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Italian convents act as safe houses for victims of sex trafficking


Global Sisters Report CASERTA, Italy (CNS) — The girl was waiting at the sisters’ gate one morning in August. Before her 18th birthday, Elizabeth had already traveled across the Sahara and the Mediterranean on her way from Nigeria to Europe and spent six months in a brothel in Denmark. She was being prepared to start working on the streets of Italy when she found her way to Casa Rut, a safe house for trafficking victims.

Ursuline Sister Rita Giaretta shows off the products at New Hope Cooperative in Caserta, Italy, in 2014. The cooperative offers women who have been rescued from sex traffickers a chance to earn a small salary and start a new life. (CNS photo/Megan Sweas)

Ursuline Sister Rita Giaretta shows off the products at New Hope Cooperative in Caserta, Italy, in 2014. The cooperative offers women who have been rescued from sex traffickers a chance to earn a small salary and start a new life. (CNS photo/Megan Sweas)

Elizabeth is among the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have taken the perilous journey to Europe in recent years.

An estimated 3,343 migrants have lost their lives at sea in the last year, even as Italy rescued 150,000 people through its now defunct Mare Nostrum program. But when migrants land in Italy, they’re greeted by the realization that it is not a land of opportunity.

While European policymakers debate how to respond to the influx of migrants, human traffickers are ready to take advantage of the chaos. In the decades that women religious have been fighting trafficking in Italy, they have learned that their network must adapt as quickly as the traffickers’ networks. But the heart of their work remains the same: restoring women’s dignity so that they can build a new life. Prostitution is hardly new.

Not far from Casa Rut in Caserta, tourists visit the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, where a favorite attraction is the ancient brothel. Here, the guidebooks will tell you, slaves from around the Roman Empire served local clients and handed their earnings over to their masters. Millennia later, migration following the fall of the Iron Curtain and war and famine in Africa in the late 1980s generated an increase in sex trafficking.

It continues with today’s wave of migrants. “Even women, young women, children, have become commodities,” Sister Eugenia Bonetti said. “We speak a lot about globalization, but we are revising even the market for human beings.”

As the director of the Counter Trafficking Office at the Union of Italian Major Superiors, Sister Eugenia, a Consolata Missionary sister, coordinates the efforts of 250 sisters who work in 100 convent-safe houses across Italy. Italian groups had contact with nearly 24,000 victims in 2012, according to a study released last fall. Most were women from Nigeria and Romania but groups fighting prostitution are more common than those fighting labor exploitation.

Sister Eugenia estimates that Italy has 70,000 to 80,000 victims at any given time. Numbers of trafficking victims in Europe pale in comparison to the numbers in the developing world. The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people are enslaved worldwide, with 22 percent of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation.

In Europe, even as the increasing number of migrants gives rise to more labor exploitation, sexual exploitation accounts for 62 percent of trafficking cases detected on the continent. Italy, as the most significant transit route into Europe, reflects the trend. Here, as in Germany and the Netherlands, sisters’ ministries with the poor put them in the position to recognize and respond to the problem early on.

Traffickers prey on the poor. Elizabeth, for instance, grew up in a family with four younger brothers. Her family couldn’t afford to educate her, so when she was 13, her mother gave, or perhaps sold, her to a hairdresser. While working as a servant for the woman, she met a man who said he would help her. He’d pay for her to go to Italy, and she could pay him back when she got there.

In the past, traffickers might have beaten their victims into submission, Sister Eugenia said, but this would force them to run away. Today, they often employ psychological manipulation. The women are given contracts, as if they were legitimate workers, but the terms are extreme.

Women typically must pay back nearly the equivalent of $75,000, plus expenses for food, shelter and even their spot on the street. Voodoo rituals sometimes bind Nigerian girls to their traffickers, threatening horrible consequences if they break their contracts. It was the contract that kept Mary, another Nigerian woman, now 31, on the street. Mary’s story is “the case where somebody sees a problem and tries to take an advantage over a person who is suffering,” as she put it.

Mary and her siblings were orphaned at a young age and had only each other. She doesn’t remember how she met the woman who trafficked her back in Lagos, Nigeria, but only that “I saw her at first like some kind of angel sent to help,” Mary recalled. “I was offered a better life. You can help your family; you can work and change your circumstance.” At 25, she boarded a plane to Italy, but “when I got here it was a different ballgame,” she said.

She was told there were no opportunities except for prostitution. Mary felt she had freedom because her madam stayed in Nigeria, but she still felt bound by the contract and was expected to pay her. That money went back through an underground system for transfers. Criminal networks involved in trafficking are international. After eight months on the streets, she tried to run away, but her madam would threaten her siblings, still in Nigeria.

Two years ago a friend recommended that Mary seek help at Casa Rut in Caserta, a small city near Naples. The sisters, she said, convinced her to change her phone number and cooperate with the police. Since then, the threats have stopped for her and her siblings.

In many African countries, corruption is so bad that the police are not to be trusted. Traffickers also warn their victims against going to police since they are often living in the country illegally. As migrants flood the port cities of southern Italy, this lack of trust makes protecting them more difficult.

“The bad people are in their country, they’re on the boat with them, and they’re here waiting for them. They are connected,” said Sister Valeria Gandini, a Comboni Missionary sister who works on trafficking issues in Palermo, Sicily.

A representative from the International Organization for Migration talks with the women when they first arrive, Sister Valeria said. One or two may step forward and report that they’ve been trafficked, but few are willing to ask for help in front of a group that may include their trafficker. Instead, the women are transferred to refugee camps, where they apply for asylum and await the results. Italy doesn’t restrict their movement, so the migrants often run away from the government-funded but privately run centers.

Although about 40,000 migrants entered Italy through the Mediterranean in the first half of 2014, few more than 20,000 applied for asylum in Italy. An Italian government report found that 3,163 of the 12,164 unaccompanied minors arriving in Italy in 2014 are unavailable. Most migrants leave the reception centers before applying for asylum in Italy to continue their journeys to Northern Europe, but the looseness of the system also opens the door to those who want to exploit migrants.

For this reason, Sister Eugenia is now organizing a group of convents to take in female migrants. They hope to protect them from falling into the hands of traffickers to begin with. Elizabeth’s story of being trafficked from one of these centers is not likely an isolated case, said Ursuline Sister Rita Giaretta, who helped start Casa Rut. Lay associates helped put together a report based on Elizabeth’s case, calling on the government to provide better protection for unaccompanied minors.

“We are not happy that Elizabeth is with us because we would like her to have been protected before,” Sister Rita said. “We don’t want to be nurses to heal wounds that could be avoided.”

Sisters go to the streets to meet the women and distribute information about a national hotline for victims seeking help. They have the right to stay in Italy as long as they take part in a rehabilitation program. They can, but don’t have to, cooperate with police investigations.

Every Saturday, Sister Eugenia leads an international team of women religious to visit an “identification and expulsion” center for undocumented migrants. Thanks to the lobbying power of women religious, Italian law recognizes the women as victims instead of criminals. Yet many of the women at the expulsion center are trafficking victims who are unaware of their rights.

Though Casa Rut started in 1995, Sister Eugenia and her colleagues pushed their fellow sisters to take on this work in a concerted way for the jubilee year 2000. They recruited 100 convents to open their doors to victims of trafficking as rehabilitation programs. Sister Eugenia said the sisters have saved 6,000 women from prostitution this way. But it’s not easy work. Women who’ve been on the streets are full of rage.

“You no longer see yourself as a human being,” Sister Eugenia said. “They have forgotten when to eat and sleep and how to interact with people in a civilized manner.”

Casa Rut consists of an apartment where four Ursuline sisters live, plus an attached unit with four rooms for the women and their children. They live, eat and pray together as a family, and they try to keep the number of women small. While secular NGOs run shelters in Italy as well, Sister Eugenia emphasizes that, for sisters, working with the women is their life. They aren’t simply staff who rotate in and out with each shift, but people who come to know the women deeply.

The women they work with stay in touch for years, calling when they need help. In recent years, the sisters have received more calls from women who have lost their jobs in the economic recession and haven’t been able to maintain their legal status in Italy. This precarious situation can push women back into prostitution.

Always adapting, the sisters developed a pilot program allowing Nigerian trafficking victims to voluntarily return home. About a dozen women and their children have gone back with financial support for housing and a small business, such as a shop or hair salon.

Sister Rita hopes to keep the women employed in the first place through New Hope Cooperative, which has a small store front in Caserta. There, Mary prepared to cut a piece of fabric with colorful African prints. Other women were sewing tags on fabric key chains and stuffing pillows.

Members of the coop earn a base salary of about $1,100 a month, plus additional pay depending on how many children they have.

“I see myself more as someone who’s productive, somehow making the world a better place now,” said Mary, who would like to return to Nigeria someday. Her dream is to open an orphanage so that other vulnerable people won’t be taken advantage of. “What I hope for is being able to somehow pay back for what I’ve been given,” she said.

This story was first published in Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter. The website is http://globalsistersreport.org.

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Catholics join in marking 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation


Catholic News Service

WARSAW, Poland — Catholic leaders joined in commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where 1.2 million mostly Jewish prisoners were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

“When we ask how God was present in the hell of Auschwitz, we must remember God’s last word is one of peace,” said Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland.

Survivor Juda Widaski, 96, poses for a picture inside a tent on the site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau near Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27. Some 300 former Auschwitz prisoners participated in ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.(CNS photo/Laszlo Balogh, Reuters)

Survivor Juda Widaski, 96, poses for a picture inside a tent on the site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau near Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27. Some 300 former Auschwitz prisoners participated in ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.(CNS photo/Laszlo Balogh, Reuters)

“Peace is a gift from God, for which we have to ask him. This is why we gather today to pray before taking the next step, and we must take that step, drawing conclusions from the past and from the witness of history.”

The cardinal preached at a Jan. 27 Mass in Auschwitz’s church-run ecumenical Center for Dialogue and Prayer. The Mass was concelebrated by the Vatican’s nuncio to Poland, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, and attended by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and around 150 former camp inmates.

Cardinal Dziwisz said questions still needed to be asked about human responsibility for Auschwitz atrocities, but added that the camp’s liberation was also a reminder that peace could be achieved by human effort.

He said numerous great initiatives had been launched to ensure future generations remembered the past while “responsibly building the future,” helped by survivors who recalled “the cry of the victims falling silent as they were brutally suffocated.”

Besides Jewish inmates, who made up 90 percent of victims, approximately 100,000 mostly Catholic Poles were killed by German occupiers in Auschwitz’s gas chambers and execution sites. The Nazis also killed Roma, Russian POWs and prisoners of other nationalities at the camp, located in Oswiecim, Poland.

St. John Paul II visited Auschwitz in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2006. Organizers of World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow expect Pope Francis to visit the camp while he is in the country.

The anniversary of the camp’s liberation by invading Soviet forces was attended by heads of state and government and official representatives from 40 countries and included interfaith prayers at the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination center and a wreath-laying at the camp’s infamous Death Wall.

In a Jan. 27 Twitter message, Pope Francis said, “Auschwitz cries out with the pain of immense suffering and pleads for a future of respect, peace and encounter among peoples.”

Meanwhile, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said Auschwitz ranked “among the fundamental experiences of mankind” as a place where “the Germans systematically and industrially organized the destruction of European Jews.”

He added that the death camp remained “an open wound on the body of humanity,” and said it was important to ask “why the crimes of Auschwitz happened on a continent marked for at least a millennium by Christianity.”

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Pontifical aid agency looks at needs of Lebanon’s refugees


BEIRUT — Officials of a pontifical aid agency said they saw much that needed done in Lebanon, if they could get beyond crisis mode.

Economically strapped Lebanon is now hosting more than 1.5 million refugees, mostly Syrians, putting a strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources for its existing population of around 4 million people.

A nun at the hospital run by the Sisters of the Cross in Deir el Kamar, Lebanon, interacts with a child Jan. 23. Msgr. John Kozar, president of the U.S.-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and other officials spoke with Catholic News Service at CNEWA's Beirut office about their Jan. 19-23 visit to Lebanon. (CNS photo/John Kozar, courtesy CNEWA)

A nun at the hospital run by the Sisters of the Cross in Deir el Kamar, Lebanon, interacts with a child Jan. 23. Msgr. John Kozar, president of the U.S.-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and other officials spoke with Catholic News Service at CNEWA’s Beirut office about their Jan. 19-23 visit to Lebanon. (CNS photo/John Kozar, courtesy CNEWA)

“So much of our energy is a crisis intervention status, keeping people from starving, from freezing to death with these cold spells, keeping people from getting very sick and even dying from simple maladies and physical problems that can develop into something serious,” said Msgr. John Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

“But because of the uncertainty of the (refugee) crises, we have to look at what will be the next level of assistance …. There’s housing issues, educational issues, longer-term health issues, post-traumatic issues,” he said, adding that counseling is needed for children that have been through “horrible” circumstances.

Msgr. Kozar, joined by Carl Hetu, national director of CNEWA Canada, and Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, co-treasurer of the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops, spoke with Catholic News Service at CNEWA’s Beirut office about their Jan. 19-23 visit to Lebanon. Before arriving in Lebanon, they visited Jordan; in both countries, they are helping Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the communities that support them.

Iraqi families have continued to flee to Lebanon since the Islamic State purged Mosul and the Ninevah Plain of Christians. In sharing about their meetings with church leaders, the delegation said they learned from Armenian Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni that Armenian families from Syria, Iraq and Turkey are also seeking refuge in Lebanon, requiring the patriarchate’s help for relief services.

As the crisis in Syria and Iraq lingers, more help is needed, they said.

“We are in a posture of extreme gratitude to our donor public, the wonderful, generous people in Canada and the USA that have responded,” said Msgr. Kozar. “We want them to know they are making a huge difference, but please don’t stop, because there is so much more that we need to do for all the Middle East.”

Founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926, New York City-based CNEWA works for, through and with the Eastern Catholic churches in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe to identify needs and implement solutions.

“We show our solidarity at every level with heads of the church, various patriarchs, church leaders, church providers, the religious congregations that provide marvelous, sometimes heroic, service, laypeople, also and the (CNEWA) staff here working amazingly in reaching out to the thousands of thousands of refugees,” Msgr. Kozar said.

The delegation’s itinerary in Lebanon included visiting a school run by the Good Shepherd Sisters for refugee children in Deir al-Ahmar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border, and meeting refugees in a nearby tent settlement camp. There they experienced firsthand the sisters’ witness of God’s love to the mostly Muslim refugee population.

“They just have this radiance of love that’s infectious,” Msgr. Kozar said of the sisters.

Bishop Gendron credited the sisters for the welcoming way the refugees accepted the delegation and invited them into their tents.

“They realized that they are being loved,” he said of the refugees. “So it opens up all doors.”

“They were so welcoming, they were so happy to have us to come in the tent and have tea with them. And that’s so important to keep people’s dignity,” said Hetu.

“They always thanked us. But before leaving they also said, ‘Don’t forget us,’” Msgr. Kozar said.

The delegation said the Catholic organizations and agencies — CNEWA, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas — cooperate with each other and complement one another in their relief efforts.

“And that has been the strength of the church: We are able to pull our resources together to talk to one another, whether it’s in Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq,” Hetu said. “It shows the church at its best.”

 By Doreen Abi Raad

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Jesuits say South Africans’ violence against foreign nationals a disgrace


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — A week of violence targeting foreign nationals and their businesses in Soweto and other Johannesburg townships is a national disgrace and “continues South Africa’s shameful history of xenophobia,” said The Jesuit Institute South Africa.

The attacks and looting that left at least four people dead started Jan. 19 when a Somali national allegedly shot and killed a 14-year-boy who was among a group attempting to break into his shop in Soweto. By Jan. 26, police had arrested more than 160 people for the attacks.

“The savagery demonstrated and the failure to put a stop” to the violence “is deeply disturbing and displays a failure of the state to put an end to such behavior, both by the enforcement of the law and the education of citizens in respect of the rights of foreign nationals,” the institute said in a Jan. 23 statement from its Johannesburg headquarters.

With some South African officials denying that the attacks are motivated by xenophobia, The Jesuit Institute said, “An attack on and the systematic looting of a shop that happens to be owned by a foreigner may not necessarily be xenophobic, but a systematic series of attacks on over 80 such shops and foreign-born persons cannot simply be explained away.”

The fact that the attacks appeared to be coordinated “makes this not so much acts of criminality as acts of political violence against a group. That’s xenophobia,” the institute said.

Xenophobia “is a flagrant act of contempt for the culture of human rights central to our constitution,” the statement said, noting that the bill of rights “does not discriminate between citizens and noncitizens.”

Many young South Africans feel hopeless, The Jesuit Institute said, noting that frustration among the poor is mounting with the government’s failure to address “the growing gap” between the rich and the poor.

Xenophobic violence “is symptomatic of the deep structural problems in South Africa, and foreign nationals have become scapegoats,” it said.

South Africa “must put an end to the shameful phenomenon of xenophobia and xenophobic violence by systematic civic education and by facing the social, economic and political cocktail that leads to fear, hopelessness and anger,” it said.

The institute and its partner organization, Jesuit Refugee Service, called for “all parties involved in these criminal acts to allow the law to take its course and to refrain from targeting vulnerable sectors of the community and victimizing foreigners.”

They urged dialogue “between church leaders, community leaders, local businesses and foreigners” and warned communities “to be wary of being used as pawns” by local business owners.

“Let us look for ways of working together and peaceful co-existence,” they said, noting that the government should educate citizens on the positive social and economic contributions that migrants make to South Africa.

In another Jan. 23 statement, Father David Holdcroft, regional director of Jesuit Refugee Service, called on people “to remain calm in this climate of increasing fear and discontent toward refugees and foreign traders and where opportunistic criminals are targeting vulnerable sectors of the community.”

The Jesuit Institute said that “welcome and hospitality” are key concepts of the Christian faith.

During apartheid, South Africa’s system of racial segregation and discrimination that ended in 1994, other African countries gave refuge to anti-apartheid activists, “often putting themselves at risk of attack by the South African war machine,” it said.

“Our people were treated with warmth and generosity. They were not robbed, murdered, or attacked,” it said.

“Successful states welcome migrants, who bring with them skills, knowledge and a spirit of enterprise that builds up nations,” the institute said, noting that “all research points to the fact that immigration supports economies, generates jobs, and makes societies prosperous in the long run.”

More than 60 people were killed and more than 30,000 people were displaced in attacks on foreigners around South Africa in May 2008.

— By Bronwen Dachs

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Pope, at Mass with millions, tells Filipinos to protect the family


Catholic News Service

MANILA, Philippines — Pope Francis told a crowd of an estimated 6 million gathered in a Manila park to protect the family “against insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture.”

The pope’s homily at the Jan. 18 Mass also reprised several other themes he had sounded during the four-day visit, including environmental problems, poverty and corruption.

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass in Rizal Park in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass in Rizal Park in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Despite continuous rain, the congregation in Rizal Park began to assemble the night before the afternoon celebration. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila canceled other Masses throughout the archdiocese to enhance turnout. The crowd was so dense in spots that people passed hosts to fellow worshippers unable to reach priests distributing Communion.

The government estimated total crowd size at 6 million-7 million people. According to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, that would be the largest number of people ever to gather to see a pope. A Mass with St. John Paul II in the same place 20 years earlier is believed to have drawn 4 million-5 million people, often described as the largest live crowd in history.

The Mass was celebrated on Santo Nino Day, or the feast of the Holy Child Jesus, one of the most popular feast days in the Philippines. Many of those who walked great distances down closed roads to get to Rizal Park held statues of Santo Nino.

For his final scheduled public talk in the country, Pope Francis stuck to his prepared English text and did not improvise in Spanish, as he had done at several emotional points during the visit. Yet his voice rose with emphasis during the passage about protecting the family.

Those words echoed his warning, during a Jan. 16 meeting with Filipino families, against “ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family.”

In his homily, Pope Francis said Christians “need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected. And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to life on the streets.”

The pope praised the Philippines, whose population is more than 80 percent Catholic, as the “foremost Catholic country in Asia,” and said its people, millions of whom work abroad, are “called to be outstanding missionaries of the faith in Asia.”

Yet he warned the developing nation, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, against temptations of materialism, saying the devil “hides his snares behind the appearance of sophistication, the allure of being modern, like everyone else. He distracts us with the promise of ephemeral pleasures, superficial pastimes. And so we squander our God-given gifts by tinkering with gadgets; we squander our money on gambling and drink.”

Pope Francis, who had urged a group of young people earlier in the day to address the challenge of climate change through dedication to the environment, told Mass-goers human sinfulness had “disfigured (the) natural beauty” of creation.

Other consequences of sin, the pope said, were “social structures which perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption,” problems he had emphasized in his Jan. 16 speech at Manila’s presidential palace.


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Pope meets with father, uncle of CRS worker killed in Philippines


Catholic News Service

MANILA, Philippines — After praying publicly at a youth gathering for the repose of the soul of a Catholic Relief Services worker killed the previous day, Pope Francis met Jan. 18 with her father and her maternal uncle.

Kristel Padasas, 27, of Manila, who worked with a recovery project for victims of Typhoon Haiyan, died after the papal Mass in Tacloban when high winds blew over scaffolding. She had traveled from Samar Island, where her project is based, to volunteer at the Mass.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila told reporters that he translated at the meeting.

Pope Francis and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, console the father of Kristel Padasas, 27,  Jan. 18 in Manila. Padasas, a Catholic Relief Services employee, died Jan. 17 after the papal Mass in Tacloban when strong winds caused scaffolding in an area near the altar to fall. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, console the father of Kristel Padasas, 27, Jan. 18 in Manila. Padasas, a Catholic Relief Services employee, died Jan. 17 after the papal Mass in Tacloban when strong winds caused scaffolding in an area near the altar to fall. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

“The Holy Father was searching for words,” the cardinal said. “How do you console with words a father who just lost his only child? The Holy Father did not apologize for his lack of words, but he was there” and let his presence speak.

“I think what struck the Holy Father was the statement of the father of Kristel. At first he said he felt devastated and he even asked God, you know, ‘I have only one child, why is she taken away from me?’” the cardinal said.

“But then it surprised the Holy Father when this grieving father said, ‘I have accepted this. I have resigned myself to the fact that my daughter’s no longer with me. I rejoice that she died serving other people, especially serving this visit of the Holy Father. So it’s a meaningful death,’” the cardinal quoted the father as saying

The young woman’s father explained that he had decided to stay home and watch the papal visit on television because he was certain the expected crowds meant he would not be able to get anywhere near Pope Francis.

“‘Then,’ he said, ‘my daughter died. She arranged this meeting with the Holy Father.’ And when I translated that for the Holy Father, the Holy Father just shook his head and said, ‘What faith. What faith,’” the cardinal said.

“I think the Holy Father was surprised, in a pleasant way, that here he was trying to show compassion and mercy, but this grieving man witnessed to his faith before the Holy Father.”

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said that for the meeting, the young woman’s father brought two photographs that were kept on the table as they spoke: One was a recent photo and another was of her as a little girl with her mother and father.

During the meeting, Father Lombardi said, there was an attempt to reach the young woman’s mother by telephone in Hong Kong.

“The pope had the idea, as he very often does, to call,” but it was unsuccessful.

CRS staffers were stunned and mourned Padasas’ death, offering prayers for her family.

“Her colleagues remember her as someone who loved to laugh and who was always ready to assist outside her normal duties,” said a Jan. 17 statement from CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency. “She found great joy in being able to contribute to the recovery effort by working directly with communities and families.”

“Her dedication to the people affected by the typhoon extended beyond her official work with CRS,” the statement added. “She traveled a great distance to volunteer at today’s papal Mass and to remember the victims of Typhoon Haiyan.”


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Tears often are only correct response to suffering, pope tells youths


Catholic News Service

MANILA, Philippines — The realities of life described by young people, especially the tearful question of a 12-year-old girl about why God allows suffering, led Pope Francis to set aside the first text he had prepared for a meeting Jan. 18 with the young people of the Philippines.

“Certain realities in life can only be seen through eyes cleansed by tears,” the pope said Jan. 19 after listening to Glyzelle Palomar, who used to live on the streets but now has a home thanks to the foundation for street children Pope Francis visited in Manila Jan. 16.

Pope Francis embraces Glyzelle Palomar, 12, after the former street child spoke during a meeting with young people at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18. Also pictured is Jun Chura, 14, who also spoke. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis embraces Glyzelle Palomar, 12, after the former street child spoke during a meeting with young people at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18. Also pictured is Jun Chura, 14, who also spoke. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Palomar spoke after Jun Chura, a 14-year-old rescued from the streets by the same foundation, described life on the streets as a struggle to find enough to eat, to fight the temptation of drug use and glue sniffing, and to avoid adults looking for the young to exploit and abuse.

Covering her face with her hand as she wept in front of the microphone, Palomar asked the pope, “Why did God let this happen to us?”

As some 30,000 young people looked on at the University of Santo Tomas, the pope kissed the top of Palomar’s head and pulled her close for a big hug, then embraced her and Chura together.

He also listened to the testimony of two other young men and their questions: How do young people discover God’s will for them? What is love? How can young people become agents of mercy and compassion?

The pope’s gathering with the youths was emotional from the beginning. Opening the encounter, the pope spoke about 27-year-old Kristel Padasas, an employee of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, who died after being struck by a speaker stand knocked down by the wind Jan. 17 after the pope’s Mass in Tacloban.

She was “young, like yourselves,” the pope told the youths, asking them to join him in praying for her and for her parents. “She was the only daughter. Her mother is coming from Hong Kong (and) her father has come to Manila to wait,” he told them.

Pope Francis had received the texts of the young people’s testimonies and questions in advance and had begun rewriting his speech the night before to ensure he responded directly to what they planned to say, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman. There was not time to have the new text translated, so Pope Francis, who did not read from the text, asked Msgr. Mark Miles from the Vatican Secretariat of State to translate from his Spanish. After more than half an hour, he made a passing attempt to return to the original text, but only to emphasize the challenges the youth face: the challenge of personal integrity, of helping the poor and of protecting the environment.

One of the first things he commented on talking to the youths was the fact that Palomar was the only female on the program.

“Sometimes we’re too ‘machista’ and don’t allow room for the woman,” he said. “But the woman is able to see things with a different eye than men. Women are able to pose questions that we men are not able to understand.”

“Pay attention,” the pope told the young people. Palomar was “the only one who posed a question for which there is no answer. And she wasn’t able to express it in words but tears.”

“When the next pope comes to Manila,” he told them, include “more women” on the program.

Speaking directly to Palomar, he told her, “You have expressed yourself so bravely.”

While it is impossible to explain why God would allow children to suffer, he told the young people, “only when we, too, can cry” can one approach a response.

“I invite each one of you here to ask yourself, ‘Have I learned to weep and cry when I see a child cast aside, when I see someone with a drug problem, when I see someone who has suffered abuse?’” the pope told them.

Being moved to tears out of compassion and in the face of the mystery of suffering is holy, he said. It is not the same thing as crying to manipulate or get something from someone.

“Jesus in the Gospel cried, he cried for his dead friend,” Lazarus, “he cried in his heart for the family that had lost its child, he cried in his heart when he saw the old widow having to bury her son, he was moved to tears of compassion when he saw the multitude of crowds without a pastor,” Pope Francis said.

“If you don’t learn how to cry you cannot be good Christians,” he told them.

In the face of suffering like Palomar’s and Chura’s, he said, “our response must either be silence or the word that is born of our tears.”

“Be courageous, do not be afraid to cry,” the pope said.

Responding to the questions of Leandro Santos II, a law student, and Rikki Macolor, a recent graduate who, with his friends, designed a solar-powered night light for typhoon victims, Pope Francis focused on love, compassion and the challenge of not just helping the poor, but allowing oneself to learn from and be evangelized by them.

“What is the most important subject that you have to learn in university, what is the most important subject you learn in life?” the pope asked. “To learn to love. This is the challenge that life offers you.”

“True love is to love and allow yourself to be loved,” he said. “It is harder to let yourself be loved than to love.”

Even when it comes to the life of faith, he said, it seems easier to love God than to really allow oneself to be loved by him. But when one succeeds, he continued, God responds with surprises.

“Don’t be like a computer, thinking that we know everything,” the pope said.

Pope Francis thanked Macolor and his friends for helping the poor victims of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, but he asked them, “Do you allow yourselves to receive?” Putting his finger to his lips, the pope said he didn’t want them to respond immediately, but to ponder the other, essential Christian part of being with the poor, which is being willing to learn from them and to accept their gifts.

“The Sadducees and doctors of the law in the time of Jesus gave much to the people, they gave them the law and taught them, but they never allowed the people to give them something,” he said.

“Become a beggar,” the pope said. “Learn how to beg,” to receive with humility, “to be evangelized by the poor. The persons we help, the poor, the sick have so much to give us.”

Contributing to this story was Francis X. Rocca in Manila.


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Pope Francis tells survivors of typhoon they are not alone


Catholic News Service

TACLOBAN, Philippines — Fourteen months after Typhoon Haiyan devastated much of the central Philippines, Pope Francis braved a tropical storm to encourage survivors in their ongoing work of recovery. The weather forced him to leave the area hours ahead of schedule, so he made up for reduced contact with words and gestures of characteristic spontaneity and emotional directness.

The pope arrived at Tacloban International Airport a little before 9 a.m. Jan. 17, after a bumpy 75-minute-long flight from Manila. For his short ride in an open-sided popemobile to the site of the open-air Mass, he donned the same kind of yellow plastic poncho worn by the hundreds of thousands of people awaiting him in the rain. He kept the poncho on while he celebrated Mass, as strong winds blew.

Pilgrims react during a moment of silence for victims of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 as Pope Francis celebrates Mass adjacent to the airport in Tacloban, Philippines, Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pilgrims react during a moment of silence for victims of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 as Pope Francis celebrates Mass adjacent to the airport in Tacloban, Philippines, Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

For his homily, the pope abandoned his prepared English text to improvise in his native Spanish with the aid of an interpreter.

He recalled his initial reaction, on Nov. 8, 2013, to the typhoon that claimed some more than 7,300 lives and destroyed more than 1 million homes.

“When I saw that catastrophe from Rome, I felt that I had to be here, and on that day I decided to be here. Now I have come to be with you, a little bit late, but I am here,” the pope said.

“I have come to tell you that Jesus is Lord and he never lets us down. ‘Father,’ you might say to me, ‘he defrauded me, because I lost my house, I lost what I had, I am sick.’ That’s true, if you would say that, and I respect those sentiments. But I see him there nailed to the cross and from there he does not let us down,” Pope Francis said.

“So many of you have lost everything I don’t know what to say to you. But he does know what to say to you,” the pope said.

“And beside him on the cross was his mother,” the pope said, pointing to a statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus. “We are like that little child there. In moments of pain, when we no longer understand and want to rebel, all we can do is grab hold of her hand firmly and tell her ‘mom,’ as a child says to his mother when he is afraid. Maybe that is the only word we can say in such difficult times: ‘mother, mom.’”

Pope Francis concluded on a solemn yet hopeful note, drawing a link between the consolation of faith and the solidarity among those working to rebuild the area.

“We have a mother, we have our older brother Jesus, we are not alone,” the pope said. “We also have many brothers who in this moment of catastrophe came to help us. And we, too, feel more like brothers and sisters because we have helped each other.”

“Let us move forward, always forward, and walk together as brothers and sisters in the Lord,” he said, before the entire congregation observed a moment of silence.

After the pope’s departure, strong winds caused scaffolding in an area near the altar to fall and hit two women. The accident killed Kristel Padasas, 27, of Manila, a Catholic Relief Services employee on a Typhoon Haiyan recovery project who had attended the papal Mass as a volunteer.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told reporters later in the day that Pope Francis was consulting with advisers on the best way to reach out to the dead woman’s family.

The accident left the other woman, Darla Santos, 19, with a dislocated hip.

The pope carried out all the remaining events on his official agenda in a highly abbreviated fashion, so that the plane taking him back to Manila could take off before the worst of the storm hit the area.

At a planned lunch with typhoon survivors, the pope managed to taste some salad and cold soup while urging others present to eat more, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila told reporters later.

A visit to the house of a local fisherman, intended to give the pope a closer look at the life of ordinary survivors, lasted 10 minutes. Stopping at the new Pope Francis Center for the Poor, which had been built with Vatican funds, the pope blessed the building without getting out of his popemobile.

A planned prayer service at the cathedral in Palo, less than 10 miles away from Tacloban, turned into a brief talk by the pope followed by a recital of the Hail Mary. The pope also led the congregation in a round of “Happy Birthday” for a member of his entourage, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.

Contributing were Simone Orendain in Tacloban and Cindy Wooden in Manila.


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Papal meeting with former Manila street kids features songs, hugs


Catholic News Service

MANILA, Philippines — Pope Francis did not disappoint hundreds of former street children who were part of a massive campaign to show him one of the centers where they have found safety and love.

Although it was not in his official program, Pope Francis walked out of Manila’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral after Mass Jan. 16 and across the street to the Blessed Charles de Foucauld Home for Girls, which is run by the Tulay Ng Kabataan foundation.

Pope Francis is greeted by young people at a home for former street children in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 16. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis is greeted by young people at a home for former street children in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 16. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Accompanied by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, a frequent guest, the pope spent about half an hour with some 320 boys and girls and young adults from a number of TNK homes in metropolitan Manila.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful encounter,” Cardinal Tagle told reporters later. “You could see the Holy Father was in his element.”

The cardinal translated for the pope as several of the children approached and shared their stories, stories that often included horrible experiences of exploitation and abuse when they lived on the streets.

“You could see the attentiveness of the pope,” he said. Getting emotional himself, the cardinal said that, as he listened, the pope’s “eyes were getting cloudy and beginning to fill with tears. You could see he was trying to show his affection to the children, but at the same time trying to fathom these deep wounds and pain.”

When the children came up to touch and to hug the pope, he said, Pope Francis whispered to him that it was clear they yearned for a loving human touch, “the touch of a parent.”

The pope “assured the children that they are loved by God, that God is with them, and that they should not forget that.”

In a text message reply to questions, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the visit featured “songs, kisses and hugs. And a blessing.”

“These children, the poorest among the poor, are for sure the most vulnerable victims of our society, but they remain masters of joy, as one can see on their smiling faces,” the foundation’s director, 39-year-old Father Matthieu Dauchez, told Pope Francis.

In a statement issued after the visit, the center said that by taking the time to meet “many children who faced horrors of the street like begging, violence, drugs (and) prostitution,” Pope Francis demonstrated “that he is the pope of the forgotten.”

“This is awesome,” the statement quoted 10-year-old Alvin as saying. “He gave me a huge warm hug!”


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Pope urges end to corruption in Philippines, nation’s president claims church leaders silent amid corruption


Catholic News Service MANILA, Philippines — In a nation plagued repeatedly by corruption scandals, Pope Francis urged “everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption, which diverts resources from the poor.” After an official welcoming ceremony Jan. 16 at the Malacanang Palace, the residence of the Philippine president, the pope addressed President Benigno Aquino III, government officials and diplomats representing their governments in Manila.

Pope Francis and President Benigno Aquino III review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis and President Benigno Aquino III review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Telling the government leaders and diplomats that he knew their jobs are not easy and that Asian countries face complex challenges, he also insisted “it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good.” Citing “the moral imperative of ensuring social justice and respect for human dignity,” Pope Francis emphasized “the duty to hear the voice of the poor. It bids us break the bonds of injustice and oppression, which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities.” Whatever technical, political plans a government or party has, he said, “reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart.” In his speech to the pope, Aquino accused some unnamed Philippine church leaders of being silent in the face of corruption under the government of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. “One would think that the church would be our natural ally,” the president said. Asked about the speech later, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, described it as original and unusual for such a formal occasion with the pope. But, he said, looking at the pope’s and the president’s speeches, “you see what is the perspective of the politician and what is the perspective of the pope.” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila told reporters that Aquino was speaking “from a deeply personal and deeply political experience.” He added, though, that Aquino, “in many speeches since he become president, always refers to the previous administration” and the problems it has created. Pope Francis said the values needed to fight corruption and to establish justice are fostered in the family. “It is in the family that children are trained in sound values, high ideals and genuine concern for others,” the pope said. “But like all God’s gifts, the family can also be disfigured and destroyed. It needs our support. “We know how difficult it is for our democracies today to preserve and defend such basic human values as respect for the inviolable dignity of each human person, respect for the rights of conscience and religious freedom, and respect for the inalienable right to life, beginning with that of the unborn and extending to that of the elderly and infirm,” he said. But all of those values can be upheld if a nation is filled with people who have learned to cherish those values in their families, Pope Francis said. Strong families pass on the solid values needed to “bring about a culture of integrity, one which honors goodness, truthfulness, fidelity and solidarity as the firm foundation and the moral glue which holds society together.”

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