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Catholic leaders decry brutal police killings in Philippines

Manila, Philippines, Aug 23, 2017 / 05:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As police and vigilante killings continue under President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal campaign against illegal drugs, Catholic leaders in the Philippines have decried the bloodshed, begging the nation to stop support of the escalating violence.

Considered the deadliest week since Duterte’s war on drugs was launched last year, more than 70 alleged drug offenders were killed last week, including 17-year-old Kian Loyd de los Santos.

His death has sparked public outrage after surveillance footage of the attack appears to show the boy being dragged by police, and witnesses say he was beaten, handed a gun, told to run and then shot, contradicting a police report claiming he shot first.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan and Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila both denounced public support for the killings of suspected drug offenders over the weekend, calling on the nation to be courageous and vocal in opposing the violence.

“The country is [in] chaos. The officer who kills is rewarded and the slain get the blame. The corpses could no longer defend themselves from accusations that they fought back,” Archbishop Villegas said in a pastoral exhortation Aug. 20.

“They say that if there are 32 killed every day, our lives would be better, and our countrymen nod in agreement. They applaud and cry with a smile … while counting corpses in the night, while passing wakes for the dead left and right. It’s not in our nature to be happy over the killings.”

In his own message, Cardinal Tagle said that the danger and destruction caused by illegal drugs is real, but that the problem “should not be reduced to a political or criminal issue,” but is rather “a humanitarian concern that affects all of us.”

Police officers and vigilantes have killed more than 7,000 persons in the drug trade from July 2016 through January 2017, according to numbers provided by the Philippine National Police. The alleged suspects are usually shot by police under the allegation that they attacked first.

In response, Archbishop Villegas has asked for all church bells in his archdiocese to ring for 15 minutes each night beginning Aug. 22, memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, until Nov. 27.

He said they are ringing the bells in prayer for all of the victims of the police operations in the Pampanga province and in the metro area of Manila last week. They also serve as an audible reminder each night to be brave in acting against the killings.

“Don’t we know how to weep?” Archbishop Villegas asked. “Why aren’t we shocked by the gunfire and flow of blood on the sidewalk? Why aren’t we angry at the flow of drugs from China? Why is it that it’s only the poor who are shot while if a rich person with connections with higher ups is tagged, there needs to be an investigation and affidavit first.”

Cardinal Tagle decried the illegal drug problem, saying. “We knock on the consciences of those manufacturing and selling illegal drugs to stop this activity.”

“We knock on the consciences of those who kill even the helpless, especially those who cover their faces with bonnets, to stop wasting human lives,” he continued, referring to the drug killings carried out by vigilantes who wear civilian clothes and cover their faces and heads with masks and hats.

He encouraged the nation to instead support peaceful means of drug reform, such as the parish-based rehabilitation program in Manila called Sanlakbay.

Cardinal Tagle has also asked all parishes in the archdiocese to observe nine days of special prayer at all Masses from Aug. 21-29 “for the repose of those who have died in this war, for the strength of their families, for the perseverance of those recovering from addiction and the conversion of killers.”

Elected president in May 2016, Duterte ran for office on a platform of taking strong action against the drug trade in the country, making shocking statements to underline his commitment to action.

“Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor,” the BBC reported him saying. Duterte was previously the mayor of the city of Davao, where he made a name for himself as the “death squad mayor.”

“You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I'd kill you,” he said while running for president. “I'll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”

Duterte, whose popularity remains high, praised the killing of 32 people in police raids across Pampanga province Aug. 14, saying, “Those who died in Bulacan, 32, in a massive raid, that’s good. If we can kill another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”

Parolin, Kirill: we have reached a 'new stage' in Church relations

Moscow, Russia, Aug 23, 2017 / 12:50 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After a joint meeting during Cardinal Pietro Parolin's visit to Russia this week, both he and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill said the trip marks “a new stage” in relations between their Churches.

This stage, they said, is thanks not only to Pope Francis' meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Havana in February 2016, but is also due to the loaning of the relics of St. Nicholas to Russia over the summer, drawing millions of Orthodox faithful for veneration.

Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican's Secretary of State, was welcomed to Patriarch Kirill's residence at the monastery of St. Daniel Aug. 22, where the two met as part of Cardinal Parolin's Aug. 21-24 visit to Moscow.

Taking place 18 months after meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill, Parolin's visit marks the first time a Vatican Secretary of State has traveled to Moscow in 18 years.

According to an Aug. 23 statement from the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, at the beginning of the meeting Patriarch Kirill said the meeting between he and Cardinal Parolin was possible due to “the development of relations between the Russian Federation and the Holy See.”

“But it is with still greater satisfaction that I see the development of relations between our Churches,” he said, noting that his meeting with Pope Francis provided new impetus for cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.

“This fact testifies that a new stage has indeed begun in our relations with events of great importance, which have been possible because in Havana we agreed our positions on many current issues,” he said, adding that “this communion of positions allows us to build plans and give them real content.”

Cardinal Parolin echoed the sentiment, offering Pope Francis' greeting to “my brother Kirill,” and affirming the patriarch's observation that the Havana encounter “has laid the foundation for a new stage in the relationship between our Churches, giving new impetus to these relations,” according to Vatican Radio.

A key highlight of the conversation between the two was the transfer of the relics of St. Nicholas of Bari, one of the most revered saints in the Russian Orthodox Church, to Moscow earlier this summer.

Consisting of several fragments of his ribs, the relics were flown on a chartered plane to Moscow, where they stayed in the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior from May 22-July 12 before going to St. Petersburg from July 13-28, marking the first time in nearly 1,000 years that the relics of the 4th century saint had been moved from their resting place in Bari.

Calling the visit of the relics an “exceptional event for the story of our Churches,” Cardinal Parolin said the event is an example of “the ecumenism of sanctity, it's true, it exists.”

“The saints unite us because they are close to God and so it is they who help us to overcome the difficulties of past relations due to previous situations, and to always walk more rapidly toward fraternal embrace and Eucharistic communion,” he said.  

According to the statement from the patriarchate, more than 2.3 million Orthodox faithful from all over Russia cued up to venerate the relics, at times waiting 6-10 hours to get in. Many elderly and sick also came, and were able to skip the long lines.  

Patriarch Kirill noted that when they waived goodbye to the relics, he told his faithful that “neither ecclesiastical diplomacy nor government diplomacy could do as much for the development of relations between the Catholic world and the Orthodox world as what St. Nicholas did.”

St Nicholas, he said, “has entered into the history of relations between our Churches as a particularly brilliant and luminous page. It is a spiritual consequence of our meeting in Havana.”

As with prior meetings Cardinal Parolin had this week, other key talking points between the two were conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, and the need to seek peaceful solutions while working together to provide humanitarian aid.

On the crisis in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill stressed that the Church “can play no other role than that of pacification when people are in conflict with each other,” and voiced gratitude for the fact that “our Churches share much the same position on the role of the Church in the conflict in Ukraine.”

Cardinal Parolin voiced much the same point of view in his meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, President of the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, the day before.

In his comments, Patriarch Kirill noted that “conflicts do not last forever and sooner or later they end,” but questioned that “if all social efforts are involved in the conflict, then who will pick up the stones?”

“I appreciate very much the fact that once again we have found mutual understanding on the role that our Churches must play in the reconciliation of the population in Ukraine,” he said.

When it comes to the Middle East, mention was made of the agreement the two Churches found on conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa during last year's meeting in Havana.

“The collaboration between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in providing humanitarian assistance to the populations suffering due to conflicts in the Middle East can be an important factor of unity,” Patriarch Kirill said, adding that cooperation in providing aid can provide a basis for common projects in the Middle East in the future.

Following his meeting with the patriarch, Cardinal Parolin visited Putin at the presidential residence in Sochi, nearly 900 miles southwest of Saratov.

During their hour-long meeting “carried out in a positive and cordial climate, one of respect and listening to each other,” they had an “open exchange of views on various subject matters relating to international and bilateral relations,” according to a statement from the Holy See press office.

They exchanged gifts, with Cardinal Parolin giving the Russian president a bronze olive branch as a symbol of peace, and Putin giving the Vatican secretary of state a set of collector coins commemorating the 2014 Olympics, which were held in Sochi.

Cardinal Parolin is travelling back to Moscow, where he will say a private Mass at the nunciature Aug. 24 before his return to Rome.

US bishops create Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism

Washington D.C., Aug 23, 2017 / 09:54 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In the wake of the recent white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, the U.S. bishops have announced that they are establishing a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.

“Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to inflict our nation,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, on Wednesday.

“Marches by hate groups such as the KKK and Neo-Nazis are outrageous to the sensible mind and directly challenge the dignity of human life. It is time for us to recommit ourselves to eradicating racism,” he said in his statement, “In His Image,” upon the establishment of the committee.

Bishop George V. Murry, SJ, of Youngstown, Ohio, will chair the new committee, which will focus on galvanizing the Church and society to fight the evil of racism and minister to its victims. It will also focus on engaging racism within the Church.

“Through Jesus’ example of love and mercy, we are called to be a better people than what we have witnessed over the past weeks and months as a nation,” Bishop Murry said. “Through listening, prayer and meaningful collaboration, I’m hopeful we can find lasting solutions and common ground where racism will no longer find a place in our hearts or in our society.”

In a press conference on the new committee, Bishop Murry described racism as the “original sin” of the United States, and a problem that remains “cancerous” for the country even today.

“In recent years, our divisions have worsened. Hatred is more evident, and becoming more mainstream,” he said. “It has targeted African-Americans and other people of color, Jewish people, immigrants, and others. Our ability to face our problems together, with a common aim, has waned.”

“For those who have been watching even with passing interest, it should be plain to see why we need a concerted effort at this moment. The times demand it. The Gospel demands it,” he said.

The new committee will work together with other committees at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Murry said, to promote the Church’s message of human dignity against racism at the local levels.

“We will focus on a national summit of religious leaders as an early and very important initiative,” he said. “This is not a task for a small and select group.”

White nationalist “Unite the Right” rallies in Charlottesville, Va. on August 11-12 drew members of neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups, as well as other white supremacists.

Organizers said the event was to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, but attendees also chanted racist messages. Friday night featured a torch-lit rally reminiscent of Klan rallies and Nazi rallies.

On Saturday, a 20-year-old man from Ohio drove a car into the counter-protest which featured a diverse array of groups including religious leaders, Black Lives Matter, and the anarchist group Antifa. One woman was killed and 19 people were injured in the incident. The driver was charged with second-degree murder.

After the incident, Cardinal DiNardo released a statement condemning the violence and calling for peace. The next day, he released a joint statement with Bishop Frank Dewane, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, specifically condemning racism, white nationalism, and neo-Nazi ideologies.

The announcement of the new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism is the bishops’ latest step in a series of efforts to fight racism and injustice in all their forms.

The U.S. bishops’ conference is already planning a new letter on racism to be released in 2018. Last year, then-president of the conference Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville called for a national day of prayer and formed the Peace In Our Communities task force in the wake of nationwide protests of race-related shootings and shootings of police officers.

Bishops on the working committee drafted a report they presented at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Bishops in Baltimore last November.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who chaired the task force, said in the final report that “we find ourselves at a critically important moment for our individual communities and our nation as a whole.”

“The Church has a tremendous opportunity and, we believe, an equally tremendous responsibility to bring people together in prayer and dialogue, to begin anew the vital work of fostering healing and lasting peace,” he said.

Could the canonization of Bl. Pier Giorgio happen next year?

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2017 / 09:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Ahead of the 2018 synod on youth in Rome, a group of Catholic young people are asking for testimonies and signatures in support of the canonization of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.

“We ask for this canonization because Bl. Pier Giorgio is in a special way 'one of us' – a young person,” organizers said in a letter to Pope Francis posted on their website.

“He did not found any great congregations or rise to any powerful positions; rather, he simply lived his ordinary Christian life with extraordinary love for God and other people.”

Launched in May of this year, the site has already received 1,540 signatures from over 50 countries, and will be presented to Pope Francis before the synod on “Youth, Faith, and Discernment” expected to take place in October 2018. Next year's synod in Rome is not only an inquiry into the background and religious experience of people aged 16 through 29, but an exploration of how the Church can best aid youth in their vocational discernment.  

The Bl. Pier Giorgio petition is receiving signatures and testimonies of Catholics around the world who have experienced his intercession and have been moved by his Christian witness. Every Sunday, the number of signatures will be updated on the site.  

Out of his zealous love for Christ, the Italian youth encountered his friendships, work, and dedication to the poor with great passion during his life at the beginning of the 20th century. However, he did so in little ways, say petition organizers.

“He did not found any great congregations or rise to any powerful positions; rather, he simply lived his ordinary Christian life with extraordinary love for God and other people.”

At the young age of 24, Bl. Pier Giorgio contracted polio and died soon after. Not only did elite crowds associated with his family attend his funeral, but also thousands of mourners, including impoverished people whom he had helped.

Many testimonies on the site spoke of being impressed by his loving nature, while relating to a man who enjoyed beer, cigars, and mountain expositions – and who also struggled with his studies and family life.

In one of the U.S. testimonies, a young person named Melanie said she decided to come back to the Church when she discovered the life of this man who “was...funny! And liked beer! And played pranks on people, and climbed mountains, and was in love with a beautiful girl.”

Another testimony from a young person, Jufre from the Philippines, described how Bl. Pier Giorgio's witness and intercession helped him decide to join the Franciscan order, noting that “Bl. Pier is one of those who helped me to discern what kind of life God is really calling me to.”

The letter acknowledged the difficulty many youth have in living the Christian life within contemporary society, and the temptation among young people to doubt the possibility of sainthood.

“We know this is not the case, but to combat these thoughts, we need also to be shown that this is not the case. We need a saint who is 'one of us' – still young, not entirely sure what big plans God might have for him or her, and living not in some distant era but in our own age.”

In their letter, organizers ask that the synod bishops and Pope Francis push for the Italian's canonization, noting that Bl. Pier Giorgio would be a perfect example of  the synod's major theme – namely how youth discern God's will.

“He did not wait for the big decision to be made or the concrete direction his life would take to be clear to begin making the heroic daily decisions to love that characterized his young life,” they said.

“He is thus a model for us of discernment, showing that the bigger vocational questions are often answered gradually through the daily discernment of how to love concretely those before us.”

Iraqi Christians still need America's help, former congressman says

Arlington, Va., Aug 23, 2017 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A recent trip to Iraq drove home the perilous state of Christians and Yazidis there, a former US Congressman from Virginia has recounted in a new report.

“If nothing is done, I believe that we will see the end of ancient Christianity in Iraq within a few years,” former Congressman Frank R. Wolf has said in a report from the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

“Currently, the population is getting dangerously close to dipping below the critical mass needed for these Christians to maintain their long-term presence in their ancestral homeland,” he said. “If this trend is allowed to continue, the Christian population will follow that of the Jewish population, which has decreased from 150,000 individuals in 1948 to just 10 people today.”

While there are signs of hope, such as the return of 600 families to the Plains of Nineveh, Wolf said “bold action” is required by the U.S. and the West to address the situation. The loss of Christianity in the region would further destabilize the Middle East and threaten U.S. national security, he warned.

In March 2016 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution recognizing the acts of the Islamic State group against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

“In 2003, the Christians in Iraq numbered 1.5 million,” Wolf said. “Today, that number has decreased to what most estimate is 250,000, although some argue the number is down to 150,000.”

The former Congressman, a Virginia Republican, in August had traveled to Iraq with a delegation including Christian Solidarity Worldwide to examine the situation facing Christians and Yazidis.

Concerns are growing that many minority communities will be unable to return home because of the destruction. There are also growing tensions among the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and non-state actors over the territories that are home to Christians.

The Christian communities doubt their security can be guaranteed. Both Arabs and Kurds have marginalized their communities in the past.

The Islamic State group destroyed many biblical and Christian sites, including the town of Nimrod, Wolf said. Every single cross on the churches of Mosul was broken. He cited the role of Iraq in the Bible as the home of the Patriarch Abraham, Rebecca, and Jacob’s sons. The Prophet Daniel lived there for most of his life.

“Despite this, the Christian community in Iraq has been largely forgotten by many in the West,” said Wolf.

The former congressman’s report recounted his delegation’s conversations with several Christians.

A Christian family who had fled from their town of Bartella, near Mosul, now living as internally displaced persons in a camp near Duhok, was split on whether to return home. The father said that Christians are peaceful and willing to forgive. His wife said she wanted to leave for Australia or elsewhere “for the sake of my children.” She was so concerned for the safety of her 15-year-old daughter that she had kept her out of school since the family was displaced.

Another Christian, a doctoral student who fled Islamic State militants when they captured Mosul, said he would like to return home but does not trust many of his neighbors. They considered him and his families to be infidels even before the militants arrived.

“We have no guarantees. Everyone is using us - we are caught in the middle. We asked for peace, but we cannot live with the discrimination,” he said, according to Wolf.

Then there was the case of a Christian woman he called Maryam. She was sold as a sex slave over 20 times, raped hundreds of times, and otherwise beaten and abused. In an escape attempt, she jumped out of a third story window and broke her leg.

When she was finally rescued, her family and community shunned her due to the practices of an “honor culture.”

“Now she is afraid to walk on the street in her own community,” Wolf said.

The delegation also met with a young boy and his disabled mother whom Islamic State fighters threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam. They pretended to convert in order to survive, but then the boy was then forced to join the Islamic State. Though he and his disabled mother were able to escape, they cannot return home because they will not be trusted.

Similar stories resulted when the delegation also visited the Yazidi people, an ethnic and religious group with about 600,000 members in Iraq out of 1 million worldwide. Under Islamic State militants, the Yazidis suffered mass murder, rape, enslavement, displacement, and the destruction of their homeland. About 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still in Islamic State captivity.

Few of those who fled their homes have returned, due to the security situation. A potential offensive against Islamic State could send fleeing militants through their homeland.

Some Yazidi women and young girls are committing suicide after victimization by Islamic State. Many lack proper care and also suffer the effects of an honor culture that estranges them from their families, reduces their marriage prospects, and sees psychological treatment as taboo.

Wolf offered several policy recommendations. He said the Senate should pass the Iraq and Syria Genocide Accountability Act, which authorizes and directs the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide funds for humanitarian aid to religious and ethnic minorities affected by war crimes and genocide. It also authorizes support for criminal investigations in Iraq of Islamic State members and perpetrators of war crimes.

He called for a fresh assessment of the situation in Iraq and for an international coalition to secure the Nineveh Plains, possibly including a U.S. base or a joint-training base. He suggested that security restrictions on embassy and consular employees limit their ability to learn about local Iraqis which hinders their own policy judgement. Local contractors, then, should move freely throughout the region to survey the situation and develop a better strategy.

Wolf advocated pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to implement reforms to provide equal citizenship, security, and economic opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities.

He charged that Iran has “imperial ambitions” in the area and could “become a direct threat to Israel and to US regional interests and national security”, as well as inciting Sunni-Shia sectarian violence.

He stressed the need for unity among Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups, which are now fragmented by their alliances with the Iraqi government or with Iraqi Kurdistan. The diaspora of these communities also must be united, said the former congressman.

For Christians, life always has meaning – even when it's hard, Pope says

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2017 / 04:00 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Wednesday, Pope Francis said going through life downcast as if it has no meaning is not the attitude of a Christian, who has the assurance that even when things look grim, there is always new hope found in Christ.

“It is not Christian to walk with your gaze turned down, without raising your eyes to the horizon. As if our entire path expires here, in the palm of a few meters of the journey,” the Pope said Aug. 23.

To live “as if in our lives there was not destination and no landing, place, and we were forced to an eternal wandering, without any reason for our many labors; this is not Christian,” he said.  

Rather, as Christians “we believe and we know that death and hatred are not the final words pronounced in the parable of human existence,” he said, adding that to be a Christian “means a new perspective: a gaze full of hope.”

Pope Francis spoke to pilgrims in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall for his weekly general audience, continuing his catechesis on Christian hope.

In his address, Francis turned to the day's reading from Revelation, in which God, seated on his throne in heaven, says “I will make all things new.”

This passage, he said, is a reminder that “Christian hope is based on faith in God who always creates newness in the life of man, in history and in the cosmos. Newness and surprises.”

Turning to the last pages of the bible, the Pope said they show us the final goal for all believers, which is the heavenly Jerusalem, described as “an immense tent, where God will welcome all men to live with them permanently.”

“This is our hope,” Francis said, noting how the bible goes on to describe how God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

He urged those present to reflect on the passage “not in an abstract way,” but in light of all the sad news published in recent days such as the terrorist attack in Barcelona and natural disasters – news “which we all risk becoming addicted to.”

Pointing to the many children who suffer from war, youth whose dreams are often destroyed and refugees who embark on dangerous journeys and who many times are exploited, Pope Francis noted that “unfortunately life is also this.”

However, returning to the day's scripture passage, he stressed that “there is a Father who weeps with tears of infinite mercy toward his children.”

“We have a God who knows how to weep, who weeps with us,” he said, adding that he is also a Father “who waits to console us, because he knows our sufferings and has prepared for us a different future.”

God, the Pope said,  “did not want our lives by mistake, forcing himself and us to long nights of anguish.” Rather, “he created us because he wants us happy. He is our Father, and if we here, now, experience a life that is not what he wanted for us, Jesus guarantees us that God himself is working his ransom.”

Some people believe that all of life's happiness lay in youth and in the past, and that living “is a slow decay.” Still others hold that the joys we experience “are only episodic and passionate,” and that the life of man “is writing nonsense,” the Pope noted.

But as Christians, “we don't believe this. We believe instead that on man's horizon there is a sun that illuminates forever. We believe that our most beautiful days are still to come.”

“We are people more of spring than autumn,” he said, and urged those present to ask themselves: “Am I a man, woman, child of the spring, or the fall? Is my spirit in the fall or the spring?”

“Don't forget that question,” he said in off-the-cuff remarks, asking again “am I a person of the spring or the fall? The spring, which waits for flowers, fruit, the sun, which is Jesus; or the autumn, which is always looking down, embittered, with, as sometimes I've said, a face like peppers in vinegar.”

There are always problems in life, such as gossip, war or illness, but in the end “the grain grows and in the end, evil is eliminated,” he said.

Pope Francis closed his address saying Christians have the knowledge that in the Kingdom of God, grain grows “even if in there are weeds in the middle.”

“In the end evil will be eliminated,” he said. “The future does not belong to us, but we know that Jesus Christ is the greatest grace of life: he is the embrace of God who waits for us at the end, but who already accompanies us and consoles us on the journey.”

After greeting groups of pilgrims from various countries around the world, Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims of a 4.0 level earthquake that rocked the Italian island of Ischia, roughly 88 miles off the coast of Naples, Monday, killing two and injuring at least 39 others.

Francis expressed his “affectionate closeness” to the many who are suffering as a result of the quake, and offered prayers “for the death, the wounded, for their families and for the people who have lost their homes.”

A brief history of the Catholic Church's fight against racism

Washington D.C., Aug 23, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Catholic bishops from around the country recently condemned the white nationalism at rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.

But what might be lesser known is that the Church has spoken out against racism through the centuries, and still calls for conversion from it.

“If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said after the Charlottesville rallies.

White nationalists had held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. from Aug. 11-12, to protest the city's planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

White supremacists from various extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis participated in torch-lit rallies on Friday night and a daytime rally on Saturday, chanting racist messages like “Jew will not replace us,” and “blood and soil,” a historically white supremacist slogan used by the Nazi Party in the days of Hitler.

A diverse coalition of counter-protesters, from religious leaders to members of “Black Lives Matter” to the anarchist group Antifa, formed around the white supremacist rally.

Violence broke out between the rally and the counter-protest, culminating with a 20 year-old man from Ohio driving a car into the counter-protest killing one woman and injuring 19. The man was eventually charged with second-degree murder.

In the wake of the racist rally, Catholic bishops spoke out against violence but also specifically condemned racism, including a joint statement by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the bishops' domestic justice and human development committee, condemning “the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism.”

From the earliest days of the Church, Christian teaching has opposed the promotion of one person above another because of their genetic or ethnic background.

In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul wrote that “through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3:26-28).”

As the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace explained in its 1988 document on racism, “The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society,” early in the history of the Church, distinctions were made between people on basis of religion, not race.

That began to change with the discovery of the “New World,” the letter said, as nations colonizing the Americas tried to “justify” the killing and enslavement of indigenous peoples with a “racist theory.”

Pope Eugene IV issued a papal bull in 1435, Sicut Dudum, condemning the enslavement of African Christians in the Canary Islands, a year after his bull Creator Omnium threatened excommunication for those enslaving Christians. Thirty years later, in Regimini Gregis, Pope Sixtus IV excommunicated those aiding in the transport of Christian slaves from Africa.

Dominican Priest Bartolome de las Casas initially helped start the slave trade in the Spanish colonies to relieve the mistreatment of the Indians there in the 1500s, but later decried what he called the “spine-chilling barbarity” directed at indigenous persons by Spanish Conquistadors in his 1542 letter “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” He actively worked to stop the slave trade that he once helped.

Pope Paul III, in his 1535 encyclical Sublimus Dei, issued a strong condemnation of theories that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were sub-human. He said that any argument that the natives were “created for our service” and were “incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith” was the work of “the enemy of the human race, who opposes all good needs in order to bring men to destruction.”

He added that “we consider” that “the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.”

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade once again and forbade Christians from partaking in it. He wrote that “we warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor.”

However, more sophisticated racist ideologies were hatched beginning in the 18th century, the 1988 Vatican letter explained. These theories tried to base racial superiority in science. Yet as white nationalism and other racist ideologies became the source of political and moral disagreement in societies throughout the world, the Popes and the Vatican continued to condemn racial discrimination and racist ideologies.

In the 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI condemned the Nazi government and its “so-called myth of race and blood.”

“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds,” Pope Pius XI wrote.

He also called out the creation of a state that defines itself “within the narrow limits of a single race,” and said that only “superficial minds” could fall into believing such concepts.

His successor Pius XII, in his 1939 encyclical Summi Pontificatus, decried these racial ideologies as one of the “errors which derive from the poisoned source of religious and moral agnosticism.”

“The first of these pernicious errors, widespread today, is the forgetfulness of that law of human solidarity and charity which is dictated and imposed by our common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men, to whatever people they belong, and by the redeeming Sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ on the Altar of the Cross to His Heavenly Father on behalf of sinful mankind,” he said.

Later popes, from Bl. Pope Paul VI to St. Pope John Paul II to the current Pope Francis, have all decried racial discrimination, especially discrimination against one’s fellow countrymen.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document of 1988 stated that “racism and racist acts must be condemned.”

“Respect for every person and every race is respect for basic rights, dignity and fundamental equality,” the document stated. It clarified that this respect for all races “does not mean erasing cultural differences,” but that “it is important to educate to a positive appreciation of the complementary diversity of peoples.”

The document also pointed to the anti-Semitism that led to the horrors of the Holocaust, and the necessity for a moral call from the Church against racism even in areas with laws against racial discrimination.

The U.S. Bishops have issued statements against the racism found in many areas of American society, both overt and structural remnants from the era of slavery and of Jim Crow and segregation.

In their 1979 document “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the bishops decried racism not only as the sin “that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race,” but as a sin that denies “the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.”

Individual bishops and groups of bishops have also written periodically in response to events motivated by racism or revealing the deep racial wounds still within our society. In response to the events last weekend, Bishops around the country – including the U.S. Bishops' conference as a group – decried the use of Nazi and racist symbolism.

“Racism is a poison of the soul,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput, of Philadelphia in response to the rally. “It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.”

Bishops disappointed as Trump administration ends migration program for minors

Washington D.C., Aug 23, 2017 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After the Trump administration ended a parole program for young migrants from Central America, the head of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee expressed his disappointment.

“In terminating the parole option, the Administration has unnecessarily chosen to cut off proven and safe alternatives to irregular and dangerous migration for Central American children, including those previously approved for parole who are awaiting travel in their home countries,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops' conference's migration committee, stated Aug. 21.

The Central American Minors parole program was established in 2014, at the height of the spike of unaccompanied migrant children coming to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America.

While the number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. had risen significantly beginning in the 2012 fiscal year, the number ballooned to its all-time peak of more than 50,000 in FY 2014. The number fell almost in half in the next year due to Mexico’s apprehensions of minors, but it again spiked to almost 47,000 in FY 2016.

The parole program was established with the intent of giving “at risk” children from Central America who were not granted refugee status a safe and legal avenue to the United States to reunite with their parents.

Through the process, those parents lawfully present in the United States would apply for their children to be considered for parole, the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman explained in a report last year. Children denied refugee status could also be automatically considered for the parole program. They would be vetted by U.S. security and could lawfully apply for entry into the U.S.

However, the report had brought up concerns with the program, such as “lengthy processing times,” lack of protections “for particularly vulnerable qualifying children,” and “restrictive eligibility criteria.”

The program was ended last Wednesday. Children who received “conditional approval” for entry into the U.S., but had not yet made the journey, would no longer be accepted. More than 2,700 minors had won “conditional approval” to come to the U.S. but could no longer enter, the Washington Post reported.

Additionally, more than 1,400 minors living in the U.S. through the program would not see their status renewed and would have to find another legal avenue of applying for re-parole or for another immigration status to stay in the U.S., the Post reported.

Minors from Central America can still apply for parole outside the program, but it “will only be issued on a case-by-case basis and only where the applicant demonstrates an urgent humanitarian or a significant public benefit reason for parole and that applicant merits a favorable exercise of discretion,” the administration announced.

“Any alien may request parole to travel to the United States, but an alien does not have a right to parole.”

The program was critical in helping vulnerable young migrants fleeing violence or hardships in their home countries to reunite with their families in the U.S., Bishop Vasquez said.

“Pope Francis has called on us to protect migrant children, noting that ‘among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group’,” he said.

Many came from three countries in particular – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – all of which are among the worst in the world for homicide rates.

Gang violence in particular forced many young people to flee their homes for the U.S., rather than be coerced into joining gangs or be killed back home. The journey north through Mexico to the U.S. border was a dangerous one, with harsh desert conditions, drug trafficking, and hostile smugglers all posing threats to children.

“The Church, with its global presence, learns of this violence and persecution every day, in migrant shelters and in repatriation centers. We know that children must be protected,” Bishop Vasquez said.

While everything must be done to ensure the children remain at home, they must have the opportunity to move elsewhere if they have no other choice, he said.

The program “provided a legal and organized way for children to migrate to the United States and reunify with families,” he said. “Terminating the parole program will neither promote safety for these children nor help our government regulate migration.”

As Florida execution approaches, bishops urge governor to take pro-life path

Tallahassee, Fla., Aug 22, 2017 / 04:27 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- An imminent execution scheduled for this week is the wrong path, said Florida’s Catholic bishops, urging the governor of the state to intervene.

“We hold that if non-lethal means are available to keep society safe from an aggressor, then authority must limit itself to such,” said Michael B. Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. He called life without parole “an alternative and severe sentence.”

Sheedy’s comments came in an Aug. 21 letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott asking him to commute the sentence of Mark James Asay.

Asay is scheduled to be executed Thursday, Aug. 24. He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death for the 1987 murders of Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell in Jacksonville, Florida.

Florida Supreme Court justices lifted a stay on Asay’s execution in December, the Miami Herald reports.

Sheedy said the murders were “heinous” and “call out for justice and should be condemned.” However, the 18 months since Florida’s last execution have made more apparent the “inconsistent and arbitrary” application of the death penalty, he added.

He pointed to the resentencing hearings given to defendants whose death sentences were finalized after June 2002 after the system was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016. Asay, however, has been denied legal relief.

Sheedy invoked the governor’s pro-life stand on abortion and other issues, saying the death penalty too deserves the application of pro-life principles.

“We applaud your leadership as a pro-life governor as it relates to protecting the unborn and promoting human dignity,” said his letter. “Each human life has a God-given dignity that is neither earned nor lost through our actions, even those that have caused great harm. We seek a state that is unequivocally and consistently pro-life, protecting human life in all stages and in all circumstances.”

The letter voiced prayers for the governor, for the condemned man, and for the crime victims and their loved ones.

“We pray for all involved in this tragic situation: you, as the final authority in the state over Mr. Asay’s life or death; the condemned and his conversion guided by his spiritual advisors; and the victims and their loved ones,” Sheedy said.

Parishes across Florida scheduled Masses and prayer vigils for the victims and the aggressor, their families, for society, and for an end to the death penalty, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops says. At least two Catholic radio stations will take part in the prayers, including a program on Radio Paz 830 AM in the Miami archdiocese.

 

Arlington priest reveals former KKK membership, takes voluntary leave of absence

Arlington, Va., Aug 22, 2017 / 02:57 pm (CNA).- An Arlington priest revealed Monday that he was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan before converting while in prison, and has asked for a temporary leave of absence from ministry.

The Diocese of Arlington released a statement saying that Fr. William Aitcheson, a parochial vicar at St. Leo Catholic Church in Fairfax, Va., wrote an article in the diocesan newspaper “with the intention of telling his story of transformation” from being a Klan member to abandoning his racist beliefs and becoming a Catholic priest.

“He left that life behind him 40 years ago and since journeyed in faith to eventually become a Catholic priest,” the diocese said.

“He voluntarily asked to temporarily step away from public ministry, for the well-being of the Church and parish community, and the request was approved.”

In the wake of the recent white nationalist rally at Charlottesville, Va. on August 11-12, Fr. Aitcheson wrote in the Arlington Catholic Herald of his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan and “despicable” acts like burning a cross on someone else’s lawn and writing threatening letters. His article was entitled, “Moving from hate to love with God’s grace.”

According to the Washington Post report of Aitcheson’s arrest in 1977, he was an “exalted cyclops” in the Robert E. Lee Lodge of the Maryland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and was charged with six cross-burnings in Prince George’s County, Md., as well as one count of making bomb threats and two counts of making pipe bombs.

The New York Times reported that he was convicted of criminal misdemeanor for burning a cross in the yard of a black family in College Park, Md. and was sentenced to 90 days in prison.

In his article for the Herald, Fr. Aitcheson said that although he was baptized and raised a Catholic, he did not practice the faith as a young man. But after leaving the “anti-Catholic” Klan, he came back to the Church, “a reminder of the radical transformation possible through Jesus Christ in his mercy.”

He entered the seminary and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, Nev. in 1988. He came to the Arlington Diocese in 1993. The Arlington Diocese stated that “there have been no accusations of racism or bigotry against Fr. Aitcheson throughout his time in the Diocese of Arlington.”

“While 40 years have passed, I must say this: I’m sorry. To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry,” he wrote in the Arlington Catholic Herald. “I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington stated that “while Fr. Aitcheson’s past with the Ku Klux Klan is sad and deeply troubling, I pray that in our current political and social climate his message will reach those who support hate and division, and inspire them to a conversion of heart.”

“Our Lord is ready to help them begin a new journey, one where they will find peace, love, and mercy. The Catholic Church will walk with anyone to help bring them closer to God,” he said.

While we believe in God’s forgiveness, we should not forget the sins of our past, Fr. Aitcheson wrote.

“Our actions have consequences and while I firmly believe God forgave me – as he forgives anyone who repents and asks for forgiveness – forgetting what I did would be a mistake,” he said.

The recent rallies of white nationalists in Charlottesville, held to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, included Klan members and neo-Nazis, and featured racist chants. On August 12, a 20-year-old man from Ohio drove a car into the counter-protest to the rallies, killing one and injuring 19.

“The images from Charlottesville brought back memories of a bleak period in my life that I would have preferred to forget,” Fr. Aitcheson said of the rallies.

He wrote that the hate manifested in the rallies “should bring us to our knees in prayer.” Catholics should condemn racism “at every opportunity” and pray for its victims, and pray for the conversion of those holding racist beliefs, he said.

“If there are any white supremacists reading this, I have a message for you: you will find no fulfillment in this ideology. Your hate will never be satisfied and your anger will never subside,” he wrote. “I encourage you to find peace and mercy in the only place where it is authentic and unending: Jesus Christ.”