demons and human souls shrieking "in pain and despair." In her memoir, Sister Lucia said people nearby, who had begun gathering around the children on the 13th of the month, heard her "cry out" during the frightening revelation.

The second secret was that while World War I would come to end, a "worse one will break out" if people continued offending God.

The children were told that calamity would be prevented if Russia was consecrated to the Immaculate Heart. Although Sister Lucia confirmed that the consecration was done properly by Pope Pius XII in 1942 and by St. John Paul II in 1984, some Fatima devotees continue to argue that it was not.

The third and final secret, published 83 years after the Fatima apparitions, was a vision of a "bishop dressed in white" shot down amid the rubble of a ruined city. The official Vatican interpretation, discussed with Sister Lucia before its publication, was that it referred to the persecution of Christians in the 20th century and, specifically, to the 1981 assassination attempt on the life of St. John Paul II.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the time of the third secret's publication in 2000. Presenting the secret and the interpretation to the press, he said the vision's purpose was not to show an "irrevocably fixed future" but to "mobilize the forces of change in the right direction."

-- Aug. 13, 1917. The lady again said she would perform a miracle in October and asked that the money given by pilgrims be used to build a chapel on the site of the apparitions.

-- Sept. 13, 1917. The lady asked them to continue to pray the rosary "to obtain the end of the war," and she said that Jesus, St. Joseph, Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Carmel would appear during the miracle in October.

-- Oct. 13, 1917. Despite the pouring rain, tens of thousands of people went to the Cova da Iria to witness the long-awaited miracle.

The lady identified herself as "Our Lady of the Rosary" and said the war would end and the soldiers would return home. After asking that people cease to offend God, she opened her hands, which reflected a light toward the sun.

Sister Lucia recalled crying out, "Look at the sun!" As the crowds looked on, the sun appeared to "dance," spinning and changing colors. The children also saw the promised figures of Jesus, St. Joseph and Mary.

Amazement at the "dancing sun" turned to panic when the sun seemed to hurl toward earth. Fearing the end of the world, some people screamed and ran, some tried to hide and others remained on their knees, praying for mercy. Then the sun returned to its place.

Thirteen years after Mary's final apparition at Fatima, the bishop of Leiria declared the visions of the three shepherd children "worthy of belief" and allowed the veneration of Our Lady of Fatima. However, the bishop did not recognize the "dancing sun" as miraculous.

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Georgetown University, Jesuits apologize for roles in sale of slaves

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard


WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Georgetown University and the Society of Jesus' Maryland province apologized April 18 for their roles in the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved individuals for the university's benefit.

More than 100 descendants attended a morning "Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope" that the university created in partnership with descendants, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the United States.

"Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned," said Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, during the liturgy. "We pray with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry."

The event took place the day after the District of Columbia marked Emancipation Day, which celebrates the emancipation of slaves in Washington April 16, 1862. This year, the local holiday was moved to April 17 because the actual day fell on Easter Sunday.

In early April, Georgetown announced plans for the liturgy and a renaming ceremony for two buildings on campus previously named for priests who sold women, children and men into slavery for financial gain in 1838.

Jesuit Father Thomas Mulledy, as Georgetown president, authorized the transaction, and Jesuit Father William McSherry also was involved in the 1838 sale and in other slave sales.

Mulledy Hall was renamed after Isaac Hawkins, the first enslaved person listed in the sale documents. McSherry Hall is now named after Anne Marie Becraft, a teacher and free woman of color who established one of the first schools for black girls in the District of Columbia. She later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Sandra Green Thomas, a descendant of the slaves and president of the GU272 Descendants Association, spoke at length at the liturgy about the 272 enslaved people, her ancestors and her Catholic faith.

"The ability to transcend the realities of this life in this country has been a necessary tool in the survival kit of my people," she said. "For the 272, I believe that their Catholic faith enabled them to transcend. No matter how incongruous their existence was with the gospel of God's love and protection, they clung to their faith."

President John J. DeGioia of Georgetown also spoke during the liturgy, saying that "slavery remains the original evil of our republic."

The university "was complicit in" that evil, "a sin that tore apart families," he said. "Through great violence, (it) denied and rejected the dignity and humanity of our fellow sisters and brothers. We lay this truth bare -- in sorrowful apology and communal reckoning."

Jesuit Father Robert Hussey, provincial of his order's Maryland province, and DeGioia met with descendants in the afternoon.

Karran Harper Royal, another descendant, thanked Georgetown for its steps toward acknowledging its ties with slavery, particularly the students who took their concerns about the university's history to the administration in 2015.

"The actions of Georgetown students have placed all of us on a journey together toward honoring our enslaved ancestors by working toward healing and reconciliation," she said. "Our history has shown us that the vestiges of slavery are a continuum that began with the kidnapping of our people from our motherland to keeping them in bondage with the brutality of American chattel slavery, Jim Crow, segregation ' the school-to-prison pipeline and the over-incarceration of people of color."

Other events included opportunities for members of the descendant community to connect with one another and with Jesuits through a private vigil the evening of April 17, a descendant-only dinner April 18 and tours of the Maryland plantation where their ancestors were enslaved.

DeGioia and other university officials have met with some descendants of the slaves on various occasions and they have had access to historical materials regarding the sale of their relatives.

Some of the families sold included adults and children the Jesuits had baptized. On March 12, The New York Times published a photo, the only known image, that an archivist in Thibodaux, Louisiana, found of one of the slaves sold by the Jesuits. His name was Frank Campbell and the story accompanying the photo said the slave was sold out of St. Inigoes plantation in Maryland, named after St. Ignatius. He had kept ties to the Catholic Church after gaining his freedom, the story said.

The liturgy and building rededications were recommendations of Georgetown's Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation in September 2016. The group, which included faculty, students, alumni and descendants of slaves, had suggested the university offer some form of reparative outreach as well as a meaningful financial commitment.

"Our work as a group was to help tear down the walls, the walls of mystery and silence and (the) unknown surrounding Georgetown's historical ties to the institution of slavery," said working group member Connor Maytnier at the dedication.

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Al-Azhar peace conference invites Christian leaders of East, West

IMAGE: CNS photo/Menahem Kahana, Reuters

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was scheduled to attend a peace conference in Cairo with Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University.

While Patriarch Bartholomew's office did not release a detailed schedule of events he would be attending during the pope's April 28-29 visit to Cairo, the Vatican confirmed reports April 19 that Patriarch Bartholomew was invited to take part in the conference and was planning to attend.

Pope Francis also was scheduled to meet Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, soon after the conference April 28, making it a day the heirs of the Apostles Peter, Mark and Andrew all would be present in the ancient land of Egypt.

While Pope Francis is the successor of St. Peter, the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate traces its lineage to St. Andrew and the Coptic Orthodox Church has St. Mark as its patron. The Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches are not in full communion with each other, although they have been working closely together and have been engaged in theology dialogue aimed at unity.

The Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople is called the ecumenical patriarch and is considered "first among equals" for the Eastern Orthodox churches, even though his primacy does not entail direct or ultimate jurisdiction over them.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of six Oriental Orthodox churches that trace their roots to apostolic times, but distanced themselves from the rest of Christianity after the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Like the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Oriental Orthodox accept seven sacraments and allow ordination of married men to the priesthood but choose their bishops only from among celibate priests. They are in communion with one another but not with the Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox churches that split with Rome beginning in the 11th century.

Egypt's indigenous Christian community traces its faith all the way back to Jesus who, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, sought refuge in Egypt from the wrath of Herod the Great 2,000 years ago.

Coptic Orthodox tradition holds that Christ stayed in Egypt for three years and that later, around the year 42, St. Mark the Evangelist arrived to evangelize in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, before being martyred there.

Christianity continued to spread and by the third century, Christianity was the country's dominant religion. By the time the newer religion of Islam arrived in Egypt in the middle of the seventh century, Egyptian Christianity had already provided the church with some of the world's major Christian saints and had introduced new forms of monastic life.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros, represents 95 percent of all Christians in Egypt. The other local Christian groups include Protestants and Catholics from different rites, including Coptic, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian, Chaldean and Latin.

Egypt's Coptic Catholic Church is the largest of the Catholic rites in the country and accounts for as many as 300,000 faithful. Both Coptic Catholics and Coptic Orthodox refer to their respective leaders as "patriarch of Alexandria" and see themselves as the "original" Egyptians because of their ancient ties to the land.

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Closed hearts unable to be surprised by the Resurrection, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christian faith is a grace and can be perceived only in the hearts of those willing to be surprised by the joy of the Resurrection, Pope Francis said.

"A closed heart, a rationalistic heart" is incapable of understanding the Christian message which has God's love -- manifested in Christ's victory over death -- at its center, the pope said at his weekly general audience April 19.

"How beautiful it is to think that Christianity is essentially this: It is not so much our search for God -- a search that is, truthfully, somewhat shaky -- but rather God's search for us," the pope said.

The pope, bundled up in a white overcoat due to the unusually chilly and windy weather, entered a packed St. Peter's Square in his popemobile. Immediately, he invited two girls and a boy, dressed in their altar server robes, to board the vehicle and ride with him around the square.

Pope Francis also took a moment to greet an elderly woman who, overcome with emotion, cried and stretched out her arms to embrace the pope. He stooped over, warmly embracing the woman and gently caressing her face before making the sign of the cross over her forehead.

Continuing his series of talks on hope, the pope reflected on St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians in which the apostle emphasizes the Resurrection as "the heart of the Christian message."

"Christianity is born from here. It is not an ideology nor a philosophic system but a path of faith that begins from an event, witnessed by Jesus' first disciples," the pope said.

St. Paul's summary of those who witnessed the risen Christ, he noted, ends by describing himself as the "least worthy of all" given his dramatic history as a one-time adversary of the early Christians.

St. Paul "wasn't a 'choirboy.' He was a persecutor of the church, proud of his own convictions," the pope said, departing from his prepared remarks. But "one day something completely unpredictable happens: the encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus."

It is the surprise of this encounter, the pope continued, that all Christians are called to experience "even if we are sinners."

Like the first disciples who saw the stone overturned at Jesus' tomb, all men and women can find "happiness, joy and life where everyone thought there was only sadness, defeat and darkness," the pope said.

God, Pope Francis said, is greater than "nothingness and just one lit candle is able to overcome the darkest night."

"If we are asked the reason for our smile and our patient sharing, we can respond that Jesus is still here, he continues to be alive in our midst," the pope said. "Jesus is here, in this square with us, alive and risen."

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Vatican releases itinerary for papal trip to Egypt

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis will meet with the leader of one of the world's leading Sunni Muslim institutions, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church and representatives of the Catholic Church on a two-day trip to Cairo.

The pope is scheduled to arrive in Cairo April 28 for courtesy visits with political and religious leaders and deliver a speech, along with the grand imam of al-Azhar University, to an international conference on peace. He will celebrate Mass for the small Catholic community in Cairo the next day and meet with bishops, clergy, religious and seminarians before returning to Rome April 29.

In mid-March, the Vatican confirmed the pope would make the trip following an invitation from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the Catholic bishops in Egypt, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar.

It will be the pope's 18th trip abroad in his four years as pope and the seventh time he visits a Muslim-majority nation. He will be the second pope to visit Egypt, after St. John Paul II went to Cairo and Mount Sinai in 2000.

The Catholic community in Egypt numbers about 272,000, less than 0.5 percent of the population, which is 90 percent Sunni Muslim.

In 1998, Catholic-Muslim dialogue was initiated between Vatican experts and Muslim scholars of Cairo's al-Azhar University, the main center for Islamic learning for the more than 1 billion Sunni Muslims worldwide. The trip will come amid increasingly closer relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar, which is considered the most authoritative theological-academic institution of Sunni Islam. The pope has also said he sees the importance of strengthening cooperation between Catholics and Coptic Orthodox Christians in the face of so many threats to human life and creation.

Here is the pope's schedule as released by the Vatican. Times listed are local, with Eastern Daylight Time in parentheses.

Friday, April 28 (Rome, Cairo)

-- 10:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.), Departure from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci International Airport for Cairo.

-- 2 p.m. (8 a.m.), Arrival at Cairo airport. Official welcoming ceremony at the Heliopolis presidential palace. Courtesy visits with el-Sissi and Sheik el-Tayeb. Speeches by the grand imam and the pope to participants in an international conference on peace.

-- 4:40 p.m. (10:40 a.m.), Meeting with local authorities. Speeches by el-Sissi and Pope Francis. Courtesy visit to Pope Tawadros. Speeches by Pope Tawadros and Pope Francis.

Saturday, April 29 (Cairo, Rome)

-- 10:00 a.m. (4:00 a.m.), Mass in Cairo. Homily by pope.

-- 12:15 p.m. (6:15 a.m.), Lunch with Egypt's bishops and the papal entourage.

-- 3:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m.), Prayer gathering with clergy, men and women religious, and seminarians. Speech by pope. Farewell ceremony.

-- 5 p.m. (11 a.m.), Departure from Cairo airport for Rome.

-- 8:30 p.m. (2:30 p.m.), Arrival at Rome's Ciampino airport.

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Not just another 'trade meeting,' convocation seeks to unify U.S. church

IMAGE: CNS/Nancy Wiechec

By Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- This summer's Convocation of Catholic Leaders comes at a time when the U.S. Catholic Church is seeking how best to respond to a changing social landscape while bringing Pope Francis' vision for a church that offers mercy and joy to the world.

Called by the bishops, the historic convocation will find more than 3,000 Catholic leaders -- bishops, clergy, religious and laypeople -- meeting July 1-4 in Orlando, Florida, to focus on how the pope's 2013 apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), applies in the United States.

The pope's document lays out a vision of the church dedicated to evangelization -- missionary discipleship -- in a positive way, with a focus on society's poorest and most vulnerable, including the aged and unborn.

Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development and a convocation planner, sees the gathering as a way for Catholics across the diverse spectrum of the church to unify in Christ.

"The beauty of it for us as Catholics is it's not just another trade meeting," Reyes told Catholic News Service. "This is centered, as Pope Francis said again and again, in the encounter with Jesus Christ. That's what holds us together. Even Catholics need a moment of unity these days. Not just our country, but we as Catholics need a moment of unity around Christ."

The idea of missionary discipleship expressed by the pope has taken root in the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It's the pre-eminent theme in the 2017-2020 strategic plan the bishops adopted during their annual fall general assembly in November.

Planning for the gathering, titled "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America," has been underway for a few years. It is being called to examine today's concerns, challenges and opportunities for action in light of the church's evangelization mission, Reyes explained.

"So we're going to encounter Christ together, converse together, pray together, encounter one another and talk very practically about what are the challenges, what's it mean to be missionary disciples at this moment and how do we go out and do it," Reyes said.

Planners want people to mix and mingle and learn from each other during the invitation-only event.

"This group of people would never be in the same strategic conversations together if it weren't for the bishops calling them together. They are in all kinds of ministries throughout the church. They are professionals in all the different fields, education, business, teachers. We have people from all socioeconomic groups," Reyes said.

"So we're going to have a conversation that could only be had by the bishops. That's needed in this moment. I think everybody agrees we need this conversation. It's not about the things that divide us. And the beauty is we have this document from Pope Francis, 'Evangelii Gaudium.' There was unity around that document when it came out, a document that opens with 'I invited all of you to a personal encounter with Christ,' which is right where we want to start," he said.

Such a gathering of bishops and key church leaders has occurred just once before within the U.S. church.

In 1917, in response to the country's entry into World War I, the bishops met with a select group of leaders to determine how to respond to social needs emerging from the war. That meeting at The Catholic University of America in Washington led to the formation of the National Catholic War Council "to study, coordinate, unify and put in operation all Catholic activities incidental to the war." After the war, the bishops met to make the council permanent and established the National Catholic Welfare Council, the forerunner to today's USCCB.

"They were responding to a very different crisis, World War I. But there was a sense of the importance of the moment that the church of the United States had to come together under the bishops to find a way of going forward, a vision of hope for the country and to serve," Reyes said.

Today, like the wider society, the U.S. church is grappling with how best to respond to rapid sociological changes: demographics including a rising Latino population and people leaving organized religion, an economy that has led to a smaller middle class, a broadening of the legal definition of marriage, polarization along ideological lines and technological advances that have changed how people relate with each other.

How to respond under the guidance of Pope Francis will begin to be discussed during the convocation. Each day has its own theme for participants to consider in light of changing church and social structures:

-- July 1: National Unity

-- July 2: Landscape and Renewal

-- July 3: Work and Witness

-- July 4: A Spirit of Mission

On days 2 and 3, plenary sessions will feature panel discussions pertaining to an aspect of the respective themes with nearly two dozen breakout sessions afterward exploring wide-ranging topics influencing the church's work.

Mass will be part of each day as well. The July 3 Mass will incorporate religious liberty as part of the bishops' annual Fortnight for Freedom observance.

Reyes and planners, including the bishops envision the convocation as a starting point with Pope Francis providing the inspiration through his call to bring the Gospel to others.

"The Gospel is a pretty good thing to rally around," Reyes told CNS. "You can build a lot unity out of it."

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Pope Benedict celebrates birthday with Bavarian guests, beer, pretzels

IMAGE: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A bit of Bavaria, including German beer and pretzels, came to the Vatican to help celebrate retired Pope Benedict XVI's 90th birthday.

"Thank you for bringing Bavaria here," he told his guests, commenting on the beauty of gathering together under a blue Roman sky with white clouds -- colors that "recall the white and blue flag of Bavaria" and how "it's always the same sky" no matter where one finds oneself in the world.

The Bavarian-born pope's birthday fell on Easter Sunday, April 16, so a small informal party was held April 17 outside his residence, the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican gardens. Pope Francis visited his predecessor April 12, before the start of the Easter Triduum, to offer him birthday greetings.

Special guests at the Bavarian party included: Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the retired pope's 93-year-old brother; Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the retired pope's personal secretary; Birgit Wansing, a longtime administrative assistant; and the consecrated laywomen from Memores Domini, who assist him.

A German delegation was present, led by the minister president of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, and including a group of men dressed in the traditional uniforms of the "Schutzen" with their dark green wool hats decorated with feathers, pins and sprigs of greenery.

Pope Benedict said his heart was filled with gratitude "for the 90 years the good Lord has given me. There have been trying and difficult times, but he always guided me and pulled me through."

He thanked God for his beautiful homeland "that you now bring to me," and which is "open to the world, lively and happy" because it is rooted so deeply in the Christian faith.

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At 'mother of all vigils,' U.S. church welcomes thousands of new Catholics

IMAGE: CNS photo/Octavio Duran


WASHINGTON (CNS) -- During what the Roman Missal describes as the "mother of all vigils," the U.S. Catholic Church welcomed thousands of new Catholics at the Easter Vigil April 15 in churches big and small across the country.

About 60 of the nearly 200 dioceses in the United States reported numbers of catechumens and candidates entering the church in 2017 to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

Catechumens receive the sacraments of initiation -- baptism, confirmation and first Communion -- during the Easter Vigil, having prepared for this moment through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Candidates, who are already baptized, also go through the preparation program to receive confirmation and first Communion to enter full communion with the church.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the United States, welcomed 1,756 catechumens and 938 candidates, while the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston reported 1,667 catechumens and 708 candidates. The Archdiocese of Seattle had 679 catechumens and 409 candidates, the Archdiocese of Miami had 524 catechumens and 214 candidates, and the Archdiocese of Washington reported 483 catechumens and 698 candidates.

Not far behind was the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, which reported 387 catechumens and 528 candidates.

The Tablet, Brooklyn's diocesan newspaper, said that the numbers of new Catholics entering the church and those seeking full communion in the church were so staggering that the diocese had to hold two different ceremonies for the Rite of Election in early March.

On Holy Saturday, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, the "greatest and most noble of all solemnities" took a little longer than usual this year. In addition to the dramatic symbols of light and the seven Old Testament readings, 52 catechumens and 25 candidates were welcomed into the church.

"Now that I am an adult, I better understand my call to faith. I have a responsibility to cooperate with my faith in God," said Kari Morales, a native of Mexico, who was joining the church at Easter. "I've heard a lot of misconceptions about the church," added Morales, a psychologist at a public school. "There's a lot of negativity out there. The period of preparation opened my eyes to the truth."

In the Diocese of Rochester, New York, the RCIA involvement of Dan and Michaela Cady -- along with their sons Aidan, 15, Solas, 12, and Merritt, 10 -- was spurred by a family tragedy. Two years ago, their daughter and sister Kennis, then 12, died unexpectedly.

"It just turned our heads about life," Dan Cady said. He added that his family was grateful for the support it received from the staff of St. Jerome Parish in East Rochester, and from there opted to pursue RCIA. Dan said he was confident that his daughter was watching over the family as they continue on their faith journey.

"We would like to think it's orchestrated by her," he said. Some of the family members received the sacraments this year, and others will next year. Overall, the Diocese of Rochester this year reported 96 catechumens and 149 candidates.

Elsewhere in New York state, the Diocese of Rockville Centre reported 232 catechumens and 327 candidates; the Diocese of Buffalo had 56 catechumens and 105 candidates; and the Diocese of Syracuse had 49 catechumens and 70 candidates.

Jarrid Perusse of Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo, Florida, said that while he was in Orlando, Florida, he "got saved on a porch" during a summer internship as a door-to-door salesman. He realized that God was reaching out to him, and "it was my turn to start reaching back," Perusse said.

In the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan, 175 catechumens and 249 candidates received the sacraments. Among them, Mac, 90, and Barb Harless, 85, joined the church this Easter after finding their parish, St. John Paul II Church in Cedar Springs, Michigan, to be a source of prayer, peace and hope during Barb's battle with cancer.

Other archdioceses reported the following totals: Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, 201 catechumens and 623 candidates; Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 235 catechumens and 322 candidates; Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, 227 catechumens and 279 candidates; Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, 290 catechumens and 368 candidates; Archdiocese of San Francisco, 174 catechumens and 207 candidates; Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, 499 catechumens and 693 candidates; and the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, 63 catechumens and 94 candidates.

In California, the Diocese of Stockton welcomed 284 candidates and 532 catechumens; the Diocese of Oakland, 176 catechumens and 376 candidates; the Diocese of San Diego, 333 catechumens and 635 candidates; the Diocese of Fresno, 593 catechumens and 56 candidates; and the Diocese of San Jose, 496 catechumens and candidates.

In Florida, the Diocese of St. Petersburg had 456 catechumens and 514 candidates; the Diocese of Orlando, 586 catechumens and candidates; and the Diocese of Palm Beach, 147 catechumens and 474 candidates.

Other dioceses reporting hundreds of catechumens and candidates included: Diocese of Dallas, 945 catechumens and 1,230 candidates; Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, 252 catechumens and 324 candidates; Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, 187 catechumens and 208 candidates; Diocese of Salt Lake City, 273 catechumens and 153 candidates; Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, 200 catechumens and 508 candidates; Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, 160 catechumens and 317 candidates; Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, 78 catechumens and 241 candidates; Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, 106 catechumens and 172 candidates; Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, 111 candidates and 209 catechumens; Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, 97 catechumens and 130 candidates; Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, 114 catechumens and 101 candidates; Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, 95 candidates and 67 catechumens; Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, 54 catechumens and 120 candidates; the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, 11 catechumens and 69 candidates.

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Editor's Note: More numbers of catechumens and candidates in other dioceses can be found at

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Immigrants aren't getting health care, so parish brings it to them

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sarah Webb, CatholicPhilly

By Gina Christian

NORRISTOWN, Pa. (CNS) -- For immigrants in the country without legal permission, a routine doctor's visit can be an occasion for panic. Without papers, immigrants fear deportation when they enter the waiting room.

Unwilling to take such a risk, they avoid seeking medical attention even in life-threatening cases.

Language barriers that make it difficult to describe their ailments or to understand medical advice, lack of transportation to health care facilities and working long hours at jobs that don't provide paid time off all add up to many immigrants missing out on vital health care.

St. Patrick Parish in Norristown is working to change this situation with help from local clinicians, volunteers -- and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

After the noon Mass on the first Sunday of each month, the parish hosts a walk-in health fair for area residents, many of whom are Mexican immigrants, in the church's basement hall.

Participants receive free screenings for diabetes, tuberculosis, hypertension, eye and dental conditions.

Pregnant women can also obtain prenatal vitamins and baby boxes - sturdy, cardboard cribs designed to prevent SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome.

The monthly health fair is vital to the local community's underserved members.

"The people who come here have total and complete trust in the priests," said Father Gus Puleo, pastor of St. Patrick Parish and an adjunct professor of Spanish at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. "They always come to me with concerns about immigration and medical matters. I think this trust is due to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is a major force in the Mexican community. We work with her."

The parish also works with area medical practitioners who train leaders within the community as "promotores de la salud," or "health promoters."

The promotores receive a year of "education and practical training in health and nursing care," Father Puleo told, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. "They come from the community, and they take ownership of this program."

Because they are community members, fluent in both the language and the culture of those they assist, the promotores serve as critical links between the program's clients and health care services.

"Having this here in the church is more confidential, more calming, more convenient," Carla, a parishioner, said after the most recent health fair at St. Patrick's April 2. "It's very necessary to have these services for the Spanish community."

Prenatal care is key among those services. In 2014, Father Puleo buried five infants who died because of a lack of proper medical attention, and he was determined not to bury any more.

"When I started this program here, I had to learn about pregnancy through scientific research, and I have a better understanding of it now than most biological fathers do," he said.

Throughout the summer of 2014, he announced the program to his parishioners, and in October 2014, the first screening session was held.

To implement the program in his parish, Father Puleo coordinated with Mercy Sister Ann O'Connell and Jesuit Father Peter Clark, director of the Institute of Clinical Bioethics and a professor of medical ethics at St. Joseph's University.

Based on health care models he observed in the Dominican Republic, Father Clark had already instituted similar programs for the Nigerian and French-speaking West African communities at St. Cyprian Parish in West Philadelphia.

His team partnered with nearby Mercy Catholic Medical Center, and Sister O'Connell, a retired vice president of mission for what is now Suburban Community Hospital in Norristown, suggested extending the program to the Mexican community in central Montgomery County.

The program has already saved lives. A stroke patient who came to the March clinic was referred immediately to the hospital by a resident helping at the clinic. In another case an ambulance was called to take a man whose eye was hemorrhaging to the hospital, said Father Clark. "These men were both undocumented, so they're not going to run immediately to the emergency room. But a resident (physician) called ahead, and he knew the residents in the ER, and they just took care of them."

Any case requiring formal medical treatment is referred to local practitioners and clinics, which often charge on a sliding-scale basis.

"For those patients who do not have insurance, we provide information and ask them to come into our office," said Dr. Patrice Ekperi, a practitioner at Suburban Community Hospital's Family Medicine Office. "We can provide treatment services there, and we do offer uninsured rates, so that we can at least attend to those who do not have insurance or who may be underinsured."

"The hospitals in Philadelphia have been very good," Father Puleo added. "We pay something, but we try for minimal payment. We rely on clinics. We use our connections."

The list of agencies willing to help with the program continues to grow. For instance, St. Patrick's now offers dental health education, thanks to volunteers from Montgomery County Community College's dental hygiene program.

Students from both the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Institute of Clinical Bioethics at St. Joseph's University routinely staff the monthly clinic. A Delaware Valley nonprofit organization, coordinates mammograms and pelvic exams for women at area hospitals.

The Mexican consulate has joined the monthly health fair to assist clients with immigration issues, legal documentation and domestic violence concerns.

By ministering to the medical needs of the underserved, the promotores program also serves as a means of evangelization.

"We're called to take care of both the spiritual and physical needs of the person," said Father Puleo. "They're not separate; they're one."

"We walk the talk," added Sister O'Connell. "It's not just something preached, but it's something lived."

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Christian writes for, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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New Assisi shrine is reminder to shed attachment to money, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Like St. Francis of Assisi did, the Catholic Church and individual Christians must follow Christ by imitating his willingness to give up everything for the sake of others, Pope Francis said.

"Unfortunately, 2,000 years after the proclamation of the Gospel and eight centuries after the witness of Francis, we face a phenomenon of global inequity and an economy that kills," the pope said in an April 16 letter to the archbishop of Assisi, Italy.

The pope's letter offered his blessings and support for the decision of the Diocese of Assisi to establish a shrine in memory of the "divestiture" of St. Francis.

The shrine, which will be inaugurated May 20, will be housed in the town's Church of St. Mary Major, but also will include public access to the "Sala della Spogliazione," literally the Room of the Divesting. The room in the bishop's residence is where a young St. Francis -- in the presence of his father and of the bishop -- stripped naked and renounced all wealth.

"Renouncing all earthly goods, he unchained himself from the enchantment with the god money, which had seduced his family," the pope wrote in his letter to Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi.

"The new Assisi shrine is born as a prophecy of a society that is more just and more in solidarity," the pope said, but it also "reminds the church of its obligation to live, in the footsteps of Francis, stripping itself of worldliness and dressing itself with the values of the Gospel."

Pope Francis said he is certain St. Francis did not act out of a lack of respect for his father, a wealthy merchant, but out of a conviction that "one who is baptized must put love for Christ above all other affections."

In 2013, when Pope Francis went to Assisi for the first time as pope, he met in the "Sala della Spogliazione" with individuals and families assisted by the local Catholic charities. In his April letter, the pope wrote that the people gave witness to "the scandalous reality of a world marked by a gap between an immense number of indigent people, often deprived of the most basic necessities, and the miniscule number of the rich who possess the majority of wealth and think they can determine the destiny of humanity."

But in following Christ, he said, "we are all called to be poor, to strip ourselves of our egos; and to do this we must learn how to be with the poor, to share with those who lack basic necessities, to touch the flesh of Christ! The Christian is not one who speaks about the poor, no! He is one who encounters them, who looks them in the eye, who touches them."

The church must make Christ its model for the way it deals with worldly goods and the way it treats the poor, the pope said.

St. Francis "had received the mandate" to repair the church of his time, he said. And while the church "is holy in the gifts it receives from on high, it is formed by sinners and so always in need of repentance and renewal. And how can it renew itself if not by looking upon its naked Lord? Christ is the original model of the 'divesting,'" making himself a slave and dying for the sins of humanity.

"The divesting is a mystery of love," the pope said. "It does not mean despising the world. How could it? The world comes from the hands of God."

But, Pope Francis said, it does mean using creation and worldly goods carefully and in solidarity with those who have less access to what they need to survive.

Goods must be used according to a "hierarchy of values that gives first place to love," he said.

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Risen Christ calls all to follow him on path to life, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden and Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Jesus is the risen shepherd who takes upon his shoulders "our brothers and sisters crushed by evil in all its varied forms," Pope Francis said before giving his solemn Easter blessing.

With tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square April 16, the pope called on Christians to be instruments of Christ's outreach to refugees and migrants, victims of war and exploitation, famine and loneliness.

For the 30th year in a row, Dutch farmers and florists blanketed the area around the altar with grass and 35,000 flowers and plants: lilies, roses, tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, birch and linden.

Preaching without a prepared text, Pope Francis began -- as he did the night before at the Easter Vigil -- imagining the disciples desolate because "the one they loved so much was executed. He died."

While they are huddling in fear, the angel tells them, "He is risen." And, the pope said, the church continues to proclaim that message always and everywhere, including to those whose lives are truly, unfairly difficult.

"It is the mystery of the cornerstone that was discarded, but has become the foundation of our existence," he said. And those who follow Jesus, "we pebbles," find meaning even in the midst of suffering because of sure hope in the resurrection.

Pope Francis suggested everyone find a quiet place on Easter to reflect on their problems and the problems of the world and then tell God, "I don't know how this will end, but I know Christ has risen."

Almost immediately after the homily, a brief but intense rain began to fall on the crowd, leading people to scramble to find umbrellas, jackets or plastic bags to keep themselves dry.

After celebrating the morning Easter Mass, Pope Francis gave his blessing "urbi et orbi," to the city of Rome and the world.

Before reciting the blessing, he told the crowd that "in every age the risen shepherd tirelessly seeks us, his brothers and sisters, wandering in the deserts of this world. With the marks of the passion -- the wounds of his merciful love -- he draws us to follow him on his way, the way of life."

Christ seeks out all those in need, he said. "He comes to meet them through our brothers and sisters who treat them with respect and kindness and help them to hear his voice, an unforgettable voice, a voice calling them back to friendship with God."

Pope Francis mentioned a long list of those for whom the Lord gives special attention, including victims of human trafficking, abused children, victims of terrorism and people forced to flee their homes because of war, famine and poverty.

"In the complex and often dramatic situations of today's world, may the risen Lord guide the steps of all those who work for justice and peace," Pope Francis said. "May he grant the leaders of nations the courage they need to prevent the spread of conflicts and to put a halt to the arms trade."

The pope also offered special prayers for peace in Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, Congo and Ukraine, and for a peaceful resolution of political tensions in Latin America.

The pope's celebration of Easter got underway the night before in a packed St. Peter's Basilica.

The Easter Vigil began with the lighting of the fire and Easter candle in the atrium of the basilica. Walking behind the Easter candle and carrying a candle of his own, Pope Francis entered the basilica in darkness.

The basilica was gently illuminated only by candlelight and the low light emanating from cellphones capturing the solemn procession.

The bells of St. Peter's pealed in the night, the sound echoing through nearby Roman streets, announcing the joy of the Resurrection.

During the vigil, Pope Francis baptized 11 people: five women and six men from Spain, Czech Republic, Italy, the United States, Albania, Malta, Malaysia and China.

One by one, the catechumens approached the pope who asked them if they wished to receive baptism. After responding, "Yes, I do," they lowered their heads as the pope poured water over their foreheads.

Among them was Ali Acacius Damavandy from the United States who smiled brightly as the baptismal waters streamed down his head.

In his homily, reflecting on the Easter account from the Gospel of St. Matthew, the pope recalled the women who went "with uncertain and weary steps" to Christ's tomb.

The pope said the faces of those women, full of sorrow and despair, reflect the faces of mothers, grandmothers, children and young people who carry the "burden of injustice and brutality."

The poor and the exploited, the lonely and the abandoned, and "immigrants deprived of country, house and family" suffer the heartbreak reflected on the faces of the women at the tomb who have seen "human dignity crucified," he said.

However, the pope added, in the silence of death, Jesus' heartbeat resounds and his resurrection comes as a gift and as "a transforming force" to a humanity broken by greed and war.

"In the Resurrection, Christ rolled back the stone of the tomb, but he wants also to break down all the walls that keep us locked in our sterile pessimism, in our carefully constructed ivory towers that isolate us from life, in our compulsive need for security and in boundless ambition that can make us compromise the dignity of others," he said.

Pope Francis called on Christians to follow the example of the woman who, upon learning of Christ's victory over death, ran to the city and proclaimed the good news in those places "where death seems the only way out."

Presiding over the Stations of the Cross Good Friday, April 14, at Rome's Colosseum, Pope Francis offered a prayer expressing both shame for the sins of humanity and hope in God's mercy.

A crowd of about 20,000 people joined the pope at the Rome landmark. They had passed through two security checks and were watched over by a heavy police presence given recent terrorist attacks in Europe.

At the end of the service, Pope Francis recited a prayer to Jesus that he had composed. "Oh Christ, our only savior, we turn to you again this year with eyes lowered in shame and with hearts full of hope."

The shame comes from all the "devastation, destruction and shipwrecks that have become normal in our lives," he said, hours after some 2,000 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea. The shame comes from wars, discrimination and the failure to denounce injustice.

Turning to the sexual abuse crisis, Pope Francis expressed "shame for all the times we bishops, priests, consecrated men and women have scandalized and injured your body, the church."

But the pope also prayed that Christians would be filled with the hope that comes from knowing that "you do not treat us according to our merits, but only according to the abundance of your mercy."

Christian hope, he said, means trusting that Jesus' cross can "transform our hardened hearts into hearts of flesh capable of dreaming, forgiving and loving."

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Churches around world urged to say Mass on Archbishop Sheen's birthday

By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A grass-roots effort calling on Catholic churches around the world to celebrate a special Mass on the May 8 birthday of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen could see its goal of 1,000 Masses soon reached.

As of April 13, close to 900 churches had pledged to celebrate a Mass in memory of the prelate, who was an Emmy-winning televangelist and who spread the Gospel message far and wide as head of the Propagation of the Faith from 1950 to 1966.

Lo Anne Mayer, a New Jersey Catholic, is one of those who launched the Mass effort in January. She also knew and greatly admired Archbishop Sheen, who is a candidate for sainthood.

Mayer told Catholic News Service the idea for the Masses is to not only celebrate the archbishop's life, ministry and legacy but also to "storm heaven" with prayers for his canonization.

She felt he was a saint the first time she met him. When he spent time with her and her husband and their six children, she observed his gentle manner with the children and how he spoke to them about Jesus and his sacrificial love -- all of which convinced her even more he was a saint.

He was "so clear about God's love for us," said Mayer, who first met him when she accompanied her mother to her parish church, where Archbishop Sheen was asked to speak on Ash Wednesday.

"My mother knew everyone in the church. She was the first one in and the last one out," recalled Mayer, now 76. "I waited and waited for my mother to stop talking to a hundred people. I was following her around with a coat and as I got to the altar Bishop Sheen came up and as I looked at him, (I saw) something very special."

"I would like your name and address and I want to send you something," he told her. He waited as she scrambled for a piece of paper and a pen to write down her address for him, Mayer recalled. A few days later, she received a package from him with a Bible and other books for her children. "(It was) like a Christmas box," she said, adding that he would call regularly and ask what the children were learning. He also baptized her youngest child.

Archbishop Sheen, who won the 1951 Emmy for outstanding television personality for his show "Life Is Worth Living," was born May 8, 1885, and grew up in Peoria, Illinois. He was ordained a priest for the Peoria Diocese Sept. 20, 1919.

He was an auxiliary bishop of New York. After his nearly 30 years as national director of the Propagation of the Faith, he was bishop of Rochester, New York, from 1966 to 1969 and given the personal title of archbishop when he retired. Archbishop Sheen died Dec. 9, 1979.

His cause for canonization was officially opened by the Diocese of Peoria. Archbishop Sheen's heroic virtue and life of sanctity were recognized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, who granted him the title "Venerable."

If Archbishop Sheen is canonized, he would not only be the first U.S.-born male saint but also a saint who impacted many people who are still alive today, like Mayer and Larry Schumann.

Schumann and his wife, Bernadette, live in Williamsburg, Virginia, and are members of St. Bebe Catholic Church. He said he first became associated with the Sheen Foundation and other efforts supporting his canonization cause in 2003 and over the past 14 years has done what he can for the cause.

Archbishop Sheen married the Schumanns in 1964, and baptized their youngest daughter in 1975. His wife worked at the Propagation of the Faith's headquarters in New York City for 11 years, during some of the years when Archbishop Sheen was its director.

"It is our prayer that with these Masses on May 8, 2017, throughout the world, the Holy Spirit will move his cause forward, and that his beatification and canonization will soon be realized," Schumann, 80, told CNS in an email.

Archbishop Sheen "was very important to use growing up. He was like another grandparent," said Rosemarie Costello, 54, of Edmond, Oklahoma, where she belongs to St. John the Baptist Church. He often visited her family. The archbishop introduced her father and mother met through the archbishop; he married the couple. Archbishop Sheen baptized their six children, gave them their first Communion and confirmed them.

"His message is timeless," Costello said. "I read something he wrote and hear something he said and can't even believe it was (in) 1950. It's applicable to the world today. His involvement in bringing Christ to people -- it didn't matter if you were Catholic or not -- he was very ecumenically minded at a time when that was not happening (elsewhere)."

She added: "My mother felt so strongly he should be proclaimed a saint I remember being a little girl and she'd say, 'You know the bishop is going to be a saint some day.'" But even as a child Rosemarie could tell "we were certainly in the presence of an extremely holy man. He was a big part of our family. ... We loved him very much!"

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Editor's Note: For more information about effort to have Masses said for Archbishop Sheen, contact Lo Anne Mayer,

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Follow Asher on Twitter: @jlasher.

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