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Rebuilt from the ashes: The story of an American basilica

Richmond, Va., Jul 4, 2020 / 03:41 am (CNA).- An immigrant parish, burnt down, with only the crucifix remaining. A parish rebuilt, transformed and a key part in giving back to the community. In a sense, one parish’s story of struggle, pressure and rebirth is metaphor for the American Catholic experience.

St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, is the only black Catholic church in the United States that is also a basilica. Its dramatic history captures both the broader American Catholic history of persecution, growth and acceptance, but also a witness to the unique challenges faced by black Catholics over the centuries.

Founded originally as St. Patrick’s Parish in 1791, it is the oldest Catholic parish in the Diocese of Richmond, predating the foundation of the diocese by nearly 30 years.

“Catholicism was not legal to practice” in Virginia when the colony was founded, said Fr. Jim Curran, rector of the basilica. In much of Colonial America, before the Revolution and the signing of the Bill of Rights, churches that were not approved by the government were prohibited from operating, he told CNA.

The land originally bought in 1794 for the parish is the same ground on which the basilica today stands. From the beginning, according to the parish’s history, Catholics from all backgrounds worshiped together: Irish and German immigrants, free black persons and slaves.

However, by the 1850s, the parish’s immigrant background and mixed-race parish drew the ire of a prominent anti-Catholic movement: the Know-Nothings.

Largely concentrated in northeastern states where the immigrant influx was greatest, the movement rose and fell quickly. Concerned with maintaining the Protestant “purity of the nation,” it worked to prevent immigrants – many of whom were Catholic – from gaining the right to vote, becoming citizens, or taking elected office.

“I consider the Know-Nothings to be a sort of gatekeeper organization, by which I mean that they were both anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic at the same time,” said Fr. David Endres, an assistant professor of Church History and Historical Theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

He told CNA that the Know-Nothing Party was able to bring together both pro- and anti-slavery voters in the mid-1800s, united in the common “dislike of foreign-born and Catholics.”

While most anti-Catholic activities took the form of defamatory speeches and public discrimination, the prejudice sometimes turned to violence and mob action, Fr. Endres explained.

The anti-Catholic discrimination and threats found their way to St. Patrick’s doorstep, where the Know-Nothings were unhappy that the pastor was allowing racially integrated Masses, said Fr. Curran.

The pastor at that time, Fr. Matthew O’Keefe, received so many threats directed against the church and himself that police protection was required to stop the intimidation of the Catholics worshiping at the church, according to the locals.  

Despite the threats, however, Fr. O’Keefe did not segregate the Masses. In 1856, the original church building burned down, leaving only three walls standing. Only a wooden crucifix was left unscathed.

More than 150 years later, it is still unclear exactly who or what caused the fire, but since the days following the blaze, parishioners have had their suspicions.

“We don’t know for sure if they were the ones who burned it, but it’s widely believed, it’s a commonly held notion that it’s the Know-Nothings who burnt the Church,” Fr. Curran said.   

Fr. O’Keefe and the parishioners worked hard to rebuild the church, seeking donations from Catholics along the East Coast. A new church building was constructed less than three years after the fire and is still standing today.

After the church was rebuilt, the parish renamed itself in 1858 in honor of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854. It claims to be the first church in the world named for Mary of the Immaculate Conception following the declaration.

In 1889, the Josephites built Saint Joseph's Black Catholic parish to serve the needs of the black Catholic community, and the two parishes operated separately within several blocks of one another. However, in 1961, St. Joseph’s was demolished to make way for new construction, and the two parishes were joined, reintegrating – at least in theory – St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception.

But the merger was not popular with many of the white parishioners and conflicted with the segregation policies of local government institutions and public life, Fr. Curran said. “St Mary’s became a de facto black parish.”

During this demographic shift, many parishioners of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception had to draw deeply upon their faith. Black Catholics had to be stalwart, facing prejudice from both some white parishioners, who did not view them as fully Catholic, and some black Protestants, who did not support their religious beliefs.

“They were devoted, and still are,” the rector said. “You have to be very devoted to be a Black Catholic.”

This devotion and witness of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was formally celebrated when, in 1991, Saint Pope John Paul II elevated the 200-year-old church to a minor basilica.

“Your black cultural heritage enriches the Church and makes her witness of universality more complete. In a real way the Church needs you, just as you need the Church, for you are a part of the Church and the Church is part of you,” Pope Saint John Paul II proclaimed at the elevation.

Today, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception plays a vital role not only as the only Catholic basilica in Virginia, but also as an important anchor of the neighborhood. The basilica operates a “robust” set of outreach ministries to local families, including rent assistance and food aid, serving thousands of people.

“The Church standing proudly and beautiful in the midst of the poor is where we need to be,” Fr. Curran said.

This article was originally published on CNA July 4, 2015.

‘God bless America’ - Popes speak to the United States

CNA Staff, Jul 3, 2020 / 11:20 am (CNA).- Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis each made apostolic visitations to the United States during the course of their pontificates. As the United States celebrates Independence Day, CNA remembers words to America from each of those popes:

Pope Francis

September 24, 2015, Address to a joint session of Congress

….I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776).

If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.

How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

God bless America!

Pope Benedict XVI

South Lawn of the White House, April 16, 2008

I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America’s Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations.

Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience – almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.

In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good (cf. Spe Salvi, 24). Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus Annus, 46).

Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent “indispensable supports” of political prosperity.

Pope St. John Paul II

Detroit, September 19, 1987

America the beautiful! So you sing in one of your national songs. Yes, America, you are beautiful indeed, and blessed in so many ways:

- in your majestic mountains and fertile plains;
- in the goodness and sacrifice hidden in your teeming cities and expanding suburbs;
- in your genius for invention and for splendid progress;
- in the power that you use for service and in the wealth that you share with others;
- in what you give to your own, and in what you do for others beyond your borders;
- in how you serve, and in how you keep alive the flame of hope in many hearts;
- in your quest for excellence and in your desire to right all wrongs.

Yes, America, all this belongs to you. But your greatest beauty and your richest blessing is found in the human person: in each man, woman and child, in every immigrant, in every native-born son and daughter.

For this reason, America, your deepest identity and truest character as a nation is revealed in the position you take towards the human person. The ultimate test of your greatness in the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenceless ones.

The best traditions of your land presume respect for those who cannot defend themselves. If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life! All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person:

- feeding the poor and welcoming refugees;
- reinforcing the social fabric of this nation;
- promoting the true advancement of women;
- securing the rights of minorities;
- pursuing disarmament, while guaranteeing legitimate defence; all this will succeed only if respect for life and its protection by the law is granted to every human being from conception until natural death.

Every human person - no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society - is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival-yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenceless ones, those as yet unborn.

With these sentiments of love and hope for America, I now say goodbye in words that I spoke once before: "Today, therefore, my final prayer is this: that God will bless America, so that she may increasingly become - and truly be - and long remain one Nation, under God, indivisible. With liberty and justice for all"


Sagrada Familia invites medical workers to attend July 4 reopening

CNA Staff, Jul 3, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- The Sagrada Família, designed by Antoni Gaudí, will reopen its doors July 4 following a more than 100-day closure due to the coronavirus crisis.

The unfinished basilica, which was forced to close to tourists March 13, will offer free entry to medical workers and their families Saturday in the first phase of its reopening.

Cardinal Juan José Omella, the archbishop of Barcelona and president of the Spanish bishops’ conference, will meet the presidents of the colleges of physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and physiotherapists on the same day, reported the website Religión Digital.

Entry in the first phase will also be extended to others engaged in the fight against the pandemic, including security guards, workers for social organizations and NGOs, and the staff of businesses and retail groups.

This tribute to Barcelona’s front-line workers will last for two weekends, July 4-5 and July 11-12.

In the second phase, called “Hora Barcelona” (“Barcelona Hour”), city residents will enjoy free entry to the basilica, in small groups and without the presence of tourists.

When the first batch of 37,000 tickets for the second phase was made available June 16, all the tickets were reserved within five hours. The second phase will cover the months of July and August.

In the third phase Sagrada Familia will admit both local and international tourists.

The basilica is expected to be completed in 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death.

Gaudí, a devout and ascetic figure, began working on the project in 1883. In 1914 he stopped all other works to focus exclusively on the basilica, to which he dedicated himself until his unexpected death.

He was struck by a tram in 1926, at the age of 73, while walking to Barcelona’s St. Philip Neri church for confession. Passers-by did not recognize the famed architect because of his worn-out clothes and lack of identity papers.

He died three days after the accident and was buried in the crypt of his unfinished basilica. His cause for canonization was opened in Rome in 2003.

Last month, the basilica finally received an official building permit, 137 years after its construction began.

Progress on the construction was initially slow as the works depended on private donations. Building work was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, during which combatants set fire to the crypt and destroyed some of the architect’s designs and plaster models.

Gaudí created numerous celebrated works in Barcelona using his distinctive style inspired by natural forms and eschewing the sharp angles associated with modernist architecture. 

He summed up his approach by saying, “The straight line belongs to men, the curved one to God.”

When questioned about how long it would take to build the basilica, he reputedly said, “My client is not in a hurry” -- referring to God.

Vatican appeals for debt relief for developing countries at United Nations

Rome Newsroom, Jul 3, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- The Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva is urging countries to help relieve the “crippling external debt burdens” of developing countries struggling in the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is no doubt that the current COVID-19 crisis will more severely affect the lives and livelihoods of those in the developing world,” Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič told the UN trade and development board July 2.

“The immediate challenge is to ensure that policymakers have the room and resources to respond to the health shock and to mitigate the accompanying economic damage. Whether and how this happens will have direct consequences for creating a fairer, more inclusive and resilient recovery,” the archbishop said.

The Vatican diplomat noted that one avenue that could soften the pandemic’s “potentially devastating impact” would be by “tackling the crippling external debt burdens accumulated, at both public and private levels, in developing countries over recent years.”

Poor countries owe billions of dollars to international financial institutions and wealthy nations. In April, G-20 countries agreed to suspend debt payments for the world’s poorest countries until the end of 2020. However, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) were not part of this offer.

The World Bank released data in June for 72 low-income countries’ debt statistics, including a breakdown of specific lenders.

This data revealed that China has surpassed the World Bank as the largest creditor to sub-Saharan Africa’s low-income countries. Analysis by the China Africa Research Initiative showed that China has lent $64 billion in Africa as of 2018.

Cardinal Muang Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, called on China to write off the debts of other countries to help cover the cost of healthcare during the pandemic in April. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, also appealed to rich countries to forgive the debts of poor countries, which are struggling to fund a coronavirus response.

In a virtual summit between Chinese and African leaders in June, China offered to cancel interest-free loans, which account for less than 5% of African countries’ debt to China, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the UN Conference on Trade and Development meeting, Archbishop Jurkovič said that it was “of utmost importance” that the international community take coordinated action “to deliver speedy and substantive debt relief to crisis-stricken developing countries who need it now more than ever, either because they already struggle under unsustainable debt burdens or because they are too poor to tackle the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.”

“Moving towards a more inclusive and sustainable world is not merely a matter of making markets work better,” he said. “It requires a more exacting and focussed agenda that addresses the systemic constraints on resource mobilization and technological diffusion, that mitigates growing asymmetries in market power arising from the lop-sided rules of a hyper-globalized world, and that corrects existing deficits in global economic governance and guarantees the policy space needed to match local challenges with international goals.”

Jurkovič said that roots of the crisis were not only economic, but had a moral dimension, adding there was a need for an “ethic of solidarity” that recognized “the primacy of being over having.”

“Over the last decade, we have learned that excessive liberalization and deregulation, allowing for markets and firms to regulate themselves, privileges short-term gains over long-term commitments. Of great concern is the ever-decreasing economic allocation to the health sector and the abuse and predation of the natural environment on which not just economic life, but all human life, ultimately depends,” he said.

The archbishop quoted Pope Francis’ Easter Urbi et Orbi message in which the pope called on all nations to “meet the greatest needs of the moment through the reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations.”

Pope Francis makes donation to World Food Programme as pandemic causes rising hunger

Vatican City, Jul 3, 2020 / 08:35 am (CNA).- Pope Francis has made a donation to the World Food Programme as the organization works to feed 270 million people this year amid rising hunger caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus infection levels have been rising in Latin America and Africa at a moment when food stocks in some parts of the world are already low, leaving more people vulnerable to food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme website.

The Vatican announced July 3 that Pope Francis would donate 25,000 euros ($28,000) as “an expression of his closeness to those affected by the pandemic and to those who are engaged in essential services for the poor and weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.”

With this “symbolic” gesture, the pope desires to express “paternal encouragement towards the organization's humanitarian work and toward other countries willing to adhere to forms of support for integral development and public health in this time of crisis, and to combat social instability, food insecurity, rising unemployment, and the collapse of the economic systems of the most vulnerable nations.”

The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) has issued a call for $4.9 billion in funding to bring food assistance where governments are asking for more support. 

“The impact of COVID-19 on people is demanding us to step up and scale up our efforts to ensure more food-insecure people receive assistance,” Margot van der Velden, director of emergencies for WFP, said July 2.

Van der Velden said that she was particularly worried about Latin America, which has seen a threefold rise in the number of people requiring food assistance as the outbreak spreads across the region.

South Africa, which has documented more than 159,000 COVID-19 cases, has also experienced a 90% rise in the number of food-insecure people, according to WFP.

“The front line in the battle against the coronavirus is shifting from the rich world to the poor world,” WFP head David Beasley said June 29.

“Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos,” he said.

Cardinal says it is time to rebuild, as economic crisis hits northern Italy

Rome Newsroom, Jul 3, 2020 / 08:10 am (CNA).- A cardinal in northern Italy said Friday that the COVID-19 health crisis has created “immense” poverty in the area, and now is the time to rebuild, to take responsibility, and to share resources.

Indications from local charities and soup kitchens show that poverty in Bologna right now is “immense,” Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the city’s archbishop, told journalists July 3. “The economic crisis has already started.”

“We should have a sense of great closeness, of solidarity, of sharing,” he said.

Zuppi, who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis last October, spoke to journalists in an informal online meeting organized by the Iscom Association. Since 2015, Zuppi has led the Archdiocese of Bologna, which is located in northern Italy, one of the regions worst hit by the novel coronavirus, with more than 28,000 total cases and 4,200 deaths.

The cardinal said the pandemic had involved everyone, at every level of the Church, and had given us “a sense of responsibility” and “an opportunity for sharing resources.”

Reconstruction, he added, would require “much humility and much determination,” not unlike Italy’s efforts in the post-war period.

Zuppi also referenced the idea of society’s “next to lasts” (“penultimi” in Italian), and the need to look out for those people in this period. Unlike society’s weakest, such as the homeless and those in abject poverty, the “next to lasts” are those one often does not realize are in need of help, who now, due to job losses, are really struggling. 

In the rebuilding period, the cardinal said there were two temptations to avoid. One was to want to change everything and another was to want to go back to the way things were.

Zuppi paraphrased a quotation from the famous Italian novel “Il Gattopardo” (“The Leopard”), noting that “to change everything is to change nothing.”

Rebuilding community in the Church after public gatherings such as Mass were prohibited during the lockdown will be a challenge, but change requires welcoming both the possibilities and difficulties, he said.

According to Zuppi, living out Christian community will follow where there is first a missionary and pastoral conversion.

The cardinal also pointed to Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, and its call to live the Gospel in one’s daily life.

He emphasized that, moving into this new period post-lockdown, Catholics need “to understand more who we are and to understand more the Gospel.”

“My perspective is the perspective of Evangelii gaudium,” he said.

European bishops call for EU support of persecuted Christians in Nigeria

Vatican City, Jul 3, 2020 / 05:30 am (CNA).- The president of the European bishops’ commission has promised persecuted Christians in Nigeria that he will advocate for increased support from the European Union. 

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who leads the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), wrote a letter to the Nigerian bishops stating that the commission will advocate for EU assistance and cooperation with the Nigerian authorities to combat violence and persecution. 

The cardinal expressed solidarity with Nigerian Christian communities, who, he wrote, are “living a situation of continuous attacks by terrorists, insurgents and militias, that in some cases reaches levels of genuine criminal persecution,” according to a European commission statement July 2.

An estimated 6,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed since 2015, mostly by Boko Haram and militant Fulani herders, the European commission reported.

More than 600 Christians have been killed so far in 2020, according to a International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety) report on May 15. Christians have been beheaded and set on fire, farms set ablaze, and priests and seminarians have been targeted for kidnapping and ransom.

A Boko Haram attack on a village in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno left at least 81 people dead June 9. The attack was the latest in an ongoing Islamist group against the country’s Christian population. Earlier in June a Christian pastor and his pregnant wife were killed on their farm in the northeastern region of the country.

In January, militants kidnapped four Catholic seminarians from Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna, killing one of them, Michael Nnadi. On March 1, Nigerian priest Fr. David Echioda was kidnapped by gunmen after offering Sunday Mass, but was released days afterward.

The European bishops’ conferences commission has been vocal in calling on EU member states to “increase their efforts in order to stop the violence in Nigeria, bring criminals to justice, support the victims and promote dialogue and peace,” according to the COMECE statement.

In May 2020, the bishops “urged the international community to use diplomatic, political and financial instruments to assist Nigerian authorities to stop the violence, bringing the criminals to justice, supporting the victims and fully including Christians (47% of the national population) in all state structures and levels of administrations -- including the police and armed forces.”

Leaders within the United States have also called for further support of Nigeria’s Christians. On June 25, former Rep. Frank Wolf said that the U.S. should send a special envoy to Nigeria to coordinate the protection of the Christian population and prevent further destabilization of the area.

In February, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told CNA that Nigeria was one of the countries of highest concern when it came to violations of religious freedom. 

Brownback said he was concerned that the situation in Nigeria would spread to nearby countries if nothing was done to crack down on religious persecution. 

“There's a lot of people getting killed in Nigeria, and we're afraid it is going to spread a great deal in that region,” he told CNA. “It is one that's really popped up on my radar screens -- in the last couple of years, but particularly this past year.”

Cardinal Hollerich said that he was particularly concerned for the people who are forced from their homes by the increased violence in Nigeria. He said it was important that Europe welcomes and protects them.

“My thoughts and my heart are with the many young people who are forced to leave the country because of violence and lack of socio-economic prospects,” Hollerich said.

Vatican financial watchdog hails ‘rising trend’ in reports to Promoter of Justice

Vatican City, Jul 3, 2020 / 04:30 am (CNA).- The Vatican’s financial watchdog authority reported Friday that it received 64 suspicious activity reports in 2019, 15 of which it forwarded to the Promoter of Justice for possible prosecution. 

In its annual report, released July 3, the Financial Intelligence Authority (Autorità di Informazione Finanziaria, or AIF) hailed “the rising trend in the ratio between reports to the Promoter of Justice” and cases of suspicious financial activity.

The report comes ahead of a scheduled inspection by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering watchdog, which has put pressure on the Vatican to prosecute breaches of financial regulations. 

Unlike in previous years, the report was not presented at a Vatican press conference.

The AIF was established by Benedict XVI in 2010 to oversee Vatican financial transactions. It is charged with ensuring that internal banking policies comply with international financial standards.

The number of suspicious activity reports (SARs) is seen as an important indicator of the AIF’s performance. In 2017, there were 150, while in 2018 there were 56. 

The AIF forwarded 11 reports to the Promoter of Justice in 2018, four fewer than in 2019. 

In the introduction to the new report, AIF director Giuseppe Schlitzer wrote: “Overall, the tendency towards higher quality SARs is strengthening, thanks to the guidelines on more specific anomaly indicators which was provided and a more conscious implementation of a risk-based approach.”

In the introduction Schlitzer said that in 2019 the AIF had “intensified its action in every branch of activity, while consolidating forms of collaboration with other states and jurisdictions.” 

“At the system-wide level, also thanks to the Vatican authorities’ strong commitment to fighting money laundering and the financing of terrorism, there was further progress towards a better functioning and international recognition of the jurisdiction,” he wrote.

He noted that the AIF had carried out two onsite inspections at the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), commonly known as “the Vatican Bank.” 

The first, in June, “aimed at assessing the technical compliance with the legal and regulatory framework for payment services.” The second, in August, “consisted in a general compliance assessment in the fields of money laundering and the financing of terrorism.” 

The annual report said that the AIF exchanged 66 requests for information with foreign financial intelligence units concerning 373 subjects. 

It also said: “Domestic cooperation with the competent authorities of the Holy See and the Vatican City State is intense and led to 24 requests for information and concerned 423 subjects.”

“A marked increase in exchanges with the authorities of the Holy See and Vatican City State was observed as compared with the previous year, which confirms the trend of greater domestic cooperation and exchange of information, as well as greater involvement of Holy See and Vatican City State authorities in countering money-laundering and the financing of terrorism.”

Moneyval was due to carry out a scheduled inspection of the Vatican in spring 2020. But the inspection was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a July 3 statement on the AIF's annual report, the watchdog’s president Carmelo Barbagallo said that the Moneyval evaluation team would begin its inspection of the Holy See and Vatican City State Sept. 29.

“The inspection, which will last about two weeks, was actually scheduled to begin in April but was postponed because of the pandemic. AIF has been tasked with heading the Vatican’s delegation,” he said.

He continued: “Several years have gone by since Moneyval’s first inspection of the Holy See and Vatican City State, which took place in 2012. During this time span, Moneyval has remotely monitored the many advances made by the jurisdiction in the fight to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorism. As such, the upcoming inspection is especially important. Its outcome may determine how the jurisdiction is perceived by the financial community.”

“The Moneyval inspection will be broad-based. It will cover both the legislative framework and its effective implementation. It is crucial to arrive well prepared, to highlight the progress achieved in recent years in the system of controls, and to underscore what has been done in recent months to assure further progress.”

Last year was a turbulent period for the financial watchdog. 

On Oct. 1, Vatican gendarmes raided the AIF’s offices in connection with a controversial London property deal. This led to the suspension of five employees and officials, including Tommaso Di Ruzza, the AIF’s director. They were also blocked from entering the Vatican.

The Egmont Group, through which 164 financial intelligence authorities share information and coordinate their work, suspended the AIF Nov. 13.

René Brüelhart, a Swiss lawyer who had served as president of the AIF since 2012, resigned Nov. 18.

Marc Odendall, a Swiss-German banker and member of the AIF board, resigned the same day, citing the Egmont Group’s decision and Brüelhart’s departure.

“We cannot access information and we cannot share information. There is no point in staying on the board of an empty shell,” he told the Associated Press.

During an in-flight press conference Nov. 26, Pope Francis confirmed that Di Ruzza remained suspended because of suspected “bad administration.”

“It was AIF that did not control, it seems, the crimes of others. And therefore [it failed] in its duty of controls. I hope that they prove it is not so. Because there is, still, the presumption of innocence,” Pope Francis said.

Barbagallo, an auditor and Italian banking consultant, was named Brüelhart’s successor Nov. 27.

Barbagallo announced in January that the Egmont Group had lifted its suspension of the AIF.

Addressing the incident in his statement on the AIF's annual report, Barbagallo said: “The suspension was lifted after only two months, once adequate reassurance was provided to Egmont. Crucial to this aim was the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by AIF and the Promoter of Justice.”

“With this memorandum, we were able to assure our foreign counterparts that, should the need arise to seize confidential documents and information, the seizure would be carried out in accordance with the confidentiality standards established by the Egmont Group concerning financial intelligence.”

The Vatican announced the appointment of Schlitzer as director of the AIF April 15. He succeeded Di Ruzza, who completed his five-year term of office January 20, according to the Vatican.

In his July 3 statement Barbagallo said that the AIF hoped to issue “a new statute and the first internal regulation.”

“First and foremost, pursuant to the new statute, the name of the Authority would change to the Supervisory and Financial Information Authority (SFIA), a name that highlights the Authority’s dual nature as intelligence unit and supervisory (and regulatory) authority,” he wrote.

Missouri cannot block Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood, high court says

CNA Staff, Jul 3, 2020 / 03:12 am (CNA).- The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a provision that intended to cut Planned Parenthood off from Medicaid funding in the state.

The 6-1 ruling found the provision to be unconstitutional, according to an Associated Press report. The ruling mandates that Missouri tax dollars will fund contraception and some abortions in the state’s 11 Planned Parenthood clinics.

The ruling states that the provision is a “clear and unmistakable violation” of the Constitution, which does not allow the budget to determine matters of policy.

The decision was a blow to pro-life advocates in the state, who have consistently turned out pro-life legislation and court decisions in recent years.

Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed a comprehensive abortion ban into law in 2019, which set up a multi-tier ban on abortions after eight weeks, 14 weeks, 18 weeks and 20 weeks. In August of that year a federal judge struck down the bans, but retained a ban on abortions conducted solely because of the baby’s race, sex, or Down syndrome diagnosis.

Under Missouri law, abortion providers must distribute a booklet from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services which includes the statement: “The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.”

State law also includes a “trigger law” that immediately bans all abortions except for medical emergencies if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

In June of this year, a federal appellate court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a member of the Satanic Temple against Missouri’s informed consent abortion law. The court rejected the group’s claim that the law established Catholic religious belief by stating that life begins at conception.

Later that month, the Missouri health department issued a license to the state's only abortion clinic, a Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis.

The license had been previously revoked due to health and safety concerns, including violating multiple state standards of sterilization and storing of equipment, and the proper documentation of medication and procedures.

However, the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission ruled that the department of health was wrong to deny the license, saying that Planned Parenthood had “substantially complied” with Missouri law. As a result, the clinic may remain operational.

Schoenstatt Movement rejects accusations of sex abuse against founder

CNA Staff, Jul 2, 2020 / 05:05 pm (CNA).- The Schoenstatt Movement has rejected a researcher’s claims that its founder engaged in sexual abuse, saying that any past allegations against him would have already been considered in the Vatican’s review of his proposed beatification.

“We firmly reject the accusation that Joseph Kentenich was guilty of sexual abuse of members of the Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary,” Juan Pablo Catoggio, International President of the Schoenstatt Work, said in a July 2 statement.

“His behavior toward other persons – especially women – was always marked by a pronounced reverence and esteem, as well as by the principle of physical integrity, which he also impressed upon his communities.”

“That there were accusations from the ranks of the Sisters of Mary is not new to us. Fr. Kentenich himself gave a detailed account of his actions to his superior after an accusation became known. In this context, however, there was no mention of sexual abuse, neither literally nor in content,” Catoggio said, citing the return of Kentenich to a leadership role in Schoenstatt as evidence the Vatican rejected the charges against him.

Catoggio repeated his previous statement that before beatification can begin, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must issue a “nihil obstat” based on its files. Any “well-founded suspicion of moral misconduct” would have prevented this, but the CDF granted the “nihil obstat.”

He objected that theologian and Church historian Alexandra von Teuffenbach’s account is “viewed entirely from the perspective of the visitors” who investigated the community.

von Teuffenbach, former professor of theology and Church history at the Pontifical Lateran University and the Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, reviewed Vatican-commissioned assessments of the Schoenstatt movement, which reportedly portray Kentenich as manipulative and coercive.

Her research was the subject of a story in the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagepost, and she discussed her work in a letter to Vatican expert Sandro Magister, who published the letter on July 2 at his website Settimo Cielo.

Von Teuffenbach told Magister that what caught her attention in her research was “the serious abuse of power by the founder at the expense of the nuns, clearly verified and highlighted by the Roman visitor, just as the local one had done before him.”

Von Teuffenbach is the editor of the Second Vatican Council diaries of the Jesuit theologian Sebastiaan Tromp, who was Rome’s apostolic visitor to the Schoenstatt community from 1951 to 1953.

Kentenich was born in 1885 and ordained a priest in 1910. In 1914, he founded the new ecclesial movement in a chapel in Schoenstatt, Germany. Kentenich went to the U.S. in 1951, and was permitted to return to Germany in October 1965. He died three years later. A beatification process for the priest began in 1975.

The movement, which now includes priests, consecrated women, and lay people, is active in 42 countries, and focused on spiritual formation and Marian spirituality.

Schoenstatt, in the German Diocese of Trier, is still the headquarters of the movement.

Tromp’s visitation followed up on a 1949 visit ordered by the Bishop of Trier and conducted by his auxiliary, Bishop Bernhard Stein.

Stein generally approved the work’s “clear vision” and “high level of spiritual care,” but cited some flaws: “there seem to be only a few confident personalities with true independent thinking and inner freedom, among the male leaders and among the Marian nuns.”

The auxiliary bishop said he found “internal dissatisfaction,” as well as “insecurity and lack of autonomy” among these nuns, von Teuffenbach said. Based on this report, the Bishop of Trier wrote to Kentenich, who von Teuffenbach said “contested, distorted, and manipulated the bishop’s provisions, which this latter did not by any means appreciate.”

“What Tromp gathers from the testimonies, from the letters, from the many conversations he had, including with the founder himself, is indicative of a situation of complete subjugation of the nuns, concealed in a certain way by a sort of family structure applied to the work,” von Teuffenbach continued. She said the movement’s leading “mother” had “no power whatsoever,” and even less power was among the religious women.

As von Teuffenbach reads the documents, Kentenich appears as a “father-master,” the “founder with absolute power, often equated with God, so much so that in many expressions and prayers it is not clear whether these are addressed to God the Father or to the founder himself.”

One aspect of the abuse of power, according to the researcher, was the obligation imposed upon the nuns to confess to the community founder, at least in some circumstances. According to von Teuffenbach, the nuns were required on a monthly basis to kneel before Kentenich and “give themselves totally to him.” The dialogue that took place was often “alone and behind closed doors.”

The dialogue depicted the nun as “the father’s,” as “nothing,” and the “father” as “everything.” Body parts like the eyes, ears, and mouth are described as belonging to the “father.” Some nuns said this discussion extended to the breast and the sexual organs as well.

Catoggio, the Schoenstatt movement’s president, said claims that the sisters were forced to confess to the founder can be refuted by other testimonies. Kentenich was “almost continuously on journeys abroad” at this time, raising the question of “how the compulsion to confess should take effect during such a prolonged absence.”

“Such vague statements, coupled with the researched allegation of sexual abuse, do not testify to a critical examination of the files,” he continued. “Blanket assertions with evaluative adjectives merely play on the keyboard of the current abuse debate without knowing and communicating ’the whole story’.”

Kentenich responded “in detail” to the visitor and his superiors regarding alleged abuse of power to explain his thinking, his principles and his behavior, said Catoggio.

“It is astonishing that the author – based on the reports of Fr. Tromp – makes his view of the community and its members completely her own,” said Catoggio.

He criticized von Teuffenbach’s portrayal of the nuns as ranging “from extreme dependence, incapacity to judge and decide to childish dependence and slavish subservience to an all-dominating founder.”

von Teuffenbach said the climate described by the visitor was “highly sexualized.”

“Ballets of nuns around the founding father, nighttime meetings, ambiguous expressions are certainly not what is expected in a religious house,” she said.

In her view, supporters of Schoenstatt, like Pallotine superior general Woicjech Turowski, initially denied these facts and believed they could be justified. She said “they claimed that the founder was only helping the nuns to free themselves from sexual tensions with a ’psychotherapeutic pastoral remedy’.

The researcher cited a Chile-based German nun’s 1948 letter, transcribed by Tromp.

“The subject of the letter is an incident of sexual abuse,” said von Teuffenbach. “The nun reports that after what had happened to her during one of these rites she was no longer able to see the founder as the ‘father,’ but only as a ‘male,’ recounting that she had rebelled and had suffered for a year before being able to talk about it with her confessor.”

The nun wrote a letter to the mother general in Germany, who sent a copy to Kentenich and accused the nun of being possessed by the devil.

“Later when the apostolic visitor asked the mother general, who by that time had been dismissed, if she had received other letters of that kind, the mother general said there had been from six to eight letters, less serious according to her, which she had thrown away,” sad von Teuffenbach.

“In the decree of the Holy Office nothing is written about the abuse, but the disputed facts are communicated in writing to the mothers superior, so that they may accept more easily the dismissal of the founder.”

Catoggio, however, disputed her characterization of these actions as an effort not to expose the sisters.

“This interpretation seems to be laborious. It is probably meant to nevertheless somehow justify the thesis of sexual abuse,” he said. The CDF was “not exactly reserved when accusations of abuse were made.”

“On the contrary, it was repeatedly stated: The separation of Fr. Kentenich from his work is not a punitive measure, but an administrative order, i.e. a prudent measure taken through administrative channels.”

The charge of sexual abuse was not brought in the Roman Curia proceedings to separate Kentenich from Schoenstatt, Catoggio insisted.

When sent from Germany, Kentenich stayed at a Pallottine house in Milwaukee, Wis. In this time, von Teuffenbach said, the records show that he “in no way complied with the Vatican provisions” which barred any further contact with the nuns.

The researcher described the nuns who defended Kentenich as those who “preferred the founder’s charm to the directives of the Church.”

“Those nuns never stopped writing, denigrating and slandering not only the visitors but also the sisters who had cooperated with them and the priests who had testified against Fr. Kentenich,” she said, comparing these defenders to “the many women who are unable to get away from the husband who mistreats them and often excuse and defend him.”

“This is the dark part of the story, but there is also an edifying part. And it is the Roman curia that operated under Pius XII and that - certainly in this case - succeeded in giving its best.”

“The proceedings tell of an assiduous and meticulous search for the truth,” she said, adding that the Church acted “in the most correct way possible for those women, without however demeaning them by publicizing the facts.”

von Teuffenbach said she wrote Magister “to bring an end to the veneration of this ’father’ and demolish the many proposed reconstructions of alternative truths, as if this were merely a matter of psychological weaknesses in the face of a man at once so charismatic, skillful, and terrible.”

Magister described the Schoenstatt movement as “still one of the most renowned and widespread on a worldwide scale.”

A former Schoenstatt superior general, Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, was Archbishop of Chile from 1998 to 2010 and elevated to the cardinalate in 2001. Pope Francis made him an adviser in 2013, as part of the Council of Cardinals. He left that role in 2018.

Bishop Francisco Pistilli of Encarnacion, Colombia, a Schoenstatt Father, commented July 2 that the accusation would require “a lot of objectivity.”

“In some way, our founder is put to the test. We trust he will pass the test, but he has to be seen to do so, with impartiality,” he said. “I am convinced that this is not a matter of becoming defensive, but about taking courage in the light. It can be painful, it will surely be. Questions will come up, perhaps even from ourselves. It’s time to understand and seek answers without fear and without the need to paint a picture of a perfect founder.”

“If the Church confirms his holiness, it won’t be ‘for being the one who always had the answers and never took risks beyond the conventional’,” said the bishop.

Pistilli said that the Church doesn’t thoroughly understand the abuse of power, and it was a question in the process to canonize Padre Pio.

“He passed the test,” said the bishop.

“Downplaying things is not is not always the best option. Much less in times like these,” said Pistilli. “Nor is it good to speak without knowledge. How much do we really know? Can we go deeper into what all this means? Without seeing just what we want to see, but with objectivity. I like to think we can.”

“God is light and those who follow him have to be seen in his light,” said the bishop.