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Pope recognizes martyrdom of Oklahoma priest killed in Guatemala

IMAGE: CNSBy VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis has recognized the martyrdom of Father Stanley Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, making him the first martyr born in the United States. The Vatican made the announcement Dec. 2. The recognition of his martyrdom clears the way for his beatification. Father Rother, born March 27, 1935, on his family's farm near Okarche, Oklahoma, was brutally murdered July 28, 1981, in a Guatemalan village where he ministered to the poor. He went to Santiago Atitlan in 1968 on assignment from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. He helped the people there build a small hospital, school and its first Catholic radio station. He was beloved by the locals, who called him "Padre Francisco." Many priests and religious in Guatemala became targets during the country's 1960-1996 civil war as government forces cracked down on leftist rebels supported by the rural poor. The bodies of some of Father Rother's deacons and parishioners were left in front of his church and soon he received numerous death threats over his opposition to the presence of the Guatemalan military in the area. Though he returned to Oklahoma for a brief period, he returned to the Guatemalan village to remain with the people he had grown to love during the more than dozen years he lived there. He was gunned down at the age 46 in the rectory of his church in Santiago Atitlan. Government officials there put the blame on the Catholic Church for the unrest in the country that they said led to his death. On the day he died, troops also killed 13 townspeople and wounded 24 others in Santiago Atitlan, an isolated village 50 miles west of Guatemala City. Many priests and religious lost their lives and thousands of civilians were kidnapped and killed during the years of state-sponsored oppression in the country. While his body was returned to Oklahoma, his family gave permission for his heart and some of his blood to be enshrined in the church of the people he loved and served. A memorial plaque marks the place. Father Rother was considered a martyr by the church in Guatemala and his name was included on a list of 78 martyrs for the faith killed during Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war. The list of names to be considered for canonization was submitted by Guatemala's bishops to St. John Paul II during a pastoral visit to Guatemala in 1996. Because Father Rother was killed in Guatemala, his cause should have been undertaken there. But the local church lacked the resources for such an effort. The Guatemalan bishops' conference agreed to a transfer of jurisdiction to the Oklahoma City Archdiocese.News of the recognition was welcomed in Oklahoma. "This comes as a great joy to all of us here not only in Oklahoma, but I think it's a great blessing to the church in the United States," Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City told Catholic News Service Dec. 2. He also called the recognition of the priest's martyrdom a gift to the Catholic Church in Guatemala. Archbishop Coakley recalled how both he and Father Rother are alumni of Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He remembered a ceremony at the school a few months after the priest's death in which a plaque was erected in his honor. "His witness has marked me from my earliest days in priestly formation," the archbishop said. "It's a blessing to be the archbishop now who has the opportunity to bring to fruition the work on my predecessor Archbishop (Eusebius J.) Beltran."Now-retired Archbishop Beltran was head of the archdiocese when the sainthood cause for Father Rother was officially opened in 2007. Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, author of a 2015 biography of the priest, "The Shepherd Who Didn't Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma," wrote in an email that the martyrdom recognition was "an incredible gift not only to the United States, but to the universal church.""I am delighted and grateful that more people will come to know and be changed by his beautiful story," Scaperlanda said. "Not only because of his death as a martyr. But even more significantly, because his life and his priestly service remain a testament to the difference that one person can, and does, make." Scaperlanda described Father Rother's martyrdom as a "reminder that we are all called to holiness in our ordinary lives, and that holy men and women come from ordinary places like Okarche, Oklahoma."Describing the priest as a faithful man, Scaperlanda said he was called to serve in the fields of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, alongside his Tz'utujil Mayan parishioners. "This is what his community remembers -- that he was one of them," she wrote. "And when their village suffered oppression and killings from a violent and brutal civil war, he remained one with them. He was truly the shepherd who didn't run."- - -Editor's Note: A CNS review of Scaperlanda's biography of Father Rother can be found at http://tinyurl.com/glcxso2.    - - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Syriac Catholic patriarch 'horrified' after seeing Iraqi 'ghost towns'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, ReutersBy Doreen Abi RaadBEIRUT (CNS) -- The Syriac Catholic patriarch said he was horrified to see widespread devastation and what he called "ghost towns" during a recent visit to northern Iraq. Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan wrote in an email to Catholic News Service that there was little left in some of the communities that he toured Nov. 27-29 and that "the emptiness of the streets except for military people ... the devastation and burned-out houses and churches" was shocking. About 100,000 Christians -- among them more than 60,000 Syriac Catholics -- were expelled from the Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State group in the summer of 2014 as the militants campaigned to expand their reach into Iraq. Patriarch Younan also called for understanding from the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump about the plight and ordeal of all minorities, including Christians affected by violence in the region. The patriarch told CNS about "walking through the Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Bartella and Karamles and witnessing the extent of devastation as if we had entered ghost towns!" Graffiti and inscriptions "expressing hatred toward Christian symbols and doctrine were seen everywhere" on walls near streets, outside and inside houses and churches, he wrote. "Aside from the looting, destruction of and damage to buildings, we discovered that the terrorists, out of hatred to the Christian faith, set fire to most of the buildings, including churches, schools, kindergartens and hospitals," the patriarch's message said, noting that only Christian properties were targeted. In Qaraqosh -- once inhabited by more than 50,000 Christians -- the patriarch celebrated the Eucharist Nov. 28 "on an improvised small altar" in the incinerated sanctuary of the vandalized Church of the Immaculate Conception. That church, which had 2,200 seats before its desecration by Islamic State, was built by parishioners in the 1930s. Few people could attend the liturgy, among them a few clergy and some armed youth and media representatives, the patriarch said. "In my short homily, I just wanted to strengthen their faith in the redeemer's altar and cross, although both were half broken behind us. I reminded them that we Christians are the descendants of martyrs and confessors, with a long history dating back to the evangelization of the apostles," he wrote. "I had the intention after its restoration five years ago, and still have it, to ask the Holy Father, the pope, to name this church as a minor basilica," the patriarch added. In addition to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, all of the churches the patriarch's delegation visited, including St. Behnam and St. Sarah Monastery, which dates to the fourth century, sustained significant damage or were destroyed. In opening the trip Nov. 27 in Irbil, which escaped being occupied by the militants, Patriarch Younan celebrated Mass for more than 800 displaced people at Our Lady of Peace Syriac Catholic Church. Located in the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, where many of those uprooted from the Ninevah Plain sought refuge, the church recently opened to serve refugees. Concelebrating the liturgy were Syriac Catholic Archbishops Yohanna Moshe of Mosul and Ephrem Mansoor Abba of Baghdad and 20 priests. Patriarch Younan said he felt "mixed feelings" among the worshippers, who were pleased that the Islamic State group had been forced out of the Ninevah Plain during the current Iraqi military campaign, but also were saddened because of the "horrendous state" in which the militants left their communities. The patriarch also said he met with the faith community, religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the future of Christianity in northern Iraq. Based on "what happened in recent times," the patriarch noted, "it was the overall opinion that none would dare to return, rebuild and stay in the homeland, unless a safe zone for the Christian communities in the Plain of Ninevah is guaranteed." He called for a "stable, law-abiding and strong government" to support the establishment of an eventual self-administrative province under the central government of Iraq. "I therefore reiterate what I have been saying for years. We, Christians in Iraq and Syria, feel abandoned, even betrayed, by the Western politicians of recent times," Patriarch Younan said. "We have been sold out for oil and forgotten because of our small number compared to the 'Islamic Ummah' (Islamic nation) in which we have lived for centuries." The patriarch urged the "so-called 'civilized world' to uphold its principles and to seriously defend" the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he described as "vital for our survival." "It is time to stand up and condemn those regimes that still discriminate against non-Muslim communities, with (their) excuses such as ... 'our law, our education and governing system' are based on our 'particularities of culture, history and religion,'" the patriarch continued. Patriarch Younan expressed his "strong hope" that the Trump administration "will understand our plight and the ordeal of all minorities, including Christians." "It is time that the United States be respected around the world," and most particularly in the Middle East, as "a nation of hope and freedom and not a land of opportunism."- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Some fleeing scene of wildfires describe it as escaping 'gates of hell'

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Tennessee Highway Patrol, handout via ReutersBy Bill BrewerPIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (CNS) -- St. Mary's Catholic Church was at ground zero in the wildfires that devastated parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge Nov. 28, and while flames reached to within yards of the tourist city church, it appears to have been spared. Some parishioners weren't as fortunate. Its pastor, Carmelite Father Antony Punnackal, was forced to evacuate St. Mary's as intense fires came within 300 yards of the church that sits in the heart of Gatlinburg. The church and rectory have been closed since then, but the priest has received reports that the buildings were spared from the blaze but sustained smoke damage and possible damage from high winds that fueled the flames. The wildfires left a swath of destruction in and around the city of Gatlinburg, causing at least 13 deaths, more than 50 injuries, and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. Dozens of residents and visitors to the tourist destination still are missing. Three people who suffered serious burns were transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. As of midday Dec. 2, the city of 5,000 residents still was closed down, with only emergency personnel allowed to enter as well as residents and property owners on a limited basis. "I know of seven families in our parish that lost everything," Father Punnackal told The East Tennessee Catholic, the magazine of the Diocese of Knoxville. "Five of them lived in apartments that burned to the ground. They lost their housing and all their belongings. They're also jobless because the businesses where they worked burned." Many evacuees reported fleeing through horrific infernos, with intense flames licking at their vehicles as they fled down narrow mountain roads to safety. But a number of residents and tourists perished in the flames, and rescue workers still were trying to account for everyone. Some members of Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge also lost their homes, belongings and businesses. The fires burned nearly 16,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Father Punnackal was told he could re-enter Gatlinburg Dec. 2 to assess the church and rectory. But he could only stay for a few hours. He said that as he monitored the spreading fires Nov. 28, smoke was entering the church and rectory to the point it became unsafe to breathe. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to evacuate with just an overnight bag as fire threatened the property. Father Punnackal has been staying at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Newport while his parishioners were spread out in shelters and hotels, or with family or friends. "I'm now far away, and I can't get to my parishioners. I have tried to go back, but I've been unsuccessful," the priest said. "I greatly appreciate everyone offering help. I'm doing what I can, but we have a long way to go." While a severe drought over several months prompted many of the recent eastern Tennessee woodland blazes, officials are investigating whether some of the wind-whipped fires above Gatlinburg were caused by individuals, either accidentally or intentionally. The wildfires raced down the mountains, eviscerating everything in their path: homes, condominiums, chalets, cabins, apartments, businesses, automobiles. YouTube was populated with harrowing cellphone videos of people fleeing, blinded by thick, suffocating smoke, many of them unsure if they would make it out alive. Some of them described the situation as escaping the "gates of hell" and running through "rivers of flame." As a stream of vehicles exited Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, shelters were set up to accommodate those displaced, which numbered as many as 2,000 at one point. Evacuees were receiving food, clothing and other help in shelters set up by the American Red Cross, said Father Andres Cano, pastor of Holy Cross. "Many people are showing solidarity and generosity toward the people affected by the fires," he said, adding that "there is a longtime recovery ahead for the people and the local community." Father Cano was assessing the impact of the wildfires on his parish. As of Dec. 1, the parish knew of one family that lost their home to fire, but more could be affected. He also said parishioners' employers in and around Gatlinburg were affected, and those parishioners are now out of work. Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika has been working with volunteers from around the diocese to get assistance to the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge communities. On Dec. 1, the bishop announced a $25,000 grant for fire victims through the Diocese of Knoxville's St. Mary's Legacy Foundation. The $25,000 grant is in addition to $735,000 that the St. Mary's Legacy Foundation will be distributing to charities and nonprofit groups throughout eastern Tennessee in 2017. "What happened in the Gatlinburg area was unexpected, and each day we're hearing about more lives lost, more property destroyed, and more heartache for many, many people. The St. Mary's Legacy Foundation has a very precise way of evaluating grant distributions before they're announced. In this case, the foundation felt it was best to react to this tragedy immediately," Bishop Stika said. "The St. Mary's Legacy Foundation also recognizes that many communities across our entire diocese have been affected by wildfires, and more recently, tornadoes. For this reason, the $25,000 grant will be channeled into our diocesan Fund for Wildfire Victims. We want to make sure we can help everyone who needs assistance," he added. East Tennesseans began donating needed items to the Sevier County relief effort early Nov. 29, and those donations continue. Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville began a drive to collect bottled water, food, and clothing that has turned into a multiday effort. Those donated goods were delivered to the National Guard armory in Sevier County, just outside of Pigeon Forge, where Guard troops are assisting in the relief effort. Diocese of Knoxville schools also took part in collecting donations. Bishop Stika said offers for assistance were coming in from around the country, including from Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, who chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee on the Catholic Home Missions, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, has helped in getting information out about the relief effort. "It just shows that the Catholic Church is the face and hands of Jesus, and that we do together what we can't do by ourselves. Together, with the Holy Spirit, we can overcome anything," Bishop Stika said. The diocese is accepting donations online for its assistance fund at http://tinyurl.com/j6gf2wd. All parishes and mission churches in the diocese were asked to hold a special collection at Masses the weekend of Dec. 3-4 for relief efforts. The wildfires damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and businesses, including about 300 buildings Gatlinburg and about another 400 in Pigeon Forge. Sevier County native Dolly Parton announced her My People Foundation will give $1,000 a month in assistance to people affected by the wildfires that also destroyed a number of cabins near the Dollywood theme park. The theme park itself was not damaged in the fires, according to Dollywood officials. Father David Boettner, rector of Knoxville's Sacred Heart Cathedral, also was working to get assistance to St. Mary's and Holy Cross parishioners. He is confident the popular tourist destination will rebound. "It is tourism that built this area and it is tourism that will bring it back," Father Boettner said. "Dolly Parton, to her credit, has reinvested in her home community. The immediate need was emergency assistance. Now that has shifted to long-term needs, getting people back into housing, to get these folks back on their feet and rebuilding the community."- - -Brewer is editor of The East Tennessee Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of Knoxville. - - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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USCCB leaders seek prayers for migrants, refugees on Guadalupe feast

IMAGE: CNS photo/David MaungBy WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Prayer services and special Masses will be held in many dioceses across the country as the U.S. Catholic Church has asked that the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe be a day of prayer with a focus on migrants and refugees. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas. "As Christmas approaches and especially on this feast of Our Lady, we are reminded of how our savior Jesus Christ was not born in the comfort of his own home, but rather in an unfamiliar manger," said a Dec. 1 statement from Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The day of prayer is intended to be a time to place before a merciful God the hopes, fears and needs of all those families who have come to the United States seeking a better life. "So many families are wondering how changes to immigration policy might impact them," Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president, said in a Dec. 1 statement. "We want them to know the church is with them, offers prayers on their behalf, and is actively monitoring developments at the diocesan, state, and national levels to be an effective advocate on their behalf." The USCCB suggested that Catholics unable to attend such a service or Mass Dec. 12 or who live in an area where one is not being held should "offer prayers wherever they may be." The USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services office has developed a scriptural rosary called "Unity in Diversity" that includes prayers for migrants and refugees. It can be accessed at the Justice for Immigrants website at http://tinyurl.com/hldg3o9. Another resource suggested by the USCCB is "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope," the 2003 pastoral letter issued jointly by the bishops of the United States and Mexico. Summary versions of the pastoral are available online in English at http://tinyurl.com/zpd4tex and in Spanish at http://tinyurl.com/hy2e69m.A USCCB announcement on the day of prayer said the bishops' conference would develop additional pastoral resources. "To all those families separated and far from home in uncertain times, we join with you in a prayer for comfort and joy this Advent season," Cardinal DiNardo added.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Pope meets Martin Scorsese after director screens 'Silence' for Jesuits

IMAGE: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handoutBy Cindy WoodenVATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The morning after screening his film, "Silence," for about 300 Jesuits, the U.S. director Martin Scorsese had a private audience with Pope Francis. During the 15-minute audience Nov. 30, Pope Francis told Scorsese that he had read Japanese author Shusaku Endo's historical novel, "Silence," which inspired the film. The book and film are a fictionalized account of the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan; the central figures are Jesuit missionaries. Pope Francis spoke to Scorsese, his wife and two daughters, and the film's producer, about the early Jesuit missions to Japan and about the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument in Nagasaki, which honors the Japanese martyrs executed on the site in 1597. Scorsese gave the pope two paintings, which the Vatican said were "connected to the theme of the 'hidden Christians,'" the Christians who kept their faith secret during the persecution. One of the paintings was of an image of Mary venerated in the 1700s. The U.S. director screened the film Nov. 29 at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome for an international group of Jesuits and Nov. 30 in the Vatican for specially invited guests. In an interview taped after he met the pope, Scorsese said the pope had told him that he hopes the film "bears fruit." Scorsese said an Episcopalian bishop gave him Endo's novel in 1988 and, immediately after reading it, he wanted to make a film of it, but it took 28 years to understand the story, to figure out how to tell it, to get the funding and cast and crew together. "It was like a pilgrimage," Scorsese told TV2000, the television channel of the Italian bishops' conference. All that time getting everything together, he said, means the film -- set for a Dec. 23 release in the United States -- is coming out at a time when religious freedom and religious intolerance are not just of historical interest, but are in the news today. "It wasn't such a big topic when I began" more than two decades ago. In the novel, the Jesuit priest and missionary Father Rodrigues is captured; to make him renounce the faith, the Japanese authorities force him to watch as local Christians are martyred. While he believes he would suffer for his faith, he has a difficult time refusing to publicly renounce Christianity when it would end the suffering of the others. In the end, Scorsese told TV2000, Father Rodrigues "understands Christ, he understands the love of Christ and they can't take that away from him. Everything else is stripped away but that." He publicly recants. "On the surface," Scorsese said, the book's title "refers to the silence of God," though Father Rodrigues learns that "God is in the silence, that God has been there suffering with him."- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Listen to God for guidance to build better world, pope tells students

By Carol GlatzVATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Upholding the truth and moral values isn't easy, especially for young people, Pope Francis said. "But with God's help and with the sincere will to do good, every obstacle can be overcome," he told international students and those who minister to them. Students studying abroad and about 100 campus ministers and representatives of bishops' conferences participated in the Fourth World Congress on the Pastoral Care of International Students Nov. 28-Dec. 2. The congress was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers. Pope Francis said it was important that new generations always be inspired and guided to build a "healthier society," especially when it comes to dealing with moral dilemmas. Today, "the moral challenges to be addressed are many and it is not always easy to fight for affirming the truth and values, especially when one is young," he said, but it can be done with God's help and honest intentions. He said he was pleased to see so many young students attending the congress because it showed that "challenges do not make you afraid, rather they drive you to work to build a more humane world. Never stop and don't get discouraged because Christ's Spirit will guide you if you listen to his voice." Pursuing higher studies, especially abroad in a new social and cultural context, helps students and the communities that host them to broaden their horizons, become more tolerant and welcoming, build trust and spark a desire to work for the common good, he said. The pope told educators and pastoral workers to help deepen foreign students' love for the Gospel and their desire to live it out concretely and share it with others. By teaching how to think critically and to grow in Christian values, one forms young people who are "thirsty for truth and not power, ready to defend values and live mercy and charity -- fundamental foundations for a healthier society." While the pope praised the benefits of getting an education abroad, he lamented "brain drain" -- that is, the "painful" lack of social or employment opportunities in poorer countries, which pushes bright students to "abandon their own nation."- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Catholic college presidents pledge support for students with DACA status

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Association of Jesuit Colleges and UniversitiesBy Carol ZimmermannWASHINGTON (CNS) -- More than 70 presidents at Catholic colleges and universities have signed a statement pledging their support for students attending their schools who are legally protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.The statement, posted Nov. 30 on the website of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, says it hopes "the students in our communities who have qualified for DACA are able to continue their studies without interruption and that many more students in their situation will be welcome to contribute their talents to our campuses."President Barack Obama's DACA program protects young immigrants brought into the United States by their parents as young children without legal permission. More than 720,000 of these young immigrants have been approved for the program, which protects them from deportation for two-year periods.The college leaders' statement also points out that "undocumented students need assistance in confronting legal and financial uncertainty and in managing the accompanying anxieties. We pledge to support these students -- through our campus counseling and ministry support, through legal resources from those campuses with law schools and legal clinics and through whatever other services we may have at our disposal." The statement was released three weeks after the presidential election. During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump promised to deport those who are in the country without legal permission; build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; and enact a ban on Muslims entering the country until a system for what he called "extreme vetting" of refugees is in place. Trump also made promises during his campaign to undo what he called Obama's "overreaching" executive orders, including the president's November 2014 expansion of his 2012 DACA program to allow more young immigrants people to benefit from its provisions that defer deportations and allow them to have work permits."Many of us count among our students young men and women who are undocumented, their families having fled violence and instability," the presidents' letter said, adding that these students have met the DACA criteria. Signers of the letter represent large schools, like Villanova, which is outside Philadelphia, DePaul University in Chicago and The Catholic University of America in Washington, and small schools, like Anna Maria College in Paxton, Massachusetts, and Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and dozens of colleges in between. They include leaders who have been vocal in their support of students with DACA status, such as Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, and Jesuit Father Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University New Orleans. Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and Jesuit Father Michael Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, also signed the statement. Many of the signers are presidents of Jesuit colleges and universities who signed a similar Nov. 30 statement issued by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities that reiterated support for students who are in the United States without legal documents. That statement, signed by 28 leaders, said: "We feel spiritually and morally compelled to raise a collective voice confirming our values and commitments as Americans and educators." The leaders pledged to continue working "to protect to the fullest extent of the law undocumented students on our campuses" and to promote retention of students with DACA status. Several of the signers of both statements also signed a Nov. 21 letter with more than 400 college and university presidents from public and private institutions across the U.S. offering to meet with U.S. leaders on the issue of immigrant students and urging business, civic, religious and nonprofit sectors to join them in supporting DACA and undocumented immigrant students. The letter from Catholic college and university presidents stressed that their schools "share a long history of educating students from a diverse array of socioeconomic, geographical and ethnic backgrounds, often welcoming those on society's margins, especially immigrants and underprivileged populations." It also cited what Pope Francis said last year at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia when he welcomed many recent immigrants to the United States, pointing out that many of them came to the United States "at great personal cost, in the hope of building a new life.""Do not be discouraged by whatever hardships you face," the pope told them. "I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to this nation." John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, who joined the statement with Jesuit college leaders, also sent a similar-themed message to members of the school community Nov. 29. In the letter, he noted that he has been meeting with students, faculty and staff members from the university and "many of them have shared with me that they feel vulnerable and unsure about their futures or the futures of close friends and family." DeGioia stressed that Georgetown's school community would continue to support the DACA program and "protect our undocumented students to the fullest extent of the law." "I wish to encourage each of us to recommit ourselves to supporting one another -- to working together to do all that we can to ensure that our community is a place of deep care for each person, especially those who feel most vulnerable," he wrote. - - - Follow Zimmermann on Twitter @carolmaczim.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Hundreds mourn beloved homeless man at funeral for him at Catholic church

IMAGE: CNS photo/Christina Gray, Catholic San FranciscoBy Christina GraySAN FRANCISCO (CNS) -- Thomas Myron Hooker lived the last 20 years of his life without a roof over his head, but his death proved he was hardly without a home. Hundreds of people -- church families, neighbors, shopkeepers and perhaps even strangers touched by the cheerful kindness and generosity of the man who for years had made camp under a tarp on a street corner in San Francisco's Richmond District -- streamed into Star of the Sea Catholic Church Nov. 7 to express their respect and affection. Hooker had endeared himself to the parish and surrounding community with his gentle spirit. He spent a part of each day praying in the back pews, said Star of the Sea pastor Father Joseph Illo, who eulogized him as "a kind of patron saint of the homeless." "The meaning of being homeless beyond shelter is when you lack a home, lack a family who understands you. You are homeless when you don't feel you belong anywhere," said Father Illo. "Many of us who live in more comfort are more homeless than Thomas was. He had a home with us." Thomas had "overcome his homelessness," said Father Illo, who claimed Hooker's body after his death Oct. 26 and planned the funeral Mass and reception that followed. McAvoy O'Hara & Evergreen Mortuary donated a casket and prepared the body for burial. A special collection was taken during the Mass so that Hooker might be laid to rest with dignity and a headstone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. According to a Richmond District blog, Hooker was originally from Trinidad and had spent time in Chicago before coming to San Francisco. Every day, Hooker worked his way along Clement Street with his shopping cart and would stand at a corner near Walgreens, usually talking to himself. "This was a man who never asked for anything," Lea Grey Dimond, owner of Thidwick Books on Clement Street, told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper. Hooker was one of three individuals profiled in a documentary about mental illness called "Voices." In the trailer for the documentary, Hooker says with a huge grin: "I suffer a lot, you know, and when you suffer, you must know to be kind." At a reception in the school gym following the funeral Mass for him, the community took turns sharing memories of Hooker and offering parting thoughts. "Voices" was shown afterward. "Thomas had a gift for loving generously and unconditionally," said one speaker. "He brought our community something rare and special." A man in tears said he was overcome by the overflowing crowd who had come out to honor Hooker. The tears turned to laughter when he confessed he often "gave my money to Thomas instead of the church." Star of the Sea parishioners Arnold and Jean Low had brought food to Hooker for more than 20 years and were the ones to find him unresponsive on the morning of his death. "Thomas was a kind and friendly soul, always had a smile on his face, always had something complimentary to say to you," said Arnold Low. "There are other homeless souls for you to reach out to. Also keep this in mind, he said: "When I am thirsty, you gave me to drink, when I was hungry, you gave me to eat, when I was cold you gave me clothes. Whatever you do for others, you do for me your Lord our God." - - - Gray is on the staff of Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Pope: Reflections on mercy may be over, but compassion must live on

IMAGE: CNS/Paul HaringBy Carol GlatzVATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Year of Mercy and its series of papal reflections may be over, but compassion and acts of mercy must continue and become a part of everyone's daily lives, Pope Francis said. "Let us commit ourselves to praying for each other so that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy increasingly become our way of life," he said Nov. 30 during his general audience in the Vatican's Paul VI hall. Because the day also marked the feast of St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter and founder of the church in Constantinople, Pope Francis gave special greetings to his "dear brother," Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Pope Francis, the bishop of Rome and successor of Peter, said he was sending "a big embrace" to the patriarch and "this cousin church." The Vatican released a letter from the pope to the patriarch, which praised the way Catholics and Orthodox have begun "to recognize one another as brothers and sisters and to value each other's gifts, and together have proclaimed the Gospel, served humanity and the cause of peace, promoted the dignity of the human being and the inestimable value of the family, and cared for those most in need, as well as creation, our common home." In his main audience talk, the pope ended his yearlong series of talks on mercy with a reflection on the corporal work of burying the dead and the spiritual works of praying for the living and dead. Catholics particularly remember the faithful departed during the month of November, he said. Praying for those who have died "is a sign of recognition for the witness they have left us and the good they have done. It is a giving thanks to the Lord for having given them to us and for their love and friendship." By entrusting their souls to God's mercy, "we pray with Christian hope that they are with him in heaven," he said. While for many burying the dead is an expected, straightforward ritual, there are some parts of the world where this may not be a given, such as places experiencing "the scourge of war, with bombings day and night that sow fear and innocent victims," he said. "Even today, there are those who risk their life to bury poor victims of war," he added, thanking those particularly in Syria and the Middle East for their courage in recovering the dead and going to rescue the injured. Praying for the living, he said, can be done in many ways, such as: blessing one's children every morning and evening; visiting and praying for the sick; praying silently, "sometimes in tears," for help during difficult times; even thanking God for the blessings bestowed upon one's family, friends and co-workers. The important thing, he said, is to always have one's heart open to the Holy Spirit, "who knows our deepest desires and hopes," and can "purify and bring them to fulfillment." "We always ask that God's will be done for ourselves and for others, like in the Lord's Prayer, because his will is definitely the greatest good, the goodness of a father who never abandons us," he said. After his main talk, the pope also made an appeal for World AIDS Day Dec. 1, urging "everyone to adopt responsible behavior to prevent the further spread of this disease." The Catholic Church promotes sexual abstinence before marriage and monogamy within marriage as the best ways to limit HIV transmission, and holds that condom-distribution campaigns aggravate the problem. In his appeal, Pope Francis called for prayers for those affected by HIV/AIDS and for renewed efforts in getting adequate testing and therapy to the poorest in the world. He said the United Nations estimates only half of those living with HIV/AIDS have access to lifesaving treatment.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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For late actress Florence Henderson, Catholic faith was her foundation

IMAGE: CNS photo/St. Anthony MessengerBy CINCINNATI (CNS) -- In what came to be her final interview, actress Florence Henderson told St. Anthony Messenger magazine that throughout her life, through good times and bad, her Catholic faith was her foundation. "I don't ever remember not praying. Bedtime prayers, the rosary, praying for friends, relatives, for the sick and for those who had died. It was a natural part of our lives," she told writer Rita E. Piro, who interviewed the popular actress in August. The story appears in the January 2017 issue of the magazine, published by Cincinnati-based Franciscan Media. Henderson, who died unexpectedly Nov. 24 at age 82, was best known for her role as Carol Brady in the 1970s sitcom "The Brady Bunch." Originally broadcast from 1969 to 1974, the program has never been off the air and has been syndicated in over 122 countries. It remains one of the most beloved and most watched family shows of all time. "I frequently am contacted by people who want to thank me for 'The Brady Bunch,'" she told Piro. "Whether they grew up during the show's original television run or are brand-new fans of the present generation, they tell me how important 'The Brady Bunch' has been in their lives. I wanted to portray Carol as a loving, fun, affectionate mother, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people who maybe had the same situation I did growing up. To think that something I was involved in had such a positive effect on the lives of so many people is satisfying beyond words." Her most important role, though, she said, was Mom to her own four children -- Barbara, Joseph, Robert and Elizabeth. "My children and their happiness have always been my greatest concern," she said. She described her children to Piro as "the nicest people you could ever meet" and "very spiritual people." "Being a mom makes you far more compassionate. You have more empathy for people, more love," Henderson added. I was always taught to say thank you and I'm very grateful. And my kids have that quality, too." In the interview Henderson said that from time to time, she found herself questioning her faith, mainly in instances unrelated to her career. As a new mother, the actress experienced repeated bouts of postpartum depression, Piro reported. During the mid-1960s, Henderson was diagnosed with a hereditary bone deformity of the middle ear and needed surgery to prevent deafness. Stage fright and insomnia also were present in her life. "The loss of family and friends, especially her siblings, weighed heavily upon her, as well as a natural fear of her own mortality," said Piro. Born the youngest of 10 children in tiny Dale, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Owensboro, Kentucky, young Florence later moved with her family about 25 miles away to Rockport, Indiana. Piro noted that little Florence was a natural at singing from age 2, but she "had little to sing about" growing up with her nine siblings in extreme poverty during the Great Depression. "But that didn't keep her from developing a deep love for her faith," which sustained her through life, Piro wrote. Henderson was educated by Benedictine nuns and priests in St. Meinrad and Ferdinand, Indiana. (She had a priest in the family; her uncle, Jesuit Father Charles Whelan, taught constitutional law at Fordham University.) In the St. Anthony Messenger interview, Henderson talked at length about her first-grade teacher –- Benedictine Sister Gemma. After high school, with the help of a close friend and her wealthy family, Henderson was enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City -- which launched her long acting career. She made her debut on Broadway as the star of "Fanny" in 1952. She played Maria in the original version of "The Sound of Music,'' also on Broadway. She starred in several touring productions, including "South Pacific" and "Oklahoma!" She made numerous appearances on television, in film and live music shows. Henderson's last television performance was with Maureen McCormick (who had played daughter Marsha Brady) on "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC Sept. 19. McCormick was a contestant, and Henderson took part in a Brady Bunch-themed performance. Henderson competed on the show herself in 2010. In a 1994 interview with Mark Pattison, media editor at Catholic News Service, Henderson lovingly recalled her role as Carol Brady and "The Brady Bunch" legacy. She said that perhaps because of her wholesome image, parents approached her to ask if certain TV shows were good for their children to watch. "They're responsible for this little soul they've brought into the world and they wonder what's being taught,'' she told CNS. "Very few people in our business have been a part of something that everyone seems to feel with great affection. They really love the characters. They love Carol Brady, everyone in it. And that it's still going strong after so many years absolutely amazes me,'' she said. The show "represents what everyone wants in life, and that is a loving family, unconditional love, a place to make mistakes, to get angry, to be forgiven, to forgive,'' Henderson said. - - - Editor's Note: More information about St. Anthony Messenger and how to get the complete article on Florence Henderson is available at www.franciscanmedia.org/source/saint-anthony-messenger.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. 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Advocates of refugees, immigrants seek to calm postelection fears

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register By Theresa LaurenceNASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) -- As the American people continue to unpack exactly what the election of Donald Trump means for the country, those who work with vulnerable populations such as refugees and immigrants have serious concerns and questions about what the future holds. President-elect Trump made the issue of immigration one of the foundations of his campaign. He promised to round up those in the country without legal permission and deport them, and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; he also talked about enacting a ban on Muslims entering the country until a system for what he called "extreme vetting" of refugees can be put in place. In the days following Trump's election as president, the Catholic Charities Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Diocese of Nashville began receiving calls from school counselors seeking assistance for how to talk with refugee children who are afraid of being sent back to the countries they fled. "These are calls we haven't gotten before," said Kellye Branson, Refugee Resettlement department director. "We want to calm their fears," Branson said, noting that anyone who arrived in the country through the refugee resettlement program is here legally and faces no imminent threat of deportation. However, "we're kind of in a holding position, waiting to see what policy implications are for the future," she told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper. The president has the authority to set the number of refugees accepted annually by the United States. President Barack Obama has raised it from 70,000 in 2015 to 85,000 in 2016 to 110,000 for 2017. Trump could reduce that number for future years. Catholic Charities of Tennessee has decades of experience resettling refugees in this state. Since its founding in 1962, it has assisted refugees and asylum seekers and helped them assimilate to American culture and the local community. Catholic Charities has helped resettle 637 refugees in the Nashville area so far this year, including refugees from Congo, Somalia and Syria. While the world's refugees wait and hope to be resettled in a more stable and secure country, those who work with refugees in Tennessee are taking steps to clear up misconceptions about who refugees are and the rigorous process they must undergo to reach the United States. Refugees are defined as individuals who have had to leave their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. They are targeted because of their religious or political beliefs, or membership in a particular social class. Branson pointed out that the refugee resettlement program "is the most secure way of entering the U.S. It's a lengthy process." First, a refugee reports to a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. If a refugee is seeking entry into the U.S., he or she will undergo vetting from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the State Department. This involves extensive interviews and background checks, with a particular focus on any signs of radicalization or connection with a terrorist group, which would immediately disqualify that person from entry into the U.S. Branson understands that Americans are concerned about national security and the integrity of the refugee resettlement program. "We want it to be secure too," she said. "The people resettling are fleeing the same people we don't want to enter the country. We want to safely and humanely resettle the people who have been persecuted most throughout the world." She also noted that less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide ever get resettled. One positive outcome of the election so far, Branson said, is a surge in calls from people interested in volunteering with the Refugee Resettlement office. In the two days following the election, her office received about 20 calls from interested volunteers, the same amount they normally receive in a month. "Now more than ever, Americans and longtime residents are needed to reach out to our new arrivals and offer a hand of friendship and welcome," Branson said. If newly arrived refugees can make personal connections with American volunteers, it can make for a smoother transition to a new culture, help them learn English and make them feel like a part of the community more quickly. "Developing those connections is a huge thing for our clients," Branson said. Donna Gann, program coordinator of Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of Tennessee, said her clients are anxious as well. "There has been an increase in calls wanting to know what's going to happen now," she said. Maggie McCluney, a caseworker with the agency's Immigration and Hispanic Family Services, echoed Gann, saying that since the election, "it is especially difficult to keep up with inquiries. Many clients are concerned about deportation and separation of families. There is a lot of uncertainty." If clients have their paperwork in order and are applying for citizenship, "we are hopeful that any process currently pending will continue without (increased) scrutiny," Gann said via email. "The only clients we are really concerned about are the DACA recipients," Gann said, referring to those who are currently protected under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many immigrants in the country without legal permission who fall under that protection were brought to the United States by their parents as young children and may not even remember living in their country of origin. More than 720,000 of these young immigrants have been approved for that program, which protects them from deportation for two-year periods and grants them work permits. Since DACA was created by executive order, it could be rescinded by executive order under the new Trump administration, which officially begins with Inauguration Day Jan. 20. During his campaign, Trump vowed to undo what he called Obama's "overreaching" executive orders on immigration. "If the threats come to fruition, then they could be under removal proceedings," Gann said of those currently protected under DACA and DAPA, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program. "That will be an issue we will continue to review and fight hard against," she added. - - - Laurence is a staff writer at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of Diocese of Nashville.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Pope, archbishop express condolences over Fidel Castro's death

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rhina GuidosBy WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a video message, Cuban President Raul Castro announced the Nov. 25 death of his 90-year-old brother and longtime Cuban leader and Communist icon whom many in Latin America know by just one name: Fidel."It is with great sorrow that I come before you to inform our people, friends of our America and the world, that today, November 25, 2016, at 10:29 p.m., the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz passed away," said his brother Raul, who took over control of the island in 2006, after Fidel Castro, became too sick to govern.Until that year, Fidel Castro had ruled Cuba in some form since 1959, the year he led a revolution that toppled the government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Over the years, he survived attempts to be toppled by others, including the United States. He gained fame throughout Latin America, where many saw him as a David-against-Goliath figure each time he denounced the commercial, "imperialist" interests of the U.S. as attempts to rob the region of its riches.But for others Castro was a menace and a dictator, particularly those whose properties were seized when his regime nationalized homes and businesses on the island nation without compensation. Over the decades, he was accused of a range of wrongdoings, from unjust imprisonment to executions to religious persecution. Others lauded him and pointed to Cuba as a model for other Latin American countries to emulate in the areas of education, medicine, and gender and racial equality. Many also blamed the U.S. embargo against Cuba, not Castro's governance, for the island's financial woes.Recognizing the complexity of the different feelings the Cuban leader evoked in life -- and now in death -- Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, where many Cuban exiles live, released a brief statement Nov. 26."His death provokes many emotions -- both in and outside the island. Nevertheless, beyond all possible emotions, the passing of this figure should lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity, asking for peace for Cuba and its people," Archbishop Wenski said.He repeated the words later that day during a Mass "for peace in Cuba" at the Ermita de la Caridad in Miami, a shrine devoted to the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, and a place, he said, built by the sacrifices of Cubans in exile."On the eve of this first Sunday of Advent ' we have learned that Fidel Castro has died," Archbishop Wenski said during the homily. "Each human being, each one of us, will die and we will all be judged one day. And now it's his turn."U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration restored diplomatic relations with the island in 2015, expressed "a hand of friendship to the Cuban people" in a statement but also recognized the range of feelings surrounding the leader's death."We know that this moment fills Cubans -- in Cuba and in the United States -- with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him," he said.The Catholic bishops of Cuba, in a Nov. 28 statement, expressed condolences to Castro's family and to government officials and said that as bishops "we entrust Dr. Fidel Castro to Jesus Christ, the face of the Father's mercy, Lord of life and history. We also ask the Lord Jesus that nothing disturb the coexistence among us Cubans."In an interview with Spanish radio COPE, the president of the Cuban bishops' conference, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago, said that each time there's a change of government,  there's a change for a country, but in this case, there hasn't been a change in the presidency."The figure of Fidel has been so significant, so influential, that it will always have an impact on society," he said. In a telegram in Spanish, Pope Francis extended his condolences to Raul Castro on the "sad news" of "the death of your dear brother." The pope, credited with the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, also expressed condolences to the government and to the Cuban people, and said he was offering prayers.Though Raul Castro has publicly expressed admiration for Pope Francis, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government can be described as a work in progress. Catholics, like other religious groups in the country, witnessed the seizing of church properties, including schools, churches and other centers used for religious gatherings, following the 1959 revolution. Some locales were closed; others were put to nonreligious uses. Priests and religious suspected of being against the revolution were jailed or expelled and practice of the Catholic faith dwindled on the island, particularly when the nation, under Soviet influence, was for a period an officially atheist country.In recent years, however, the government allowed physical reconstruction of church buildings and some properties were returned to the care of the church. In 2015, the government granted permission for the construction of a new Catholic church on the island, something it hadn't allowed in more than five decades.In 1998, then Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the island that many credit with loosening religious limitations in Cuba. Since then, each pope who has visited the island also met with Fidel Castro, even after he ceded power.Fidel Castro was last seen in public Nov. 16 when he met with the president of Vietnam. In the video announcing his death, his brother said Fidel Castro's body was to be cremated, as he had wished.Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist party, announced nine days of national mourning from Nov. 26 until Dec. 4. His ashes, the newspaper said in an online article, will travel through some parts of Cuba, and mourners are expected to pay their respects during rallies that have been organized in his honor. His ashes will ultimately be interred at St. Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, where Cuban national leader and Latin American icon Jose Marti is buried.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Year of eating cactus fruit: Drought causes extreme hunger in Madagascar

IMAGE: CNS photo/Shiraaz Mohamed, EPABy Bronwen DachsCAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Hunger levels are so severe in drought-ridden southern Madagascar that many people in remote villages have eaten almost nothing but cactus fruit for up to four years, said a Catholic Relief Services official. Eating this fruit leaves crimson stains on people's faces and hands, and there is a "shame of poverty associated with these stains in Madagascar," an island nation 250 miles off the coast of mainland Africa, said Nancy McNally, CRS information officer for East and Southern Africa. The cactus plant "is the only thing that grows" in southern Madagascar, and the plants "are growing everywhere" in earth "that looks like white silt," she said in a Nov. 23 telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya. A father of three, sitting with his wife and children outside the town of Beloha in southeastern Madagascar, "told me that his family had been living on cactus fruit for a year," McNally said. "With whatever money he could make" from finding something to sell, he would buy food for the youngest child, she said, noting that "this would amount to a little bit of rice once in a while for the boy, who was about a year old." "It's the worst poverty I've seen," McNally said, noting that the severe drought in southern Madagascar has led the U.N. to warn of potential famine, "a word that is very rarely used for fear of raising a false alarm." The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned in late November that 330,000 people in southern Madagascar are "on the verge of a food security catastrophe, next step being famine." In Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, "begging is very aggressive," McNally said, noting that "poverty is very deep, and it seems that people's survival instinct has kicked in." El Nino, a warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, has aggravated dry conditions in Madagascar and the entire southern African region, where an estimated 39 million people are affected by food shortages. "I saw a baby so thin who had already spent a month being fed" by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in the town of Tsihombe, Madagascar, McNally said. Tsapasoa Fedraza's 20-year-old mother had taken him to the nuns, who run an emergency shelter in the town, after neighbors in her nearby village put her in an oxcart and told her to get him help before he died of malnutrition, she said. His mother "didn't have the resources to get there on her own, which is the situation of so many people" in southern Madagascar, she said. More than 90 percent of Madagascar's population lives below the $2 a day poverty line, McNally said. "People are dying in remote villages," such as Ajampaly, she said, noting that, "we don't know how bad it is." Poor or no infrastructure makes it extremely difficult to reach remote areas in the south of the country, McNally said. "The chief in Ajampaly told me that the closest water point" was about four-and-a-half miles away, and most people have to walk to get water, she said. "Those who suffer most are people who don't have family to help them -- children and the elderly," she said. While there is some food in the markets in towns, "it is too expensive for most people." The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul have "a pervasive network in the communities" of southern Madagascar and are helping CRS provide food aid to the worst-hit villages, she said. Madagascar needs a much stronger international response to this crisis, she said, noting that some areas of the island have had no rain at all for four years. "A 70-year-old man I talked to said he had farmed with his father when he was young, and every year (they) had a rainy season that could be counted on, but those times are gone and are not coming back," McNally said.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Sulpicians mark 225 years of training men to be priests

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Will KirkBy Christopher GuntyBALTIMORE (CNS) -- In October 1791, five men began studies for the priesthood at the first seminary in the United States, just a couple years after the Diocese of Baltimore was established as the first in the country in 1789. At the time of that humble beginning -- when Bishop John Carroll, Baltimore's first bishop, welcomed four priests from the Society of St. Sulpice and the five seminarians -- the Diocese of Baltimore encompassed the whole fledgling nation. Sulpician Father Phillip J. Brown, president rector of today's St. Mary's Seminary and University, noted in his welcome to commemorate that occasion that the seminarians began their studies at St. Mary's downtown on Paca Street a month before Georgetown University in Washington opened, making the Baltimore seminary the oldest American institution of higher learning. The remark brought a chuckle of pride from the congregation gathered Nov. 15 in the seminary's chapel to mark the 225th anniversary of the arrival of the Sulpician fathers in America and the founding of St. Mary's Seminary and University. The prayer service included the conferral of an honorary doctorate of divinity degree on Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec and now prefect of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican. Father Brown welcomed the faculty and students of St. Mary's and two other seminal Sulpician institutions -- Theological College, the Sulpician national seminary at The Catholic University of America in Washington; and Mount St. Mary's Seminary and University in Emmitsburg, which was originally a Sulpician college seminary and eventually became an independent major seminary. "St. Mary's has formed more priests for the mission in parishes than any other (seminary) in the United States," Father Brown said. He prayed that the Holy Spirit would "give many more men the courage and confidence to follow the call to priesthood for the good of the whole church so that it will be renewed and strengthened during the time of our service and in our lifetime." Father Brown noted that each of the seminarians and faculty members present that evening would receive a copy of a new biography of Father Francois Charles Nagot, the first Sulpician superior in the United States, who played a role in the founding of each of the three seminaries represented at the anniversary celebration. Sulpician Father John C. Kemper, provincial superior of the U.S. province of the Society of St. Sulpice, said, "The first decades or so were difficult for this initial band of Sulpicians, yet motivated by what their founder, Father Jean-Jacques Olier, called 'the apostolic zeal,' the Sulpicians pressed on." He said the new seminary in Baltimore found itself to be "a launching pad for missionaries to the new land of the United States." Graduates of the seminary went off to establish parishes in uncharted and hostile areas of the country. Many Sulpicians were called to leadership in the new Catholic Church in the United States, including the third and fifth archbishops of Baltimore, Archbishops Ambrose Marechal and Samuel Eccleston. Father Kemper noted that the apostolic zeal that Father Olier encouraged finds new expression in each age. Cardinal Ouellet has connections to the Sulpicians as well, having studied for the priesthood in Montreal and learning Spanish along the way. In the early 1970s, he taught philosophy at the major seminary in Bogota, Colombia, which was directed by the Sulpicians. Ordained a priest for the Montreal Archdiocese, he joined the Society of St. Sulpice soon after his arrival there. In his talk, titled, "Toward the Renewal of the Priesthood in Our Time," the cardinal said he chose the topic given the central role the priesthood plays in any reform of the church. After the event, the cardinal told the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Baltimore Archdiocese, that his seminary formation was decisive for his encounter with Jesus Christ. "I remember the seminary in Montreal was the place where I experienced really deeply my faith." In the 1970s, the Sulpicians sent him for further studies in dogmatic theology. In his talk, he quoted the conciliar document "Lumen Gentium" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) on the topic: "Each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ." Reflecting after the prayer service, Cardinal Ouellet said that formation is as important for lay people -- perhaps even more important -- as it is for priests. "I spoke of the interrelatedness of both participations in a deep ecclesiology, which is missing normally when we hear the speeches on that," he said, speaking of the common priesthood of the laity and the ministerial (ordained) priesthood. He said that priests are so important because they are the heart of the church. "They are in the field. That's why I wanted to deepen the question of the priesthood, because they are important." - - - Gunty is CEO and associate publisher/editor of the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. 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For Cuban exiles, painful memories mix with relief at Castro's death

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tom TracyBy Ana Rodriguez-SotoMIAMI (CNS) -- While many celebrated loudly on the streets, the death of Fidel Castro triggered a more subdued reaction among the Cuban exiles who attended the noon Mass Nov. 26 at the National Shrine of Our Lady Charity. "Today is a day like any other," Luis Gutierrez told the Florida Catholic, Miami's archdiocesan newspaper. "The fact that 'el caballo' has died means nothing." Gutierrez used the Cuban slang -- "caballo," or horse -- for Castro, whose death had been announced earlier that morning. The 90-year-old reportedly died late at night Nov. 25. But his 57-year-old regime continues to rule Cuba, with his younger brother, Raul Castro, now at the helm. That is why, despite the joy on the streets of Little Havana, Westchester and Hialeah, the death of Fidel Castro in 2016 means much less than it would have in 1976 or even 2006. An oppressive regime still shackles basic freedoms on the island, keeping a stranglehold on a beleaguered economy.In 1976, Cuba's Communist Party approved a new socialist constitution and Fidel was elected president. Before that, starting in 1959, he was prime minister following the successful revolution he led to overturn the Batista regime. In 2006, while he underwent intestinal surgery, Fidel temporarily turned over power to younger brother Raul. He resigned in 2008 and Cuba's National Assembly named Raul the new president. Raul, now 85, was re-elected in 2013."(Fidel's) been out of it for 10 years. It's his brother and the clique that surrounds him," said Gutierrez, noting that he has been coming to noon Mass at the shrine every Saturday for decades. "She brought me," he said, referring to Cuba's beloved patroness, Our Lady of Charity. Gutierrez is not exaggerating. He is the man who, at age 22, smuggled her image into Miami on her feast day, Sept. 8, 1961. Nearly 10,000 exiles welcomed her that night during an emotional Mass at Bobby Maduro Stadium, which has since been torn down. Her presence provided a spiritual boost to the early exiles and ultimately resulted in the construction of the shrine -- known as La Ermita -- along Biscayne Bay. It remains a beacon of Cuban faith and patriotism, and also a place where exiles and immigrants from all the nations of Latin America come to give thanks or seek Mary's intercession. "I pray the rosary every day," Gutierrez said, adding that his prayers that day remained the same. "I pray for my family and for freedom in Cuba." His feelings were echoed by Marizol and Alfredo Mendez, who also come to the shrine every Saturday, out of devotion to Mary and to spend some time "in peace," as he put it. "It's a relief, a new dawn," said Alfredo of Castro's passing. He and Marizol left Cuba for Spain and arrived in the U.S. five years later, in 1978. They have never gone back. As for Fidel's death, Marizol noted, "We got rid of the horse but the saddle remains." For the Mendezes and all the others celebrating on the streets or marking the day quietly at home, Castro's death caused memories to surface: of lives interrupted or ended, of courage and sacrifices made, of parents and grandparents who longed to see this day but died before doing so. Alfredo Mendez recalled the violent, early days of Castro's revolution, when priests and religious were persecuted. He personally sheltered one of them: Father Feliciano del Vals of the church of San Juan de Letran in Havana's El Vedado neighborhood. The priest was among thousands arrested in the days prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, a failed effort backed by the United States, Mendez said, and held for two weeks in miserable conditions at the Blanquita Theater in Havana. After the invasion, the priest found refuge for 40 days with Mendez's family. After a futile search for asylum in a foreign embassy, he was rearrested, put on a ship, the Covadonga, and sent into exile in Spain with more than 100 other priests -- including Miami Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, the shrine's longtime rector, who died in 2012. "I followed that bus the whole way," Mendez said, referring to the exiled priests. Then, with resignation in his voice, "We have to keep waiting." It's those memories, that pain, that hurt, that Father Fernando Heria, the shrine's newly appointed rector, spoke of during his homily at the Mass. His uncle was killed by a Castro firing squad Sept. 16, 1961. "Today is not a typical Saturday," Father Heria said. "It's not that we rejoice at the death of any human being, because that would be a sin. But it's that, on this day, we want to turn over to God the pain we have carried around for more than 57 years." "We have to begin to heal," Father Heria continued. "We have to go to the Almighty and turn all our pain over to him. Be not afraid to tell the Lord, I have a pain that only you can take away." Father Heria also spoke about the need for unity among the Cuban people, reminding them that Our Lady of Charity was "the first Cuban 'balsera' (rafter)." "Don't forget," he added. "Charity unites us. The maternal love of the daughter of God, of the wife of God, of the Mother of God, unites us." In that sense, said Carlos Perez, Castro's passing is cause for hope, if not joy. "He was an obstacle to reconciliation among Cubans. He sowed distrust among Cubans. He sowed the separation of families," said Perez, who left Cuba 20 years ago, at the age of 43. His father left the island when Carlos was 11 and died in the U.S. The two never saw each other again. Perez spent 17 years in Chile and Bolivia -- where he met his wife -- before coming to Miami eight months ago. The move here allowed him to reconnect with his family. "And it was as if nothing had happened. I received the same tenderness as always, the same love as always," he said. Later that evening, Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski celebrated the 8 p.m. Mass at the shrine. In his homily, he echoed the words in the statement he had issued earlier that day, when the news of Castro's death first broke. "The death of Fidel provokes many emotions -- both in and outside the island. Nevertheless, beyond all possible emotions, the passing of this figure should lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity, asking her for peace for Cuba and its people," the archbishop said. "May our holy Lady of Charity listen to her people and hasten for Cuba the hour of its reconciliation in truth, accompanied by freedom and justice." - - - Rodriguez-Soto is editor of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Grace, not money, must guide financial choices of religious, pope says

By Cindy WoodenVATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Just as "the habit does not make the monk," taking a vow of poverty does not automatically mean a consecrated person lives with a detachment from material things and in solidarity with the poor, Pope Francis said. In fact, "the hypocrisy of consecrated men and women who live like the rich wounds the consciences of the faithful and damages the church," the pope said in a written message Nov. 26 to treasurers of religious orders. Taking a vow of poverty and having no personal property is not fulfilling the vow "if my institute allows me to manage or enjoy all the goods I desire," the pope told the religious, who were in Rome for a symposium on economics and religious life. The founding "charism" -- literally "grace" -- or ideal of a religious order is not "static or rigid," the pope said. Rather, members of orders must continually look at the world and the church and discern how God wants that original grace to be lived in the world today with the human and material resources the order has. In the world at large, but particularly in religious life, he said, what one does with money is never morally neutral: "Either it contributes to building relationships of justice and solidarity or it generates situations of exclusion and rejection." Inspired by the founding charism and realistic about an order's resources, the pope said, "we are called to create fraternity, communion and solidarity with the poorest and most needy" without being distracted or waylaid by the "diabolical logic of profit -- the devil often enters through the wallet or credit card." As the majority of members of many religious orders age and as building maintenance costs increase, he said, orders have to be serious about discerning whether or not a particular work or project is an authentic response both to the order's charism and to the needs of people today. Projects that are not sustainable should be closed or the order should find other religious orders or church groups with a similar focus to help continue the work. Sometimes, he said, discernment will lead an order to keep open a work that will never be financially self-supporting. Works that are always worth continuing, the pope said, "give dignity back" to those whom society often discards: "the unborn, those who are sick and aged and those with serious disabilities." Members of religious orders are called to be models for the world of a Christian way of dealing with money and economic decisions, he said. "It must start with the little daily choices. Everyone is called to do his or her part, to use goods in a way that promotes solidarity, to care for creation" and to ensure that a religious community is not living extravagantly better than the people in the neighborhood.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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As Vatican Christmas tree goes up, pope's Christmas schedule released

IMAGE: CNS/ReutersBy VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As a towering spruce tree was erected in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican released Pope Francis' liturgy schedule for Advent, Christmas and the month of January. The 82-feet-tall Christmas tree arrived in the square Nov. 24. According to the papal calendar released by the Vatican the same day: -- Pope Francis will celebrate an evening Mass Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Mass will include ancient liturgical hymns composed in indigenous languages, including Nahuatl, Quechua, Mapuche and Guarani. The Sistine Chapel Choir be will joined the Latin American Choir under the direction of conductor Eduardo Notrica. -- The pope will celebrate Christmas Mass at 9:30 p.m. Dec. 24 in St. Peter's Basilica. -- Pope Francis will give his Christmas blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) at noon Dec. 25 from the central balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. -- Dec. 31 in St. Peter's Basilica, the pope will preside over evening prayer and the singing of the "Te Deum" in thanksgiving for the year that is ending. -- The pope will celebrate a Morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica Jan. 1, the World Day of Prayer for Peace and the feast of Mary, Mother of God. -- On Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. -- On the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 8, the pope will celebrate Mass in the Sistine Chapel and baptize several babies. -- Pope Francis will preside over an ecumenical evening prayer service Jan. 25, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The service concludes the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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Pope asks scientists to find solutions, declare rules to save planet

IMAGE: CNS/L'Osservatore RomanoBy Carol GlatzVATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Humanity does not own God's gift of creation and has no right to pillage it, Pope Francis said. "We are not custodians of a museum and its masterpieces that we have to dust off every morning, but rather collaborators in the conservation and development of the existence and biodiversity of the planet and human life," he said Nov. 28. The pope addressed experts attending a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Nov. 25-29 to discuss the impact of scientific knowledge and technology on people and the planet. People in the modern world have grown up "thinking we are the owners and masters of nature, authorized to plunder it without any consideration for its secret potential and evolutionary laws, as if it were an inert substance at our disposal, causing, among other things, a very serious loss of biodiversity," he said. An "ecological conversion" is needed in which people recognize their responsibility for caring for creation and its resources, for trying to bring about social justice and for overcoming "an unfair system that produces misery, inequality and exclusion," the pope said. In fact, with sustainable development, the tasks of taking care of both people and the planet are inseparable, he said. The pope said there was a "weak response" in most international policies to promoting the common good. He lamented how easily well-founded scientific counsel is "disregarded" and how politics tends to obey technology and finance instead. The proof of that, he said, is the way countries are still "distracted" or delayed in applying international agreements on the environment as well as the "continuous wars of dominance masquerading as noble declarations that cause increasingly serious harm to the environment and the moral and cultural wealth of peoples." Pope Francis told the scientists that it was up to them to "build a cultural model to tackle the crisis of climate change and its social consequences so that enormous productive capacities are not reserved only to the few." To do that, he said, the scientists would have to be free of political, economic and ideological interests, too. Because scientists have been able to study and demonstrate many crises facing the planet, the pope called on them to be leaders in proposing solutions to the many problems, such as water, energy and food security. He said it would be "indispensable" for the world's scientists to collaborate and create "a regulatory system that includes inviolable limits and guarantees the protection of ecosystems before new forms of power derived from the technological-economic paradigm produce irreversible damage not just to the environment but also to coexistence, democracy, justice and freedom."- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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For engaged couple, jubilee year always will be part of their love story

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic SpiritBy Matthew DavisMINNEAPOLIS (CNS) -- Hundreds filled the front steps of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis Nov. 20 following Mass to witness the closing of the church's Holy Doors, marking the end of the Catholic Church's Jubilee Year of Mercy. Among them were Jonathan Thompson and Julia Waletzko, who had held hands and grinned as they passed through the doors a final time. The pair, who met at the basilica at a Bible study on Valentine's Day, had gotten engaged just hours earlier. "The closing of the Holy Doors was a big draw," Thompson said of the couple's decision to attend the closing Mass. "It was such a peaceful experience." Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis presided at the evening Mass and then invited the congregation to process out of the Holy Doors before he ceremoniously closed them. With the Cathedral of St. Paul and St. Maron in Minneapolis, the basilica was one of three local churches with designated Holy Doors for the jubilee year. The ritual was repeated at cathedrals and basilicas across the United States as the Year of Mercy, which began in December 2015, came to a close on the feast of Christ the King. Pope Francis called for the special year to highlight God's mercy for all people. Dioceses throughout the world hosted activities focused on the works of mercy, increased time available for confessions and opened designated holy doors for pilgrims. At the Vatican, as he officially closed the extraordinary jubilee celebration, Pope Francis said: "We have received mercy in order to be merciful." In his homily, he said that "the true door of mercy, which is the heart of Christ, always remains open wide for us."During the year, by passing through a Holy Door, people could receive a plenary indulgence, the remission of temporal punishment due to sin, if they also fulfilled other conditions: reception of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, visits and prayers for the intention of the pope and performing simple acts such as visiting the sick."Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the church," the pope wrote in an apostolic letter, "Misericordia et Misera," ("Mercy and Misery"), which he signed Nov. 20 at the end of the Year of Mercy.Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the letter. "Christ's mercy endures. The healing power of God's forgiveness is available to all who earnestly seek it," he said Nov. 21. "In his apostolic letter ... Pope Francis invites us to carry this life-giving message to all who need it. The jubilee year has been filled with grace, a grace that has refreshed our faith for the path of service ahead. ... Let us seek out the poor, the sick and all those in spiritual need."By sharing what God "has so generously given us" with others, Cardinal DiNardo said, "we will transform a Year of Mercy into a life of mercy." In Washington, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese of the Military Services celebrated the closing Mass for the special year and closed the Holy Doors at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In his homily, he echoed the pope's words about God's mercy always being available. "Closing the Holy Door in no way signifies that divine mercy is no longer available to us," Archbishop Broglio said. "On the contrary, now that we have tasted what the Lord can do for us, the new liturgical year that opens next Sunday should be an invitation to deepen our experience of Christ and hold out his mercy to others. "It is never too late to beg for mercy from the Lord and no one is beyond redemption. Look up at Jesus and know that he calls us to him," he said. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, church officials launched two initiatives to mark the close of the jubilee year: Mercy Fund, to support the work of chaplains in prisons and hospitals, and "By Your Side LA," an outreach to women and men affected by abortion. The initiatives will "continue and expand the mission of mercy" throughout the three counties that make up the archdiocese -- Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara. "This Year of Mercy has been a special blessing for all of us here in Los Angeles –- a time for rediscovering the great love that God has for us as our heavenly Father and the importance of living with love and mercy toward our brothers and sisters," said Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez. "As we close the Year of Mercy, we want to give thanks to God for his love and we want to rededicate ourselves to being missionaries of his mercy -– in our homes, in the places where we work, and in every area of our society." Hundreds gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles for the closing Mass celebrated by the archbishop. After Communion, Archbishop Gomez led Massgoers in a procession outside to the Cathedral Plaza for a final blessing and closing of the "Archway of Mercy." In Tennessee, Nashville Bishop David R. Choby celebrated a closing Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. As a final event of the special year, the diocese held a memorial service Nov. 22 at the Catholic Pastoral Center for those whose loved ones had died in the last year. "I think people embraced it," Father Jayd Neely, pastor of St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church in downtown Nashville, said of the Year of Mercy. "Mercy is a theme that resonates with everybody." Since last May, Aimee Shelide Mayer, program coordinator for social concerns and advocacy at Catholic Charities of Tennessee, organized an event each month reflecting one of the church's corporal works of mercy. An event at the Loaves and Fishes program, which provides meals for the poor and homeless, fit well with "feed the hungry," she said. Another was a drive that collected more than 8,300 diapers for the adoptions assistance program ("I was naked and you clothed me.") Still another was visiting the homebound through the Living at Home program ("I was in prison and you visited me.") In the Archdiocese of Miami, parishioners of St. Mark Church in Southwest Ranches, Florida, marked the closing of the year with a recent six-mile pilgrimage to enter through the Holy Doors at St. Anthony Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Participants included members of the parish's middle and high school youth groups, along with their families. St. Anthony was one of six designated pilgrimage churches in the archdiocese for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. "This is a great finish to the Jubilee Year of Mercy for the youth of St. Mark," said Father Jaime "Jimmy" Acevedo, St. Mark's pastor. "We are a pilgrim church to the new Jerusalem, (made) possible only by our merciful God, and what better way than to walk to the Holy Door of mercy." In the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, Auxiliary Bishop Neil E. Tiedemann celebrated a special liturgy with more than 900 people at Regina Pacis Basilica in Bensonhurst. It was one of six diocesan churches that were the sites of Holy Doors throughout the year. ""We gather in prayer and thanksgiving for the many blessings you and I have experienced as we passed through these doors," said Bishop Tiedemann. "Now you and I are to bring that mercy that we received to the world and we are to be instruments of mercy and forgiveness. We are sent out through the doors of mercy." Back in Minneapolis, the jubilee year will forever be part of Thompson and Waletzko's love story. Thompson purposely tied his proposal to its final day. Earlier this year, he and his bride-to-be passed through Holy Doors thousands of miles apart, but they concluded the year walking through Holy Doors together. A parishioner of Maternity of Mary in St. Paul, Thompson went through the basilica's Holy Doors for the first time on Valentine's Day and had been praying for clarity in God's plan for his life. That night he met Waletzko, a basilica parishioner, who had recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she had gone through Holy Doors at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. She, too, had been praying about what God wanted for her life, she said. "It's just amazing what happened in the last year, not even, 10 months since I went through those other Holy Doors," Waletzko told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. In his homily, Archbishop Hebda emphasized that mercy must continue beyond the jubilee. "As a people, we have been celebrating throughout this Year of Mercy that our God is a God of mercy and that Jesus, God made flesh, is the very face of mercy," he said. - - - Davis is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Contributing to this report were Andy Telli in Nashville and staff of The Tablet in the Brooklyn Diocese.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

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HHS contraceptive mandate in limbo awaiting action by new administration

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPABy Carol ZimmermannWASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious employers that challenged the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act have been cautiously breathing a sigh of relief since the presidential election. "Everyone is still protected by the Supreme Court's order," but they know with a new administration it could change in minutes," said Mark Rienzi, lead attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Little Sisters of the Poor in the case before the court earlier this year. And even though nothing has been announced yet, Rienzi seems confident Donald Trump's campaign promises to repeal some or all of the Affordable Care Act would very likely put the contraceptive issue off the table. "We feel optimistic," he told Catholic News Service Nov. 22, stressing that a major part of Trump's victory stemmed from religious voters convinced he would best represent them with pro-life policies and Supreme Court nominee picks. The court heard oral arguments in the case March 23. In a unanimous decision May 16, the justices sent the matter back to the lower courts for the parties to work out a compromise. The court also has ordered the government not to impose on the plaintiffs hefty fines it has set up for noncompliance with the mandate. "The previous administration went aggressively too far in bullying religious groups," he added, saying people supported Trump over Hillary Clinton specifically for his "promises to do things for religious liberty." Rienzi also said he hoped that Trump, whom he described as "a practical man and a businessman" would recognize there is no need for the government "to be fighting the Little Sisters of the Poor" and should be able to work out a reasonable solution. "I'm optimistic he will do what he was sent to do," Rienzi added. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed similar hope of working out this issue with the new administration. A week after the election he told reporters at the bishops' fall general assembly in Baltimore that although he wasn't sure what the Trump administration would do, he hoped "we can sit down with the administration or meet with them in some fashion, perhaps even in terms of Congress, relative to some pro-life things. I would certainly think some aspects of the Affordable Care Act would be great if we could sit down and see them worked out, relative to, let's say, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and analogous things." The Little Sisters of the Poor is just one group involved in the case before the court, although the religious order has become synonymous with the entire argument challenging the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employers cover contraceptives in their employee health plans despite their moral objections to such coverage. The case of Zubik v. Burwell also involves Priests for Life, the Pennsylvania dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, and the Archdiocese of Washington and other religious groups who did not fit the narrow exemption to the contraceptive mandate given to churches. In mid-May, the Supreme Court sent the cases back to the lower courts, which cleared the slate from their previous court rulings when five appeals courts had ruled in favor of the contraceptive mandate and one ruled against it. Although the Supreme Court justices expressed hoped that both sides might be able to work out a compromise, that has not happened. Instead, lawyers for both sides have applied for extended deadlines in negotiations in eight separate federal appeals courts. Legal analyst Lyle Denniston, longtime writer for a blog on the Supreme Court who is now writing for National Constitution Center, wrote in mid-November that 20 cases are awaiting word on whether the two sides can come to an agreement. He also noted that federal government officials have told appeals courts that they are still processing the public comments on possible changes in the mandate. He noted the new administration will not be able to simply do away with the mandate by presidential order because binding regulations are in place that determine when a religious employer is exempt from having to provide contraceptives to its employees or to students attending religious colleges. If there is to be a change, new regulations will have to be written and then submitted to the public for comment for 60 days or more, he said. Since the health law falls under the Department of Health and Human Services, many are looking at Trump's potential pick to head that agency. Signs are currently pointing to Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia, who has spoken of repealing the Affordable Care Act or at least its contraception mandate. Another factor in the mix, should these cases find their way back to the Supreme Court, is that Trump will be nominating a candidate to fill the vacant ninth seat, held by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and he has stated that he would pick a conservative justice. Two judges on his list of potential nominees: Timothy Tymkovich and Neil Gorsuch, serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, and both had voted in favor of -- but were outnumbered-- reconsidering an exemption to a contraceptive mandate case last year. The two were part of a dissenting opinion that said: "The issue is not just about access to birth control services, but a core question about religious freedom to decide what one's own faith principles are." - - - Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.- - -Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.