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Pope asks children to promise Jesus they will never be bullies

March 25, 2017 - 4:05pm

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- Pope Francis asked 45,000 children preparing for confirmation to promise Jesus they would never engage in bullying.

Turning stern during a lively and laughter-filled encounter March 25, Pope Francis told the youngsters he was very worried about the growing phenomenon of bullying.

He asked them to be silent and reflect on if there were times when they made fun of someone for how they looked or behaved. And, as a condition of their confirmation, he made them promise Jesus that they would never tease or bully anyone.

The pope ended his daylong visit to Milan by participating in an expanded version of the archdiocese's annual encounter for pre-teens preparing for confirmation. An estimated 78,000 people filled the city's famed San Siro soccer stadium; the archdiocese expects to confirm about 45,000 young people this year.

A boy named Davide asked the pope, "When you were our age, what helped your friendship with Jesus grow?"

First of all, the pope said, it was his grandparents. One of his grandfathers was a carpenter, who told him Jesus learned carpentry from St. Joseph, so whenever the pope saw his grandfather work, he thought of Jesus. The other grandfather taught him to always say something to Jesus before going to sleep, even if it was just, "Good night, Jesus."

His grandmothers and his mother, the pope said, were the ones who taught him to pray. He told the kids that even if their grandparents "don't know how to use a computer or have a smartphone," they have a lot to teach them.

Playing with friends taught him joy and how to get along with others, which is part of faith, the pope said. And going to Mass and to the parish oratory also strengthened his faith because "being with others is important."

A couple of parents, who introduced themselves as Monica and Alberto, asked the pope's advice on educating their three children in the faith.

Pope Francis borrowed little Davide's question and asked the parents to close their eyes and think of the people who transmitted the faith to them and helped it grow.

"Your children watch you continually," the pope said. "Even if you don't notice, they observe everything and learn from it," especially in how parents handle tensions, joys and sorrows.

He also encouraged families to go to Mass together and then, if the weather is nice, to go to a park and play together. "This is beautiful and will help you live the commandment to keep the Lord's day holy."

An essential part of handing on the faith, he said, is teaching children the meaning of solidarity and engaging them in the parents' acts of charity and solidarity with the poor. "Faith grows with charity and charity grows with faith," he said.

Before going to the soccer stadium, Pope Francis celebrated an afternoon Mass for the feast of the Annunciation in Milan's Monza Park.

The annunciation of Jesus' birth to Mary took place in her home in a small town in the middle of no where, which is a sign that God desired to meet his people "in places we normally would not expect," the pope said in his homily.

Just as "the joy of salvation began in the daily life of a young woman's home in Nazareth," he said, God wants to be welcomed into and given life in the homes of all people.

God is indifferent to no one, the pope said, and "no situation will be deprived of his presence."

Tens of thousands of people gathered on a warm spring day for the Mass amid the new leaves and fragile buds on the trees of the park.

Pope Francis used Milan's Ambrosian rite, a Mass that differs slightly from the Latin rite used in most parts of the world. Some of the differences included the pope blessing each of the readers and not only the deacon who proclaimed the Gospel, and the Creed being sung after the offertory, rather than after the homily.

In his homily, the pope said that like Mary at the Annunciation, people today naturally wonder how God's promises could be fulfilled. "But how can this be?" Mary asked.

The same question arises "at a time so filled with speculation. There's speculation on the poor and migrants, speculation on the young and their future," the pope said. "While pain knocks on many doors, while young people are increasingly unsatisfied by the lack of real opportunities, speculation is abundant everywhere."

Finding and living the joy of the Gospel, he said, is possible only following the path the Angel Gabriel led Mary on when he told her she would bear God's son. People must remember the great things God has done and remember that they belong to the people of God, a community that "is not afraid to welcome those in need because they know the Lord is present in them."

Finally, he said, they must have faith in the "possibility of the impossible," demonstrating the same "audacious faith" that Mary showed.

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Spread hope, preach Christ, don't worry about numbers, pope says

March 25, 2017 - 10:28am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- Visiting Milan, the center of Italian fashion and finance, Pope Francis spent the morning with the poor and those who minister to them.

He had lunch at the city's historic San Vittore prison, where all 893 inmates -- men and women -- are awaiting trial.

But Pope Francis began his visit March 25 on the outskirts of the city, at the "White Houses," a housing development for the poor built in the 1970s. Three families welcomed the pope into their apartments: Stefano Pasquale, 59, who is ill and cared for by his 57-year-old wife, Dorotee; a Muslim couple and their three children from Morocco; and the Onetes.

Nuccio Onete, 82, was home for the pope's visit, but his wife, Adele, was hospitalized with pneumonia three days earlier, so the pope called her on the telephone.

The people of the neighborhood gave Pope Francis a handmade white stole, which he put on before addressing the crowd.

The fact that it was homemade, he said, "makes it much more precious and is a reminder that the Christian priest is chosen from the people and is at the service of the people. My priesthood, like that of your pastor and the other priests who work here, is a gift of Christ, but one sewn by you, by the people, with your faith, your struggles, your prayers and your tears."

Arriving next at Milan's massive Gothic cathedral, Pope Francis met with the archdiocese's pastoral workers and responded to questions from a priest, a permanent deacon and a religious sister, urging them to trust in God, hold on to their joy and share the good news of Christ with everyone they meet.

"We should not fear challenges," he said. "It is good that they exist" and Christians must "grab them, like a bull, by the horns."

Challenges "are a sign of a living faith, of a living community that seeks the Lord and keeps its eyes and heart open."

Asked by Father Gabriele Gioia about evangelization efforts that do not seem to result in "catching fish," Pope Francis said the work of an evangelizer -- of all Christians -- is to set out and cast the nets. "It's the Lord who catches the fish."

Preoccupation with numbers is never a good thing, Pope Francis said.

Responding to Ursuline Sister Paola Paganoni, who spoke of the challenge of reaching out when so many orders are experiencing an aging and declining membership, the pope spoke as a Jesuit, saying, "The majority of our founding fathers and mothers never thought they'd be a multitude."

Rather, he said, they were moved by the Holy Spirit to respond to the real needs of their time and "to build the church like leaven in the dough, like salt and light for the world."

Just think, he said, a dish with too much salt would be inedible. And, "I've never seen a pizzamaker who took a half kilo of yeast and 100 grams of flour to make a pizza. No, it has to be the opposite" proportion. Christians must be concerned with being leaven in society more than with being a majority.

It is not up to the pope to tell religious orders what their focus should be, he said. They must look to their founding charisms and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But in all they do, he said, "ignite the hope that has been extinguished and weakened by a society that has become insensitive to the pain of others. Our fragility as congregations can make us more attentive to the many forms of fragility that surround us and transform them into spaces of blessing."

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Health care bill diagnosis: never had input from those who care for sick

March 24, 2017 - 4:54pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, doesn't mince words when it comes to the American Health Care Act, which was short of votes and withdrawn by House Republicans late March 24.

Two days before the GOP legislation was set for an initial vote in Congress and then delayed due to last-minute wrangling and efforts to gain support, she described the bill as a disgrace, a pro-life disaster, a huge step back, catastrophic for Catholic social teaching and something that would do incredible damage.

The woman religious, who heads an organization of more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in the United States, has a vested interest in the nation's health care and she also knows the ins and outs of health care legislation from working behind the scenes "forever" -- as she describes it -- on the Affordable Care Act.

At the time that the ACA was being drafted, some Catholic organizations opposed key elements of the measure. Once it became law, more than 40 lawsuits were filed to challenge the subsequent Department of Health and Human Service's mandate requiring that insurance plans include coverage for artificial birth control, sterilization and drugs that lead to abortions.

Sister Keehan is quick to point out that the health care legislation signed into law seven years ago is far from perfect, but she says it was an "incredible step forward."

"I do recognize the political conflict and the imperfections in the bill, but when you can make insurance that much better for people who have it and give 20 million Americans insurance, that is a huge step forward," she told Catholic News Service March 21 in her Washington office.

At a 2015 Catholic Health Association gathering in Washington, President Barack Obama thanked Sister Keehan for her steadiness, strength and "steadfast voice."

"We would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act done had it not been for her," he said.

The immediate repeal and replacement of the ACA was a key promise of President Donald Trump's campaign, but the GOP health care measure has faced opposition from both conservative and moderate Republicans. Trump told House Republicans that he will leave ACA in place and move on to tax reform if they do not support the new health care legislation.

Watching the GOP efforts to repeal and replace the ACA has been hard for Sister Keehan mainly because she and other health care leaders were not consulted in the process.

"We should never, ever throw together a bill that's going to be such a profound impact on the people of this country in this short of time and without any input from those who care for them," she said.

The work on these two health care bills couldn't have been more different, she pointed out, noting that prior to the ACA launch she felt like she "lived in committee rooms" because she was constantly meeting with committees, groups and subgroups at the White House and Congress.

With the GOP health care plan, she said there wasn't any opportunity for hospital groups or the American Medical Association to give any advice.

"We've just been dismissed," she said, noting that she attended a few small group meetings on Capitol Hill but "they were not meetings to get our input on what ought to be done with the bill but meetings to tell us what was going to be done."

"This has just been railroaded through Congress," she added.

While the U.S. bishops have applauded pro-life elements of the American Health Care Act, they also have criticized other elements and expressed concern for its impact on the disadvantaged.

In a March 17 letter to House members about the GOP measure, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the inclusion of "critical life protections" in the House health care bill is laudable, but other provisions, including those related to Medicaid and tax credits are "troubling" and "must be addressed."

He said the bill's restriction of funds to providers that promote abortion and prohibiting federal funding for abortion or the purchase of plans that provide abortion "honors a key moral requirement for our nation's health care policy." But he also criticized the absence of "any changes" from the current law regarding conscience protections against mandates to provide certain coverage or services considered morally objectionable by employers and health care providers.

"The ACA is, by no means, a perfect law," Bishop Dewane said. "The Catholic bishops of the United States registered serious objections at the time of its passage. However, in attempting to improve the deficiencies of the ACA, health care policy ought not create other unacceptable problems, particularly for those who struggle on the margins of our society."

Main provisions of the new House bill include: eliminating the mandate that most individuals have health insurance and putting in its place a new system of tax credits; expanding Health Savings Accounts; repealing Medicaid expansion and transitioning to a "per capita allotment"; and prohibiting health insurers from denying coverage or charging more money to patients based on pre-existing conditions.

Sister Keehan said she thanked Bishop Dewane for his letter to Congress and said the bishops had carefully gone through the legislation measure by measure on a number of issues. She also noted that she knows people in the pro-life community either think the new bill is strong enough or not doing enough.

As she sees it, the bill is "a pro-life disaster in the fact that when you take health care away from people, you take life."

"If you want to really, really strengthen the pro-life culture in this country, you make sure people know that their lives and the lives of their children are so valued by our country," she said, which means providing quality maternity and pediatric care and offering programs like Head Start and food stamps.

Although she said under the ACA no federal funds could be spent on abortion, a nonpartisan government agency in an assessment of the law in 2014 said abortion coverage was available in some plans. Sister Keehan also said the law included help for pregnant mothers to get drug rehabilitation, housing and maternity care, which are not included in the new bill.

"I don't find this a pro-life bill at all from every perspective," she added about the new measure.

When asked if there was a silver lining with people at least talking about the need to provide insurance for all Americans, Sister Keehan said the health care crisis for so many people doesn't give "the luxury of time."

"To be the only industrialized nation in the world that does not guarantee all its citizens health care is a disgrace," she said, adding: "We are at a real crossroads in our country's sense of its responsibility to its people."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Remember shattered walls of past divisions, pope tells EU leaders

March 24, 2017 - 3:12pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via EPA

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Europe must recover the memories and lessons of past tragedies in order to confront the challenges Europeans face today that seek to divide rather than unite humanity, Pope Francis said.

While the founding fathers of what is now the European Union worked toward a "united and open Europe," free of the "walls and divisions" erected after World War II, the tragedy of poverty and violence affecting millions of innocent people lingers on, the pope told European leaders gathered at the Vatican March 24.

"Where generations longed to see the fall of those signs of forced hostility, these days we debate how to keep out the 'dangers' of our time, beginning with the long file of women, men and children fleeing war and poverty, seeking only a future for themselves and their loved ones," he said.

Pope Francis welcomed the 27 European heads of state to the Vatican to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome, which gave birth to European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community.

Signed March 25, 1957, the treaties sought to unite Europe following the devastation wrought by World War II. The agreements laid the groundwork for what eventually became the European Union.

Entering the "Sala Regia" of the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis placed his hand above his heart and bowed slightly to the European leaders before taking his seat. At the end of the audience, he and the government leaders went into the Sistine Chapel and posed for a photograph in front of Michelangelo's fresco, The Last Judgment.

In his speech, the pope said the commemoration of the treaty should not be reduced to "a remembrance of things past," but should motivate a desire "to relive that event in order to appreciate its significance for the present."

"The memory of that day is linked to today's hopes and expectations of the people of Europe, who call for discernment in the present so that the journey that has begun can continue with renewed enthusiasm and confidence," he said.

At the heart of the founding fathers' creation of a united Europe, the pope continued, was concern for the human person, who after years of bloodshed held on "to faith in the possibility of a better future."

"That spirit remains as necessary as ever today, in the face of centrifugal impulses and the temptation to reduce the founding ideals of the union to productive, economic and financial needs," he said.

But despite achievements in forging unity and solidarity, Pope Francis said, Europe today suffers from a "lapse of memory" where peace is now "regarded as superfluous."

To regain the peace attained in the past, he added, Europe must reconnect with its Christian roots otherwise "the Western values of dignity, freedom and justice would prove largely incomprehensible."

"The fruitfulness of that connection will make it possible to build authentically secular societies, free of ideological conflicts, with equal room for the native and the immigrant, for believers and nonbelievers," the pope said.

The economic crisis of the past decade, the crisis of the family "and established social models" and the current migration crisis, he said, offer an opportunity for Europe's leaders to discern and assess rather than "engender fear and profound confusion."

"Ours is a time of discernment, one that invites us to determine what is essential and to build on it," the pope said. "It is a time of challenge and opportunity."

Europe, he added, will find new hope "when man is at the center and the heart of her institutions" in order to stem "the growing 'split' between the citizenry and the European institutions which are often perceived as distant and inattentive to the different sensibilities present in the union."

The migration crisis also offers an opportunity for Europe's leaders to refuse to give in to fear and "false forms of security," while posing a much deeper question to the continent's citizens.

"What kind of culture does Europe propose today?" he asked, adding that the fear of migrants "has its root cause in the loss of ideals."

"Without an approach inspired by those ideals, we end up dominated by the fear that others will wrench us from our usual habits, deprive us of familiar comforts and somehow call into question a lifestyle that all too often consists of material prosperity alone."

By defending families, investing in development and peace and defending the family and life "in all its sacredness," Europe can once again find new ways to steer its course, Pope Francis told the European heads of state.

"As leaders, you are called to blaze the path of a new European humanism made up of ideals and concrete actions," the pope said. "This will mean being unafraid to make practical decisions capable of responding to people's real problems and of standing the test of time."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Cardinal Keeler, retired archbishop of Baltimore, dies at 86

March 24, 2017 - 11:51am

IMAGE: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz

By George P. Matysek Jr.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Cardinal William H. Keeler, Baltimore's 14th archbishop, who was an international leader in Catholic-Jewish relations and the driving force behind the restoration of America's first cathedral, died March 23 at his residence at St. Martin's Home for the Aged in Catonsville. He was 86.

The archdiocese said the cardinal will lie in repose March 27 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore. His funeral will be celebrated March 28 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, also in Baltimore.

Pope Francis, in a papal telegram March 24, sent condolences to Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori and the archdiocese, expressing gratitude for "Cardinal Keeler's years of devoted episcopal ministry" and his "long-standing commitment to ecumenical and interreligious understanding. He called the cardinal a "wise and gentle pastor."

"One of the great blessings in my life was coming to know Cardinal Keeler," Archbishop Lori said in a statement March 23. "Cardinal Keeler will be greatly missed. I am grateful to the Little Sisters for their devoted care for the cardinal."

Cardinal Keeler was the bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when he was appointed the 14th archbishop of Baltimore in 1989. Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1994. He retired in 2007. As president of the U.S. bishops' conference from 1992 to 1995, he participated in a wide range of national and international issues.

As part of his work with what is now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Keeler developed a reputation for effectively building interfaith bonds. He is particularly noted for his work in furthering Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He was appointed moderator of Catholic-Jewish Relations for the USCCB.

"As a priest, bishop of Harrisburg and archbishop of Baltimore, the cardinal worked to bring the hope of Christ to people's lives," said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston Houston, who is president of the USCCB. "He also built bridges of solidarity to people of other faiths as a leader in ecumenism and interreligious affairs.

"Cardinal Keeler was a dear friend. The most fitting tribute we can offer is to carry forward his episcopal motto in our daily lives: 'Do the work of an evangelist,'" Cardinal DiNardo said in a statement.

He called the late cardinal "a servant of priestly virtue and gentlemanly manner" who is remembered by the USCCB for "his generosity of spirit in service to his brothers and the people of God."

Cardinal Keeler's death leaves the College of Cardinals with 223 members, 17 of whom are from the United States. The College of Cardinals has 117 members under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave.

In his statement, Archbishop Lori remarked on "the respect and esteem" in which the cardinal was held by his brother bishops, and praised his leadership in Jewish-Catholic relations and in Orthodox-Catholic relations. Archbishop Lori also said he was known for his "prowess as a church historian" and had a "deep love and respect for the history and heritage of the Archdiocese of Baltimore."

Cardinal Keeler was an ardent promoter of the Catholic Church's teaching on the sanctity of all human life. He twice served as chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities and testified at all levels of government on legislation ranging from abortion to euthanasia to capital punishment.

Among the cardinal's many accomplishments in the Baltimore Archdiocese, Archbishop Lori highlighted "the wonderful visit of Pope St. John Paul II to Baltimore in 1995, the restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption and the creation of Partners in Excellence which has helped thousands of young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods to receive a sound Catholic education."

"When I would visit the cardinal at the Little Sisters of the Poor (in Cardinal Keeler's retirement), I gave him a report on my stewardship and told him many times that we were striving to build upon his legacy -- a legacy that greatly strengthened the church and the wider community," Archbishop Lori said.

Born in San Antonio and raised in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, William Henry Keeler knew from an early age he was called to the priesthood. In a 2005 interview with the Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan newspaper, he recalled visiting his grandfather's farm in Illinois when the local Catholic pastor stopped by for a visit -- pointing to the 4-year-old boy and announcing that he would one day become a priest.

He was ordained a priest in Rome July 17, 1955. He served as assistant pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Marysville, Pennsylvania, before taking on other assignments as secretary to Harrisburg Bishop George L. Leech and as a "peritus," or special adviser, during Second Vatican Council meetings in Rome.

He later was named vice chancellor and vicar general of the Harrisburg Diocese and named an auxiliary bishop for the diocese in 1979. Four years later he was appointed its bishop.

"He was a true churchman whom we are greatly honored to have called a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg," said Bishop W. Ronald Gainer, head of the diocese since 2014. "His roots and Catholic education in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, prepared him to do great work for the people of God.

"This area and diocese benefited significantly from his leadership and passion for service and evangelization," Bishop Gainer said. As a priest and bishop, Cardinal Keeler "worked fruitfully to advance increased cooperation and warmer relationships between different Christian communities, both locally and nationally. ... I thank God for his priestly life and ministry and for his inspiring service to all."

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington called it "a privilege to have known Cardinal Keeler for more than three decades."

Besides collaborating on USCCB initiatives, he noted that when he was Pittsburgh's bishop, 1988-2006, and Cardinal Keeler was Harrisburg's bishop, the two worked closely together through the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. When then-Bishop Wuerl was named Washington's archbishop, and Cardinal Keeler was Baltimore's archbishop, they again had an "opportunity to work on important initiatives through our roles with the Maryland Catholic Conference," Cardinal Wuerl said. The Washington Archdiocese includes some Maryland counties.

"Cardinal Keeler was a beloved pastor of souls, exemplary leader, and a respected collaborator in ministry," he added in a March 23 statement. "His episcopal motto, 'Do the Work of an Evangelist,' foresaw our efforts now in the new evangelization and his efforts to build bridges among peoples offered us an example that is much needed in today's culture."

As Baltimore's archbishop and head of the nation's first archdiocese, the 1995 papal visit to Baltimore -- at Cardinal Keeler's invitation was one of the prelate's proudest moments. St. John Paul II celebrated Mass at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, visited the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, shared a meal at Our Daily Bread and encouraged seminarians at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park.

A prodigious fundraiser, Cardinal Keeler established what is now known as the Archbishop's Annual Appeal. In 1997, he launched a major capital campaign known as Heritage of Hope that raised more than $137 million from more than 39,000 gifts and pledges.

The cardinal also established the Partners in Excellence program, which provides tuition scholarships for children in inner-city Catholic schools. Since its inception in 1996, Partners in Excellence has provided more than $26 million in tuition assistance.

One of the cardinal's last major efforts was the $32 million campaign to restore the basilica. After more than two years of construction, the building was rededicated Nov. 4, 2006 -- 200 years after the basilica's cornerstone was laid. More than 240 bishops from across the nation were there for the celebration, marking the first time all the country's bishops gathered in the basilica since 1989 when the archdiocese marked its bicentennial.

Father Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium and Cardinal Keeler's first priest-secretary in Baltimore, said Cardinal Keeler "put Baltimore on the map in the Catholic Church."

Father White noted that in addition to the papal visit, Cardinal Keeler hosted spiritual gatherings in Baltimore in the late 1990s with St. Teresa of Kolkata and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Leaders within the Catholic Church and from other faith traditions regularly visited him in Baltimore and "not a day went by" when bishops from other parts of the country didn't call for the cardinal's advice, Father White said.

Cardinal Keeler suffered serious health problems in the latter years of his ministry. He underwent knee replacement surgery in 2005 and had to have brain surgery in 2006 following a car accident in Italy that resulted in the death of a friend, Father Bernard Quinn of Harrisburg.

In the early part of his retirement, Cardinal Keeler remained focused on many of the same priorities he had always held: promoting better relations between the Catholic and Jewish communities, celebrating Mass every day and staying in touch with friends.

In his final years, one of the U.S. church's great communicators was frustrated by finding it difficult to find the words to express himself.

"His final years of illness were lived in silent, Christ-like dignity and acceptance to the will of God," said Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, Cardinal Keeler's immediate successor in Baltimore, who is grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

Referring to Cardinal Keeler's accomplishments as "monumental," Cardinal O'Brien added that he prays that the cardinal "enjoy a joyful, eternal rest in the Lord he served so generously."

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Matysek is assistant managing editor of the Catholic Review, the news website and magazine of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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Indigenous, accompanied by church, fight for rights in Amazon rainforest

March 24, 2017 - 10:04am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Barb Fraze

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The railroad runs more than 550 miles through 27 communities in the Brazilian Amazon. It runs so close to people's homes that the houses have cracked, and some people have hearing loss.

The trains carry minerals out of the rainforest to the coast. But the tracks separate families from their schools, health centers and fields and, sometimes, the trains stop on the tracks.

Sister Jakelyn Vasquez, a member of the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who works with communities along the tracks in Maranhao and Para states, said the trains often sit for hours, sometimes an entire day.

In early March, a 336-car train stopped on the tracks in one of the villages. Sister Vasquez told Catholic News Service that the closest ramp to cross over the tracks was more than four miles away. So, as local residents sometimes do, a mother and her baby climbed under the train to cross -- and the train began to move.

The mother lost her fingers; the baby lost an arm. It was not the first such accident, said Sister Vasquez. Many people have been run over by the train, she said, and they receive no financial compensation from the multinational company than runs the trains and mines -- "just the coffin."

Sister Vasquez was one of about a dozen members of the Pan-Amazonian Church Network that visited Washington in March. The group, which included indigenous leaders who testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, also met with church and government leaders and the public to help spread the word about what members describe as injustices and human rights abuses.

Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, president of the Pan-Amazonian Church Network, or REPAM, as it is known by its Spanish acronym, told CNS that the Amazon "is at the center of the many ecological issues that are debated in our time, and climate change is one of them."

The cardinal said that Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," made it clear that the church "must participate in the defense of the Amazon."

"It is the poor who are going to be the most affected by climate and environmental problems," he added.

The cardinal told an audience at The Catholic University of America March 23 that when Pope Francis met with the Brazilian bishops in 2013, the pope emphasized that the Amazon was at "a decisive moment for the future."

"And that's why the church can't get it wrong in the Amazon," Cardinal Hummes said. Although some people are looking to exploit the Amazon, others are looking to protect it.

"It's one of the great lungs of the planet," he said, noting that indigenous people and small-scale farmers who have been living in the region have the wisdom to help keep the planet breathing.

The church in the Amazon must "be very prophetic and very brave," which means denouncing bad projects and finding ways for sustainable development, he said.

Part of that means teaching communities to stand for themselves. Mauricio Lopez, executive secretary of the Pan-Amazonian Church Network, said the organization has had workshops and seminars in which "Laudato Si'" was presented. He emphasized that the church is not looking to solve the problems for local communities, but to accompany them.

At one public meeting in Washington, indigenous community leaders from Colombia and Peru cited constitutions, peace agreements and international documents to illustrate government violations of their rights.

Rosildo da Silva, Chauwandawa leader from Brazil, said the government is always changing the laws and promising small-scale farmers that things will get better.

"This is a joke," he said at a March 21 forum. "We cannot trust them," because with one hand they offer something, but the other hand does something different.

Marco Martinez Quintana, who works with family farmers in southeastern Colombia, said one day a man showed up with papers from the National Agency of Land and claimed he had permission to use about 20 families' land to produce palm oil. Already, he said, thousands of hectares in the region have been committed to palm oil.

These small farmers, on the edge of the Amazon, use a process he described as "the edible forest."

"It's kind of a supermarket in the jungle," he said. The farmers plant diverse crops that produce food. Once they have fed their cattle, they trade with farmers who do not have room to grow animal feed. The process builds community, he said.

He also spoke of a Colombian government decree signed with the U.S. government that says the local farmers cannot use their own seeds, but must purchase genetically modified seeds -- and all the chemicals that go along with them.

"Sovereignty is when we are able to sow our own seeds and grow our own food," he said.

Cardinal Hummes said he understands the need for the country to grow economically, but he added that agribusiness has had a serious impact on the environment. For instance, new highways allow for goods to be moved and sold, but if they are overused, they can lead to destruction of the forest.

He also said there is a public perception that the rainforest does not produce anything, that "in order to produce and be productive, you need to remove the forest."

The challenge "is to demonstrate that the forest as it is, the trees as they are -- the forest, the water, the biodiversity, can offer more ... wealth than the forest that is taken out," or mined and farmed on a large scale, he said.

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In talk with top diplomat, bishop stresses church concern for common good

March 23, 2017 - 5:54pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace met with the country's top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, March 23, for a policy-packed 35-minute conversation about immigration, the Middle East, Africa and the role of the Catholic Church's efforts toward building "the common good."

"After some small talk about Texas," the two spoke about the Middle East, about Iraq and Syria, reaching out to Central America and Mexico, and the situation in Africa, said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, explaining his initial meeting in Washington with Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, who, like Bishop Cantu, hails from Texas.

Bishop Cantu said the meeting was about letting Tillerson know "that our only motive is to help build the common good, that we don't have ulterior motives," and explaining the bishops' peace and justice committee's work in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Far East.

Bishop Cantu, as the chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, has spoken for a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict, against the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, for reducing the United States' nuclear arsenal, and raised concerns about an executive order that targets refugees from some countries with predominantly Muslim populations, which are at odds with stances taken early by the Donald Trump administration.

"I have concerns," he said in an interview with Catholic News Service, but said the meeting with Tillerson was about establishing a relationship that can help the church advocate for policy issues to help the common good.

"We bring a unique perspective," said Bishop Cantu. "One of our principles in Catholic social teaching is the common good and that goes beyond our own church needs."

Bishop Cantu said he talked about the church's efforts in Congo and South Sudan and the need for stability in such places. U.N. agencies said in February that famine and war in the area are threatening up to 5.5 million lives in the region.

Because of the church's humanitarian agencies, its solidarity visits, and long-term contact with local governments and populations around the world, the church lends a credible voice, Bishop Cantu said.

"He expressed that he was eager to have open lines of communication with us and to listen to our perspective on things," Bishop Cantu said.

"The two areas we especially touched on were the Middle East and how to rebuild in Iraq and Syria. And the second topic that he wanted to hear our perspective on is the immigration issue, particularly how to reach out to Central America and Mexico," said Bishop Cantu.

He said he emphasized to Tillerson the importance of having countries where religious minorities have a say in the government and of investing in rebuilding countries. The proposed Trump administration budget has been criticized for its plans to slash funding for the State Department up to 28 percent, or $10.9 billion. The cuts would greatly affect the department's Food for Peace Program, which reduces hunger and malnutrition in poor countries, while proposing a $54 billion, or 10 percent, increase in military spending.

Bishop Cantu said he left information with Tillerson about the church's concerns with the proposed budget.

"We're concerned about the very steep increase in the military budget, the cutting back on foreign aid, we're very concerned about that. I did want to emphasize how important development is in regions that need to be stabilized," he said, "that those are wise investments of time and funds."

The meeting also included a discussion about Christians in the Middle East, Bishop Cantu said, "and that Christians don't want to live in a ghetto. ' They believe it's important that they live in an integrated society that is safe and secure," to have a voice in local, regional as well federal government. He said he also emphasized "the fact that the (Catholic) church in the Middle East can act as a voice between the Sunnis and the Shia" and the importance of the church remaining in places such as Iraq and Syria.

"Any wise government official wants to listen to the voice of people who have a stake in different areas and to listen to the wisdom of experience," Bishop Cantu said. "We have our brothers and sisters there, the church, who do live there. The fact is that ' we bring a trusted voice.

"We bring some wisdom to the conversation," he added. "Our vision is to build a society that's stable, that's just, that's peaceful, and ultimately, that's the goal of the state department ... and so I think that's why our voice is valuable to them."

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No date yet for Blessed Romero canonization, archbishop says

March 23, 2017 - 5:36pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves

By Junno Arocho Esteves

ROME (CNS) -- While documentation regarding an alleged miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Oscar Romero is being studied at the Vatican, there is no date scheduled for his canonization, the archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, said.

"I must say, in all sincerity, that there is no date. And we understand it well because it involves a process. Blessed Romero's cause is at a decisive phase that is necessary for his canonization," Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas said March 23 during a memorial Mass for Blessed Romero in Rome.

Archbishop Escobar, along with the other bishops of El Salvador were making their "ad limina" visits to Rome and the Vatican and anticipated the 37th anniversary of Blessed Romero's death with Mass at Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Blessed Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in the chapel of a local hospital one day after calling on the government to end its violation of human rights against the population.

During the nearly two hours Pope Francis spent with the bishops of El Salvador March 20, the pontiff expressed "his warmth and affection" for Blessed Romero, Archbishop Escobar told Catholic News Service after the Mass.

"He told us that it would be very good if the places associated with Romero -- his relics, the place where he was killed and where he was born -- would become places of pilgrimage," the archbishop said.

During his homily, Archbishop Escobar thanked Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the official promoter of Blessed Romero's sainthood cause, for his work throughout canonical process.

The alleged miracle involves a pregnant woman in El Salvador who was in in danger of dying, Archbishop Paglia told CNS. "Several friends of this family prayed to Blessed Oscar Romero. And in a short time, the baby was born and the mother is well."

Archbishop Paglia also told CNS that officials at the Congregation for Saints' Causes had opened the documentation concerning the alleged miracle and would begin studying it March 24.

The congregation's work, he added, is a delicate process, which involves looking at the alleged miracle from both a "medical and theological perspective."

"I hope that as soon as possible the results can be given. We cannot say how long it will take," he said. "If the results are positive, it will be presented to the pope and he will decide on the canonization and the date."

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London cardinal calls for prayers for victims of Westminster attack

March 23, 2017 - 12:43pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters


LONDON (CNS) -- Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, whose cathedral is just a short walk from the scene of the London terrorist attack, called for prayers for the dead and wounded.

"Yesterday's attacks in Westminster have shocked us all," he said in a March 23 statement. "The kind of violence we have seen all too often in other places has again brought horror and killing to this city."

The five fatalities included Aysha Frade, a 43-year-old Catholic mother mowed down by a car driven by the assailant as he sped over Westminster Bridge toward the British Parliament. Frade was on her way to pick up her children from school when she was killed.

After crashing the vehicle into railings, the British-born Muslim ran into New Palace Yard, near Parliament, where he fatally stabbed a police officer before he was killed by police. About 40 people were injured in the attack.

"Pray for Aysha Frade, killed by the car on Westminster Bridge," Cardinal Nichols said, adding that her two children attended St. Mary of the Angels Primary School, a Catholic school in West London.

"Pray for them and for their father. And please remember the young French students who have been injured.

"We remember, too, all who have been injured, and those who care for them," the cardinal continued. "We pray in particular as well for Keith Palmer, the police officer who died, and for his family, thanking God that so many show such brave dedication to keeping our society safe."

The cardinal urged people to make their voices become "one of prayer, of compassionate solidarity, and of calm," he said. "All who believe in God, creator and father of every person, will echo this voice, for faith in God is not a problem to be solved, but a strength and a foundation on which depend."

Pope Francis sent a message to Cardinal Nichols March 23, assuring the president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales of his prayer for the nation.

Communicated via Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, the message said: "Deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life and of the injuries caused by the attack in central London, His Holiness Pope Francis expresses his prayerful solidarity with all those affected by this tragedy.

"Commending those who have died to the loving mercy of almighty God, His Holiness invokes divine strength and peace upon their grieving families, and he assures the nation of his prayers at this time," it said.

According to reports in the British media, the "lone wolf" assailant was not on a security services list of about 3,000 people thought capable of mounting an attack, but was described by Prime Minister Theresa May as a "peripheral figure." He was named as Khalid Masood, 52, a petty criminal from the Birmingham area of the English Midlands.

The Islamic State group issued a statement March 23 describing the attacker as a "soldier" who had answered its call to attack "coalition countries."

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With new website, Franciscans opt for their own 'hip-hop' style

March 23, 2017 - 12:37pm

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- The head of the Franciscans hopes the order's new website will have a certain "hip-hop" style -- being very modern or "hip" and inspiring people to move, act or "hop."

Franciscan Father Michael Perry, minister general of the order, said the March launch of the revamped website -- -- is just phase one of a comprehensive project that will include opportunities for the public to interact with the friars and for the friars to reflect formally on how, when and why they communicate.

The Franciscans decided their website needed a radical redesign because "we discovered we were communicating only to ourselves and not to the world," Father Perry told Catholic News Service.

"Reading the signs of the times" means not simply acknowledging a problem, but doing something about it, he said. So the friars engaged Longbeard Creative, a Canada-based digital design company, to help them move the website into the modern age and respond to the Franciscans' obligation to share the Gospel.

"We see this as a continuity with what St. Francis and the early brothers did," he said. "Whenever they came across a need, when they saw a boundary, they decided they had to cross it, they had to respond," otherwise they would be "limiting the possibility of God's grace in their lives and the offer of God's love for the world."

A sleek, mobile-friendly website is not out of place for a group of mendicant friars. St. Francis and his brothers always looked for "new tools to communicate a message in a new way," the minister general said. "He wasn't simply repackaging old material, he was picking up things as he went along" and sharing the Gospel in ways the people he met would understand.

"I think he felt also that he needed to learn new things," which is what the friars need to do as well. "We need to ask ourselves: 'What is it that the world is telling us? What is this new technology offering us? What prospects and challenges does it bring? Is it really offering humanity a greater step toward a deeper experience of itself as human? Is it bringing people together, is it crossing divides, or is it creating new spaces where people feel even more isolated?'"

As time goes on, Father Perry said, the Franciscans will expand the website in response to users' needs and interests, but also in the areas the friars believe they have something particular to offer to the world. Obviously, that will include "environmental ethics" and offering small "formation packages" on safeguarding creation, spirituality and prayer.

Many people visit looking for information about St. Francis -- a search term with increased popularity since the election of Pope Francis, "this person who's a Jesuit who's now converted to become a Franciscan," Father Perry said with a smile. Traffic increased again when Pope Francis titled his encyclical on the environment "Laudato Si'," quoting St. Francis of Assisi's canticle of praise and thanksgiving for the gifts of creation.

The second thing visitors want is help with their spiritual lives, he said, "something that can help them try to ... 'mind the gap'" between the challenges of their daily lives and their faith in God.

The Franciscans want the new site to be attractive, substantive, thought-provoking and help people feel connected. But perhaps not always, Father Perry said.

Legend holds that St. Francis of Assisi spoke with the birds, but his successor as head of the order does not even Tweet. "People do not always have to be 'on,'" he said. "We need perhaps to propose ways people can do a moratorium" on constant media use, so that they can pray and contemplate.

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Top Vatican officials attend child protection seminar

March 23, 2017 - 11:53am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

ROME (CNS) -- There is absolutely no excuse for not implementing concrete measures to protect minors and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse, said Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston.

"Let there be no doubt about it: Pope Francis is thoroughly committed to rooting out the scourge of sex abuse in the church," he said, and "effectively making our church safe for all people demands our collaboration on all levels."

The cardinal gave the opening prayer and address at a daylong seminar March 23 at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. The seminar was sponsored by the papal advisory body Cardinal O'Malley heads, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

A representative of every office of the Roman Curia attended, including: Cardinals Pietro Parolin, secretary of state; Kevin Farrell of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life; Joao Braz de Aviz of the Congregation for Institutes for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Marc Ouellet of the Congregation for Bishops; and Peter Turkson of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. Also in attendance were rectors of pontifical universities and colleges, and representatives from the Italian state police and the Vatican gendarmes.

After leading a prayer calling for a greater love for God and his creation, especially "your little ones," Cardinal O'Malley said holding a study day was an important part of fighting complacency and knowing "we must continue to learn from our experiences, including our mistakes," and to better share resources and knowledge.

"There is simply no justification in our day for failures to enact concrete safeguarding standards for our children, young men and women and vulnerable adults," he said. The church not only needs to "reform and renew" its own institutions, but its members also must be "witnesses and strong advocates" in society.

He said he told cardinals and the pope during a consistory in Rome two years ago that the church "must address the evil of sexual abuse by priests."

While abuse by any kind of perpetrator is a problem, when the abuser is a priest, "the damage is even more profound." Also, given "today's world of instantaneous communications" Catholics are much more aware, and quickly, of the problem of abuse in the church and are "demanding that we, who are their pastors, take all necessary steps" to safeguard those in their care.

The papal commission, which was founded in 2014, is guided by a "victims-first" approach, he said, because all the best protection programs and policies "will be to no avail if we fail to put the victims and survivors first."

While the cardinal did not mention the recent resignation of Marie Collins, the last active member who is a survivor of clerical abuse, he said the commission would be discussing during its closed-door plenary meeting, "How can victim/survivors continue to have a powerful voice in our work and help to guide us?" Collins, who was a member of the commission since its inception, stepped down citing a chronic lack of cooperation from some in the Roman Curia in following recommendations that had the pope's support.

"It's not enough to say 'We are putting victims first'" or that the church is seeking to listen to survivors, said Francis Sullivan, head of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which was established by the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference and Catholic Religious Australia. The council oversees the church's engagement with a state inquiry into clerical sexual abuse.

"Words are not going to do it. Actions do it," he said in his presentation.

The "intense scrutiny" the church in Australia has been through shows that the entire church must confront "the miserable reality that sex abuse happened in our church."

He urged everyone present to not "distract church leaders" by pointing attention to all the other places and people in the world guilty of abusing children.

"Sure it may happen in other places," he said, "but the fact that it happened in the Catholic Church says something about the corruption in our church" and about how its members have "lost the plot" and are no longer being true to their beliefs.

"Somehow we've not only enabled abusers to exist," Sullivan said, the church has allowed them "to continue to abuse."

Keep the spotlight on "Why. Why did it happen in our church?" he said, and "come to terms with that cancer."

Otherwise, the risk remains that victims and survivors will never be fully listened to or that their experience will never truly impact people's lives.

Don't smother what a victim has to say, by countering with a laundry list of "Yes, but" and all the ways the church is doing the right thing, he said. "The 'but' part drowns out the voice of the victim." The church needs to "be humble" recognize all the "baggage" in its past and "humbly face failures."

Until leaders couple a genuine recognition of past wrongs with concrete action in best practices, Catholics and others will not believe any of the talk and the church won't regain its credibility, he said.

Sullivan said when the pope and others talk about the need for a reform of the heart, people need to realize "that the decisions our leaders made in order to facilitate and cover up actually broke the heart of what it meant to be Catholic."

"We need to go back and confront that," he said.

Cardinal Braz de Aviz told Catholic News Service that the meeting showed "the conscience of the church" and a "very important" shift in perspective, or in other words, "the recovery of humanity."

While abuse is a problem throughout society, he said it took a lot of courage from the church to recognize its role in the problem.

There is no longer any place for the "old way of doing things" with abusive clergy or religious -- such as moving them from one assignment to another, the cardinal said. "We have to totally change the way of doing" things.

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Pope recognizes miracle attributed to Fatima visionaries

March 23, 2017 - 11:43am


By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis has approved the recognition of a miracle attributed to the intercession of two of the shepherd children who saw Our Lady of Fatima in 1917, thus paving the way for their canonization.

Pope Francis signed the decree for the causes of Blesseds Francisco and Jacinta Marto during a meeting March 23 with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, the Vatican said.  

The recognition of the miracle makes it likely that the canonization ceremony for the two children will be scheduled soon. The cardinals and bishops who are members of the congregation must vote to recommend their canonization and then the pope would convene the cardinals resident in Rome for a consistory to approve the sainthood.

Many people are hoping Pope Francis will preside over the canonization ceremony during his visit to Fatima May 12-13.

The pilgrimage will mark the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions, which began May 13, 1917, when 9-year-old Francisco and 7-year-old Jacinta, along with their cousin Lucia dos Santos, reported seeing the Virgin Mary. The apparitions continued once a month until Oct. 13, 1917, and later were declared worthy of belief by the Catholic Church.

A year after the apparitions, both of the Marto children became ill during an influenza epidemic that plagued Europe. Francisco died April 4, 1919, at the age of 10, while Jacinta succumbed to her illness Feb. 20, 1920, at the age of 9.

Francisco and Jacinta's cause for canonization was stalled for decades due to a debate on whether non-martyred children have the capacity to understand heroic virtues at a young age. However, in 1979, St. John Paul II allowed their cause to proceed; he declared them venerable in 1989 and beatified them in 2000.

Their cousin Lucia entered the Institute of the Sisters of St. Dorothy and, later, obtained permission to enter the Carmelite convent of St. Teresa in Coimbra, where she resided until her death in 2005 at the age of 97.

Following her death, Pope Benedict XVI waived the five-year waiting period before her sainthood cause could open. Bishop Virgilio Antunes of Coimbra formally closed the local phase of investigation into her life and holiness Feb. 13, 2017, and forwarded the information to the Vatican.

Also March 23, Pope Francis signed other decrees recognizing miracles, martyrdom and heroic virtues in six other causes, the Vatican said.

The pope also approved the bishops' and cardinals' vote to canonize two Brazilian priests -- Blessed Andre de Soveral and Blessed Ambrosio Francisco Ferro -- as well as Mateus Moreira and 27 laypeople, who were killed in 1645 as violence broke out between Portuguese Catholics and Dutch Calvinists in Brazil.

Pope Francis also approved the vote to canonize three young Mexican martyrs, known as the child martyrs of Tlaxcala, who were among the first native converts in Mexico. Known only by their first names -- Cristobal, Antonio and Juan -- they were killed in 1529 for rejecting idolatry and polygamy in the name of their faith.

In addition, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing the martyrdom of Franciscan Claretian Sister Rani Maria Vattalil, who died in 1995 after being stabbed 54 times, apparently because of her work helping poor women in India organize themselves. With the signing of the decree, a date can be set for her beatification.

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Hardened hearts can turn believers into atheists, pope says

March 23, 2017 - 10:54am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mark R. Cristino, EPA

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Not listening to God's voice can distance Christians from him and lead them instead to seek solace in worldly idols that offer only doubt and confusion, Pope Francis said.

When Catholics are "deaf to the word of God," their hearts are hardened, and "they lose the meaning of faithfulness," the pope said March 23 in his homily during morning Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae.

The pope began his homily by reflecting on the day's first reading from the prophet Jeremiah in which God laments the unfaithfulness of his people who "walked in the hardness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me."

"Not listening to and turning our backs -- which hardens our heart -- takes us on that path of unfaithfulness," the pope said.

In the reading, "the Lord says: 'Faithfulness has disappeared,' and we become unfaithful Catholics, pagan Catholics and, even worse, atheist Catholics" without the necessary reference to the love of the living God, the pope said.

Instead of being full of clarity, he continued, Christians on this path of unfaithfulness are filled with confusion, not knowing where God is and confusing "God with the devil."

Those who said Jesus expelled demons "by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons" in the day's Gospel reading from St. Luke, the pope added, are an example of the last step along this path.

"This is blasphemy. Blasphemy is the final word of this path that begins with not listening, which hardens the heart" and "brings confusion; it makes you forget faithfulness and in the end, you blaspheme."

Pope Francis said Christians must ask themselves whether they listen to the word of God or have "lost faithfulness to the Lord and live with the idols that offer me the worldliness of every day."

"Today is a day for listening. 'Listen today to the voice of the Lord' we prayed." the pope said. "'Do not harden your heart.' Let us ask for this grace: the grace to listen so that our heart does not harden."

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Make way for the Gospel: Vatican ensures media give the message

March 23, 2017 - 10:00am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As the Vatican Secretariat for Communication works to unify Vatican media efforts, a key pastoral concern is to keep open all the channels that allow Pope Francis to speak to the world.

"With a pope who is so naturally communicative, if we don't put obstacles in his way, we already are doing our job," said Natasa Govekar, director of the secretariat's theological-pastoral department.

While every large organization and government has a communications apparatus, the Vatican may be unique in having a department like Govekar's. Her office focuses on the theological and pastoral implications of communications in general, as well as in the faith content of what the Vatican communicates.

The number of page views, clicks, followers and "likes" on Vatican websites and social media accounts is, of course, tracked by the Secretariat for Communication, but those statistics are not the key factor in determining success, she said. The secretariat fulfills its mission when the Gospel message shines through the social media posts, photographs, videos and news stories.

"The church has never had a problem with its content; the challenge is how to communicate the content in the best way for it to be heard and welcomed," Govekar said. For the Vatican, "the art of communicating today lies precisely in rediscovering the essence of who we are and what we have to communicate to the world and, then, how to do it. Creativity is always part of the process. You can never just cut and paste from the past and, even less, from the world."

The statistics from the main Vatican accounts -- including the more than 33 million followers on the @Pontifex Twitter accounts and about 3.7 million followers on the "Franciscus" Instagram account -- are the object of pastoral attention, she said. "It tells us if there is someone out there listening or reading. It would be wrong if we didn't ask ourselves why so few people read a certain article or were interested in a particular subject."

Govekar's thesis for her doctorate in missiology at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University looked at "The Transmission of Faith through Images," so it is no surprise that she has a particular interest in the pope's Instagram account, which celebrated its first anniversary March 19.

She monitors the account, which regularly garners more than 100,000 likes a day and consistently prompts 800-1,000 comments. She collects the comments and prayers from the account to share with Pope Francis.

The most common comment is simply, "Amen," she said. "But sometimes there are comments that are very profound and requests for prayers that are very moving; people turn to the pope even though they write, 'I know that you won't read this post, but I still feel the need to ask you ...' Clearly, many have an illness. But many also say something like, 'I have done so many bad things in my life that I know I am not worthy to pray, so I beg you to pray for me.'"

"People turn to the pope in a personal way and find in him a reference point and a welcome even though they have never met him," she said.

Her thesis on transmitting the faith through images is confirmed regularly by people's reactions to Pope Francis.

"Pope Francis -- and this is confirmed from the feedback I read, and not just in the comments on social media, but from speaking to people, who say, 'I don't go to church, but I love this pope' -- is able to reach people, even those far from the church, because he is simply transparent," Govekar said.

"It seems his heart is readable on his face. The whole world is able to see his spiritual life from his expression. Every little thing -- his gestures, his smile -- speaks," she said. "For me, this is a great lesson on where we should focus our work: on the heart, on the profundity of Christian spirituality and the spiritual lives of Christians so that it is revealed in everything we do."

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Church leaders: Restoration on Jesus' tomb signals new cooperation

March 22, 2017 - 5:10pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Reuters

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Less than a year after restoration work began, the Edicule -- the traditional site of Jesus' burial and resurrection -- was inaugurated in an ecumenical ceremony led by representatives of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

The 200-year-old structure was rehabilitated for the first time after Israeli authorities deemed it unsafe and leaders from the three churches that share custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher came to an agreement for the work to proceed.

Some did not believe the churches could overcome their centuries-old disagreements, but the project was a sign that "with God, nothing is impossible," Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said at the March 22 ceremony.

"This apparent mission impossible became possible because we allowed God to enlighten our thoughts and our eyes and our relations. Things do not change by themselves. If we are here for this celebration, it is because the different churches and leaders were able to hear the voice of God and understand and realize and accept that it was time to build new relations between us of trust and respect," he said.

Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, said it was "providential coincidence" that this year, as the Edicule is restored, all the Christian denominations celebrate Easter on the same date. It was also fitting, he said, that it was around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that the churches regained a closer relationship.

Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian took the opportunity to mention the three other denominations with a presence in the church -- the Assyrian Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Coptic Orthodox. He asked that the Anglican and Russian Orthodox churches be allowed to offering their holy liturgy at the Edicule once a year, after Easter.

"We must pray earnestly to Jesus Christ to give us the wisdom to be able to absorb literally between ourselves his greatest commandment of love," said the patriarch. "We have no difference in regard to this commandment and, unless we accept his commandment and express it in our lives and deeds, how can we consider ourselves Jesus' disciples?"

Several hundred local faithful, pilgrims and international dignitaries filled the main area of the basilica where the Edicule is located, taking pictures and videos of the pink-stoned structure. The metal girders that British Mandate authorities added in 1947 to keep it standing have been removed.

"It is a very exciting day which hasn't happened in hundreds of years. It is a very big step, we are all united in celebration," said Marlen Mauge, 53, a Catholic from Jerusalem. "We would like to have more than one united celebration. It is a good message to the world."

Antonia Moropoulou, a professor at the National Technical University of Athens, directed the work at the site.

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U.S. Catholics asked 'to accompany' migrants, refugees seeking better life

March 22, 2017 - 12:30pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Justin Lane, EPA

By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. bishops in a pastoral reflection released March 22 called all Catholics to do what each of them can "to accompany migrants and refugees who seek a better life in the United States."

Titled "Living as a People of God in Unsettled Times," the reflection was issued "in solidarity with those who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence, conflict or fear in their native lands," said a news release from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"To live as a people of God is to live in the hope of the Resurrection," said the reflection, which was approved by the USCCB Administrative Committee on the first day of a two-day meeting in Washington.

The 37-member committee is made up of the executive officers of the USCCB, elected committee chairmen and elected regional representatives. It acts on behalf of the nation's bishops between their spring and fall general meetings.

"To live in Christ is to draw upon the limitless love of Jesus to fortify us against the temptation of fear," it continued. "Pray that our engagement in the debate over immigration and refugee issues may bring peace and comfort to those most affected by current and proposed national policy changes."

The bishops urged Catholics to pray for an end to the root causes of violence and other circumstances forcing families to flee their homeland to find a better life; to meet with newcomers in their parishes and "listen to their story, and share your own"; and to call, write or visit their elected representatives to ask them to fix our broken immigration system" in a way that would safeguard the country's security and "our humanity through a generous opportunity for legal immigration."

The statement opened with a passage from Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus: "The word of God is truly alive today. When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt."

The bishops urged Catholics to "not lose sight of the fact that behind every policy is the story of a person in search of a better life. They may be an immigrant or refugee family sacrificing so that their children might have a brighter future."

"As shepherds of a pilgrim church," they wrote, "we will not tire in saying to families who have the courage to set out from their despair onto the road of hope: "We are with you."

Those families could include "a family seeking security from an increased threat of extremist violence," they said, adding that "it is necessary to safeguard the United States in a manner that does not cause us to lose our humanity."

The bishops said that "intense debate is essential to healthy democracy, but the rhetoric of fear does not serve us well."

"When we look at one another, do we see with the heart of Jesus?" they asked.

Their pastoral reflection comes at a time when the Trump administration's rhetoric and its policies on national security, refugees and immigration are in the headlines almost daily. Those policies have sparked almost nonstop protests in various parts of the country since President Donald Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration. In some cases, the anti-Trump demonstrations have turned violent.

The latest action on the refugee issue came March 16 when two federal judges blocked Trump's new executive order banning for 90 days the entry into the U.S. of citizens from six Muslim-majority nations and suspending for 120 days the resettlement of refugees. Two federal judges, one in Hawaii and one in Maryland, blocked the order before it was to take effect March 16 at midnight.

The Department of Justice announced March 17 it will appeal the Maryland ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which is based in Richmond, Virginia.

In their reflection, the bishops said that all in this country find "common dreams for our children" in their "diverse backgrounds."

"Hope in the next generation is how the nation will realize its founding motto, 'out of many, one,'" they said. "In doing so, we will also realize God's hope for all his children: that we would see each other as valued sisters and brothers regardless of race, religion or national origin."

Christ, as the word made flesh, "strengthens us to bring our words to life," they said, and suggested three ways Catholics, "in our own small way," can "bring our words of solidarity for migrants and refugees to life": by praying, welcoming newcomers and writing to their elected representatives urging them to support humane immigration policies.

"Pray for an end to the root causes of violent hatred that force mothers and fathers to flee the only home they may have known in search of economic and physical security for their children," the bishops said.

They asked Catholics to meet with newcomers in their parishes, and to "listen to their story and share your own." The bishops noted parishes across the country have programs for immigrants and refugees "both to comfort them and to help them know their rights."

They also urged Catholics to "to reach out in loving dialogue to those who may disagree with us. The more we come to understand each other's concerns the better we can serve one another. Together, we are one body in Christ."

Finally, Catholics should call, write or visit their elected officials urging they "fix our broken immigration system in a way that safeguards both our security and our humanity through a generous opportunity for legal immigration."

The reflection ended with a quote from Pope Francis: "To migrate is the expression of that inherent desire for the happiness proper to every human being, a happiness that is to be sought and pursued. For us Christians, all human life is an itinerant journey toward our heavenly homeland."

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Famine, worsened by war, threatens South Sudanese, official says

March 22, 2017 - 10:13am

IMAGE: CNS photo/Nancy McNally, Catholic Relief Services

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Some 5 million people in South Sudan -- half of its total population -- are on the brink of starvation and a quarter of a million children are already severely malnourished, a representative from the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services said.

Famine has already gripped 100,000 people in Unity State and other parts of the nation, and if emergency food and aid don't get to people soon, "people will start starving to death or they will die of dehydration," Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for CRS, told Catholic News Service March 21.

Farrell and other representatives from dioceses, CRS, Caritas and other Catholic aid and development agencies working in South Sudan were in Rome for a meeting March 21-22 hosted by Caritas Internationalis to discuss the worsening crisis in the country.

Despite the ongoing civil war, if the security situation does not escalate, Pope Francis hopes to visit the ravaged nation sometime in October, Bishop Erkolano Tombe of Yei, South Sudan, told Reuters March 21.

"We have been informed (by a Vatican official) that he will come in October, but we don't know the exact date yet," said the bishop, who was in Rome attending the Caritas Internationalis meeting. If the security situation "remains as it is now, he will come," he said.

Pope Francis said in late February that he wanted to go to South Sudan and that Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic leaders there had urged him to visit together with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury.

The pope said officials were studying whether the local situation was "too dangerous. But we have to do it, because they -- the three (Christian communities) -- together desire peace, and they are working together for peace."

With so much fertile land in the country, the food shortages and famine are man-made, Farrell said, a result of almost four years of violence, displacement, climate change and economic collapse with the rate of inflation nearing 800 percent.

The Catholic Church has always been in a unique position to respond to humanitarian disasters no matter how bad the situation escalates, Farrell said.

"The church never closes down. It's extraordinary and it's part of the community," he said.

Parishes and church-run schools, hospitals and other institutions all open their doors to protect and care for people fleeing from violence. Through a network of churches and religious orders, "within 24 hours we can provide assistance" to any newly displaced.

Even with the risk of increasing violence and insecurity, the priests, nuns or church workers "might have to flee in the bush with the people for a day or so. But they come back, celebrate Mass" and immediately mobilize the national and international networks in place to send out appeals and distribute the aid to the neediest or most vulnerable, he said.

"The church is a lifeline in South Sudan, not only spiritually, but also physically. We can distribute medical supplies, food, shelter, water, through the church in communities where you would think nobody could go," he said.

The church and its local partners also know exactly what a community needs, so, for example, when violence struck Wau last year, CRS found out the people there didn't need food aid, but rather kitchen utensils -- portable stoves, pots and pans -- because their homes had been looted.

To be able to respond adequately to such unpredictable disasters, "you have to be able to talk to people with on-the-ground knowledge, and the church has that in spades," he said.

One area along the Nile River is so pristine and abundant, "I can drop a line and pull out a catfish that weighs 50 pounds," said Farrell, who insisted he was not a patient or practiced fisherman. But the people can't fish or eat if they don't have security or equipment.

People will fish, plant and harvest as long as conflict does not prevent their access to the areas and as long as they do not keep losing land and equipment to arson and looting, he said.

The local churches -- Catholic, Presbyterian and Episcopalian communities -- "have credibility and respect" with almost all sides in the civil war, he said. Many church leaders can get feuding groups to at least stop the fighting in their area and have the groups sit down for talks.

"Because the basis of the conflict in South Sudan is political, the solution is also political," he said, "so the church has a very important, critical role in bringing the parties together and does this all the time at the grass-roots level in sponsoring neutral forums."

"Everyone has to stop fighting. The people in South Sudan are so tired, they are bone-weary of fighting and there is a hunger for peace," he said.

In the meantime, South Sudan desperately needs emergency relief, long-term development programs, medical care, schooling and help for people to "strengthen their dignity" by rebuilding their lives and bringing peace.

"As a Catholic organization, we're blessed because we can actual work in all those areas at the same time," he said.

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World needs those who can bring God's hope, consolation, pope says

March 22, 2017 - 10:00am

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christian hope is built on patiently enduring everything life brings and knowing how to see God's presence and love everywhere, Pope Francis said.

God "never tires of loving us" as he "takes care of us, dressing our wounds with the caress of his goodness and his mercy, meaning, he consoles us and he never tires of consoling us," the pope said during his general audience in St. Peter's Square March 22.

The pope also invited all Catholics to "rediscover the sacrament of reconciliation" during the Lenten season by taking part in the "24 Hours for the Lord" initiative, being held March 23-24 in many dioceses and parishes worldwide. The pope asked people to make time for confession to "experience the joyful encounter with the mercy of the father," who welcomes and forgives everyone.

During his main audience talk, the pope continued a series of reflections on how the Apostle Paul describes the nature of Christian hope. In the apostle's Letter to the Romans (15:1-5), he said that it is "by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope."

This endurance or perseverance, the pope said, is the patient ability to remain faithful and steadfast even when dealing with the most unbearable burdens. It is persevering even when "we would be tempted to judge unfavorably and give up on everything and everyone."

The encouragement or consolation St. Paul talks about, the pope said, is "the grace to know how to grasp and show the presence and compassionate action of God in every situation, even in one greatly marked by disappointment and suffering."

When St. Paul says, "We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak," he isn't separating the Christian community into a special class of those who are "strong" and a group of "second-class citizens" who are weak, the pope said.

In actuality, the strong are those who experience and understand their fragility and know they need the support and comfort of others, he said. And when people are experiencing their fragility and vulnerability, they "can always offer a smile or hand to a brother or sister in need," showing them strength.

It's about people offering one another what they can and knowing that the truly strong one is Christ, who takes care of everyone. "In fact, we all need to be carried on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd and to feel surrounded by his tender and caring gaze," Pope Francis said.

That strength to endure and find encouragement all comes from God and his sacred Scriptures, the pope said, not from one's own efforts.

The closer people are to God with prayer and reading the Bible, the more they will have the energy and feel the responsibility to go to those in need, "to console them and give them strength."

The aim of serving others then will not be to feel proud of oneself, he said, but to "please our neighbor for the good, for building up," as the Apostle Paul says.

People will realize they are "a 'channel for broadcasting' the Lord's gifts and, in that way, concretely become a sower of hope," the pope said.

Planting seeds of hope "is needed today. It's not easy," Pope Francis said. But with Christ at the center of one's life, it will be him who "gives us the strength, the patience, the hope and the consolation" needed to live in harmony.

At the end of the general audience, the pope highlighted that the day also marked World Water Day, established by the United Nations 25 years ago.

The pope greeted participants attending the conference, "Watershed: Replenishing Water Values for a Thirsty World," sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Club of Rome March 22.

He said he was "happy this meeting is taking place" as part of continued joint efforts to raise awareness about "the need to protect water as a treasure belonging to everyone."

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Don't treat confessional like a dry cleaners, pope says

March 21, 2017 - 1:00pm

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The confessional is a place where one can go to humbly seek forgiveness; it is not a dry cleaners where one goes to remove the occasional stain, Pope Francis said.

While forgiveness is "God's great work of mercy," Christians can take for granted the power of the sacrament of reconciliation and confess while being "unable to be ashamed" of their sins, the pope said March 21 in his homily during morning Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae.

"You did not go there ashamed of what you did. You saw some stains on your conscience and you were mistaken because you believed the confessional was a dry cleaners to remove stains," he said.

Reflecting on the day's first reading from the prophet Daniel in which the people of Israel humbly beg God to pardon their sins, the pope said shame was "the first step" in seeking forgiveness.  

However, he noted, the Gospel reading from St. Matthew recounts Jesus' parable of the ungrateful servant who, although forgiven of a debt, refused to show the same mercy to another.

While forgiveness is "a difficult mystery" to comprehend, the Gospel helps Christians understand that going to confession is more than just making some kind of "bank transaction," the pope said.

"If you are not aware of being forgiven you will never be able to forgive, never," he said. "There is always that attitude of wanting to take others to task. Forgiveness is total. But it can only be done when I feel my sin, when I am ashamed and ask forgiveness of God and feel forgiven by the father so I can forgive."

Like the ungrateful servant in Jesus' parable, Christians can be tempted to leave the confessional thinking that "we got away with it." This feeling, the pope said, is "the hypocrisy of stealing forgiveness, a pretend forgiveness."

For this reason, he added, it is important to "ask for the grace of shame before God."

"It is a great grace! To be ashamed of our own sins and thus receive forgiveness and the grace of generosity to give to others because if the Lord has forgiven me so much, who am I to not forgive?" he said.

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Church experience more than just a cut-and-run flash mob, pope says

March 21, 2017 - 12:53pm

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Young men and women can live a true experience of the church by joining together and reconnecting with the past, Pope Francis told Catholic young people.

"The genuine experience of the church is not like a flash mob, where people agree to meet, do their thing and then go their separate ways," the pope said in his message for World Youth Day 2017.

The message, released March 21 at the Vatican, centered on a verse of the Magnificat: "The Mighty One has done great things for me."

Pope Francis has chosen several verses that reflect on Mary's faith from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke as the themes for World Youth Day 2017-2019. This year and next, World Youth Day will be celebrated on a local level -- on Palm Sunday at the Vatican -- and in 2019 it will be an international gathering in Panama.

The pope reminded young people that another event, the Synod of Bishops in 2018, will also help them to reflect on how they "live the experience of faith in the midst of the challenges of our time."

"It is my hope that the journey toward the World Youth Day in Panama and the process of preparation for the synod will move forward in tandem," the pope said.

Young people are called to follow the example of Mary who, after saying "yes" to becoming the mother of God, did not remain closed in on herself but went out of her way to help her cousin Elizabeth.

"Mary does not shut herself up at home or let herself be paralyzed by fear or pride," the pope wrote. "Mary is not the type that -- to be comfortable -- needs a good sofa where she can feel safe and sound. She is no couch potato!"

Upon meeting her cousin, he explained, Mary proclaims the "Magnificat," a "revolutionary prayer" in that while she is aware of her own limitations, she completely trusts in divine mercy.

Like Mary, young men and women today also can experience "great things" if they allow their hearts to be touched by God in the "journey of life, which is not a meaningless meandering but a pilgrimage that, for all its uncertainties and sufferings, can find its fulfillment in God," the pope said.

To look toward the future God has prepared for them, he continued, young people must look to the past and remember God's mercy and love in their own lives.

"I would like to remind you that there is no saint without a past or a sinner without a future," he said. "The pearl is born of a wound in the oyster! Jesus, by his love, can heal our hearts and turn our lives into genuine pearls."

Although he rejected the notion that young people are "distracted and superficial," Pope Francis said young people today need to reflect on their lives in order to decide their future and not rely on current cultural trends that present a false or incomplete reality.

Social media, he explained, only offers snippets of a person's memories and history and those glimpses are rarely "endowed with purpose and meaning." And reality shows present young people with stories that are not real and are "only moments passed before a television camera by characters living from day to day without a greater plan."

"Don't let yourselves be led astray by this false image of reality!" the pope said. "Be the protagonists of your history; decide your own future."

He also warned of giving in to society's tendency to value the present while dismissing "everything inherited from the past, as for example the institutions of marriage, consecrated life and priestly mission," which are often written off as "meaningless and outdated forms."

"People think it is better to live in 'open' situations, going through life as if it were a reality show, without aim or purpose," he said. "Don't let yourselves be deceived! God came to enlarge the horizons of our life in every direction."

Instead, the pope said, by appreciating the wisdom and memory of the past and nourishing themselves through the sacraments in the present, young people can proclaim their own song of praise, like Mary, for the "great things" God is doing for their future.

"Spread your wings and fly, but also realize that you need to rediscover your roots and to take up the torch from those who have gone before," Pope Francis said. "To build a meaningful future, you need to know and appreciate the past."

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