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Saving lives must be first concern of immigration policy, pope says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The defense of the life, dignity and human rights of migrants and refugees must come before any other question when enacting migration policies, Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, in April 2016. In an interview with an Italian government journal, the pope said his visit to Lesbos and his 2013 visit to Lampedusa, Italy, were meant to show that all religions want "to ensure a dignified life for every man, woman and child who is forced to abandon his or her own land." (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, in April 2016. In an interview with an Italian government journal, the pope said his visit to Lesbos and his 2013 visit to Lampedusa, Italy, were meant to show that all religions want “to ensure a dignified life for every man, woman and child who is forced to abandon his or her own land.” (CNS/Paul Haring)

“The defense of human beings knows no limits,” the pope said in an interview with the journal of the Department for Civil Liberties and Immigration of the Italian Ministry of the Interior.

“Those in power,” he said, “must be both far-sighted and coherent in watchful respect for fundamental human rights, as well as in trying to end the causes which force civilians to flee.”

Of course, he said, a safe and humane approach to handling the current global migration crisis requires international cooperation and policies that “respect both those who welcome and those who are welcomed.”

Newcomers must respect the laws of their host countries and be assisted in integrating into the life of their new communities, he said in the interview published April 7. And members of the receiving community must be educated to understand the real causes of migration and the desperate situations of those who feel forced to flee their homes.

The news media play a big role, Pope Francis said. They should explain the human rights violations, violence, poverty and catastrophes that lead so many people to flee.

But, especially, he said, the media must report responsibly and not simply “indulge in negative stereotypes when talking about migrants and refugees.”

“Just think of the unfair terms often used to describe migrants and refugees,” the pope said. “How often do we hear people talk of ‘illegals’ as a synonym for migrants? This is unfair. It is based on a false premise, and it pushes public opinion toward negative judgments.”

Asked about his 2016 trip to refugee camps in Lesbos, Greece, with leaders of the Orthodox Church, Pope Francis said it was a sign of “fraternal responsibility.”

“We are all united in wanting to ensure a dignified life for every man, woman and child who is forced to abandon his or her own land,” the pope said. “There is no difference of creed that can outweigh this wish, in fact, quite the contrary.”

Pope Francis said he wished the political leaders of every nation would show the same kind of joint concern for “the cries of the many innocents who ask only for a chance to save their own lives.”

As for anti-immigrant feelings and fears among some Europeans, the pope urged people to remember what Europe was like after World War II.

Millions of Europeans immigrated to South America or the United States, he said. “It was not an easy experience for them, either. They had the burden of being seen as foreigners, arriving from afar with no knowledge of the local language.

“The process of integration wasn’t easy, but for the most part it ended in success,” Pope Francis said.

Countries that have grown and thrived over the centuries by accepting and integrating newcomers cannot forget that experience or pretend it will not be repeated today, he said.

For example, “Europeans contributed greatly to the growth of trans-Atlantic societies,” those in North and South America. “This is always the case: Any exchange of culture and knowledge is a source of wealth and should be valued as such.”

Members of the Catholic Church have an even greater obligation to recognize the value of welcoming newcomers, Pope Francis said. “We can see the peaceful integration of people from other cultures as a kind of reflection of its Catholicism. A unity which accepts ethnic or cultural diversity constitutes a dimension of church life, which in the spirit of Pentecost is open to all. open to embracing everyone.”

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Pope Francis, religious leaders pray for peace at Assisi prayer service

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Catholic News Service

ASSISI, Italy — Jesus’ cry of thirst on the cross is heard today in the cries of innocent victims of war in the world, Pope Francis said.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Pope Francis, an unidentified clergyman and Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, England, attend an ecumenical prayer service with other Christian leaders in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Sept. 20. The pope and other religious leaders participated in the service that marked the 30th anniversary of St. John Paul IIís Assisi interfaith peace gathering. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Pope Francis, an unidentified clergyman and Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, England, attend an ecumenical prayer service with other Christian leaders in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Sept. 20. The pope and other religious leaders participated in the service that marked the 30th anniversary of St. John Paul IIís Assisi interfaith peace gathering. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Christians are called to contemplate Christ in “the voice of the suffering, the hidden cry of the little innocent ones to whom the light of this world is denied,”” the pope said Sept. 20 at a prayer service in Assisi with other Christian leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury.

Far too often the victims of war “encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed,” the pope said in his meditation.

The pope arrived in the morning by helicopter and was whisked away to the Sacred Convent near the Basilica of St. Francis.

After arriving in a blue Volkswagen, the pope raised his arms to embrace Patriarch Bartholomew and, together, the two greeted the other religious leaders present. Archbishop Welby, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch and leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist communities also welcomed the pope to Assisi.

Several refugees were among those who greeted the pope, including a young Yezidi woman from Iraq’s Sinjar district who survived the August 2014 massacre committed by the Islamic State. “I want to thank you for praying for the Yezidis and your support for acknowledging our genocide,” she told the pope.

“You have suffered a lot. I pray, I will pray for you with all my heart,” the pope said as he placed his hand over his heart.

After having lunch with a dozen refugees and victims of war, Pope Francis and the Christian leaders went to pray in the lower Basilica of St. Francis. Members of other religions went to different locations in Assisi to offer prayers for peace in their own traditions.

During the solemn celebration, prayers were offered for countries where violence and conflicts continue to cause suffering for innocent men, women and children.

One by one, several young men and women placed lit candles in a round stand as an acolyte read the names of each country, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and Ukraine.

The prayer service began with a Liturgy of the Word, which included a meditation after each reading.

Reflecting on the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, Archbishop Welby said that the world today “struggles to distinguish between what something costs and what it is worth.”

Despite this, God responds with “infinite love and mercy” and offers to receive from him freely because “in God’s economy we are the poorest of the poor; poorer than ever because we think ourselves rich,” he said.

“Our money and wealth is like the toy money in a children’s game: It may buy goods in our human economies which seem so powerful, but in the economy of God it is worthless. We are only truly rich when we accept mercy from God, through Christ our Savior,” he said.

Christians are called to be rich in God’s mercy by listening to him in the voice of the poor, by partaking in the Eucharist, by coming to him through his mercy.

“We are to be those who enable others to be merciful to those with whom they are in conflict. We are called to be Christ’s voice to the hopeless, calling, ‘come to the waters’ in a world of drought and despair, giving away with lavish generosity what we have received in grace-filled mercy,” Archbishop Welby said.

Patriarch Bartholomew commented on the second reading from the book of Revelation in which God calls “all who are thirsty come: all who want it may have the water of life, and have it free.”

Christians from around the world, he said, answered God’s call in Assisi “to invoke the Lord for the greatest of his gifts, peace, from him, the king of peace.”

Jesus comes to all who thirst for peace, he continued. However, Christians must experience an inner conversion in order to listen to him through “the cry of our neighbor,” to experience a true conversion and to give prophetic witness through fellowship.

“Then we shall offer living water to the thirsty, endless water, water of peace to a peaceless world, water that is prophecy, and all shall listen to Jesus, who will thrice say: ‘Surely I am coming soon,’” Patriarch Bartholomew said.

In his meditation, Pope Francis reflected on Jesus’ words on the cross, “I thirst,” which he said was not only a thirst for water but also for love.

Like St. Francis of Assisi who was upset by the reality that “love is not loved,” the pope said Christians are called to contemplate Christ Crucified in those “who thirst for love.”

He also recalled the example of St. Teresa of Kolkata, who asked that all Missionaries of Charity houses have Jesus’ words, “I thirst,” inscribed in their chapels next to the crucifix.

“Her response was to quench Jesus’ thirst for love on the cross through service to the poorest of the poor,” Pope Francis said. “The Lord’s thirst is indeed quenched by our compassionate love; he is consoled when, in his name, we bend down to another’s suffering.”

In response to Jesus’ thirst, he said, Christians are challenged to hear the cry of the poor, suffering and the innocent victims of war.

Those who “live under the threat of bombs” and are forced to flee from their homes are “the wounded and parched members of his body,” he said. “They thirst.”

However, all too often they are offered only “the bitter vinegar of rejection.”

Pope Francis called on Christians to be “trees of life that absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world.”

“From the side of Christ on the cross water flowed, that symbol of the Spirit who gives life so that, from us, his faithful compassion may flow forth for all who thirst today,” the pope said.

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World at war needs signs of brotherhood, friendship, pope says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — In a world traumatized by war, young people gathered for World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, gave strong signs of hope and brotherhood, Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis greets a bride during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 3.  (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

Pope Francis greets a bride during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 3. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

World Youth Day was a “prophetic sign for Poland and Europe” and took on a “global dimension” in a world threatened by a war fought in pieces, the pope said Aug. 3 at his weekly general audience.

“Precisely in this world at war, we need brotherhood, we need closeness, we need dialogue, and we need friendship. And this is the sign of hope: when there is brotherhood,” he said.

The pope entered the Paul VI audience hall greeted by thousands of pilgrims reaching out to him, asking him to bless their religious articles, kiss their babies or receive their gifts. But one gift stopped the pope in his tracks: a pope doll.

Pope Francis pointed to the doll and to himself, not completely convinced of the similarity, and then laughed, thanking the pilgrim for her present.

Before taking his place on the stage, the pope greeted Rabbi Alejandro Avruj, an old friend from Argentina seated in the front row. Also present were bishops and pilgrims from Panama, the country Pope Francis announced would host World Youth Day 2019.

In addition, a group of 65 young refugees from Eritrea and Syria came to see the pope. According to the Vatican, the children are from the Center for Asylum Seekers at Castelnuovo di Porto, about 15 miles north of Rome. The pope greeted them and posed for a group photo after the audience.

In his main audience talk, Pope Francis reflected on his visit to Krakow July 27-31 to join hundreds of thousands of young people from across the globe who met to celebrate their faith and who answered the call to “go forth together, to build bridges of brotherhood,” he said.

“They also came with their wounds, with their questions but, above all, with the joy of meeting each other,” the pope said.

Despite language barriers, he said, the youths were able to understand each other, creating a “mosaic of brotherhood” that is “emblematic of World Youth Day.”

Recalling his visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, the pope said the great silence there “was more eloquent than any spoken word.”

“In that silence I heard, I felt the presence of all the souls that have passed there; I felt the compassion, the mercy of God that several holy souls brought there to that great abyss,” Pope Francis said. “In that great silence, I prayed for all the victims of violence and war.”

At Auschwitz, he said, he learned the “value of memory” not only as a remembrance of past tragedies, but also as a warning and call to responsibility today “so that the seed of hate and violence does not take root in the furrows of history.”

“Looking at that cruelty, at that concentration camp, I immediately thought of today’s cruelty, which is very similar. Not as concentrated as in that place, but around the world. This world that is sick with cruelty, pain, war, hate and sadness. And for this I ask you to pray so that the Lord may give us peace,” he said.

 

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Detainee families find comfort, support at Georgia hospitality center

May 4th, 2016 Posted in Featured, National News Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

 

LUMPKIN, Ga. (CNS) — Inside this cozy yellow bungalow, the kitchen smells of fried chorizo, onions and peppers, and scrambled eggs. A fresh pot of coffee is ready by 7 a.m. as guests awaken in the three bedrooms.

A mile from the barbed wire surrounding Stewart Detention Center in rural southwest Georgia sits this house of hospitality with its small front porch and warm surroundings. Family members who drive hundreds of miles to spend an hour visiting detainees at the center can find comfort and rest here, a place known as El Refugio (“the shelter”). Read more »

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Pope Francis’ visit to Greece comes amid fear, uncertainty for refugees

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ trip to Lesbos, Greece, April 16 comes at a frightening and critical time for tens of thousands of refugees and migrants waiting and wondering where they will end up, said members of Catholic aid agencies.

Young refugees wait in line for tea at a makeshift camp April 11 at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece. Pope Francis will travel to Lesbos, Greece, April 16. (CNS photo/Stoyan Nenov, Reuters) S

Young refugees wait in line for tea at a makeshift camp April 11 at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece. Pope Francis will travel to Lesbos, Greece, April 16. (CNS photo/Stoyan Nenov, Reuters) S

Maristella Tsamatropoulou, spokeswoman for Caritas Hellas, the Catholic charity in Greece, said when rumors started swirling that Pope Francis would join Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on a visit to refugees, “we believed it immediately because our pope is spontaneous; he’s a force of nature.”

Last October, when several thousand refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries were passing through Greece on their way to other parts of Europe, Caritas Hellas had five paid employees. Now the number of refugees and migrants has grown and the borders with other European countries have been closed to them. In response, the paid staff at the Caritas central office in Athens has grown to 15 people and there are 40 other employees around the country, including in Lesbos.

Among the migrants and refugees, Tsamatropoulou said, “the terror is immense.” The northern border with Macedonia closed in February, and the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement to forcibly return to Turkey those not applying for asylum in Greece. The agreement went into effect March 20.

What was a transit center in Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia, has become a muddy encampment of more than 11,000 people hoping and praying the border will open. The Caritas spokeswoman said the Greek government keeps saying it will close the Idomeni camp, “and we fear it won’t be peaceful.”

Already impatient refugees, stuck on a field never meant to serve as a camp, occasionally try to force guards on both sides to let them pass into Macedonia. They are pushed back, including by the use of water cannons or tear gas.

Tsamatropoulou said staff from Caritas and the other aid agencies continue trying to convince the people at Idomeni to go to one of the smaller, organized refugee centers set up by the Greek government. Conditions are better there, she said; at least there are hot meals. But the migrants and refugees at Idomeni can see the border and are certain that it will open eventually. They want to be the first ones across.

The scene in Lesbos had changed dramatically as well, she said. Prior to March 20, when the Turkey-EU agreement went into effect, the migrants and refugees were more or less free to come and go. Now, many of them are in what amounts to detention centers.

Jesuit Refugee Service, which also operates in Lesbos and other parts of Greece, issued a statement April 12 saying Pope Francis’ visit “could not come at a more critical time.” JRS believes the Turkey-EU agreement “violates the international law and the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ or not pushing back people in need of protection.”

More than 150,000 refugees and migrants have arrived to Greece so far in 2016, JRS said, and more than half of them reached the country by arriving in Lesbos. In addition, “the U.N. refugee agency has announced more than 22,000 unaccompanied minors are stuck in Greece and facing an uncertain future of possible violence and exploitation,” the statement added.

“During a time when pushbacks are seemingly the solution being put forward by the EU, we hope the pope’s visit is not just a symbol of hope for refugees, but a concrete push for the Greek government and other European states to actualize those hopes,” said Jesuit Father Thomas H. Smolich, JRS international director.

 

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Vatican joins international appeals for increase in aid to victims of Syrian crisis

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican joined international appeals for raising money to provide emergency and long-term assistance to the millions of people affected by the crisis in Syria.

Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country walk with their families Jan. 14 after crossing into Jordanian territory, near the the capital, Amman. (CNS photo/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)

Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country walk with their families Jan. 14 after crossing into Jordanian territory, near the the capital, Amman. (CNS photo/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)

Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with states, attended the Syria Donors Conference in London Feb. 4 and said the Catholic Church would continue to help the region through its fundraising efforts. The Vatican released a copy of the archbishop’s address the same day.

The meeting, co-hosted by the United Kingdom, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations, was meant to gather together leaders from world governments and NGOs to raise funding and support to address the six-year-long humanitarian crisis.

The conference website said there are 13.5 million vulnerable and displaced people inside Syria, and 4.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries in need of assistance.

U.N. agencies have appealed for $8.4 billion to help those in Syria and refugees in host countries.

In his address, Archbishop Gallagher said the crisis in Syria was marked by “ever-increasing human suffering, including extreme cases of malnourishment of innocent children and other civilians, especially among the high number of people who are trapped in hard-to-reach and besieged areas.”

Religious minorities, including Christians, “suffer disproportionately the effects of war and social upheaval in the region,” he said.

“In fact, their very presence and existence are gravely threatened,” he said, which is why “Pope Francis has repeatedly called attention to the particular needs of Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East.”

The Vatican and the Catholic Church have been responding to the crisis “from the very beginning” by providing not just
“emergency aid but also the medium and long-term needs of refugees and host countries,” he said, adding that the Vatican welcomes the conference’s emphasis on providing education, jobs and economic development as part of aid programs.

Just last year, he said, Catholic dioceses, aid agencies and NGOs in partnership with governments and other international organizations provided $150 million in humanitarian assistance that directly benefited more than 4 million people. The assistance went to educational programs, food and nonfood aid, health care, housing, work programs and direct cash assistance.

Catholic agencies and entities, he said, “make no distinction regarding the religious or ethnic identity of those requiring assistance,” but they do try to give priority to the most vulnerable and those most in need, which include religious minorities.

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Bishops visiting Holy Land urge peace efforts to help ‘forgotten’ Christians

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — With crises in Syria and Iraq deepening, Catholic bishops on a solidarity visit with the “forgotten” Christians of the Middle East are urging stepped-up peace efforts to resolve conflicts tearing apart the troubled region.

Highlighting the ongoing plight of Iraqi Christian refugees who face another winter of displacement, 18 months after fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants, is also their top concern.

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

“They want a future which is full of peace,” Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England, said of the Iraqi Christians who attended a packed, solemn Mass at Our Lady of Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital.

“These people are of tremendous faith, and that’s where they find their identity. What we are trying to say to them is that you are not forgotten,” Bishop Lang told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Lang has been leading 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and North America on the third and final leg of a pilgrimage to encourage Christians in the Holy Land. Known as the Holy Land Coordination, the annual event was set up at the invitation of the Holy See at the end of the last century to offer support to local Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The bishops earlier traveled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to encourage a Palestinian Christian population increasingly dwindling in the land of Jesus’ birth.

But the bishops told Catholic News Service that it also was important to hear from Iraqi Christians and other refugees, so the wider Christian community can effectively help them.

“It’s important that we remind our governments and the general population of the situation of Iraqi Christians,” Bishop Lang said of the some 8,000 Iraqi Christians currently sheltering in neighboring Jordan.

They fled their ancient homeland of more than 14 centuries after Islamic State militants told them to convert to Islam, be killed or leave. Tens of thousands are internally displaced in northern Iraq.

“So one of the responsibilities and obligations that we have is to keep reminding people of the stress and distress of the Iraqi refugees,” Bishop Lang said.

One Iraqi Christian, identified only as Bashar, said after the Mass, “My family and I sadly feel that we can never go back to our home in Mosul.” A mechanical engineer, the man had once owned his own telecom company in Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is now in the hands of Islamic State.

“The military didn’t protect us, and our Muslim neighbors betrayed us, even robbing us of our personal possessions. So we believe that the only future for us is somewhere in the West,” said the man, who now shelters with his family of four at the center’s compound because he has lost his savings.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, told CNS that one of the first things he plans to do is talk to the new Canadian government about the issue of opening more resettlement opportunities to Iraqi Christians.

“I will insist on the fact. Iraqis are practically not allowed to go back to their country,” the Canadian bishop said. “Many Syrians left (their country) because of the war and the political situation, while the Iraqis left mainly because of their faith.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told CNS that “the time for peace is now.”

While praising the work of the international Catholic charity, Caritas, which aids more than 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the other humanitarian efforts in Jordan, he called them “a band-aid.”

“It’s not sustainable in the long run,” said Bishop Cantu, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “We have to look at the root causes of these issues. It’s in everyone’s interest to build peace, so we will certainly be advocating for that as we return.”

“It’s also important that the U.S. take in its fair share of refugees,” Bishop Cantu said of the increasingly divisive issue in the United States.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, accompanied Bishop Cantu on the visit. He said the office’s work on behalf of “all the peoples of the Middle East” has involved supporting a resolution in Congress declaring that Iraqi Christians and Yezidis have suffered genocide at the hands of Islamic State militants. He said his office also has worked to encourage the U.S. to accept its “fair share of refugees” and “invest in more resources for countries, like Jordan, to cope with the refugee influx, so they are not destabilized.”

Colecchi emphasized the need for active international peace efforts that recognize the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East.

“We’ve got to work for peace and ultimately stop the atrocities of Islamic State and the flow of refugees,” he said.

“A more united and effective response is needed to that kind of extremism from which Muslims are suffering and particularly, Christians and Yezidis, are targeted by,” Colecchi added.

Among the other bishops who took part in the Holy Land Coordination were Bishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa; Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland; and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland.

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Christmas comes with pain but hope for displaced families in Iraq

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Catholic News Service
IRBIL, Iraq (CNS) — Habiba Daud remembers Christmas in Qaraqosh as beautiful. The festivities would start days before with the preparation of traditional food and desserts. Families celebrated around a large Christmas tree.

On Christmas her family and friends gathered to enjoy the food and spend time together, chatting and playing with the children.

Read more »

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In El Salvador, families say work of murdered U.S. churchwomen continues

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Catholic News Service

SANTIAGO NONUALCO, El Salvador — North Americans and Salvadorans gathered Dec. 2 at the precise spot where four churchwomen were killed 35 years ago to emphasize that their work for the country’s poor remains alive. Read more »

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U.S. bishops approve statements on pornography, politics during meeting in Baltimore

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BALTIMORE — The U.S. bishops approved a formal statement on pornography, and an updated revision of a quadrennial statement on the intersection of Catholic teaching in the political arena as part of their Nov. 16-19 fall general meeting in Baltimore.

The votes were made during the public portion of the meeting, which ran Nov. 16-17. The bishops were to meet in executive session Nov. 18-19.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, center, listens to a speaker Nov. 16 during the opening of the 2015 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, center, listens to a speaker Nov. 16 during the opening of the 2015 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

All votes had to be recorded the old-fashioned way, by hand, as the electronic voting system, which brings near-instantaneous results, failed. With the failure of electronic voting, results were not known for hours after the votes. 

Political responsibility

The 2015 version of political responsibility document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” passed 210-21 with five abstentions, and a separate vote on the statement’s introductory note passed 217-16 with two abstentions; two-thirds of diocesan bishops, or 181 votes, were needed for passage.

It reflects on long-held concerns related to abortion and the needs of poor people. It also references emerging issues related to court decisions on same-sex marriage, public policies that affect religious freedom, and a rising concern for the environment as climate change affects more people around the world.

Questions came from five bishops who said that the document does not adequately address poverty, as Pope Francis has asked the church to do.

The most vocal critic was Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, who said he was concerned that because poverty and the environment did not receive the same priority as abortion and euthanasia, that some people “outside of this room” would misuse the document and claim other issues did not carry the same moral weight.

“It does not take into account that Pope Francis has rapidly transformed the prioritization of Catholic social teaching and its elements, not the truth of them, not the substance of them, but the prioritization of them,” Bishop McElroy said.

Porn ‘mortal sin’

The pornography statement, “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography,” declares that pornography is a “mortal sin” and urges Catholics to turn away from it. Approval of the statement came on a vote of 230-4 with one abstention, with 181 votes needed for passage.

Bishop Richard J. Malone, of Buffalo, New York, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, described pornography as a “dark shadow in our world today.”

He added that pornography is a “particularly sinister instance of consumption” where men, women and children are “consumed for the pleasure of others.”

Priorities

The bishops approved the revised priorities and plans for 2017-20 in a 233-4 vote Nov. 17. The plans emphasize their upcoming focus in five major areas: evangelization, family and marriage, human life and dignity, religious freedom and vocations and ongoing formation.

The revised plans include the same headings but feature some different wording in the “emphasis areas,” which provide more detailed explanations.

In comments on the floor, there were mixed views about the revised plans presented by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Priorities and Plans and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops secretary, along with Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans, USCCB secretary-elect.

Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago said he was afraid the plans seemed “too self-referential” with their emphasis on advocacy for religious freedom and not enough emphasis on global poverty or immigration reform.

Elected

As part of a series of elections, the bishops chose for Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati as treasurer-elect. They also elected Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield as the new general secretary; he has been associate general secretary for five years. He will succeed Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, who has served two three-year terms.

The bishops also voted on a number of chairmen-elect for standing committees. These elect positions mean the winning bishops will take office at the conclusion of the 2016 fall general meeting.

Terror, refugees

While the Nov. 13 terror attacks on Paris were not formally on the USCCB agenda, it crept into the conversation nonetheless.

Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, issued a statement Nov. 17 on the floor of the meeting.

“I am disturbed,” Bishop Elizondo said, “by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States” in the wake of the attacks. “These refugees are fleeing terror themselves, violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization.

“Moreover, refugees to this country must pass security checks and multiple interviews before entering the United States, more than any arrival to the United States. It can take up to two years for a refugee to pass through the whole vetting process. We can look at strengthening the already stringent screening program, but we should continue to welcome those in desperate need,” he added.

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, told the bishops Nov. 17 that Catholic Charities has been sent “disturbing mail from people angry that we are trying to help these people. It’s tragic.” She added of the Syrian refugees, “We’re ready to help, if we can get them here.”

“Pastor’s presence”

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, USCCB president, urged his fellow bishops to pray for virtues that would help them be better spiritual leaders.

“Lord, give us an understanding heart and a credible moral voice,” he said in his homily at a Nov. 16 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.

Archbishop Kurtz also urged the bishops to pray for the “eyesight to see as Jesus sees” and for the renewed grace to love God and serve others.

In his USCCB presidential address, Archbishop Kurtz called on his fellow bishops Nov. 16 to imitate the “pastor’s presence” exhibited by Pope Francis during his recent U.S. visit, “touching the hearts of the most influential, the forgotten and all of us in between.”

Noting the upcoming Year of Mercy that begins Dec. 8, Archbishop Kurtz said a ministry of “presence means making time and never letting administration come between me and the person. It’s seeing the person first.”

“Our hearts respond to (the pope’s) call to be pastors who are present, welcoming and eager to walk with our people,” he added.

Pastoral plan

On the first day of the assembly, an afternoon session took up how the U.S. Catholic Church can move forward in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage this year. To that end, the U.S. bishops are planning to develop a pastoral plan for marriage and family life. The pastoral plan, according to Bishop Malone, will seek the bishops’ input.

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, said the Supreme Court’s decision was a “great disappointment,” but it was not unexpected.

Orlando convocation

A convocation for Catholic leaders planned for 2017 represents “a new way of reaching and teaching our people,” Bishop Malone said in a presentation to his fellow bishops.

Bishop Malone was joined by two other bishops in a presentation on the national convocation, planned for July 1-4, 2017, in Orlando, Florida, and the communications research leading up to it. The theme of the meeting is “The Joy of the Gospel in America.”

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio painted a dire picture of “a pastoral problem that affects all of us” in a report to his fellow bishops about the “desperate” shortage of Catholic priests serving as military chaplains.

The head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services said there were only 217 Catholic priests serving the 1.8 million Catholics in the U.S. armed forces around the world, and the numbers would soon decline due to retirements and medical leaves.

“Witnesses” fortnight

“Witnesses to Freedom” will be the theme of the 2016 observance of the Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, told the assembly.

“The fortnight gives us an opportunity to remember those witnesses past and present through the church, witnesses who testify to the meaning of freedom of conscience and the obedience of the truth,” he said.

The two-week event will include a nationwide tour of first-class relics of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. Archbishop Lori said details of the tour have yet to be arranged, but that a schedule will be distributed when it is finalized.

Contributing to this roundup were Nancy Frazier O’Brien, Dennis Sadowski and Carol Zimmermann.

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