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Analysis: Fatima trip shows pope’s respect for pilgrims’ faith

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is not shy about showing his love for Mary in public and, like many Latin American bishops, he strongly has resisted attempts to dismiss as superstitious or “simple,” in a negative sense, popular devotion to the mother of God. Read more »

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Analysis of encounters in Egypt: Trip highlights one of pope’s key teachings

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Encounter. It’s a word Pope Francis uses often and something he insists is the concrete first step toward faith and toward building a better world.

Talking with others and not just about them is key to an authentic encounter, which was at the heart of what Pope Francis did in Egypt April 28-29. The success of the trip proved that meeting and respectfully listening to one person or group does not mean hiding one’s identity, taking sides against anyone or, least of all, pointing out the other’s flaws while pretending to have none of one’s own. Read more »

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Analysis: Church urging nations to address ongoing issues related to drugs

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Catholic News Service

Heroin and painkillers plague the streets of U.S. cities and small towns. Mexican drug cartels have turned swaths of that country into battle zones. In South Africa, young people are getting hooked on a drug made from a medication meant to fight HIV.

Around the globe, a worldwide addiction to illicit drugs is fueling violence, human trafficking, a proliferation of guns, organized crime and terrorism, the Vatican has said.

å sign marks the entrance to the Neonatal Therapeutic Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital in West Virginia, where staff members have acted to treat an increasing number of drug-dependent newborns. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

å sign marks the entrance to the Neonatal Therapeutic Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital in West Virginia, where staff members have acted to treat an increasing number of drug-dependent newborns. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Now, as the U.N. General Assembly prepares to meet April 19-21 for a special session on the issue, the church is calling on governments and civil society groups to address a problem that has existed for decades but continues to morph and pose new threats.

“From poor rural workers in war-torn zones of production to affluent metropolitan end-users, the illicit trade in drugs is no respecter of national boundaries or of socioeconomic status,” Msgr. Janusz Urbanczyk, Vatican observer to U.N. agencies in Vienna, wrote in the statement. “International solutions require therefore, that effective efforts be indeed focused in zones of production but must also address the underlying causes for the demand in illegal drugs.”

The Vatican position puts it at the center of a tense policy that will play out at the highest levels of the United Nations.

On one side, governments like Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico, which requested the U.N. session, are pushing for new policies, such as improved treatment, providing assistance to grow different crops for farmers who cultivate illicit drugs and alternatives to incarceration for drug users. On the other hand, powerful U.N. members, including China, Russia and Egypt, remain in favor of the prohibitionist war on drugs.

“The Catholic Church is clearly calling for a public health approach, which is similar to the position the U.S. government has taken,” said Coletta Youngers, a former church worker in Latin America and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, which is in favor of reforming drug policy. “At the same time, I find a lot of the language inflammatory, particularly that it still maintains support for criminalizing drug use.”

On March 29, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated that his administration wants more treatment options.

“The most important thing to do is reduce demand. And the only way to do that is to provide treatment, to see it as public health problem and not a criminal problem,” he said.

RISING HOMICIDE RATES

Meanwhile, drug addiction and violence related to drug trafficking is affecting nearly every area of the world, including Central America and Mexico, where spiking homicide rates are pushing residents to flee to the United States.

Mexico launched a crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime 10 years ago but has been plagued by violence ever since, with more than 100,000 dead and 20,000 people missing. Criminal groups have gotten smaller as their leaders are captured or killed and such groups subsequently have taken up activities such as extortion and kidnapping.

The groups also get into small-time drug dealing, another source of violence as they dispute territories. Father Robert Coogan, prison chaplain in the city of Saltillo, a northeastern Mexican city near Monterrey, recalls having a stream of new inmates, previously involved in small-time drug dealing, arrive in the late 2000s with stories of the police raiding their homes and planting evidence.

Drug use increased in Mexico at around the same time, he said. Analysts attribute that to cartels paying their underlings in drugs to be resold.

“I wish people would look more at the society have that makes people want to do drugs,” Father Coogan said. “Rather than try to prohibit from doing certain things, I would want a society where people wouldn’t feel the urge to do these self-destructive things.”

A WORLD ADDICTED

Governments and civil society groups are grappling how to deal with the scourge: from Argentina to Afghanistan, where poppy, the heroin opium precursor, has become a cash crop for the Taliban; from South Africa to Lake Orion, Michigan, where Robert Koval runs Guest House, a residential rehabilitation facility that has been treating clergy and men and women religious for 60 years.

“I think attention to the issue has spiked in recent years because there’s this question on how to get your arms around a problem that is so rampant,” said Koval, the facility’s president and CEO. Guest House treats about 70 people a year.

Koval said the problem has morphed in recent years as more people have become addicted to opioids, including prescription painkillers, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has led to an epidemic of drug overdoses. In 2014, more than 28,600 deaths were caused by opioid overdoses, triple the number from 2000, according to CDC figures.

Those being treated are also becoming younger, Koval said. “It’s what you see in the general population, with drug abuse increasing among young adults.”

Drug addiction among young adults is a problem Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban sees across South Africa, where HIV patients are being robbed of their medications, which are used to make an addictive drug called whoonga.

“The brokenness of the people I saw recently in an outreach clinic and the fact that most of them were teenagers or in their 20s hit me hard,” Cardinal Napier said of a trip to the coastal city of Durban, where drug abuse is the largest problem after disease related to malnutrition and HIV.

The Vatican’s call to improve health care services would help in places like Kenya, where there are too few practitioners to serve the country of 44 million, particularly in rural areas, said Bishop Emanuel Barbara of Malindi.

“Kenyans have become obsessive about taking drugs as the only way to heal,” he said. That’s a problem because medication widely banned in other countries is fully available in Kenya and many “fake drugs” can be found on drugstore shelves.

Luis Lora said there were few treatment options in Ozama, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Santo Domingo, when his alcoholism gave way to a crack cocaine addiction that cost him his marriage and his job as a bus driver.

“There was nowhere to go for help, and it was an embarrassment for me to talk about it with the people I knew,” he said.

Lora, who eventually entered a rehab facility, said that others he knew, “never got help.”

CALLS TO LEGALIZE

While countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands have long since decriminalized drug use, the debate has only more recently come to the Americas. In recent years, nearly half of U.S. states have passed laws legalizing marijuana use in some form, predominantly for medical use. And Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras have debated liberalizing drug laws or decriminalizing drug use.

When the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in November in favor of four petitioners seeking an injunction to grow and consume marijuana for recreational reasons, Catholic leaders condemned the decision as putting Mexico on the path to legalization. An editorial in the Archdiocese of Mexico’s weekly magazine said it would move the country “toward individual destruction.”

Pope Francis has taken a hardline approach against any forms of drug legalization, including recreational drugs.

“Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise,” he said at the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome in 2014.

In the pope’s home country, Argentina, Father Jose Maria di Paola, who works with drug addicts in the shanties of Buenos Aires, said drug legalization would do further harm to the poor.

“Why is this our position on legalization? Because we live in marginal and poor environments impacted by drugs. In these places, it’s synonymous with death. It has nothing to do with recreation,” he said in a 2015 interview. “It has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with an analysis of the reality.”

Contributing to this story were David Agren in Mexico City and Bronwen Dachs in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Analysis: Pope Francis knows ‘welcoming the stranger’ has social, political implications

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Italian comedian talking about a new Pope Francis book was not joking when he said being a minister of God’s mercy can have social and political implications. Read more »

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Analysis — Pope Francis’ annulment reform requires proof union was invalid

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ reformed rules for marriage annulment cases, making the process simpler, quicker and less expensive, respond to calls that bishops from around the world have been making since before the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the family convoked by St. John Paul II.

Catholic marriage tribunals do not dissolve marriages, but assess whether or not a valid sacramental marriage was present from the beginning. Catholics whose first unions are declared “null” — meaning there never was a marriage —are free to marry in the church and receive the sacraments, including reconciliation and Communion. Read more »

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Analysis: After Benedict’s resignation: A turbulent year that strengthened the papacy

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — When Pope Benedict XVI announced, on Feb. 11, 2013, that he would become the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign, speculation was as varied as it was excited about the long-term consequences of his historic act. But one common line of thought held that, for better or worse, his decision might leave the papacy a less exalted and powerful office, bringing the supreme pontiff closer to the level of other bishops, clergy and faithful.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican Dec. 23, 2013. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Might the presence of two living popes inside the Vatican sow confusion over where governing authority actually lay, or, at least, dilute the prestige of the unique role of vicar of Christ? Might the precedent of resignation make it easier to drive a future pope from office, thus introducing a new kind of political pressure into the leadership of the church?

The background of Pope Benedict’s decision added to the sense of crisis. Although the 85-year-old pope said he was stepping down due to deteriorating “strength of mind and body,” it was easy to believe that a year of scandal and controversy, over leaked correspondence documenting corruption and incompetence in the Vatican, had helped convince him he was “no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

From that assumption, it was a small stretch to wonder whether the demands of the 21st-century papacy — in terms of communications, management and travel — had grown too heavy for any man, especially one as old as most popes.

When the newly elected Pope Francis stepped out on the loggia in front of St. Peter’s Basilica on the evening of March 13, 2013, his words and gestures seemed to encourage predictions of a downscaled papacy. The new pontiff broke with usual practice by asking for the people’s blessing before he gave them his own, and referred to himself simply as the bishop of Rome.

Was Pope Francis signaling his intention to play a less commanding role than his predecessors, demoting himself to the status of first among episcopal equals, in a move toward some sort of democratization of the church?

The prospect of a weakened papacy may have seemed plausible in the wake of Pope Benedict’s announcement, but over the subsequent year, the world has watched his successor assert his leadership in ways that have made the office only stronger.

With his informal charisma, plain speaking and spontaneous style, Pope Francis quickly garnered colossal popularity, whether measured by record turnouts at papal events or by the intensive and almost entirely favorable coverage by secular media.

Within the Vatican, the pope has not hesitated to replace officials in key positions and launch a process leading to a major overhaul of the church’s central administration, the Roman Curia.

While Pope Francis has stressed the importance of collegiality, or consultation with his brother bishops, his institutional application of that principle has so far taken the form of the Council of Cardinals, an eight-member panel he named to advise him on reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and governance of the universal church.

By streamlining the process through which recommendations from bishops reach the pope, the council has only made it easier for him to make executive decisions in his own name, such as the establishment of a special commission on sex abuse, which he approved in December less than a day after hearing the proposal.

Pope Francis has spoken of the importance of the Synod of Bishops, but his most eloquent statement on its role may be his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” published in November in response to the October 2012 synod on the new evangelization. Previous popes have typically based such documents on a draft by synod officials, which synthesized recommendations by bishops at the gathering. Pope Francis scrapped the draft provided to him and wrote his own document, in his distinctive voice and focusing on his particular concerns.

Even the presence of the retired pope, living quietly in his successor’s shadow within the Vatican walls, has proven not a hindrance to Pope Francis but instead a major asset. Pope Francis has told reporters that he consults with his predecessor as he would with a “wise grandfather.”

No less importantly from the point of view of the faithful, the two men’s affectionate relationship has reinforced a sense of fundamental continuity between their pontificates, despite their striking stylistic differences when it comes to evangelization and celebration of the liturgy. Such reassurance is invaluable, given the pope’s essential role in preserving church unity.

For all of Pope Francis’ virtues as a leader, the strength of the office he holds today ultimately owes even more to his predecessor, who affirmed its importance in the very act of resigning. No words or gestures could have demonstrated more powerfully that the pope is not a mere figurehead, but truly the leader of 1.2 billion people around the world, than Pope Benedict’s admission that a stronger man was needed to fill the role.

 

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