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Pope Francis: Jerusalem must be protected from political disputes

Vatican City, Jun 22, 2018 / 10:23 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis stressed Friday the important role the Eastern Catholic Churches play in spreading the Gospel given that many of them are concentrated in the Holy Land, and said Jerusalem in particular should be protected from tensions and political disputes.

“The Oriental Catholic Churches, as living witnesses to their apostolic origins, are called in a special way to protect and pass on a spark of Pentecostal fire,” the pope said according to prepared remarks June 22. “They are called daily to discover anew their own prophetic presence in all those places where they dwell as pilgrims.”

This, he said, begins with Jerusalem, “whose identity and particular vocation needs to be safeguarded beyond different tensions and political disputes.”

Pope Francis spoke at the Vatican's Consistory Hall to members of the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches, who are in Rome for their 91st plenary assembly, which this year coincides with the 50th anniversary of their founding.

The organization unites funding agencies from countries worldwide in order to provide services such as houses of worship and study, scholarships, and social and health care facilities to struggling areas.

Christians, though small in number in the area, are primarily called to this task, and must draw strength from the Holy Spirit “for their mission of witness,” he said, adding that in today's context, this mission “is more urgent than ever before.”

Francis then prayed that holy places such as Jerusalem, “where God’s plan was fulfilled in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” would be the birth place of “a renewed spirit of strength to inspire Christians in the Holy Land and the Middle East to embrace their special vocation and to offer an account of their faith and their hope.”

He voiced hope that the Eastern Catholic Churches would not be afraid to proclaim the Gospel in settings “that are often even more secularized than in the West, where they come as immigrants or refugees.”

The pope also prayed that they would be welcomed on both a practical and ecclesial level, “as they seek to preserve and enrich the patrimony of their various traditions.”

Thanks to organizations such as ROACO, members of the Eastern Churches, he said, “can bear witness to us, whose hearts are often dulled, that it is still worth living and suffering for the Gospel, even as a minority, or the object of persecution, for the Gospel is the joy and the life of men and women of every age.”

The pope said the organization's landmark anniversary is a testament to the help they have given to Christians throughout the Middle East through the various initiatives they lead.

These projects, he said, allow Eastern Catholic Churches to thrive not only in their native lands, but also in the increasing diaspora, enabling them to continue bearing witness to the Gospel despite being “severely tested” by persecution.

This persecution, he said, has arisen “first by the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe and then, more recently, by forms of allegedly religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, to say nothing of apparently interminable conflicts, especially in the Middle East.”

Solidarity shown by organizations such as ROACO, he said, have helped to ensure the continued existence of the Eastern Churches at risk of extinction, and have allowed these churches to continue spreading the Gospel.

Pope Francis said the work of ROACO has also helped him to continue his mission of “pursuing possible paths to the visible unity of all Christians,” and stressed that Christians who are members of Eastern Churches, though distant, “are no less loved, and certainly not forgotten.”

“With your help,” he said in closing, “they are always listened to and helped to continue their journey as the Church of the Risen Christ, amid every challenge, and every spiritual and material suffering, in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.”

Francis' comments on Jerusalem come after the United States on May 14 opened an embassy in the city, making the U.S. the only country to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel since the state was established in 1948.

Israel has claimed Jerusalem as its capital. However, Palestinians claim that the eastern portion of the city is the capital of the future Palestinian state.

Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has never been recognized by the international community, and all countries but the US have embassies in Tel Aviv. Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, then, was met with fierce backlash not only from international interlocutors, but also by the Vatican.

After Trump announced the change last December, Pope Francis expressed his “deep concern” and issued an appeal to the international community to ensure that “everyone is committed to respecting the status quo of the city, in accordance with the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations.”

Pope Francis also urged the necessity of maintaining the status quo in his meeting with Theophilos III, patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, in October 2017, in which the two discussed the patriarch’s concern for the Christian community amid aggression by Jewish settlers.

“Any kind of violence, discrimination or displays of intolerance against Jewish, Christian and Muslim worshipers, or places of worship, must be firmly rejected,” the pope said, adding that “the Holy City, whose status quo must be defended and preserved, ought to be a place where all can live together peaceably; otherwise, the endless spiral of suffering will continue for all.”

Saints John Fisher and Thomas More: Following God’s law above all else

London, England, Jun 22, 2018 / 03:01 am (CNA).- The feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More is observed as an optional memorial June 22. So that our readers don’t have to fish for more information, CNA has compiled a question-and-answer lowdown on their lives and legacies:

Who was St. Thomas More?

St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was a humanist and intellectual – he worked as a lawyer and explored theology through his written works, many of which were defenses of the Catholic faith against heresy. He studied at Oxford and briefly considered religious life, but he eventually followed a vocation to marriage and fatherhood.

More was appointed by King Henry VIII to be Lord Chancellor of England in 1529.

What does “Lord Chancellor” mean?

The “Lord Chancellor” was the highest ranking member of the King’s cabinet. This role was commonly filled by a clergyman. Historically, the role entailed great judicial responsibility – its influence has evolved to scale back on this particular front.

How did he manage to get on Henry VIII’s bad side?

St. Thomas More stood firmly in his Catholic faith when Henry VIII began to pull away from the Church.

The king wanted a declaration of nullity for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but the Church, upon examination, could not find his marriage to Catherine invalid. More refused in 1530 to sign a letter asking the pope to declare the marriage null, and would not sign an oath acknowledging the monarch as the supreme head of the Church in England.

In May 1532 Henry pressured the English synod, the Convocation of Canterbury, to submit the clergy's authority to his own. The day after the convocation agreed to Henry's terms, More resigned as Lord Chancellor.

More wished to retire from public life, but when he refused to assent to the Act of Supremacy 1534, which repudiated the pope's authority over the Church in England, he was imprisoned on charges of treason.

He was sentenced to execution, which took place July 6, 1535.

Why is he a saint?

More’s persistence to remain sided with the Church rather than the king, ending in martyrdom, was a testament to his tireless devotion to God’s law. He was canonized by Pius XI in 1935, and was named patron of statesmen and politicians by St. John Paul II.

I’ve heard something about his beard…?

Yes. You’re not imagining things, don’t worry.

The story with St. Thomas More’s beard is that he laid his beard outside of the execution blade’s path in one final, humorous gesture.

His last words were,“This hath not offended the King,” implying that while his head had angered Henry VIII, his beard was innocent and did not deserve to be severed.

  Who was St. John Fisher?

St. John Fisher (1469-1535) was ordained a priest when he was about 22, and was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1504. He lived an intentionally simple lifestyle and was an intellectual. He studied theology at Cambridge, where he became chancellor. Among his writings is a commentary on the seven penitential psalms.

His mission as a bishop was to perfect how the Church’s teachings were conveyed by his diocese. Fisher spent much of his time travelling to parishes with the mission of theologically correcting and realigning clergy. He also wrote various apologetic defenses in response to Martin Luther.

What did he have to do with the whole Henry VIII situation?

St. John Fisher studied Henry's request for a declaration of nullity, but could not find grounds for such a declaration.

He refused to assent to the Succession to the Crown Act 1533, which recognized the king's supremacy over the Church in England and declared the daughter of Catherine of Aragon illegitimate, and was imprisoned for treason in April 1534.

Fisher was jailed, starved and deprived of all sacraments, but he didn’t budge on his position.

Fisher was made a cardinal in May 1535, in the hopes that Henry would not dare execute a prince of the Church.

Please don’t tell me it ended like More’s story…

It didn’t. There was no beard on the line.

However, Fisher was executed, head on the chopping block and all. He removed his hair shirt, and said the Te Deum and Psalm 31 right before giving his life for the kingdom of God and the honor of the Church, June 22, 1535. He is the only cardinal to have been martyred.

Why is Fisher a saint?

Same deal as More – he stuck to what he knew to be the truth and died for it. He was canonized with More in 1935 by Pius XI.

But he’s not nearly as well-known as St. Thomas More!

No, he’s not. St. Thomas Fisher’s grave, which also contains the bones of More, doesn’t even bear his name. But he did it for the glory of God.

Study finds mounting global restrictions on religion

Washington D.C., Jun 22, 2018 / 12:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Government restrictions on religion continued to rise across the globe in 2016, according to a recently released Pew study, which linked the stifling of religion to nationalist parties and organizations.

“This marks the second year in a row of increases in the overall level of restrictions imposed either by governments or by private actors (groups and individuals) in the 198 countries examined in the study,” said the Pew report.

The research found that 42 percent of countries experienced high or very high levels of overall religious restriction, which included hostile acts by government or private individuals or groups. This number is up from 40 percent in 2015, and 29 percent in 2007.

“This marks the biggest number of countries to fall in this top category since Pew Research Center began analyzing restrictions on religion in 2007,” Pew said.

“The share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of government restrictions…rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2016,” the study found. “Meanwhile, the share of countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of social hostilities involving religion…remained stable in 2016 at 27 percent.”

The Middle-East and North Africa experienced the highest median level of government restrictions on religion, while Europe and the Americas were the only areas to experience an increase in median levels of social religious hostility.

Additionally, the research pointed to nationalist groups’ role in the rise of religious restrictions, particularly through targeting specific ethnic and religious minorities.

“In many countries, restrictions on religion resulted from actions taken by government officials, social groups or individuals espousing nationalist positions,” the Pew study noted.

Around 11 percent of countries saw government actors who “at times used nationalist, and often anti-immigrant or anti-minority, rhetoric to target religious groups in their countries in 2016,” – a 5 percent increase from the previous year.

European countries experienced this attitude most strongly, with around 33 percent having nationalist parties making statements against religious minorities, while 12 percent of Asia-Pacific countries shared a similar experience.

“Typically, these nationalist groups or individuals were seeking to curtail immigration of religious and ethnic minorities, or were calling for efforts to suppress or even eliminate a particular religious group, in the name of defending a dominant ethnic or religious group they described as threatened or under attack.”

Additionally, there was a 5 percent increase in countries where organized groups aimed to overtake public life at the expense of a religion.

The most popular targets for religious restrictions were Muslims, Christians and Jews.

“Looking at religious groups, harassment of members of the world’s two largest groups – Christians and Muslims – by government and social groups continued to be widespread around the world, with both experiencing sharp increases in the number of countries in which they were harassed in 2016,” the study said.

This research, which included 198 countries making up 99.5 percent of the world, comes from Pew’s ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion, which analyzes the “extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices.”

These levels were measured by government laws and policies, acts of individual or group hostility against religion, including armed conflict and terrorism. Harassment of religious groups was gathered by data relating to physical or verbal assaults, arrests, detentions, desecration of holy sites, and discrimination against religious groups via employment, education and housing.

The 2016 year was the most recent year in which data was available.

 

On papal flight, Francis says intercommunion policy should be decided by diocesan bishops

Vatican City, Jun 21, 2018 / 05:22 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis said Thursday that the German bishops’ debate on the reception of the Eucharist by the non-Catholic spouses of Catholics, also referred to as intercommunion, should be decided by diocesan bishops, rather than bishops’ conferences.
 
Speaking aboard the papal flight from Geneva to Rome June 21, the pope told journalists that the Code of Canon Law leaves decisions about the criteria for intercommunion to diocesan bishops, in order that their decisions will apply only to their individual dioceses, rather than to the Church across an entire country.

The pope said that although the German bishops attempted to establish guidelines through their episcopal conference, “the Code does not foresee that. It foresees the bishop of the diocese, but not the conference, because a thing approved by an episcopal conference immediately becomes universal.”

“The particular Church, the Code permits it, the local Church [episcopal conference] cannot because it would be universal,” Francis elaborated.

“The conference can study and give direction and opinions to help the bishops to manage the particular cases,” the pope added.

Canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law generally allows for episcopal conferences to establish norms regarding the circumstances in which non-Catholic Christians may be admitted to the Eucharist.

In the danger of death, or “if in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it,” Catholic ministers may licitly administer penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick to Protestants “who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed,” the canon says.
 
The same canon notes that “the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops is not to issue general norms except after consultation at least with the local competent authority of the interested non-Catholic Church or community.”

The pope’s remarks were in response to a question about a letter he approved, sent from Cardinal-elect Luis Ladaria to the German bishops in May, asking them to study the topic more before publishing guidelines.
 
The pope added that communion for Protestant spouses of Catholics “in special cases” is not a “novelty,” mentioning again the Code of Canon Law.

The Vatican press office could not be reached for clarification by deadline.

During the press conference, Pope Francis also addressed his feelings on the outcome of the day trip to Switzerland, which he undertook for the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, saying the day’s activities of prayer, speeches, meetings, and Mass had all made him happy.
 
“The right word of the day is ‘encounter,’ and when a person encounters another and feels appreciation for the meeting, this always touches the heart, no? They were positive meetings, good even,” he said.
 
Francis also addressed the topics of immigration and refugees, the responsibility of religions to promote peace, and ecumenism.
 
About immigration, he noted that mass-migration is a problem around the world, and that a country should welcome as many refugees as it can integrate and give work to, in light of the virtue of prudence.
 
The pope also lamented the conditions which many refugees may face if they return to their country of origin, including the increased risk of being trafficked.
 
Speaking particularly of the United States, the pope reiterated his comments in a recent interview with Reuters, that he backs the statements of the U.S. bishops on the issue.
 
Answering a question on the topic of so-called “pacifist Churches,” which hold that a Christian cannot use or condone violence, Francis refuted the idea that there are “religions of peace,” as if that implied the existence of “religions of war.”
 
He said that religious fundamentalism exists, with people who “seek wars,” which it is important to stay alert to, but that during this time, when there is a “crisis of human rights,” all churches should work together to bring about a spirit of peace in the world.

The press conference concluded with Pope Francis presenting a slice of cake to Cardinal-elect Angelo Becciu, currently Substitute of the Holy See Secretariat of State.

Francis, offering the slice of Sardinian cake, noted that it was Becciu's last trip with the pope, because he will soon "change color, but not for embarrassment," referencing the archbishop's recent appointment as a cardinal.

 

Farm bill with SNAP restrictions passes narrowly in House

Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2018 / 04:59 pm (CNA).- On Thursday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the 2018 farm bill, H.R. 2, which included controversial changes to food assistance programs that Catholic leaders had voiced concern over.

The Farm Bill is the main agricultural and food policy guide for the country. It provides funding for a number of programs and regulations in the food and agriculture industries.

The party-line vote was 213-211. No Democrats voted for the bill, and 20 Republicans voted against it. The same bill failed in May, when 30 Republicans voted against the legislation.

The most controversial element of the bill was a provision to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously called food stamps.

The farm bill would tighten restrictions on eligibility for SNAP. It would require people between the ages of 18 and 59 who receive SNAP to either have a job or participate in a job training program for 20 hours per week. Adults with disabilities or young dependents are exempted from this requirement.

Penalties for not complying with work requirements increase under the bill, from one month ineligibility to one year for a first violation, and from three months to three years for a second violation.

When the farm bill was being discussed in April, representatives from the U.S. bishops conference, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Rural Life, and the National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul wrote a letter to leaders of the Congressional Agriculture Committee.

“Efforts to improve state workforce training programs by providing case-management, streamlining workforce programs, providing increased training slots and setting minimum standards are welcomed,” they said.

"However, the new workforce training program appears to lack sufficient investment to meet the additional demand for meaningful job training and skill building that will be generated by the new requirements,” they said in the April letter. The letter noted that the majority of SNAP recipients currently work.

“Moreover, rural communities may find compliance especially challenging given that job training programs are often located far away, and there is insufficient access to transportation,” the letter said.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the passage of the farm bill was a step “moving toward a poverty-fighting system,” where Americans will be able to move out of a cycle of poverty.

“This is a big deal,” said Ryan in a statement published on his website.

Ryan referred to the SNAP reforms as “critical,” saying they will “close the skills gap, better equip our workforce, and encourage people to move from welfare to work.”

“These reforms will return agency to people, rather than keeping it in government, empowering individuals to reach their full potential and make the most of their lives.”

President Donald Trump, posting on Twitter, said that he was “so happy to see work requirements included” in the version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives.

“Big win for the farmers,” said Trump.

The bill now moves on to the Senate, where a bipartisan compromise bill is expected to be debated next week.