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Pope's trip to Burma comes amid 'textbook example of ethnic cleansing'

Naypyitaw, Burma, Nov 24, 2017 / 03:42 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- When Pope Francis visits Burma, also known as Myanmar, later this month, his visit will come at one of the most contentious periods of the country’s history.

In recent months, state-supported violence against Burma’s Rohingya Muslim community – an ethnic and religious minority– has reached staggering levels, causing the United Nations to declare the situation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“The scope of the humanitarian crisis is enormous and it’s ongoing,” said Daniel Mark, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in an interview with CNA at the end of September. “Once again we unfortunately have another terrible crisis that’s focusing people’s attention on something that’s already a terrible situation.”

“This is a deep and longstanding problem that we’ve been trying to call attention to for a long time, but it’s going to need an extremely long and concerted effort to address,” Mark told CNA. “Even addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis is not going to solve this profound underlying issue of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma.”

For years, the Rohingya, an ethnic group whose main religion is Islam, have faced grave persecution in the Burmese state of Rakhine, where the majority of them live. An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya live within the majority-Buddhist country. Members of the group have been denied citizenship since the foundation of Burma in 1948, and have suffered violence, and lack the freedom to move or access clean water since a military coup d’etat in 1962.

After a different military regime took control in 1988, with even harsher military crackdowns throughout the country, the country has been referred to as Myanmar.

Pope Francis will visit the country at the end of November, following stories of horrifying human rights abuses and a mass exodus of Rohingya civilians from Burma.

The most recent wave of violence began on Aug. 25, 2017, after which the Burmese military and local Buddhist vigilantes enacted a campaign of burning Rohingya villages and massacring the civilians within them. It is still unclear exactly how many people have been killed in the violence, but aid agencies estimate that thousands are dead and more than 600,000 people have been displaced since late August. Neighboring Bangladesh has accepted the majority of those refugees, and more people have been internally displaced within the country.

The military claims the violence is a response to attacks by a small group of Rohingya against border agents in the Rakhine province, which left 12 officers dead. However, the violence – which includes arson, sexual violence, and internal displacement – long precedes those attacks, and other demonstrations within Rohingya communities, said Olivia Enos, a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, who specializes in human rights.

“Maybe some individual Rohingya are acting out in self-defense, but to place blame on Rohingya is misleading,” Enos said. 

“The military has a long, long history of burning homes and villages, raping women and children. The track record is so long that to place the blame on any kind of radical agents within the Rohingya would be really inaccurate.”

While violence and discrimination against the Rohingya people at the hands of Burmese authorities has been ongoing since the 1960s, with increases in persecution in 2012 and 2015, the current crisis is of particular concern, Enos said.  She explained that the high levels of displacement and increased incidents of violence and destruction set this conflict apart from the ones that have come before.

Also concerning, she said, is the fact this conflict is occurring after democratic reforms which took place between 2011-2015. While the nation is becoming more democratic, she said, military still maintains significant control within Burma. Furthermore, the country’s leader - Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi– has remained silent when asked about the persecution of the group within her country.

To add to the worries, Enos fears that by focusing on the ethnic element of the conflict, Western leaders may overlook its religious aspect. “The vast majority of people in Burma are Buddhist and they view the Muslim minority group Rohingya as a threat to the native Burman society,” she said. “It’s a religious conflict.”

Mark stated that the religious element of the conflict has been a concern of the Commission since its founding in 1998.  “As a result of this, we’ve been following this very, very carefully and for a long time,” he said We’ve recommended Burma be designated as a Country of Particular Concern every year,” a recommendation the U.S. Department of State has followed each year it’s made such designations.

The long history of the conflict means that while there are immediate steps that need to be taken to address the humanitarian situation, work to end the conflict will need to look at long-term solution.

“This is all a result of the systematic exclusion of these people from Burmese society,” Mark explained. “All the things we’re saying now about the treatment of Rohingya Muslims going forward are thing that we have been saying all along,” he continued.

“It’s been a tinderbox and that needs to be addressed.”

In the short term, Mark advocated for immediate humanitarian aid and assurance that humanitarian goods will get to those in need of them. He also called for accountability for human rights violations and a cessation of violence.

He noted the need for the international community to help support Bangladesh as it takes in tens of thousands of people a day, so a secondary crisis is not created there.

“Attacks need to stop and aid needs to start.”

 

An earlier version of this article was published Sept. 28, 2017.

Pope: For Christians, work is more than an occupation, it's a mission

Vatican City, Nov 24, 2017 / 11:46 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In a letter for the conclusion of a conference on labor on Friday, Pope Francis said work is about more than just doing something for money, but about cooperating with Christ’s work of redemption in how we care for others and the earth.

“According to Christian tradition, (work) is more than a mere doing; it is, above all, a mission,” the Pope said Nov. 24.

“We collaborate with the creative work of God when, through our work, we cultivate and preserve creation; we participate, in the Spirit of Jesus, in his redemptive mission, when by our activity we give sustenance to our families and respond to the needs of our neighbor.”

Jesus of Nazareth, who spent most of his life working as a carpenter, “invites us to follow in his footsteps through work,” he continued. This way, in the words of St. Ambrose, “every worker is the hand of Christ who continues to create and to do good.”

Pope Francis sent the letter for the conclusion of a Nov. 23-24 international conference at the Vatican on work and worker’s movements, and how these are at the heart of sustainable and integral human development.

At the same time that we consider the value of work, the Pope stressed the importance of not exaggerating the “mystical” side of work, as observed by Pope Paul VI. The person “is not just work,” Francis said. “There are other human needs that we must cultivate and consider, such as family, friends, and rest.”

This is why, he stated, it is important to remember that work must always serve the human person, and not the other way around. Therefore, “we must question the structures that damage or exploit people, families, the companies and our mother earth,” he said.

In the letter, the Pope decried the utilitarian attitude faced by many workers, who in their struggle for just work, have been forced to accept the presence of a utilitarian mentality which does not care if there is excess waste, “social and environmental degradation,” forced child labor, or pollution.

“Everything is justified by the money god,” Francis said, noting however that many of the people who participated in the conference have contributed to the fight against utilitarianism in the past and are “well positioned to correct it in the future.”

“Please address this difficult subject and show us, according to your prophetic and creative mission, that a culture of encounter and care is possible,” he said.

Drawing a connection between the three topics of time, work and technology, the Pope criticized the constant intensification of a rapid pace of both work and life, saying it is unfavorable for sustainable development.

Technology as well, which we receive many benefits and opportunities from, can also hinder sustainable development when “it is associated with a paradigm of power, dominance, and manipulation,” he said.

To talk about development in a fruitful way, we must start from what we have in common, he said, which is: our origin, our belonging and our destination. “On this basis, we can renew the universal solidarity of all people, including solidarity with the people of tomorrow.”

“We will also be able to find a way out of a marketplace and monetary economy that does not give work the value it is due, and move it towards another in which human activity is the center.”

Egypt mosque attack kills more than 230 (Updated)

Ismailia, Egypt, Nov 24, 2017 / 11:25 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Terrorists attacked a mosque on Egypt's Sinai peninsula during Friday prayers, killing 235 people. The incident has been condemned by both Pope Francis and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the US bishops' conference.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the Nov. 24 attack on al-Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed, located about 75 miles northeast of Ismailia.

The Holy See issued a statement indicating Pope Francis “was profoundly grieved to learn of the great loss of life” in the attack. “In expressing his solidarity with the Egyptian people … he commends the victims to the mercy of the Most High God and invokes divine blessings of consolation and peace upon their families.”

“In renewing his firm condemnation of this wanton act of brutality directed at innocent civilians gathered in prayer, His Holiness joins all people of good will in imploring that hearts hardened by hatred will learn to renounce the way of violence that leads to such great suffering, and embrace the way of peace.”

Cardinal DiNardo stated that “I join with my brother bishops in unequivocally condemning the monstrous terrorist attack on innocent people at prayer in Egypt. Terrorist acts can never be justified in the name of God or any political ideology, and the fact this attack took place at a Mosque, a place of worship, is especially offensive to God.”

The Church in the US “mourns with the people of Egypt at this time of tragedy, and assures them of our prayerful solidarity,” he added.

“We join with all those of good will in prayer that these acts of terror and mass killings – these acts of grave evil – will end and will be replaced with genuine and mutual respect for the dignity of each and every person.”

The mosque, associated with Sufis – followers of a form of Islamic mysticism – was bombed and hit with gunfire. Hundreds more were wounded in the attack.

The Sinai peninsula has been the site of an Islamist insurgency since 2013, when the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Vatican official calls Trump's Haiti move 'a sad decision'

Vatican City, Nov 24, 2017 / 09:26 am (CNA/EWTN News).- One of the Vatican's top diplomatic voices has criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's recent decision to end the Temporary Protected Status of thousands of Haitians taking refuge in the U.S., saying the country isn't yet ready for the influx after a slew of natural disasters devastated the island nation.

“That's a sad decision, because the Haitian population in the U.S. that arrived after the earthquake and after the storm that destroyed half of the island, cannot go back to a situation that still is very difficult,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told CNA Nov. 24.

Reconstruction in Haiti following the brutal 2010 earthquake that left hundreds of thousands dead before Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016, causing further devastation, “is not well-advanced,” Tomasi said, “because there are not enough resources for the people  of Haiti.”

“We hope in the months ahead that there will still be some space to negotiate and delay, and continue the protection of status for Haitians in the United States.”

Archbishop Tomasi was formerly the Holy See's Permanent Observer to the United Nations in Geneva, and is now Counselor for the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

He spoke during the Nov. 24 presentation of Pope Francis' message for the 2018 World Day of Peace, titled “Migrants and Refugees: men and women in search of peace,” and dedicated entirely to the issue of migration.

The message comes just four days after Trump administration announced it will be ending protected legal residency for an estimated 60,000 Haitians living in the U.S., giving them until July 2019 to return to their country.

Thousands of Haitians flocked to the United States in 2010 following a catastrophic earthquake that measured at 7.0 on the Richter scale and which killed more than 200,000, displaced more than 1 million, and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in and around the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

The Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that the “extraordinary conditions” necessitating TPS for Haitians in the United States “no longer exists.”

TPS, a policy begun in 1990, allows people who are unable safely to return to their home nations because of armed conflict, other violence, natural disasters, or other extraordinary and temporary circumstances to remain in the United States while the situation in their home country resolves.

However, the Trump administration's decision Monday has raised the question for many as to whether Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, will be able to support an influx of 60,000 people returning home after seven years.

As far as the Holy See is concerned, Tomasi said they are working with local bishops conferences and the apostolic nunciature in Washington D.C. “to sensitize...public opinion” on the issue, and to “deal with politically irresponsible people.”

They are also hoping to illustrate “the fact that we need not only to be compassionate, but to be attentive to the need of these populations, which is a fact that is of benefit also to the United States because it will create an area of peace and cooperation not only in the Caribbean, but in the region.”

When it comes to the migration issue, Tomasi said it's important to go beyond polemics and heated rhetoric.

Looking to what the reaction of many European countries has been to the arrival of refugees or asylum seekers, he said “there has been a multiplication of political parties where xenophobia dominates the goal of these organizations.”

“The solution is not to emphasize only security and control,” he said, but also involves thinking about how to welcome incoming migrants and refugees while taking into account “that the common good demands that both the necessity of the people arriving be taken into account, but also the limits that local communities welcoming them, accepting them, objectively have.”

“The important consideration I think is not to be too selfish, but to be open, to have a heart that is understanding and compassionate,” he said, adding that “we need to be men and women of compassion and empathy with the needs of others.”

Find hope in the sign of the cross, Pope tells Eastern Christians

Vatican City, Nov 24, 2017 / 07:38 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis on Friday encouraged Eastern Christians in the Middle East, who are experiencing persecution and violence, to take hope in the cross, where Christ sacrificed himself not to eliminate wounds, but to transform them.

“In all of this, the constant repetition of the sign of the cross is a reminder that the Lord of mercy never abandons his brothers and sisters, but embraces their wounds within his own,” the Pope said Nov. 24.

“By making the sign of the cross we recall Christ’s wounds, which the Resurrection did not eliminate but rather filled with light.”

“So too the wounds of Christians, including those still open, become radiant when they are filled with the living presence of Jesus and his love,” he continued, “and thus become signs of Easter light in a world enveloped by so much darkness.”

Pope Francis’ message was given to members of the Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.

The commission is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, which is an Eastern Christian Church found primarily in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. The commission meets periodically to study and discuss points of theological difference.

In his message, Francis asked the Lord to bless the future work of the commission, that one day both Churches may celebrate “full communion in Christ’s Church.” He also emphasized an aspect of their new Joint Declaration, which refers to the sign of the cross as “an explicit symbol of unity among all sacramental celebrations.”

This is a beautiful reflection, he said, because “hope and peace” come from Christ’s glorious cross, “and from the cross flows the unity of the sacred mysteries we celebrate, as well as our own unity, for we were baptized into the same death and resurrection of the Lord.”

Pope Francis noted that when we make the sign of the cross, or when we look at a crucifix, it is an invitation to think of those who have endured great sacrifices by uniting their suffering to Christ’s. It also reminds us to remember those who “today bear a heavy cross upon their shoulders.”

The Assyrian Church of the East, and other Churches in the Middle East, are afflicted by grave persecution and are witness to “brutal acts of violence,” he stated. This suffering was recently “exacerbated” by the tragedy of the Nov. 13 earthquake that hit the border between Iraq and Iran, killing at least 500 people and injuring thousands of others.

Those who have died from tragedy and from persecution – giving their lives “in following the Crucified Christ” – are the “heralds and patrons” in heaven of our visible communion on earth, he exclaimed, encouraging them to trust in the intercession of the saints as they continue to patiently rebuild their devastated land.

Pope on migration: Peace isn't possible unless we go beyond polemics

Vatican City, Nov 24, 2017 / 04:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- When it comes to migration, Pope Francis said the world, particularly Christians, must approach the issue with a “contemplative gaze” that goes beyond polemics and is guided by justice and solidarity, helping to build peace at both the global and local level.

Quoting St. John Paul II's message for the World Day of Peace in 2000, the Pope said, “we all belong to one family, migrants and the local populations that welcome them, and all have the same right to enjoy the goods of the earth whose destination is universal, as the social doctrine of the Church teaches.”

He referred to the biblical prophecies of Isaiah and the Apocalypse, which describe the “new Jerusalem” as a city whose gates are open to people from all nationalities. And in this city, “peace is the sovereign that guides it and justice the principle that governs coexistence within it.”

Christians must also have this “contemplative gaze,” he said, noting that when we look at migrants and refugees, we see that “they do not arrive empty-handed.” Rather, they bring with them their courage, skills, energy and aspirations, as well as the gift of their own culture, which enriches the lives of the nations that receive them.

Francis also pointed to the “creativity, tenacity and spirit of sacrifice” displayed by the many people, families and communities around who “open their doors and hearts to migrants and refugees, even where resources are scarce.”

A contemplative gaze on migration, he said, will also help guide global leaders in their discernment on the issue, and will encourage them to pursue policies of welcome “within the limits allowed by a correct understanding of the common good,” while at the same time keeping in mind the needs of both the whole of humanity and the good of the individual.

“Those who see things in this way will be able to recognize the seeds of peace that are already sprouting and nurture their growth,” the Pope said.

And with this gaze, “our cities, often divided and polarized by conflicts regarding the presence of migrants and refugees, will thus turn into workshops of peace.”

Pope Francis' reflection was part of his message for the 2018 World Day of Peace, which this year is titled “Migrants and Refugees: men and women in search of peace.” Signed on the Nov. 13 feast of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the message was published Nov. 24.

Instituted by Bl. Pope Paul VI in 1968, the World Day of Peace is celebrated each year on the first day of January. The Pope gives a special message for the occasion, which is sent to all foreign ministers around the world, and which also indicates the Holy See’s diplomatic tone during the coming year.

So far Pope Francis’ messages have focused on themes close to his heart, such as fraternity, an end to slavery, including forced labor and human trafficking and nonviolence as a political strategy.

His messages for the event have consistently included bold pastoral and political advice for both ecclesial and international leaders, including his push for the abolition of the death penalty and amnesty for prisoners convicted of political offenses.

This year's message focuses largely on the four-point “action plan” the Holy See has developed for the migration issue and which Pope Francis and his diplomatic representatives have spoken of often, particularly at the level of the U.N. This plan consists of four verbs: to welcome, protect, promote and integrate.

These are the four “milestones” for action, Francis said, explaining in his message that to welcome means above all broadening access to legal pathways for entry into host countries. Doing this, he said, will no longer push migrants and displaced people “towards countries where they face persecution and violence.”

It will also help in terms of “balancing our concerns about national security with concern for fundamental human rights.”

When it comes to protecting migrants and refugees, this imperative reminds us of the need to both recognize and defend “the inviolable dignity” of those who flee from precarious situations in search of safety and security, in order to prevent their exploitation.

On this point, the Pope turned specifically to women and children, who are often exposed to risks and abuses “that can even amount to enslavement.”

To promote migrants and refugees, he said, implies promoting an integral human development of migrants and refugees, particularly where education for children and young adults is concerned.  

Integrating, then, means allowing refugees and migrants “to participate fully in the life of the society that welcomes them, as part of a process of mutual enrichment and fruitful cooperation in service of the integral human development of the local community.”

With more than 250 million migrants around the world, 22.5 million of whom are refugees, opening our hearts is not enough, Francis said, but action is needed.

The 20th century was marked by wars, conflicts, genocides and 'ethnic cleansings,' he said, noting that this has not changed, but now other factors are contributing to the migration issue, such as an increase in the number of families seeking a better future with more professional and educational opportunities.

Referring to his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, the Pope noted that there is also a rise in the number of migrants fleeing growing poverty in their homeland caused by environmental degradation.

Most people migrate through regular channels, but some take more dangerous routes out of desperation when their own countries “offer neither safety nor opportunity, and every legal pathway appears impractical, blocked or too slow,” he said.

In many destination countries there has been a rise in rhetoric “decrying the risks posed to national security or the high cost of welcoming new arrivals.” And this rhetoric, he said, “demeans the human dignity due to all as sons and daughters of God.”

“Those who, for what may be political reasons, foment fear of migrants instead of building peace are sowing violence, racial discrimination and xenophobia, which are matters of great concern for all those concerned for the safety of every human being,” he said.

The numbers indicate that migrants will continue to play a major part in the international community in the future, Francis said. And while some consider this a threat, he invited the world “to view it with confidence as an opportunity to build peace.”

Pope Francis then turned to the proposal for the 2018 U.N. global compacts on migration and refugees, which he said will provide a framework for policy proposals and practical steps to be taken.

These compacts “need to be inspired by compassion, foresight and courage, so as to take advantage of every opportunity to advance the peace-building process,” he said. Only by doing this can international politics avoid “surrendering to cynicism and to the globalization of indifference.”

He stressed the need for greater dialogue and coordination within the international community, saying that beyond national borders, “higher numbers of refugees may be welcomed – or better welcomed – also by less wealthy countries, if international cooperation guarantees them the necessary funding.”

Quoting St. John Paul II's 2004 message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Francis said “if the dream of a peaceful world is shared by all, if the refugees’ and migrants’ contribution is properly evaluated, then humanity can become more and more of a universal family and our earth a true common home.”

Throughout history many people have believed in this dream, he said, including St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, a missionary who spent her life working with Italian immigrants in the United States.

“This remarkable woman, who devoted her life to the service of migrants and became their patron saint, taught us to welcome, protect, promote and integrate our brothers and sisters,” the Pope said.

He closed his message praying that through her intercession, the Lord would “enable all of us to experience that a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

Little Sisters face new lawsuit over their HHS mandate exemption

Washington D.C., Nov 24, 2017 / 03:47 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Little Sisters of the Poor are returning to court to defend their exemption from the federal contraception mandate, after two states filed lawsuits challenging the exemption.

“No one needs nuns in order to get contraceptives, and no one needs these guys reigniting the last administration's divisive and unnecessary culture war,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket Law and lead attorney for the Little Sisters.

The Little Sisters of Poor are religious sisters dedicated to living with and caring for the elderly poor. In recent years, they have been embroiled in a lawsuit challenging the federal contraception mandate, which requires them to offer an employee health plan covering contraception, sterilizations and some drugs that can cause early abortions. Catholic teaching holds contraception and abortion to be gravely immoral.  

Last month, the Trump administration announced changes to the mandate, including a broad religious exemption that offered protection from its demands to the Little Sisters and other objecting religious non-profits.

“The new rule should mean that their lawsuit against the federal government will soon end,” said Becket, the religious liberty law firm representing the sisters.

However, the states of California and Pennsylvania are now suing, challenging the Little Sisters’ religious exemption.

The HHS contraceptive mandate, issued under the Affordable Care Act, required that cost-free coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and some drugs that can cause abortions be included in employer health plans.

The original mandate had only a narrow exemption for houses of worship and their integrated auxiliaries. Following a wave of lawsuits on the grounds of religious liberty, the Obama administration released a “religious freedom accommodation” for faith-based non-profits that were not directly affiliated with a house of worship.

Under the accommodation, these groups could send a form to the government outlining their objection to the mandate, which would trigger a government directive to an insurer or third party administrator to provide the cost-free contraceptive coverage in employee health plans.

However, many groups argued that the accommodation still required them to participate in the provision of products that they believed to be immoral. Furthermore, they argued that, despite the government’s insistence that birth control products are free for insurers to provide, the cost of the objectionable products would ultimately be passed on to them in the form of higher premiums.

More than 300 plaintiffs filed lawsuits against the mandate. In 2014, Hobby Lobby, a craft supply retailer owned by a Christian family, won a case against the mandate in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.

In 2016, a bundle of cases challenging the mandate and its accommodation made its way to the Supreme Court – including the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, and other Christian colleges and universities.

After oral arguments in the case in March of 2016, the Supreme Court, in a rare move in the middle of a case, directed both the government and the plaintiffs to submit briefs explaining if, and how, a conclusion could be reached providing the contraceptive coverage while at the same time respecting the religious freedom of the non-profits.

Both parties submitted briefs, and in May of 2016, the Court voided the federal circuit court decisions involving the plaintiffs, and sent the cases back to their respective federal courts. The Court directed the lower courts to give all parties time to come to an agreement that satisfied their needs.

In October 2017, the Trump administration announced a modification of the mandate. While the original rule remains in place, a much broader exemption is granted to non-profits and some for-profit companies, if they can demonstrate a religiously-based objection to the mandate’s demands.

A moral exemption to the mandate is also permitted, although not for publicly-traded for-profit companies. The moral exemption would protect, for example, secular crisis pregnancy centers, which object to the mandate on moral rather than religious grounds.

The “accommodation” offered to non-profits by the Obama administration is now voluntary. Non-profits can have their insurer or third party administrator offer the coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that can cause abortions, but they do not have to do so under law.

 

Pope prays for peace, victims of war in Congo and South Sudan

Vatican City, Nov 23, 2017 / 10:09 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With plans to visit South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year thwarted by ongoing conflict, Pope Francis on Thursday led a prayer vigil for peace in the two countries, asking for an end to war and comfort for victims of the violence.  

“We want to sow seeds of peace in the lands of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in all lands devastated by war,” the Pope said Nov. 23.

Pope Francis had planned to visit South Sudan this fall alongside Anglican Primate Archbishop Joseph Welby for an ecumenical trip aimed at promoting peace in the conflict-ridden country. However, due to safety concerns, the visit was postponed until the situation on the ground stabilizes.

Though he was unable to go, Pope Francis said in his homily for the prayer vigil that “we know that prayer is more important, because it is more powerful: prayer works by the power of God, for whom nothing is impossible.”

South Sudan has been in the middle of a brutal civil war for the past three-and-a-half years, which has divided the young country between those loyal to its President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former vice president Reik Machar. The conflict has also bred various divisions of militia and opposition groups.

Since the beginning of the war, some 4 million citizens have left the violence-stricken country in hopes of finding peace, food and work. In August alone Uganda received the one-millionth South Sudanese refugee, highlighting the urgency of the crisis as the world's fastest growing refugee epidemic.

For those who have not fled the nation, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are seeking refuge in churches for protection from violence. Most IDPs are typically women, children and those who have lost their families in the war.  

Many are too fearful to stay in their homes because they know they could be killed, tortured, raped or even forced to fight. And despite successful partnerships between the local Church, aid agencies and the government, refugees in many areas still need a proper supply of food.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, political unrest first erupted in 2015 after a bill was proposed which would potentially delay the presidential and parliamentary elections. The bill was widely seen by the opposition as a power grab on the part of Kabila.

Relations between the government and the opposition deteriorated further when a Kasai chief was killed last August, after calling on the central government to quit meddling in the territory, insisting it be controlled by the local leaders.

Catholic bishops in the country had helped to negotiate an agreement, which hoped to prevent a renewed civil war by securing an election this year for the successor of President Kabila. However, in January of this year, the bishops said the agreement was expected to fail unless both parties were willing to compromise. In March, the bishops withdrew from mediation talks.

With a history of bloody ethnic rivalries and clashes over resources, fears have developed that the violence in Kasai, a hub for political tension, will spread to the rest of the nation and even lead to the involvement of neighboring countries.

In the past year alone, more than 3,300 people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasai region. The death toll includes civilians caught in the crossfire of a brutal fight between the Congolese army and an opposing militia group.

In his brief homily for the prayer vigil, Pope Francis noted how in the entrance hymn, the words “the risen Christ invites us, alleluia!” were sung in Swahili. As Christians, “we believe and know that peace is possible, because Jesus is risen,” he said.

The prayer vigil consisted of five prayers each followed by a song and prayers of intercession, as well as the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi asking God to make him an instrument of peace.  

The prayers consisted of petitions for conversion; to overcome indifference and divisions; for women who are victims of violence in war zones; for all those who cause war and for those who have responsibility at the local and international levels; for all innocent victims of war and violence and for all those committed to working for peace in South Sudan and the Congo.

Quoting from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, Pope Francis said that Jesus Christ “is our peace,” and that on the cross, “he took upon himself all the evil of the world, including the sins that spawn and fuel wars: pride, greed, lust for power, lies.”

“Jesus conquered all this by his resurrection,” he said, and, speaking directly to God, said, that “without you, Lord, our prayer would be in vain, and our hope for peace an illusion. But you are alive. You are at work for us and with us. You are our peace!”

Francis then prayed that the Risen Christ would “break down the walls of hostility” that divide peoples throughout the world, particularly in South Sudan and the DCR.

He asked that God would comfort women who have been victims of violence in war zones, and protect children who suffer from various conflicts “in which they have no part, but which rob them of their childhood and at times of life itself.”

“How hypocritical it is to deny the mass murder of women and children,” he said, noting that “here war shows its most horrid face.”

The Pope closed his prayer with a series of appeals, the first being that God would help “all the little ones and the poor of our world to continue to believe and trust that the kingdom of God is at hand, in our midst, and is justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

He asked that God would support all those who work daily to combat evil with good through words and deeds of fraternity, respect, encounter and solidarity, and prayed that the Lord would strengthen government officials and leaders with a spirit that is “noble, upright, steadfast and courageous in seeking peace through dialogue and negotiation.”

“May the Lord enable all of us to be peacemakers wherever we find ourselves, in our families, in school, at work, in the community, in every setting,” he said.

Commentary: Giving thanks for trials - and for providence

Denver, Colo., Nov 23, 2017 / 09:07 am (CNA).- The best feast our family has ever had was in a hospital room, four years ago, on Christmas. Our daughter was being treated for leukemia, and my wife was living in the hospital with her. My son and I brought supplies for a makeshift picnic, and the four of us spent a long afternoon together, with an acute sense of gratitude for the gift of one another's presence.

Our daughter spent almost a year in cancer treatment, most of it living with my wife in a hospital's oncology wing, an hour away. It was a difficult time, in which we faced the crosses of our daughter's illness and of being often separated. 

And yet, we were aware then, as we are now, what a graced time that was for our family. We were aware of how much the Lord was doing for us. We could see how much he was providing for us. We were aware, in short, how much we had to be thankful for.

When we find ourselves radically dependent on the Lord to get us through a time of trial or suffering, we become aware of how much love he pours out into our lives. When we can't ignore how much we need the Lord, we see clearly what he's doing for us. This is why times of trial are also, so often, times of deep and sincere gratitude.

I'm often amazed when I talk with missionaries, living in very difficult circumstances, who seem also to live with a real sense of what God has given them, and real gratitude for how he has loved them. Their lives, which are often unpredictable and uncomfortable, seem to inculcate an understanding of what it means to depend on Divine Providence, and a gratitude for the small graces the Lord has given them.

It's much more difficult to really be thankful when we are comfortable enough to maintain illusions of self-sufficiency, or to focus on trivialities and our petty desires. It is often harder to see the ways the Lord is working in our lives when we have settled into a kind of pleasant satisfaction with ordinary living.

This is a reminder that disciples of Jesus should avoid the kind of comfortable complacency that the world often calls success or security. That illusions of security and self-sufficiency are inimical growing in intimate unity for the Lord, or sincere gratitude for his grace.

In short, when our lives require sacrifice, or entail hardship, because we are stretched by the demands of love, we are far more likely to see the power of God's goodness, and to be grateful for the ways in which he loves us.

If we want a deeper unity with God, we should consider the ways in which he invites us to deny ourselves for the sake of love, and we should pick up our crosses. If we want to experience the kind of gratitude that comes from real, and powerful, experiences of God's Providence, we need to give up the idea that our lives are our own, and offer them more fully and freely to the Lord.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of bishops, priests, and Church leaders, at which we discussed some of the challenges the Church is facing in contemporary American culture. Most of those issues are well known. It was important to discuss them openly, but by the end of the day, many of us were feeling very discouraged.

After the meeting, I talked with a friend who said that we should be grateful for the challenges of our world. He said that it will likely become harder to be a Christian disciple in the years to come. And he said that our pending difficulties might invite more of us to intimate unity with God.

This Thanksgiving, we should give thanks for the crosses the Lord has already placed in our lives – the illnesses or struggles during which Christ reveals the depth and constancy of his love for us. We should ask the Lord to show us how he calls us to give ourselves more concretely to love, and thank him for opportunities to grow in wonder and appreciation for his Providence. And we should thank the Lord for the challenges which may lie ahead of us, which might deepen our faith and dependence on the grace of God. 

“In all circumstances,” writes St. Paul, “give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” This Thanksgiving, no matter our circumstances, let us give thanks for the love, goodness, and generosity of Jesus Christ, our King.

 

When you serve others, stay humble, Pope tells Franciscans

Vatican City, Nov 23, 2017 / 07:20 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis said on Thursday to always be humble when serving others, especially the least of these, remembering how much you yourself have received that you did not deserve.

“When you do some activity for the 'little ones,' the excluded and the least, never do it from a pedestal of superiority,” Pope Francis said Nov. 23. “Think rather that all that you do for them is a way of returning what you have received for free.”

“Make a welcoming and friendly space for all the least of these of our time to come into your life: the marginalized, men and women who live in our streets, parks or stations; the thousands of unemployed, young people and adults,” he continued.

As well as the “many sick people who do not have access to adequate care; many abandoned elders; mistreated women; immigrants seeking a respectable life; all those who live in the existential suburbs, deprived of dignity and even the light of the Gospel.”

Learn to be, as St. Francis said, “sick with the sick, afflicted with the afflicted,” the Pope said.

Francis met Thursday with a group of around 400 Franciscans, members of the First and Third Ordinary Orders, encouraging them to approach everything they do with the humility of a child.

“That is why your relationship with Him should be that of a child: humble and confident and, like that of the Publican in the Gospel, (who is) aware of his sin,” and asks for God’s mercy.

The Pope said that the Franciscan concept of “minority,” or of humbling yourself, is an important aspect of their relationships with God, with their brothers in the order, and with all men and women, because for St. Francis, “man has nothing of his own if not his own sin, and his value is his worth before God and nothing else.”

But how do we remain humble in all our relationships and interactions with others? he asked. By avoiding any behavior of superiority, such as quick judgments, speaking badly of others behind their back, demanding repayment for favors, and using our authority to subdue others.

We should also try to avoid the temptation to become angry or upset at others’ sins. In all your interactions with fellow brothers of the order, follow “the dynamism of charity,” the Pope said.

“Therefore, while justice will bring you to recognize the rights of everyone, charity transcends these rights and calls you to fraternal communion; because it is not the rights you love, but the brothers, whom you have to accept with respect, understanding and mercy.”