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Ukrainian bishop warns of mass starvation, millions of refugees


Catholic News Service

WARSAW, Poland — A Ukrainian bishop said a Russian-backed separatist rebellion has plunged his country into its worst humanitarian crisis since World War II and warned that “millions of refugees” could soon head for Europe to escape starvation.

Boy sleeps in his mother's arms as she listens to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops delegation talk to internally displaced people at a camp iin Kharkiv, Ukraine, June 21. The delegation was visiting the camp for people forced to flee fighting between rebel separatist forces and the Ukrainian army in the eastern part of the country. Now, a Ukrainian bishops is predicting the political situation could cause starvation and mass refugees. (CNS photo/Sergey Kozlov, EPA)

Boy sleeps in his mother’s arms as she listens to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops delegation talk to internally displaced people at a camp iin Kharkiv, Ukraine, June 21. The delegation was visiting the camp for people forced to flee fighting between rebel separatist forces and the Ukrainian army in the eastern part of the country. Now, a Ukrainian bishops is predicting the political situation could cause starvation and mass refugees. (CNS photo/Sergey Kozlov, EPA)

“Huge numbers are now caught between hammer and anvil; the separatists aren’t looking after them, and the Ukrainian government won’t care for them because they haven’t declared which side they’re on,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia.

“Not since World War II have we seen such poverty and destitution,” he told CNS July 29.

“People are continually arriving at our Catholic communities asking for food, medicines, money and shelter,” he said, noting they included young widows with small children, whose husbands have stayed in the war zone or been killed.

The bishop spoke as the Catholic Caritas organization also warned of growing starvation and desperation in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine.

Bishop Sobilo told CNS lack of water currently posed the biggest problem in eastern Ukraine, where food prices were three times higher than in the rest of the country.

He added that local children would be unable to start the new school year because most schools were closed and said the Ukrainian authorities had hushed up a spiraling rate of suicides.

“Whereas family members and friends were ready to help for a month or two, most have now exhausted their money and savings and had to ask the refugees to move on,” Bishop Sobilo said.

“Many elderly educated people, who previously had jobs, have been unable to face begging on the streets and have thrown themselves from windows and bridges. Such people often have no means of survival and no one to turn to, and have ended up starving.”

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied direct Russian involvement in Ukraine, church leaders repeatedly have accused Moscow of military intervention in the war. A June United Nations report said more than 6,400 people have died and 16,000 have been wounded.

In a July 28 interview with Germany’s Cologne-based Dom Radio, Andrij Waskowycz, president of Caritas Ukraine, said 700,000 Ukrainians had now left the country, while 1.4 million more were internally displaced by the fighting and lacked basic necessities.

“He said a February cease-fire agreement had failed to prevent daily skirmishes and conflicts, adding that at least 100,000 people were now without water in the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Bishop Sobilo said church leaders had been promised access to Catholics by separatist forces, but had been barred from visiting the “occupied territories” by the Ukrainian troops controlling the makeshift borders.

He added that Western aid often failed to reach those in need and was “not always the right kind of help.” He said it was “more effective and less wasteful” for church donors to send money.

“This is a war of oligarchs, and any future peace will depend on the conversion of those oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine who’ve kept the conflict going with their lies,” the bishop said.

“The West should get ready to accept the millions of homeless, hungry refugees who will soon head across central and western Ukraine toward Europe,” he said. “Pope Francis has urged help for refugees from Africa, and we now have parts of Africa right here. Unless solidarity is shown with them, countless innocent people will die simply because they happened to live in an unlucky place during a conflict ignited by those with a personal interest in war and suffering.”


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Church leaders want Israel to step up protection of Christian sites


Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Although Israeli officials have publicly criticized the June arson attack that seriously damaged the Benedictine Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, anti-Christian violence is not new, said a representative of the religious order.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past the Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem July 27. Christian leaders want Israel to step up protection of Christian sites. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past the Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem July 27. Christian leaders want Israel to step up protection of Christian sites. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Benedictine Father Nikodemus Schnabel, spokesman for the Benedictine Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion,  told Catholic News Service that fires and vandalism have plagued other churches and church property for years.

The abbey was set on fire May 25, 2014, soon after Pope Francis visited the site during his Holy Land pilgrimage. It is located near a yeshiva and the Tomb of David, where the Cenacle, or the Upper Room, site of the Last Supper, is located.

A year earlier, two cars owned by the Benedictines were set on fire. Benedictine monks often are victims of verbal and spitting attacks, and Christian tombstones are smashed, Father Schnabel said. In March, a Greek Orthodox seminary was damaged in an arson attack and a wall was sprayed with anti-Christian graffiti.

Although there have been photos of people spitting at and verbally abusing the monks, no arrests in connection with any of the incidents have been made, Father Schnabel said. A Benedictine request that a security camera be installed near their property has gone unheeded, he added.

“We are very thankful for the many signs of solidarity from our friends in the civil society, but (until Tabgha) we never heard any officials respond,” the Benedictine priest said.

With the official condemnations of the Tabgha attack, the Benedictines are “very happy with the words,” but are “now looking for results,” he said.

No charges have been brought in connection with the incident, although police announced July 11 that they had arrested several suspects.

The building housing the traditional locations of the Cenacle and the Tomb of David continues to be a point of contention within the National Religious Party, a Zionist political party whose supporters believe in the right of Israel over all areas of the biblical Jewish Holy Land. The party has used the building as a rallying point, charging at times that it will be transferred to the Vatican or Christians.

Makor Rishon, a newspaper identified with conservative national and religious values, regularly publishes anti-Christian articles and charges against Christians and the monastery in particular.

“It is a very tiny group of national religious Jews,” said Father Schnabel, emphasizing that it was important to point out that the perpetrators are not, as often portrayed in the media, ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many are those who are prohibited from entering the West Bank by Israeli authorities, those known as “the hilltop youth” who establish illegal settlements on hilltops in the West Bank, he said.

The Benedictine said those who carry out the attacks adhere to an ultranationalist stance that often calls for ridding Israel of non-Jewish individuals and organizations.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal blamed government inaction and a lack of education about tolerance and understanding for the continuing attacks.

“Sometimes the government of Israel condemns (incidents) and many private Israeli institutions and Israelis come or write beautiful letters condemning the attacks, saying this is not their way,” noted Patriarch Twal. “But it is not enough for the government to condemn the actions. We ask for follow-up with action.”

He charged that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tacitly encourages such behavior.

“They are in the government. All the right-wing government is their allies. This is their line,” he said. “They are an integral part of the government. This is our society. We haven’t a normal life.”

In a June 22 statement, the Christian Palestinian initiative Kairos Palestine expressed concern that such continued incidents could “fan dissent and fire religious conflicts in the Holy Land.” It said that failing to hold the perpetrators accountable for their deeds encourages them to continue with such actions.

“The Israeli authorities are responsible for this kind of terrorism and the absence of security for the religious Christian and Muslim sites,” Kairos Palestine said.

Under police order not to speak about the case so as not to interfere in the police investigation of the Tabgha attack, Father Schnabel said: “We feel that there is not the lack of ability to look for results and arrests but a serious lack of will. I hope I am wrong but we have that feeling.”

As difficult as it may be, the priest said, it is necessary for Israel and its officials to acknowledge that a small fringe within society does not tolerate minorities; this is part of the religious freedom and democracy that Father Schnabel is convinced Israel supports.

Arresting the culprits helps with a feeling of justice being done, but it is only treating the symptom of the illness rather than the problem itself, he said.

“You have to go to the root of the problem,” he said.


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Priest says life in Gaza is worse a year after the war


Catholic News Service

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — One year after a war with Israel that turned daily life here into a nightmare, a Catholic priest in Gaza said the situation in this besieged Palestinian territory has deteriorated even further.

“Compared with a year ago, we’re worse off. Although a truce stopped the war, the blockade of Gaza by Israel has grown more intense. This has direct consequences for the population,” said Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza City.

A boy rides his bike amid the ruins of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, June 9. Houses in the area were destroyed during the 2014 war between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

A boy rides his bike amid the ruins of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, June 9. Houses in the area were destroyed during the 2014 war between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

The priest said the war also served as a recruiting tool for Hamas, the Islamic party that has controlled Gaza since 2007.

“The war generated new activism throughout Gaza. The number of people willing to fight has multiplied, whether on behalf of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or the Salafists, and now even with the Islamic State. Despite that, the great majority of the people of Gaza is not aligned with one party or another. They just want to live a normal life,” Father Hernandez, an Argentine missionary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, told Catholic News Service.

The 50-day war cost the lives of more than 2,250 Palestinians, 65 percent of whom were civilians, according to a June report from a U.N. investigation. The report said “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented.” It said the Israeli military launched more than 6,000 air strikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells into Gaza between July 7 and Aug. 26, 2014.

The war also “caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of Israeli civilians,” the U.N. said, reporting that nearly 4,900 rockets and more than 1,700 mortars were fired by Palestinian armed groups during that period. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers were killed, along with six civilians.

The report also cites as possible war crimes the conduct of Israeli operations in residential neighborhoods, as well as the killing of 21 suspected collaborators by Hamas’ armed wing.

Father Hernandez said militants came to his church compound twice looking for alleged spies among some 1,400 civilians who took shelter there. Church buildings were damaged when Israel bombed a neighboring house. At one point, Father Hernandez and several members of the Missionaries of Charity shepherded a group of 29 disabled children and nine elderly women into the open.

“We put them in the patio in front of church, a place that’s far from any homes. And then we prayed that Israel wouldn’t bomb the church,” he said.

Gaza’s children continue to be affected by the war, the priest said. Besides thousands who remain in temporary shelters, he said the overwhelming violence of the conflict has created discipline problems, with normal tensions in the family and on the street more quickly escalating into physical violence. And lingering stress generates health problems.

“Some kids continue to have problems with speech or bed-wetting, and now that there are rumors of another war; some are even talking about specific dates. )ne child’s hair has started to fall out again,” he said.

One Catholic leader in the region said that Gaza’s Christians have nonetheless adjusted to their perilous situation.

“When I came here immediately after the war, everyone I talked to pleaded for a one-way ticket out of Gaza. But I no longer hear that. They are resilient, this is their home, and they’re resolved that they’re going to make a contribution to society. They are proud to be both Christian and Palestinian, no matter the difficult conditions,” said Sami El-Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Of Gaza’s 1.8 million population, only about 1,300 are Christian. Catholics number fewer than 200. Relations between this small minority and the Muslim majority have been marred by discrimination.

“When one looks for work here, the first thing they ask is if you are a Muslim. If you are, then they ask if you support Hamas or Fatah. If neither, they ask which mosque you go to, because they want to know who you’re loyal to,” Father Hernandez said. “But if you’re a Christian, you won’t get asked those questions because you won’t get the job. The only way Christians can get jobs is through a Muslim friend who serves as an intermediary. No store or school or bank will give them a job, so they come to the church asking for help.”

There are occasional episodes of harassment of Christians on the street, Father Hernandez said, which is one reason he maintains good relations with Hamas officials.

“It’s important for me to have good contacts, because if there’s a problem I just call someone at a high level and immediately they respond and grab the responsible person. If I had to go to the police to file a report, and the police officer had a long beard, then nothing would happen,” he said.

Vatican support for Palestinians, which has strengthened under Pope Francis, has helped ease tensions on the ground, Father Hernandez said.

“We are treated by Israel as Palestinians, but at times other Palestinians don’t want to recognize us as Palestinians. What the pope has done has helped us a lot within our community. We are just as Palestinian as Hamas. And if they forget that, we remind them of what the pope has said and done,” he said.

Father Hernandez had an opportunity to personally thank Pope Francis for the Vatican’s protagonism when the priest was invited to the Vatican the day after the war ended last year.

“Bishop William Shomali (the auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem) called me on the phone and said I had to leave Gaza immediately,” Father Hernandez recalled. “But we had just finished living through a war. I couldn’t understand what was more urgent than remaining here with the people. But he didn’t want to tell me the reason over the phone. I pushed him, and finally he told me in Latin, ‘The man in white wants to see you.’ At first I thought I was losing my Latin. I asked him if I was understanding correctly, and he said yes. I called my superior, and he went to talk with the Latin Patriarch. He called me back in 30 minutes and told me it was true. So I packed my things and left.”

Two days later, Father Hernandez was embraced by his fellow Argentine inside the Vatican.

“He was a true pastor, hurting for all that had happened to the people here. He was sad about the violence on both sides. When we spoke of the children, he got emotional. We spoke at length about how the chemicals used in the war had affected the health of the people. He knew a lot about what had gone on in Gaza,” Father Hernandez said.

“I told him how much we appreciated a message he sent us in the middle of the war. I told him we had translated it for all the people, and that it was a big source of hope and courage for us.”

The priest said that at one point during the hourlong meeting he confessed to Francis that he was nervous. “He told me not to worry, to feel at home. I looked around and thought, ‘The Vatican is now my house. Caramba.’”


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Jordan River bank where Jesus baptized declared UNESCO heritage site


Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — UNESCO declared Bethany Beyond the Jordan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, as a World Heritage site and the location of Jesus’ baptism.

Pope Francis makes the Sign of the Cross in 2014 after praying at  Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which UNESCO just declared a World Heritage site and the location of Jesus' baptism. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis makes the Sign of the Cross in 2014 after praying at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which UNESCO just declared a World Heritage site and the location of Jesus’ baptism. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“The decision is logical. The Eastern side is where all the Byzantine antiquities and churches are located,” said Franciscan Father Eugenio Alliata, professor of Christian archaeology at Jerusalem’s Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. He said pilgrimages to the Western side began only about 600 years ago. “But for us it is the Jordan River, the middle, which is the most holy place.”

For years, Israel and Jordan have been at odds as to which side of the Jordan River is the actual site of Jesus’ baptism, as both sides vie for the title to increase tourism. Israel upgraded its shoreline with changing rooms and a wooden deck access to the murky waters.

But three popes have visited Jordan’s eastern shore in the country of Jordan as a sign of the Catholic Church’s official recognition of the site known as Bethany Beyond the Jordan. The Gospel of John (1:28 and 10:40) records this place as where John the Baptist carried out his baptisms, including that of Jesus.

Pope John Paul II made the first visit to the site on his millennial pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, followed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and Pope Francis last year.

The remains of more than 20 Christian sites over six centuries and dating to Roman and Byzantine periods have been discovered near the site. They include several churches, a prayer hall, baptismal pools and a sophisticated water reticulation system.

At least 12 new churches are under construction in the area, with the Catholic Church expected to become the largest church complex in the Middle East, at nearly 323,000 square feet.

Father Alliata said ancient iconography shows Jesus in the middle of the river rather than on any of the two shores, and there are accounts by ancient pilgrims of marble columns in the middle of the river marking the site of Jesus’ baptism.

“History has different ways of being remembered,” he said. “If there was an agreement between Israel and Jordan (on the issue) they could combine the place East and West. Both have importance, the East in ancient times and the West in modern times.”


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Australian archbishop: People can’t be forced to change marriage views


Catholic News Service

SYDNEY — Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney has decried efforts to “bully” people into accepting the deconstruction of marriage, saying a “homogenizing equality” was marginalizing questions about “what marriage is and is for.”

Archbishop Fisher made the comments in his homily at the annual Marriage Mass and renewal of vows July 12 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

“There are voices in our culture that no longer think marriage need be for life, or be open to children, or be exclusive, or be between man and wife,” Archbishop Fisher told the standing-room-only congregation, including 30 couples celebrating anniversaries of 50-65 years.

Christian couples found themselves in “an uncomfortable position,” the archbishop said, “for some politically, culturally and commercially powerful forces are determined to silence any alternative to the politically correct position in this matter; to bully us all into accepting the deconstruction and redefinition of a fundamental institution; and to relegate questions of what marriage is and is for as secondary to an homogenizing equality.”

“They write off as benighted and bigoted those who stand by marriage as traditionally understood.”

Archbishop Fisher said that in the context of culture which had forgotten about its purpose and meaning, true marriage was “a form of preaching and therapy.”

“It wordlessly bears witness to the Christian understanding of the human person and society, of our God-given mission to love not just with a self-serving, romantic, heart-shaped Valentine’s Day sort of love, but with a self-giving, redemptive, cross-shaped Easter Day sort of love.”

The push for same-sex marriage in Australia has gained momentum in recent months in the wake of the “yes” vote in Ireland’s marriage referendum May 22.

Many federal members of Parliament subsequently announced they were now in favor of “marriage equality.”

Momentum has also developed in the country’s business sector, with many of its largest corporations, including its leading banks and airlines, lending their brands to national advertising for marriage equality May 29.

The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a pro-marriage pastoral letter, “Don’t Mess With Marriage,” May 28, which was distributed to parishes and schools, including to each student in Catholic schools in Sydney and Melbourne and other Australian dioceses.

Reports of a backlash from some parents, students and several unnamed schools followed, with a small number of students in western Sydney reportedly burning the 18-page booklet in protest.

Australian Marriage Equality director Rodney Croome denounced the letter as “harmful” and accused the bishops of making children “the couriers of prejudice” in giving them the letter.

Archbishop Fisher said during his homily that to acknowledge the unique relationship of husband and wife was “not to criticize anyone,” including people of same-sex attraction and separated and divorced people who had “genuinely given marriage their all.”

“Marriage, as traditionally understood … (when) our jubilarians entered into it, meant a comprehensive bodily, psychological and spiritual union between a man and a woman whereby they become one flesh and so found a family.

“That is why these couples did not promise to become spouses or partners but to become husband and wife,” he said.

“These dimensions of real marriage make it a prophetic sign today, a sign of contradiction, because some want to reduce marriage to no more than a public statement of a physical-emotional bond between any two people.”

By Robert Hiini



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Pope tells young Paraguayans: ‘Stir things up,’ then make them better


Catholic News Service

ASUNCION, Paraguay — “Stir things up, but then help organize what you have stirred up,” Pope Francis told about 220,000 young people gathered on this city’s waterfront on July 12.

Youths sing as they wait for Pope Francis' arrival for a meeting with young people along the waterfront in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Youths sing as they wait for Pope Francis’ arrival for a meeting with young people along the waterfront in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In his last major event before ending a weeklong trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, the pope spoke about service, solidarity, hope and freedom of heart.

Abandoning his prepared text, he based his remarks on the testimonials of two young people who asked him questions.

He also told the crowd that the young man who had read the Gospel, whom he identified only as Orlando, had asked him to pray “for freedom for each of us, for all of us.”

“Freedom is a gift from God, but we have to know how to receive it,” Pope Francis said. “Our hearts must be free.”

Liz Fretes, 25, told the pope how she put her life on hold to care for her mother, who had dementia, and her sick grandmother. Strained by studying in the evening and caring for her family by day, she found support among young people in her parish youth ministry.

Highlighting Fretes’ care for her mother and grandmother, Pope Francis emphasized two themes that he raised often during his trip, service and solidarity.

“Liz is fulfilling the fourth commandment, honor your father and your mother,” he said. “Liz is setting aside her own life in the service of her mother. That is an extremely high degree of solidarity, of love, a witness.”

When Manuel de los Santos Aguilar was a child, his parents turned him over to a family in the city, a practice not uncommon among rural families who hoped their children would get an education. Instead, the 18-year-old told Pope Francis, he was forced to work and fell into substance abuse.

He, too, found support in parish youth ministry, “where I met God, my strength,” he said.

“Life wasn’t easy for Manuel,” the pope told the crowd, but “instead of going out to steal, he went to work. Instead of seeking revenge for his life, he looked to the future.”

Those who have loving families can study and have what they need to live should give thanks to God, he said, leading the crowd in a prayer of “Thank you, Lord.”

Several times during his speech, the pope urged the young people to repeat his words.

“A free heart,”” they chanted back. “Solidarity. Work. Hope. Effort. Knowing Jesus. Knowing God, my strength.”

Fretes’ and de los Santos Aguilar’s stories showed that hope and strength come from knowing Jesus, the pope told the crowd.

“We don’t want young people who tire easily, who are tired and have bored faces. We want young people with hope and strength,” he said. “But that means sacrifice and swimming against the tide.”

He recommended reading the beatitudes, which he called “Jesus’ plan for us,” and echoed his exhortation from World Youth Day, when he told young listeners to “stir things up.”

He noted, however, that a priest had complained that when they stir things up, young people often make a mess that others have to fix.

“So before I leave,” he said, “first, pray for me. Second, keep stirring things up. Third, help organize the things you stir up, so nothing gets destroyed.”


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Church is called to persevere in mission of welcoming all, pope says in Paraguay


Catholic News Service

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Christians cannot force anyone to believe, but at the same time, no one can force Christians to stop being welcoming, loving and living in solidarity with others, Pope Francis said.

On the last day of his July 5-12 visit to South America, Pope Francis celebrated Mass with close to 1 million people at Asuncion’s Nu Guazu Park.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Nu Guazu Park in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Nu Guazu Park in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Artist Koki Ruiz designed the altar and stage, which was made of coconuts, corn cobs, gourds and other plants and vegetables. The artist built the massive structure at his studio and brought it to the park in pieces. As he assembled it, he allowed members of the public to sign the coconuts and write their prayer intentions on them.

The fruits of the earth and the expressions of local culture were obvious at the Mass with its prayers in Guarani, a native language, and with a variety of traditional hymns and percussion-punctuated songs.

Tens of thousands of people from Argentina, including President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Tarasios of Buenos Aires, also attended the Mass.

“Our communion with God always brings forth fruit, always gives life,” Pope Francis said in his homily.

A firm trust in God, he said, is learned within a family and within a community that has experienced the transforming power of God’s grace and knows it is called to share that grace with others.

“One thing is sure: We cannot force anyone to receive us, to welcome us; this is itself part of our poverty and freedom,” the pope told the crowd. At the same time, no one can “force us not to be welcoming, hospitable in the lives of our people. No one can tell us not to accept and embrace the lives of our brothers and sisters, especially those who have lost hope and zest for life.”

Mission, evangelization and sharing the faith are not programs, he said. They flow from a way of living in response to God’s blessings.

“How many times do we see evangelization as involving any number of strategies, tactics, maneuvers, techniques, as if we could convert people on the basis of our own arguments?” he asked.

The day’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, which tells of Jesus sending his disciples off two by two to cast out demons and heal the sick, makes it clear that “you do not convince people with arguments, strategies or tactics. You convince them by learning how to welcome them,” the pope said.

“The church is a mother with an open heart,” he insisted. “She knows how to welcome and accept, especially those in need of greater care, those in greater difficulty.”

“How much pain can be soothed, how much despair can be allayed in a place where we feel at home,” he said.

The Gospel calls Jesus’ followers to welcome all those in need, materially and spiritually, he said. The Gospel calls Christians to welcome “those who do not think as we do, who do not have faith or who have lost it.”

The church is blessed, the pope said, when it welcomes people of different cultures and when it welcomes sinners. “That is why we must keep our doors open, especially the doors to our hearts.”

Isolating oneself harms the individual and harms the community, Pope Francis said, which is why the church has the mission of teaching Catholics to live in harmony with each other.

Jesus, he said, “is the new and definitive word which sheds light on so many situations of exclusion, disintegration, loneliness and isolation. He is the word which breaks the silence of loneliness.”


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Pope says Paraguayans in poor barrio remind him of Holy Family


Catholic News Service

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Pope Francis returned to his roots July 12 when he visited Banado Norte, a poor neighborhood near the Paraguay River where residents battle seasonal flooding and face possible eviction.

“I couldn’t be in Paraguay without being with you, in your land,” he told the crowd gathered outside St. John the Baptist chapel, one of 13 chapels in the huge Holy Family Parish. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis ministered in similar neighborhoods.

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman as he meets with people of Banado Norte, a poor neighborhood in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman as he meets with people of Banado Norte, a poor neighborhood in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Bishops in Paraguay had wanted the pope to meet with small farmers and indigenous people who have been forced off their land. When those groups were invited instead to a larger meeting with civic organizations, the bishops organized the visit to Banado Norte, one of a string of riverside neighborhoods called the Banados, which were mainly settled by migrants from rural areas.

The pope praised the people for their solidarity, calling it a “human and Christian virtue that you have, and which many, many of us have to learn.”

“It doesn’t matter how often you go to Sunday Mass,” the pope said. “If you don’t have a heart of solidarity, if you don’t know what is happening to your people, your faith is very weak, or it is sick, or it is dead. It is a faith without Christ, without God, without brothers and sisters.”

Faith and solidarity are the greatest message that the people of the Banados can send to the rest of the country, Pope Francis said. He warned, however, that “the devil wants you to fight among yourselves, because that’s the way he divides you, defeats you and robs you of your faith.”

Pope Francis said the families he met as he walked down an alley in Banado Norte reminded him of the Holy Family.

“They also had to leave all they had and go to another land, where they knew no one, where they had no home or family,” he said.

And the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth were shepherds, “whose lives are also governed by the inclemency of weather and other types of inclemency,” he said.

That message resonated with Carmen Sanchez, who welcomed Pope Francis to her tiny, dark house in an alley behind the chapel where he greeted and blessed her and her neighbors.

When Sanchez’s mother arrived from a rural town 60 years ago, this boggy area beside the Paraguay River was the only land available to poor migrants.

“It was awful, all water and mud,” Sanchez told Catholic News Service. “Her home was made of mud bricks.”

Other families arrived, gradually filling in the worst of the muddy areas and building the Banados, which stretch for kilometers along the riverbank.

Every year around April or May, the water level rises and the river often overflows its banks. In 2014, it nearly reached to the door of the tiny chapel where the pope spoke to the people who crowded into the muddy sports field, waving yellow and white scarves and cheering him warmly.

Every year, some families are forced to leave their homes and take refuge with relatives elsewhere or camp along roads on higher ground, Jesuit Father Ireneo Valdez, pastor of Holy Family Parish, told CNS. Last year’s flooding displaced most of his parish’s 20,000-plus families.

As Pope Francis visited the chapel and spoke to the crowd, he was flanked by huge posters of letters and drawings by about 2,500 children from schools, welcoming him, recounting the problems of their families and neighborhoods — flooding, drugs, crime, sickness, separation — and asking his blessing.

Several children expressed fear that their families will be forced to move.

That is on the minds of most adults, as well. The city government has plans to fill in the area, extend a riverside highway, raze the houses built by people like Sanchez’s mother and replace them with upscale shopping centers and apartment buildings.

“They want to take us away from of our places,” Maria Josefina Chamorro, chapel coordinator, told CNS. “We built this chapel ourselves. We have schools and a health center. It would be sad to be taken away from all of this, which we built with so much effort and sacrifice, to a place where we would have to start all over.”

Before Pope Francis’ visit, Maria Garcia, who heads an umbrella group of 11 community organizations, told CNS residents of the Banados lack property titles, and some areas do not even show on maps.

As the pontiff sat on the stage beside the chapel July 12, Garcia described the problem to him and called for affordable land titles, “decent housing or the possibility of improving what we have, health care and the possibility of a decent education.”

Most Banados residents eke out a living by fishing, gathering and selling recyclable materials, laboring as masons or carpenters, cleaning windshields at traffic lights or selling items on the street, Father Valdez said.

City officials have tried to relocate people to housing elsewhere, but because their livelihoods center around the riverbank neighborhoods, they return.

He and Garcia called for a solution that would allow people to stay in their neighborhoods.

“We can’t oppose economic growth, but it needs to be better distributed,” Father Valdez said. “The policies need to benefit the people who live here.”

The neighborhood organizations have a counterproposal for development that would allow the Banados residents to remain in their neighborhoods, Garcia said, but they have not gotten a hearing from the city government.

Local residents said they hoped the pope’s visit would call attention to their plight, but they noted that city workers who improved their rutted road before the pope’s arrival spread gravel only as far as the chapel he would visit, leaving just a muddy track beyond it.

As Pope Francis bade farewell to the crowd before returning through the alley past Sanchez’s house to head for Mass in Nu Guazu Park, he offered a final word of encouragement.

“Keep going,” he told the crowd, “and don”t let the devil divide you.”


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At Marian shrine in Paraguay, pope calls for cooperation for common good


Catholic News Service

CAACUPE, Paraguay — Pope Francis was as close to home as he has been since becoming pope in March 2013 as he celebrated Mass at Paraguay’s popular shrine of Our Lady of Miracles of Caacupe.

Pope Francis and Paraguay's President Horacio Cartes watch as dancers perform during an arrival ceremony for the pope at Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis and Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes watch as dancers perform during an arrival ceremony for the pope at Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Only 25 miles from the border with Argentina, tens of thousands of Pope Francis’ fellow Argentines filled the square in front of the shrine and the streets around it July 11 to pray with “their” pope.

While not expected to be the biggest or the most important event during the pope’s July 10-12 visit to Paraguay, the Mass highlighted his affection for the Paraguayan people and, particularly, for their cultures and popular religiosity.

“Being here with you makes me feel at home, at the feet of our mother, the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupe,” Pope Francis said in his homily. “We come bringing our lives, because here we are at home and it is wonderful to know there is someone waiting for us.”

At the Mass and during an evening meeting July 10 with government officials and diplomats at the presidential palace in Asuncion Pope Francis expressed his admiration for Paraguayan women. They are credited with keeping the country going during and after the war of 1864-1870, a disaster for Paraguay in which the majority of the country’s men died.

“The women — wives and mothers of Paraguay — at great cost and sacrifice were able to lift up a country defeated, devastated and laid low by war,” the pope said.

The Mass and other papal events were celebrated in Spanish and Guarani, a native language. The vast majority of the nation’s people are of mixed Spanish and Guarani heritage and most of the population speaks both languages.

At the Mass at the Caacupe shrine, Pope Francis himself introduced the Our Father in Guarani, praying, “Ore Ru, yvagape reimeva. …”

The papal visit had begun with a tribute to St. John Paul II, beloved by many Paraguayans as a world leader who stood up to Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled the country for 35 years. The dictator was overthrown by a military coup in 1989 and the process of consolidating democracy and building national unity continues.

“I wish to pay tribute to the many ordinary Paraguayan people, whose names are not written in history books but who have been, and continue to be, the real protagonists in the life of your nation,” the pope said July 10 during the evening reception at the presidential palace.

After the speeches that evening, the pope and the invited dignitaries were treated to a concert. The program, “The Voice of God in the Selvas of Paraguay,” featured a selection of baroque music traced to the so-called “Jesuit reductions,” the missions run by Jesuits in Paraguay and neighboring countries from the early 1600s to 1767. The concert included music from the film “The Mission,” which recounts the story of the reductions.

During a rousing meeting July 11 with representatives of civil society — teachers, artists, business leaders, communications professionals, indigenous leaders and farmers — Pope Francis said he was impressed by the variety of groups and their commitment to working for the common good.

Simon Cazal, co-founder of Somos Gay, a homosexual rights group in Paraguay, was among those invited to attend the meeting. He told the British newspaper the Guardian that he hoped the invitation would make Paraguayans more tolerant.

At the beginning of the meeting, Bishop Adalberto Martinez Flores, general secretary of the bishops’ conference, told Pope Francis that when St. John Paul visited in 1988 only 10 percent of the groups existed, which shows how “the authoritarian regime weakened the social and moral fabric of the nation to extreme levels.”

Responding to questions from a young man, an indigenous man, a woman who farms, a businesswoman and a public official, Pope Francis added notes to his prepared text and tried to be concrete in his suggestions for moving the nation forward.

With President Cartes and members of his cabinet sitting in the front row, Pope Francis insisted that trading votes for favors, “something that happens in every country,” is a form of corruption and will hold the country back.

Taking the microphone back after a prayer, Pope Francis told the crowd, “If you are wondering who I am talking about, tell yourself, ‘He’’s talking to me!’”

Progress requires creating culture of encounter, he said, and that comes only from recognizing that all people are children of God and, therefore, brothers and sisters to one another.

“True cultures are not closed in on themselves, but called to meet other cultures and to create new realities,” he said. “If someone thinks that there are persons, cultures or situations which are second, third or fourth class, surely things will go badly, because the bare minimum, a recognition of the dignity of the other, is lacking.

Turning to the question of economic growth, Pope Francis insisted that a morally correct economic life puts people before profits.

“Certainly every country needs economic growth and the creation of wealth,” he said. “But the creation of this wealth must always be at the service of the common good, and not only for the benefit of a few.”

Those blessed with the ability to promote economic development — business owners, entrepreneurs and government officials — have a responsibility always to keep the needs of real people in mind, the pope said.

Jobs are a right and bestow dignity, he said. “Putting bread on the table, putting a roof over the heads of one’s children, giving them health and an education — these are essential for human dignity.”

Pope Francis asked the influential leaders “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”

“A more humane society is possible,” the pope said, pointing to the experience of the Jesuit reductions.

Calling the Jesuit mission settlements “among the most significant experiences of evangelization and social organization in history,” he said members of the communities “did not know hunger, unemployment, illiteracy or oppression.”

The settlements offer a lesson, he said, that “where there is love of people and a willingness to serve them, it is possible to create the conditions necessary for everyone to have access to basic goods, so that no one goes without.”


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Pope urges Bolivian priests and religious to remember their roots


Catholic News Service

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Speaking to an audience of Bolivian priests, men and women religious and seminarians, Pope Francis called on them to avoid appearances and superficiality, saying it prevented them coming close to the people they serve.

Nuns participate in entertainment before Pope Francis' arrival for a meeting with priests, religious men and women, and seminarians in the Don Bosco school in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Nuns participate in entertainment before Pope Francis’ arrival for a meeting with priests, religious men and women, and seminarians in the Don Bosco school in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

He also urged the audience, which serves struggling populations in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, to never forget their origins or trade popular parlance and humility for elitist trappings designed to differentiate and separate them.

“Give thanks for memory,” the pope said July 9 in the city of Santa Cruz, alluding to the audience’s origins. “Don’t forget where you were pulled from. They pulled you from the back of the pack. Don’t ever forget that.”

The admonishment was another example of the model of a poor church, serving the poor and peripheral places, which Pope Francis has promoted since his election in 2013.

The pope’s three-day trip to Bolivia has assumed political overtones as church and state in the country have had an uneasy coexistence since President Evo Morales was elected a decade ago. Morales, meanwhile, has mixed politics into his public appearances with Pope Francis.

The meeting with priests, religious and seminarians focused on spiritual matters as the pope prodded the audience to avoid indifference and a sense of self-satisfaction with status. It was delivered to a church struggling with vocations as young men are staying away from seminaries and young women are not enrolling in religious life.

“Don’t forget your roots, this culture that you learned from your own people because you have a more sophisticated, more important culture,” Pope Francis said. “There are priests who are ashamed to speak people their original language” — often indigenous — “because they now talk so fine.”

For his speech, Pope Francis drew on the story on responses to the blind beggar Bartimaeus, who, according to the book of Mark, sat on the side of the road called out as Jesus approached. His calls, the pope said, were met with three reactions: “They passed him by; they told him to be quiet; and told him to take heart and get up.”

Each reaction was expanded on the by the pope, who said the story “is still very current.”

“Passing by is the response of avoiding other people’s problems because they do not affect us,” Pope Francis said. “We have the temptation here to see suffering as something natural, to take injustice for granted” or simply say, “That’s not my problem.”

The pope cautioned against “the spirituality of zapping,” a reference to those always being on the go, “but have nothing to show for it” and never connecting deeply with others.

“To pass by without hearing the pain of our people, without sinking roots into their lives and into their world is like listening to the word of God without letting it take root and bear fruit in our hearts,” he said. “Like a tree, a life without roots is a one which withers and dies.”

The response of silencing the other person “recognizes” they are there, but reflects scolding, Pope Francis said.

Some leaders “continually scold others … tell them to be quiet,” he said. “They hear, but they don’t listen.”

“They separate themselves from others,” the pope said, “and have made their identity a badge of superiority.”

Pope Francis used the Spanish word “animo” (“take heart”) to describe the third response. Jesus responded to Bartimaeous by asking what he could do for him. The approach of asking questions, the pope says, “gradually restores the dignity that had been lost” and develops a relationship.

“Far from looking down on him, Jesus was moved to identify with the man’s problems and show the transforming power of mercy,” the pope said.

“Compassion is not about zapping. It is not about silencing pain,” he said. “It is about the logic of love.”

The speech in the Don Bosco Coliseum was part papal talk, part pep rally. Speakers addressing the event acknowledged the challenges for a church in Bolivia, which has traditionally not attracted as many native-born clergy as needed and has stepped up to meet social needs in the absence of the state.

Damian Oyola Ramos, who was born into a family of miners and entered the seminary after finishing a law degree, told the event that there were only 124 seminarians studying at the moment, in a country of approximately 11 million people.

One of the main reasons for the shortage of seminarians, says Bishop Eugenio Scarpellini of El Alto, is that the priests traditionally came from rural areas or less-affluent sections of cities, and the priesthood was seen as a way of achieving a certain social status.

“The way to get ahead now goes down different roads,” Bishop Scarpellini said. “On one hand, there is a sharp reduction in the number of vocations. On the other, I would say that there has been a purification in the motives” of those entering.


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