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After 27 years in military as chaplain, Father John Mink retires

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Father John J. Mink, pastor of St. Ann’s Parish in Wilmington, recently retired after 27 years of military service in the Delaware National Guard. The first 14 were in the Army National Guard and the last 13 in the Air National Guard at the New Castle County airport, a mere three minutes from his assignment at the time as pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Wilmington Manor.

The close proximity allowed him to respond to deployments and crises involving airmen and their families quickly. Read more »

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Catholic Navy SEAL, presented Medal of Honor for action in Afghanistan, prays to St. Michael

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WASHINGTON — A Catholic Navy SEAL with a strong devotion to St. Michael the Archangel was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama at the White House Feb. 29.

The 36-year-old Ohio native, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward C. Byers Jr., rescued a civilian hostage in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan in December 2012.

U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to U.S. Navy Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers Jr. during a ceremony at the White House in Washington Feb. 29. Byers, a Catholic, was honored for his courageous actions while serving as part of a team that rescued an American civilian in 2012 who was held hostage in Afghanistan. (CNS photo/Gary Cameron, Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to U.S. Navy Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers Jr. during a ceremony at the White House in Washington Feb. 29. Byers, a Catholic, was honored for his courageous actions while serving as part of a team that rescued an American civilian in 2012 who was held hostage in Afghanistan. (CNS photo/Gary Cameron, Reuters)

At the White House ceremony, Obama introduced Byers, calling him a “special breed of warrior that so often serves in the shadows.”

“The ethos, the creed, that guides every Navy SEAL says this: ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions,’” the president said. “Which is another way of saying that standing here today, in front of the entire nation, is not Senior Chief Ed Byers’ idea of a good time.”

The nation’s highest military honor was awarded to Byers for, as a military aide read, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a Hostage Rescue Force Team member in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom Dec. 8-9, 2012.”

The Washington Post and other news outlets reported that Byers, who is assigned to the SEAL teams based in Little Creek, Virginia, said that for years he has prayed to St. Michael the Archangel, drawing strength from the saint described in Scripture as the one who defends the people of God from their enemies.

Byers was quoted by the Post as saying that during a career of serving in combat, he has always worn a St. Michael the Archangel patch “on my back. … Every single mission I’ve ever done, I’ve always said a prayer to St. Michael to protect and watch over us.”

During the Medal of Honor presentation, a military aide described the heroism of Byers: He “fearlessly rushed into the room and engaged an enemy guard aiming an AK-47 at him. He then tackled another adult male who had darted toward the corner of the room. During the ensuing hand-to-hand struggle, Chief Byers confirmed the man was not the hostage and engaged him. As the other rescue team members called out to the hostage, Chief Byers heard a voice respond in English and raced toward it. He jumped atop the American hostage and shielded him from the high volume of fire within the small room.”

While he covered the hostage with his body, the aide continued, Byers “immobilized another guard with his bare hands, and restrained the guard until a teammate could eliminate him.

“His bold and decisive actions under fire saved the lives of the hostage and several of his teammates. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of near-certain death, Chief Petty Officer Byers reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

According to reports, Byers is the sixth Navy SEAL in history to be awarded the Medal of Honor and the first living SEAL to receive the honor since the Vietnam War.

In Obama’s introduction of Byers’ family, he welcomed his wife, Madison, their daughter, Hannah, and Byers’ mother, Peggy. Obama relayed that she “had one question when Ed told her about this ceremony, ‘Do you think I can come?’ That’s so sweet. Yes, Mom, you’re allowed to come when your son gets the Medal of Honor,” Obama said.

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Pope calls for prayers, aid after quake in Pakistan, Afghanistan

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — As the death toll from an earthquake in Pakistan and Afghanistan continued to rise, Pope Francis called for prayers and concrete aid for survivors.

A Pakistani woman holds an injured child in their home Oct. 26 following a magnitude-7.5 earthquake in Peshawar, Pakistan. As the death toll from the earthquake in Pakistan and Afghanistan continued to rise, Pope Francis called for prayers and concrete aid for survivors. (CNS photo/Bilawal Arbab, EPA)

A Pakistani woman holds an injured child in their home Oct. 26 following a magnitude-7.5 earthquake in Peshawar, Pakistan. As the death toll from the earthquake in Pakistan and Afghanistan continued to rise, Pope Francis called for prayers and concrete aid for survivors. (CNS photo/Bilawal Arbab, EPA)

The magnitude-7.5 temblor Oct. 26 left at least 380 people dead and thousands of homes and buildings badly damaged.

“Let us pray for the dead and their relatives, for all those who are wounded and the homeless,” he said at the end of his general audience in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 28. He asked that God offer consolation and courage to those who were suffering and struggling.

He asked that “these brothers and sisters not be lacking our concrete solidarity.”

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Greece’s Caritas aids refugees with food, clothing, human warmth

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Catholic News Service

IDOMENI, Greece — Weary faces, fussy babies, little boys teasing little girls to the point of tears and repeated uses of the Arabic word, “inshallah” (God willing) reflect the uncertainty faced by refugees trying to reach northern Europe.

Thousands of people fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan pass through the makeshift transit center daily at Idomeni, a Greek village, population 120, on the border with Macedonia.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila gives a food bag to a refugee family as they arrive at a transit camp in Idomeni, Greece, on the border of Macedonia Oct. 19. Thousands of refugees are arriving into Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries and then traveling further into Europe. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila gives a food bag to a refugee family as they arrive at a transit camp in Idomeni, Greece, on the border of Macedonia Oct. 19. Thousands of refugees are arriving into Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries and then traveling further into Europe. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The crossings began as a trickle in the summer and by late October were occasionally reaching 10,000 refugees passing through in a single 24-hour period.

“Uncertainty is the name of the game,” said Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, president of Caritas Internationalis.

The cardinal visited the camp Oct. 19 with members of Greece’s Caritas Hellas and helped them hand out bags of food to refugees arriving on buses from Athens, 380 miles to the south. With a little bit of rest, some food, water and a toilet break, the refugees continue their journey north, most hoping to join family already in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden or Norway.

Amin and Sambra are a young Sudanese couple who were living and working in Syria when the war broke out; they were given refuge in Turkey, but not a work permit, so Amin could not provide for his growing family. He said he paid 2,500 euros ($2,850) for the whole family to get on a rubber boat to Greece. Sambra gave birth to their fourth child Oct. 13 on the island of Samos. Then they headed for Athens and on to Idomeni.

Those standing in line near the border, marked with rolls of barbed wire, outside the Idomeni camp share key parts of Amin’s story. Fleeing Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, they traveled to Turkey. From there, they paid smugglers more than 1,000 euros each for a place in an overcrowded rubber boat bound for one of the Greek islands. Once in Greece, they paid to ride a ferry to Athens, and then they paid 80 euros for the bus ride to Idomeni. They will walk half a mile to cross the border, then pay 25 euros for a train ticket to Belgrade, Serbia, four hours away.

Luca Guanziroli, a staffer of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said the train ticket cost only 5 euros in the summer, but the Macedonian government has raised the price due to the increased demand.

Just outside the Idomeni transit camp, some enterprising Greeks have parked food trucks. It seems, however, that their most popular offering is a connection to their generators; they will recharge cell phone batteries with the purchase of a beverage or sandwich.

The UNHCR still is trying to secure electricity to the camp for more than its current two or three hours a day.

Patrick Nicholson, communications director for Caritas Internationalis, said the Syrian refugee crisis is unusual for the network of national Catholic charities because it involves “working with people for very short periods of time over such a long route. We have people helping them all the way from Turkey to Germany.”

Guanziroli said the refugees are at the Idomeni center for anywhere from 30 minutes to 10 hours, depending on how many trains Macedonia runs and how many refugees there are arriving that day.

With only one paid staff member and dozens of volunteers, the Thessaloniki section of Caritas Hellas is providing what the refugees say they need in Idomeni. “Basically,” Nicholson said, “they say they want a snack and things that they can carry. They have everything they own on their backs and many are carrying children as well.”

Cardinal Tagle, who visited with the refugees after handing out the food bags, said that although the refugees are assured at each stage that they are safe now, the uncertainty continues. They don’t know when the trains will arrive, which borders will be open to them and how they will be treated by police and border control agents.

“What crosses my mind is can the nations not make it easier?” the cardinal said. “Can we not work together and say these are human beings? They already have escaped horrible, horrible experiences.”

Yasin, 29, and his shy young wife fled Aleppo. Syria, to the Kurdistan region of Iraq three years ago. Now, with four children who are between the ages of 1 and 9, they are trying to join family in Norway.

The boat from Turkey to Leros was the worst part, Yasin said. “We were crying and praying because of the waves. … Huge waves made water come into the boat, but at least we had life jackets.” Some news reports have said the jackets cost extra.

Father Antonios Voutsinos is president of Caritas Hellas; he has five paid staff and an army of volunteers who are trying to help meet the needs of the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 refugees entering Greece each day. Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas aid agency, has helped fund the work of Caritas Hellas.

Cardinal Tagle stood in the dusty transit center between a medical tent set up by Doctors Without Borders and the little awning that marks the spot where Caritas volunteers handed out 1,200 food bags in just two hours Oct. 19.

“Caritas Hellas has only one paid staff person here; all the others are volunteers taking their turns every day to pack food, to sort out donations of clothing and coming here to spend the day or evening with refugees,” he said. “That is ‘caritas,’” which means love.

“Yes, Caritas Hellas is the beneficiary of a lot of goodwill and donations from other parts of the world,” he said, “but in the end, without the warm bodies, without the spirit of volunteerism … Caritas as an institution will not survive.”

“Caritas is Caritas because of those simple people who give of themselves,” the cardinal said.

While weary, the refugees are calm at Idomeni. They are organized into groups of 50 to receive food, rest a while, then move in orderly, well-spaced groups across the border and, they hope, on to trains.

The uncertainty obviously is greatest for the children, but the 6-year-old girl in the brand new, one-piece, red polka dot pajamas with reindeer on the pockets was smiling broadly. Cardinal Tagle and the Caritas volunteers gave her raisins and dates and cookies and a juice box and water. And a caress.

 

Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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Jesuit priest kidnapped in Afghanistan

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Catholic News Service

ROME — A Jesuit priest from India was kidnapped June 2 as he was leaving a school serving children who were recently returned to Afghanistan after living as refugees in Iran or Pakistan.

The Rome headquarters of the Jesuit Refugee Service confirmed that its Afghanistan country director, Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar, “was abducted by a group of unidentified men” as he was leaving a JRS-supported school for returnee refugees in Sohadat village, about 15 miles from the city of Herat in western Afghanistan.

Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar of India was kidnapped June 2 as he was leaving a school serving children recently returned to Afghanistan after living as refugees in Iran or Pakistan. He is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy JRS)

“We are deeply shocked by Prem’s abduction. We are in contact with all the relevant authorities and doing everything possible to ensure his safe and speedy return,” said Jesuit Father Peter Balleis, international director of JRS.

Church officials in India expressed concern for the safety of Father Prem Kumar, 47, who has worked in Afghanistan since 2011.

“We are worried and concerned about the kidnap of Father Alexis,” Father Edward Muduvassery, Jesuit provincial for South Asia, told Catholic News Service June 3 from his office in New Delhi.

Father Joseph Chinnayan, deputy secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, appealed to the Indian government to quickly to seek the Jesuit’s release.

Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for the India’s External Affairs Ministry, said via a Twitter post that Indian officials in Herat were pursuing the matter with local authorities, Asian church news portal ucanews.com reported

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the abduction, Father Muduvassery said.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed and very much concerned about the well-being of Father (Prem Kumar),” he said.

Before moving to Afghanistan, Father Prem Kumar worked for JRS for 12 years, serving Sri Lankan refugees living in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, his home. He was director of JRS in India from June 2005 to May 2011 and then moved to Afghanistan.

JRS works in Kabul, Herat, Bamiyan and Day Kundi, supporting government programs in education.

“The kidnapping follows the thwarted attack (May 23) on the Indian consulate in Herat by four armed gunmen who were killed by security guards,” the JRS press statement said.

When asked whether the kidnapping is linked to recent attacks on Indian targets by Taliban forces, Father Muduvassery said, “We cannot speculate on anything.”

“We have no clue so far regarding the kidnappers as there has been no ransom or other calls,” he added.

The JRS statement said no additional comment would be made until the case is resolved.

Jesuit Father Giuseppe Moretti, superior of the Jesuit mission in Afghanistan, told the Vatican’s Fides news agency June 3 that “the kidnapping of foreigners happens frequently throughout the country. We know only that he was taken by armed men; it could have been a Taliban faction or common criminals.”

 

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Deacon, an Afghanistan veteran, grateful for country, religious freedom

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Deacon Catarino Villanueva, who was ordained in 2010 and now serves at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Harlingen, Texas, is shown on active duty as a member of the National Guard deployed to Afghanistan in 2005. (CNS)

HARLINGEN, Texas — When Deacon Catarino Villanueva arrived on Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2005 for a yearlong deployment with the National Guard, he immediately looked for opportunities to practice his Catholic faith.

“I wanted to see what they had there as far as my spirituality,” said Deacon Villanueva, who was ordained to the permanent diaconate in December 2010 and assigned to Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Harlingen. “There was nothing there, just a bare tent with some makeshift benches.”

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