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45 people saved from tornado’s fury in hallway of Texas church

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Catholic News Service

In the insurance world, extreme weather events such as tornadoes are often referred to as “acts of God.”

But in the small Texas town of Emory, about 50 miles northwest of Tyler and 70 miles east of Dallas, some 45 people are considering it an act of God that they survived a twister that took out all of their church except for the hallway in which they were huddled.

St. John the Evangelist church in Emory, Texas, is seen April 30 after a tornado hit the area a day earlier. (CNS/Diocese of Tyler)

The remains of St. John the Evangelist church in Emory, Texas,  on April 30 after a tornado hit the area a day earlier. (CNS/Diocese of Tyler)

The providential event took place the evening of April 29, as severe storms tore through Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas on a northeasterly path that killed at least 13 people in three states.

The youth ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Emory was hosting a dinner honoring the parish’s graduating high school seniors in conjunction with the parish’s Knights of Columbus council and its ladies’ guild.

“I got a phone call from Maggie (Conder), the volunteer in the office,” youth minister Monica Hughes told Catholic News Service May 1. “I almost didn’t answer, because I didn’t want to interrupt the speaker.” But Hughes knew Conder was monitoring the paths of storms in Texas, and “she wouldn’t have interrupted unless it was important,” Hughes said.

It was: “The tornado that hit Canton was heading straight for us,” she recalled.

Hughes said she and her husband both tried to pull up weather radar on their cellphones without luck. Then Hughes made the decision to tell teens and adults to move to the church hallway. The decision, she said, was based on “this instinct when you learn when you’re a child; you go to the hallway and you cover your head.”

There was some grumbling by the teens but everyone complied, Hughes remembers. “It’s the innermost place of the building,” she said of the hallway. “Everything else had exterior walls. On my way, I went around and I locked all the exterior doors to the building, just one little extra step to keep the wind from ripping them open.”

Thirty seconds after Hughes got into the hallway after completing her rounds, “my husband said, ‘It’s hitting.’ He saw the roof of the sanctuary rip off — one piece. We saw the doors fly open into the sanctuary space. My husband grabbed the door and he held on with everything (he had) to the other,” Hughes said. “What I saw was people covering each other, comforting each other — parents covering small children, teenagers huddling together. We began to pray.”

The parish’s deacon, Marcelino Espinosa, was at one end of the hallway as he began a rosary; Hughes was at the other end beginning the Divine Mercy chaplet.

“We didn’t have this horrible fear, we felt protected,” she told CNS. “The whole time that we were in there and we were holding those doors, I felt that Jesus was over us … whispering to me, ‘It’s OK, I’ve got you.’”

She added, “I described it … as a Passover. The tornado came, and it his us with full force and it was over.”

After a quick assessment of the damage, the group decided to stay put as another storm was bearing down on them. Firefighters coming after the second storm advised them to evacuate as the combination of a downed power line and a gas leak threatened catastrophe, Hughes said.

Once outside, they saw the church was destroyed, except for the hallway. The pastor’s house nearby was spared, save for a damaged backyard fence. One irony in the storm: Hughes’ 22-year-old daughter, who was at the dinner as well, had been evacuated in March from Peru where flooding and landslides wiped out destroyed entire communities. “And now we had to pluck her out of a tornado,” Hughes said.

“It’s a miracle,” declared the pastor, Father Victor Hernandez. “People could experience the hands of God protecting them.”

He was not at the dinner, having been summoned to celebrate Mass in Pittsburgh, Texas, about 75 minutes from Emory. On his drive back, “I heard the sirens go off and I wanted to be with my community,” he said.

Parishioners celebrated Mass as usual April 30, but outside on parish property. “We’re going to come out of this stronger than ever,” Father Hernandez said. “We are going to have a new building and church, which was not in our plans. We are going to move bigger and faster.”

 

Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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Bishop welcomes federal court ruling against President Trump’s refugee ban

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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration welcomed a federal appeals court ruling that upheld a temporary restraining order against President Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries that also temporarily suspended the country’s refugee resettlement program.

Syrian refugee Baraa Haj Khalaf and her daughter, 1-year-old Shams, wave after arriving Feb. 7 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. (CNS photo/Kamil Krzaczynski, Reuters)

Syrian refugee Baraa Haj Khalaf and her daughter, 1-year-old Shams, wave after arriving Feb. 7 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (CNS photo/Kamil Krzaczynski, Reuters)

“We respect the rule of law and the American judicial process. We remain steadfast in our commitment to resettling refugees and all those fleeing persecution,” Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, said in a statement Feb. 10.

“At this time we remain particularly dedicated to ensuring that affected refugee and immigrant families are not separated and that they continue to be welcomed in our country,” the statement said.

The bishop pledged that church agencies would continue to welcome people “as it is a vital part of our Catholic faith and an enduring element of our American values and traditions.”

In a decision issued late Feb. 9, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected the government’s argument to lift the freeze on the president’s order and maintained that the court had jurisdiction in the case as a check on executive power.

Trump had argued that his order was a matter of national security and that the courts had no claim to adjudicate the issue.

The panel ruled otherwise saying that such an argument “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”

Further, the judges said, “although courts owe considerable deference to the president’s policy determinations with respect to immigration and national security, it is beyond question that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action.”

The administration is expected to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trump said in a posting on Twitter minutes after the ruling was released: “see you in court, the security of our nation is at stake!”

He later told reporters that the judges had made “a political decision.”

The case was filed by the state of Washington, which argued that Trump’s order was unconstitutional because it discriminated against Muslims and that state agencies were harmed because students and employees were barred from re-entering the country. The state of Minnesota subsequently joined the lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Judge James Robart of Seattle halted Trump’s travel ban Feb. 3 by granting a temporary restraining order.

Several lawsuits have been filed challenging Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order that suspended the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days and banned entry of all citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia — for 90 days.

Another clause in the order established religious criteria for refugees, proposing to give priority to religious minorities over others who may have equally compelling refugee claims.

In its 29-page ruling, the appeals court said the administration’s lawyers had provided no evidence that refugees from the seven countries named in the ban posed a national security threat through terrorism.

The judges also wrote that the government had not shown Trump’s order provides any avenue for those restricted from traveling to the U.S. to appeal the decision or seek a hearing to present their reasons for entering the country. The decision said that earlier court cases had determined that the protections established under the due process clause in the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment “apply to all ‘persons’” within the U.S. including aliens whose presence is “lawful, unlawful, temporary or permanent” as well as to people attempting to reenter the U.S. after traveling.

The court also considered the public’s interest in the case and determined that the public “has an interest in the free flow of travel, in avoiding separation of families and in freedom from discrimination.”

 

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Trump’s move to build border wall will ‘tear families apart,’ bishop warns

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration criticized President Donald Trump’s executive memorandum to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying it would “put immigrant lives needlessly in harm’s way.”

Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, also criticized Trump’s memorandum on a surge in immigrant detention and deportation forces, saying it would “tear families apart and spark fear and panic in communities.”

A photo taken in 2016 shows a newly built section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, N.M., opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. President Donald Trump enacted two executive memorandums to deal with security, including one that calls for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

A photo taken in 2016 shows a newly built section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, N.M., opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. President Donald Trump enacted two executive memorandums to deal with security, including one that calls for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Trump signed the two executive memorandums on national security Jan. 25 during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security.

Earlier, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the wall, a cornerstone of Trump’s election campaign, would “stem the flow of drugs, crime and illegal immigration” along the southern border. He also said Trump’s top priority was the nation’s security.

But hours later, Bishop Vasquez issued a statement saying that construction of the wall would “make migrants, especially vulnerable women and children, more susceptible to traffickers and smugglers. Additionally, the construction of such a wall destabilizes the many vibrant and beautifully interconnected communities that live peacefully along the border.

“Instead of building walls, at this time, my brother bishops and I will continue to follow the example of Pope Francis. We will ‘look to build bridges between people, bridges that allow us to break down the walls of exclusion and exploitation.’”

During a February 2016 visit to Mexico, Pope Francis traveled to the U.S. border at Ciudad Juarez and pleaded for the plight of immigrants. He said those who refuse to offer safe shelter and passage were bringing about dishonor and self-destruction as their hearts hardened and they “lost their sensitivity to pain.”

Bishop Vasquez said the bishops respected the government’s right to control its borders and to ensure the safety of all Americans, but said, “We do not believe that a large-scale escalation of immigrant detention and intensive increased use of enforcement in immigrant communities is the way to achieve those goals. Instead, we remain firm in our commitment to comprehensive, compassionate, and common-sense reform.”

He said the new policies would “make it much more difficult for the vulnerable to access protection in our country. Every day my brother bishops and I witness the harmful effects of immigrant detention in our ministries. We experience the pain of severed families that struggle to maintain a semblance of normal family life. We see traumatized children in our schools and in our churches. The policies announced today will only further upend immigrant families.”

“We will continue to support and stand in solidarity with immigrant families. We remind our communities and our nation that these families have intrinsic value as children of God. And to all those impacted by today’s decision, we are here to walk with you and accompany you on this journey,” Bishop Vasquez said.

At the Jan. 25 White House briefing, Spicer reiterated that Mexico would end up paying for construction of the wall. He said Trump would work with Congress on finding money to pay for the construction, noting, “there are a lot of funding mechanisms that can be used.”

Trump’s second executive memorandum also directed John F. Kelly, secretary of homeland security, to look at how federal funding streams can be cut for cities and states that illegally harbor immigrants. Spicer said the so-called “sanctuary cities” create a problem for taxpayers.

“You have American people out there working” and their tax funds are sent to places that do not enforce the law, he said.

The executive memorandums did not address the issue of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, nor did they discuss emigration from the Middle East, which Spicer said would be addressed later in the week.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which authorized several hundred miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S. frontier with Mexico. The Associated Press reported that legislation led to the construction of about 700 miles of various kinds of fencing designed to block both vehicles and pedestrians, primarily in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It said the final sections were completed after President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

AP reported that a 1970 treaty with Mexico requires that structures along the border cannot disrupt the flow of rivers that define the U.S.-Mexican border along Texas and 24 miles in Arizona.

The PICO National Network, the largest network of congregations and faith-based groups in the country, including Catholics, challenged the executive memorandum on sanctuary cities.

“Retaliating against local communities because they refuse to follow immoral policies is part of an emerging pattern of President Trump of not only bullying people who dare to disagree with him, but isolating and further marginalizing people who are different than him,” said Eddie Carmona, campaign director for PICO National Network’s LA RED campaign. “Such behavior is inconsistent with the long-held notion that America was a place of opportunity for all.”

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service and executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying organization, called the presidential orders “antithetical to our faith.”

“When Nuns on the Bus visited the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, we walked along the wall and listened to the stories of communities that have been torn apart for decades. That is the reality experienced by border communities: The wall is there and it affects the daily life and commerce of the people.

“Federal appropriations for border security have grown to $3.8 billion in FY2015, from $263 million in FY1990, and fencing exists for hundreds of miles along our southern border,” she said in a statement.

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Catholic leaders call on Congress to increase humanitarian aid in budget

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BALTIMORE — The head of Catholic Relief Services and the chairmen of two U.S. bishops’ committees have urged congressional leaders to approve additional funding for humanitarian relief and recovery operations as part of a comprehensive budget measure for fiscal 2017.

The Catholic leaders wrote a letter Nov. 28 in support of a request by the Obama administration for Overseas Contingency Operations funds to address the growing needs of those forced to flee their homes because of natural disasters around the world or as a result of the ongoing fight against Islamic State militants.

A damaged statue of Mary is seen in a church in Qaraqosh, Iraq, Nov. 25. (CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

A damaged statue of Mary is seen in a church in Qaraqosh, Iraq, Nov. 25. (CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

They urged action before the Dec. 9 deadline that Congress faces on the federal budget. The government is funded through that date because of a continuing resolution the House passed, and President Barack Obama signed, at the end of September to avoid a government shutdown.

“More than 50,000 people have already fled Mosul, joining the approximately 3.3 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced since ISIS began occupying parts of Iraq in 2014,” stated the letter, released by Baltimore-based CRS Nov. 29. “(We) believe that as the world’s wealthiest nation, we have an obligation to help the innocent who fall victim to war, to protect the marginalized and to lift people out of poverty.”

It was signed by Carolyn Woo, outgoing president and CEO of CRS, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency; Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration; and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Addressing the House and Senate Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, the Catholic leaders also pointed to increased suffering in other places besides Iraq, such as Southern Africa, which is suffering a severe drought.

They also named South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Lake Chad Basin, a region that comprises parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Ongoing violence and military conflicts in those places have displaced whole populations and exacerbated food insecurity, resulting in acute malnourishment for many. According to a recent report from the U.S. Agency for International Development, an estimated 9.2 million people, primarily in northeastern Nigeria, require humanitarian assistance.

Additional funding from Congress, the Catholic leaders said, will help ensure CRS can continue to respond “to crises like these that don’t make the headlines.”

They acknowledged Congress’ steadfast commitments to humanitarian and development needs around the globe” and urged lawmakers to incorporate the administration’s amendment request for humanitarian relief and recovery activities” in their final appropriations bill.

September’s short-term measure included full funding for military construction and Veterans Affairs for the new fiscal year, but left undecided were 11 remaining annual appropriations bills for various federal agencies.

Woo and Bishops Vasquez and Cantu praised the current proposals before Congress for funding “key humanitarian accounts” — $3.2 billion for Migration and Refugee Assistance; $2.8 billion for International Disaster Assistance; $1.6 billion for Food for Peace; and $60 million for Emergency Refugee and Migrant Assistance.

But they asked Congress also appropriate new Overseas Contingency Operations funds. The Obama administration has requested $14.9 billion.

“We urge you to respond generously to the administration’s request of Nov. 11 for additional humanitarian and recovery assistance,” they wrote.

“As we have already learned in Iraq, individuals, communities, and countries divided by war face significant challenges amidst their suffering,” Woo and the bishops continued. “They must rebuild their communities, and establish inclusive governance that protects majorities and minorities.

“We must provide them with humanitarian help and durable solutions to their plight because it’s the right thing to do, and because their security and prosperity is critical to the stability of the entire region,” they added.

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U.S. church preparing for 2018 ‘Encuentro’ in Fort Worth

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Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE — The Catholic Church in the United States is gearing up for the fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, to be held in September 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas.

‘Encuentro’ is the Spanish word for meeting.

The effort got a personal endorsement from Pope Francis during a Nov. 15 video message to the U.S. bishops at their fall general assembly in Baltimore.

Auxiliary Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, N.Y., greets people following Mass at the diocese's annual Encuentro gathering at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y., Sept. 5. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island)

Auxiliary Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, N.Y., greets people following Mass at the diocese’s annual Encuentro gathering at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y., Sept. 5. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island)

“The church in America as elsewhere is called to go out from its comfort zone and be a leaven of communion –- communion among ourselves, with our fellow Christians, and with all who seek a future of hope,” Pope Francis said in the message.

“The Christian community is meant to be a sign of prophecy, of God’s plan for the entire human family,” the pope said. “We are called to be bearers of good news for a society gripped by disconcerting social, cultural and spiritual shifts and increasing polarization.”

The theme for the “V Encuentro,” as it is known in shorthand, is “Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God’s Love,” according to Auxiliary Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, New York, chairman of the bishops’ Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs.

“It is a great opportunity for the church to reach out to our Hispanic brothers and sisters with Christ’s message of hope and love,” he said. “It is a time to listen, a time to develop meaningful relationships, a time to learn and bear abundant fruits, and a time to rejoice in God’s love.”

The V Encuentro will be the culmination of parish, diocesan and regional encuentros, in which the bishops anticipate more than 1 million Catholics participating over the next two years.

Starting in January and going through June next year, missionary activity and consultation will take place. Parish encuentros will take place around the country next May and June in an estimated 5,000 parishes.

In the fall of 2017, diocesan encuentros are scheduled, with expectations that more than 150 dioceses will be taking part with a hoped-for 200,000 participants.

Regional encuentros are slated for March-June 2018, with 10,000 delegates expected; the regions will conform to the U.S. bishops’ 14 episcopal regions.

Then comes the V Encuentro, to be held Sept. 20-23, 2018, in Fort Worth. But that’s not the end as there will be a post-encuentro working document written to implement the V Encuentro’s results.

The ultimate goals of the encuentro process are “two sides of the same coin,” Bishop Perez said. “To discern the ways in which the church in the United States can better respond to Hispanic/Latinos, and strengthen the ways in which Hispanics respond to the call to the new evangelization.”

Among the outcomes Bishop Perez said should result from the V Encuentro are the identification of best practices and pastoral initiatives in the development of resources in parishes, dioceses, schools and national organizations; an increase in the number of vocations to priesthood, religious life and the permanent diaconate; an increase in the percentage of Hispanic students in Catholic schools from the current 15.5 percent to 20 percent; to identify at least 20,000 emerging leaders ready for ongoing formation and ministry in the church; and an increased sense of belonging and stewardship among Hispanics.

 

Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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U.S. bishops elect Texas cardinal president of their conference

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Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE — Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston was elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference Nov. 15 for a three-year term to begin at the conclusion of the bishops’ annual fall general assembly in Baltimore.

Cardinal DiNardo collected a majority of votes on the first ballot of voting during the second day of the bishops’ public session. Based on the number of bishops voting, 104 votes were needed for election, and Cardinal DiNardo, the current vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, received 113.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston,  Nov. 15 at the annual fall general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore, was elected president of the conference, succeeding Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., (at right). (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Nov. 15 at the annual fall general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore, was elected president of the conference, succeeding Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., (at right). (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

He will succeed Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, whose three-year term as president concludes at the end of the meeting.

Elected vice president was Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles. By virtue of his election, Archbishop Gomez will not take over as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration. He was elected last year as chairman-elect of the committee and was to succeed the current outgoing chairman, Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, at the end of this year’s general assembly.

A lunchtime meeting was scheduled for the committee to advance two names for chairman to be voted on by the full body of bishops.

Archbishop Gomez was elected vice president on the third ballot.

Under rules established by the USCCB, the names of 10 bishops who are willing to be nominated for the USCCB presidency are presented for voting. After a president is elected, the remaining nine are then considered for the vice presidency.

If no candidate of the nine has received a simple majority after two ballots, the third ballot features only the two top vote-getters in the second round. Archbishop Gomez was elected over Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans.

The other nominees were, in alphabetical order, Archbishops Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia and Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City; Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, the only non-archbishop among the original 10; and Archbishops William E. Lori of Baltimore, Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, and John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The bishops also voted for chairmen-elect of five standing committees and three representatives for the board of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency.

The standing committees include Canonical Affairs and Church Governance; Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Evangelization and Catechesis; International Justice and Peace; and Protection of Children and Young People.

The chairmen-elect each will begin a three-year term as chairmen at the end of the bishops’ fall general assembly in 2017:

— Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance: Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, elected over Bishop David M. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, 111 to 89.

— Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs: Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, elected over Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland, California, 115 to 90.

— Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis: Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles elected over Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, 122 to 90.

– Committee on International Justice and Peace: Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services elected over Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, 127 to 88.

— Committee on Protection of Children and Young People: Bishop Timothy L. Doherty of Lafayette, Indiana, elected over Bishop Joseph J. Tyson of Yakima, Washington, 128 to 86.

Also several chairmen-elect chosen last year will become committee chairmen at the end of this year’s assembly and will serve three-year terms:

— Divine Worship: Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta.

— Domestic Justice and Human Development: Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida.

— Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations: Cardinal-elect Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis, who recently was appointed archbishop of Newark, New Jersey.

— Catholic Education: Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio.

— Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth: Archbishop Chaput.

A vote also was taken for three seats on the board of Catholic Relief Services. Elected were Archbishop Coakley, who ends his term as president of the board but remained eligible to continue serving; Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee; and Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida.

 

Contributing to this story was Dennis Sadowski. Follow Pattison and Sadowski on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison and @DennisSadowski.

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Olympian Biles keeps rosary, a gift from her mom, close when she competes

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RIO DE JANEIRO — U.S. Olympic gymnast and gold medalist Simone Biles says when she travels, she sometimes takes with her a statue of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, and she also carries a rosary her mother gave her. Read more »

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Texas parish welcomes immigrant children ‘with a lot of love’

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Catholic News Service

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Almost every Sunday, more than 100 immigrant children under 18 years of age attend Mass at San Felipe de Jesus Church in Cameron Park.

Carmen Alvear and other parishioners from San Felipe de Jesus Parish in Brownsville, Texas, prepare a special meal for unaccompanied children from Central America who attend Mass at their church July 10. (CNS photo/Rose Ybarra, The Valley Catholic)

Carmen Alvear and other parishioners from San Felipe de Jesus Parish in Brownsville, Texas, prepare a special meal for unaccompanied children from Central America who attend Mass at their church July 10. (CNS photo/Rose Ybarra, The Valley Catholic)

The children, who are mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, entered the United States unaccompanied and are housed in shelters, or “centros de refugio,” for several weeks while arrangements are made to reunite them with relatives living in the United States or back in their country of origin.

So far, in 2016, more than 26,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been apprehended according to figures released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors have crossed into the United States in the last five years.

Marist Father Anthony O’Connor, pastor of San Felipe de Jesus Church, which is in the Brownsville diocese, said most of these children are fleeing from poverty and violence in their home countries. They come to the United States in search of a better life, but that journey is fraught with its own dangers.

“Most of them face some sort of difficulty on the way,” said Father O’Connor, who visits four different centros de refugio to hear confessions and visit with the children. “They often pass through moral and physical danger to get here.

“These kids have had to grow up fast,” he told The Valley Catholic, Brownsville’s diocesan newspaper.

“What they have been through, we can’t even imagine,” said Barbara Martinez, a parishioner of San Felipe de Jesus Church.

Father O’Connor and his parishioners have responded to the call to make the children feel welcome. A section of the church is reserved for them as they have to be seated together. The children have been attending Mass here for about a year.

“Everybody respects that space,” said parishioner Miguel Lopez, who serves as an usher. “People will stand in the back of the church rather than sit there.

“We are not afraid to admit we give them special treatment because we want them to feel special. … I see some of them crying as they pray. We know they are going through a lot. We feel their pain.”

“They are received with a lot of love and you can feel the presence of God’s love when they are here,” said parishioner Yolanda Castillo. “We feel blessed to have them be a part of our community.”

The immigrant children attending Mass at San Felipe de Jesus Church for the first time also receive a small gift of welcome, said parishioner Sergio Martinez.

“They are provided with a cross to hang around their necks and they wear them every week when they come to Mass,” he said. “I think it is remarkable how they come here with an open spirit.”

At Christmastime, the parishioners hosted a posada for the children and in July, they invited them over for a special meal featuring dishes from their home countries. Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores was present for the meal and celebrated Mass.

Carmen Alvear, one of the cooks, researched the cuisine from Central America, hoping to, “get it right.” She said some of the children cried tears of joy and sadness when they saw the food.

“They told us they were happy and moved that we took the time to prepare the foods they like but it also made them miss home and their families,” she said. “I’ll admit, we cried with them.”

Guadalupe Gonzalez, another cook, said the children really enjoyed the food and many of them had “seconds and thirds.”

“The food is made with a lot of love,” said Claudia Gutierrez, a volunteer cook. “We wanted them to eat as much as they wanted.”

“I feel very happy and honored to be part of this community of faith,” said parishioner Francisca Rodriguez. “We’ve always been a very united community and having the children here has brought us even closer together because we all want the children to feel at home and we are doing everything we can for them.

“We know they are suffering and we hope hearing the word of God carries them through the week ahead.”

“We put ourselves in their shoes,” said parishioner Guillermo Castillo. “All their worries, all the obstacles they have overcome, their fears about living in a new country, missing their family … it is a sad reality, but we support them as best as we can by giving them love and understanding.”

Parishioner Marcos Garcia is relatively new to San Felipe de Jesus Church, having only joined the parish about four years ago.

“I am in awe of this community, of how generous and welcoming everyone is and I believe it comes from Our Lord, first of all and also from Father Tony,” he said. “He inspires us to serve and we pray for him constantly, that he will continue to have the strength to minister to these children.”

When asked if they had any reservations about the children joining them for Mass, the parishioners all replied, “No,” in unison.

“This is the house of God,” parishioner David Gomez said. “Everyone is welcome. On the rare occasion the children don’t come to Mass, we really miss them. We feel like a part of us is missing.”

 

Ybarra is assistant editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.

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ABC News to air Pope Francis’ ‘virtual town hall’ with Americans on “20/20”

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WASHINGTON — Pope Francis held a “virtual town hall” with Catholics in Chicago, Los Angeles and McAllen, Texas, in advance of his Sept. 22-27 visit to the United States.

Pope Francis will appear on ABC's "World News Tonight," Aug. 31 and ond "20/20" in segments on a "virtual town hall the pope held with Americans in Chicago, Los Angels, and McAllen, Texas. (CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, EPA)

Pope Francis will appear Sept. 4 on ABC’s ” “20/20” in segments on a “virtual town hall the pope held with Americans in Chicago, Los Angels, and McAllen, Texas. (CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, EPA)

The town hall was arranged by ABC News, which aired portions of the meeting during its “World News Tonight” program Aug. 31, with an hour-long version of its “20/20” newsmagazine called “Pope Francis & the People” airing 10-11 p.m. Sept. 4. ABC News said the event would also the event will be posted in its entirety in both English and Spanish on abcnews.com.

Pope Francis engaged via satellite with students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, homeless men and women and those working with homeless people in Los Angeles, and members of a McAllen parish located near the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We were allowed inside the Vatican for an hour with Pope Francis, where he greeted us as he prepared for his trip,” said David Muir, “World News Tonight” anchor, in a 90-second “special report” that aired midday on ABC.

“He told me he’s ready, and he delivered a couple of messages to the American people before his historic visit, saying, ‘For me it is very important to meet with all of you, the citizens of the United States, who have your history, your culture, your virtues, your joys, your sadness, your problems, like everyone else. That’s why this trip is important, for me to draw close to you, in your path, your history,”’ Muir said of the pope.

Muir added, “He went on to say, ‘I’m praying for you all, and I ask you to please pray for me’”

The pope allowed us to visit so we could connect him with people in other parts of the country where he won’t be able to visit,” Muir said. “He took questions and heard stories of struggle. He also spoke in English in some of his answers, at one point asking a teenager in Chicago fighting adversity to please sing for him. And she did.” Pope Francis, a native Spanish speaker, will celebrate Mass in Spanish during his U.S. visit.

“Today was an unforgettable day in the 20-year history of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School,” said a tweet from the school after the town hall ended. Chris Meyer, the school’s director of technology, tweeted, “A glorious morning at Cristo Rey Chicago,” advising in a separate tweet there would be “powerful stories” on the Sept. 4 broadcast.

“The pope did not shy away from some key issues,” Muir added, although he did not disclose what issues they were, inviting viewers to watch “World News Tonight” and the “20/20” installment.

 

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Photo of the week: Reunion at the border

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U.S.-Mexico border Mass marked by painful reunion through the fence

SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — The 18-car Union Pacific train blew its horn about 50 feet from the U.S.-Mexico divide.

There, in a dusty one-acre lot, an American road ends — literally. And it was where 12-year-old Yoryet Lara hoped to get a glimpse of her mother.

Jocelyn Lara, on the New Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border, kisses her mother, Trinidad Acahua, before Mass Nov. 22 in Sunland Park, N.M. Jocelyn and her sister, Yoryet, were separated from their mother after Acahua was deported seven years ago for being unable to show that she worked in the United States legally. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Jocelyn Lara, on the New Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border, kisses her mother, Trinidad Acahua, before Mass Nov. 22 in Sunland Park, N.M. Jocelyn and her sister, Yoryet, were separated from their mother after Acahua was deported seven years ago for being unable to show that she worked in the United States legally. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“It’s been so long, I need to see her,” Yoryet said. “Other children get to see their moms on special occasions like Mother’s Day. I don’t. It’s not fair,” she said as she wiped away tears.

Yorye’s mother, Trinidad Acahua, once lived in the U.S. illegally, in El Paso, Texas. She had a job, paid her rent, stayed out of trouble. She had two children here, making them both U.S. citizens. But one day she ran a stop sign on her way to work and was pulled over. When she couldn’t produce paperwork for insurance or proof of car ownership, she was taken into custody and eventually deported. That was seven years ago.

Just as the 16th annual Border Mass, hosted by the area’s three dioceses was set to begin, the girls rushed the international fence, calling out for their mother, who was joining them at the Mass from the Mexican side of the fence.

“Don’t cry my queens, don’t cry,” Acahua sobbed. “I love you all very much my daughters.” The family’s lone embrace was an interlocking of fingers in the chain link fence that divided them.

“Mommy, I miss you,” said Jocelyn Lara, 10. “Ay Mommy!”

Their mother brought Emmanuel, the girls’ 3-year-old brother, to the fence as well.

“Hi little one, I’m your aunt,” the girls’ aunt, Ines Zepahua, said in greeting her nephew. She has never been able to hold him.

That was the backdrop for the annual Border Mass celebrated by bishops of the dioceses of El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Juarez, Mexico.

“We have a prayerful purpose,” said Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso. “This Mass started as a remembrance of the thousands of people who have died in their desperate trek to come to the U.S. We pray for them as well as those immigrants who are here now but who live in fear of exploitation and deportation daily.”

The Mass was a cross-border experience. A lector read the first reading from Juarez in Mexico, while the second reading was read on the American side. The responsorial psalm was recited together, and Communion was shared on both sides. Because the border is marked there by a chain-link fence, every part of the Mass was visible from both countries. Bishop Seitz said the three communities came together in the liturgy, just as they do daily in responding to the needs of immigrants.

“They’re not coming here looking to get a new car or a new house,” he said. “Often, they come here out of fear of the lives they have back home. The life of the immigrant is not easy.”

That desperation was evident when, during Mass, 10 to 15 people cut through a seam in the border fence to cross illegally into New Mexico, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

“It looks like we had about eight breach points,” said Joe Romero, acting Special Operations supervisor of the El Paso sector of the Border Patrol.

Romero said many of those who tried to cross got spooked and turned back. At least three were apprehended on the U.S. side. Tension ran high when a Border Patrol agent approached a young man in the crowd during Mass.

Ultimately, the agent walked away from the man, although it wasn’t clear whether the man was one of those eventually arrested.

Despite the attempts to take advantage of the Mass and sneak into the country, Romero said it won’t be an obstacle to future such events.

“We understand the purpose of the Mass and will not let this first-time breach prevent us from being supportive of it in the future,” he said.

“This was unprecedented,” said Bishop Seitz. “We’ve always known about the desperation of those who are attempting to come to the U.S. in search of safety. What happened (at Mass) shows that, in spite of President Obama’s recent executive action regarding immigrants who are already here, the need, the desperation to flee to safety, remains.”

As the liturgy came to a close, the celebrants’ words, “Mass has ended. Let us go in peace,” rang out. Yoryet and Jocelyn reluctantly said goodbye to their mom.

“I love you Mom! I miss you!” they said.

The two siblings walked toward their aunt’s SUV to leave. And another Union Pacific train blew its whistle in the background.

— By Elizabeth O’Hara

 

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