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There's no 'maybe' when answering the Lord's call, pope says

Vatican City, Apr 20, 2018 / 03:53 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Speaking in the southern Italian town of Alessano on Friday, Pope Francis said that we should be on fire for our faith, combining prayer and action after the example of the Italian bishop Tonino Bello.

“Here, this is the vocation according to Don Tonino: a call to become not only faithful devotees, but real lovers of the Lord… When the Lord sets the heart on fire, hope cannot be extinguished. When the Lord asks for a ‘yes,’ we cannot answer with ‘maybe,’” the pope said April 20.

Pope Francis visited the town of Alessano as part of a quick day-trip there and to Molfetta, to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Antonio Bello, known as “Don Tonino,” an Italian bishop whose cause for beatification was opened in 2007.

Before speaking to around 20,000 Catholic, the pope stopped at the tomb of Don Tonino for a moment of silent prayer.

In his speech, he pointed to the bishop’s warning that Catholics not immerse themselves “in the whirlwind of affairs” without first planting themselves in front of the tabernacle – lest they work in vain for the Kingdom.

“We can ask ourselves if we start from the tabernacle or ourselves. You could also ask if, once we leave, we walk; if, like Mary, the Woman of the journey, we get up to reach and serve man, every man,” he stated.

Francis recalled a word coined by Tonino, “which gives each of us a great mission.”

Tonino, the pope noted, would say often that Christians should be “contempl-attivi,” meaning, “contemplative-actives,” people who never separate prayer and action.

Don Tonino had “his feet on the ground and his eyes on Heaven, and above all with a heart that connected Heaven and earth,” he said.

Antonio Bello was born in Alessano in 1935. He was ordained a priest in 1957, and afterward studied theology at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

He was always close to the young and the poor, working at a seminary, as a parish priest, and as an assistant for the Italian lay Catholic association, “Azione Cattolica.”

He was appointed bishop of Molfetta, Giovinazzo, Terlizzi, and Ruvo by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

As bishop, Don Tonino supported the poor and people in difficulty, opening a Caritas soup kitchen in every diocesan parish and founding a community for drug addicts.

In 1985 he became president of Pax Christi. In this role he worked against the First Gulf War and the war in former Yugoslavia. He died in Molfetta on April 20, 1993.

Pope Francis reflected on Don Tonino’s attention to the poor, saying that “understanding the poor was for him true wealth.”

“Don Tonino reminds us not to theorize the closeness to the poor, but to be close to them, as Jesus was; that for us, as rich as he was, he became poor,” he said.

Following his message, the pope led those present in praying the ‘Hail Mary,’ and gave his benediction before departing for Molfetta by helicopter.

Priest murdered in Mexico amid continuing wave of violence

Mexico City, Mexico, Apr 20, 2018 / 03:03 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A Catholic priest in the Diocese of Cuautitlán Izcalli, México, was stabbed to death inside a church Wednesday, local reports said.

The death of Fr. Rubén Alcántara Díaz, judicial vicar of the diocese, makes 22 priests who have been murdered since 2012, the Catholic Multimedia Center reported.

According to local media, the Attorney General's Office of Mexico State confirmed that the murder occurred the evening of April 18, inside Our Lady of Mount Carmel church in the Cumbria neighborhood.

Reports state that the 50-year-old priest was stabbed by a person who fled after the crime and who has yet to be identified.

The Diocese of Cuautitlán Izcalli expressed its sorrow over the death of the priest.

“While the pertinent inquiries are being conducted by the experts, we pray to God for his eternal rest and ask everyone to join in this intention,” the diocese said in a statement.

Bishop Alfonso Miranda, secretary general of the Mexican Bishops Conference, expressed his condolences on Twitter for the death of Fr. Alcántara Díaz and of “all the victims of the enormous amount of violence in Mexico. God help us.”

Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes also lamented the murder, offering prayers that “hope in the Resurrection strengthen the bishop and faithful.”

Last month Bishop Ramón Castro Castro of Cuernavaca called the murder of priests in Mexico a “painful phenomenon which has darkened the country's horizon.”

The bishop encouraged the faithful to fight to eradicate organized crime from the country with the Gospel, always seeking justice and peace.

How a new Utah law is promoting marriage prep classes

Salt Lake City, Utah, Apr 20, 2018 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Utah is encouraging its citizens to better prepare for marriage by discounting the cost of marriage licenses for couples who complete marriage preparation classes.  

The law, signed March 20 by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, will discount marriage licenses by $20 for couples who complete at least three hours of premarital counseling or six hours of premarital classes at least 14 days before applying for a marriage license. These services may be provided by either religious or secular organizations.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Allen Christensen, said it is an effort to counter the high divorce rate.

“Typically, in Utah, we have 25,000 marriages a year. About 10,000 of those are going to end up in divorce,” he said, according to the Brigham Young University student publication.

The co-chair of the Utah Marriage Commission, Alan Hawkins, said the premarital services ought to address marital commitment, the factors within successful marriages, and communication skills.

In a blog post on the Institute for Family Studies, Hawkins emphasized the importance that these premarital services have on lasting marriages.

“A substantial body of research has shown that premarital education can help newlywed couples get off to a stronger start and reduce the risk of divorce in the early, high-risk years of marriage,” he said.

Hawkins said the Utah Marriage Commission is partnering with the state to help spread the word, and encouraged wedding retailers to show support for the bill by matching the $20 discount.

The Commission will initiate a study to determine the success of the project over the next five years, when the law will be up for renewal. Hawkins said the goal of the law is to increase participation in premarital services from its current 30 percent of marrying couples to 50 percent.

Nine other states have created similar laws to promote marital counseling. While the discount is small, Hawkins said, “anecdotal data from other states that have adopted a similar marriage-license-discount policy suggests that lower-income couples are especially responsive to these discounts.”

“Ultimately, however, the discount is less a financial incentive and more a cultural nudge for couples to take seriously the need for marriage preparation.”

 

Vietnamese pastor who was jailed for faith says it was 'God's gift to me'

Washington D.C., Apr 19, 2018 / 04:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After surviving six years of imprisonment and torture, Vietnamese pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh told CNA that prayer sustained him through his physical suffering and pain.

In 2011, the evangelical pastor was charged with “undermining national solidarity” for conducting his Christian ministry with the Montagnard ethnic minority groups that live in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Chinh had long been an outspoken critic of the government’s ban on preaching in the region and a pro-democracy advocate.

During his imprisonment, Chinh spent nearly one month in solitary confinement and his health quickly deteriorated. He was denied treatment or access to medication, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who advocated on his behalf.

Chinh told CNA that he experienced consolation in knowing that his suffering was in imitation of Christ.

"Even though I suffered physical suffering and pain, I felt in my soul happiness,” Chinh told CNA through an English translator at the USCIRF summit April 18.

"I viewed it as God's gift to me,” said Chinh. “It was like what Jesus Christ went through, the same suffering that his disciples experienced, and now I'm going through the same experience. That is how the good news comes out."

Chinh explained his hope that sharing his experience will help increase the faith of other Christians.

Prayerful communion with Christ “gave me courage to survive the prison conditions until the day that I saw freedom,” Chinh explained.

The Vietnamese pastor was released from prison July 28, 2017, about halfway through his 11 year sentence. His release came with the condition that he leave Vietnam, so Chinh currently resides in the U.S.

Several months before his release, Chinh’s wife, Tran Thi Hong, was beaten and interrogated because she met with the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the time, David Saperstein, who was advocating on her husband’s behalf.

At the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom summit, Chinh was the only released prisoner to take part in a panel highlighting the specific cases of prisoners of conscience detained throughout the world. USCIRF is currently advocating for the release of prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, China, Turkey, and Pakistan.

Several other prisoners of conscience were released in 2017, including Maryam Naghash Zargaran, an Iranian Christian convert from Islam who was arrested and imprisoned in 2013.

"Every time you return a prisoner of conscience to his family that truly is a victory,” former USCIRF Chair Robert George told CNA.

The USCIRF has actively advocated for Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor incarcerated in Turkey since 2016. His trial in Istanbul this week was attended by Sam Brownback, the current U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Brunson will face another hearing in Turkey May 7.

“Since my release, the government has arrested more prisoners of conscience,” said Chinh on the prisoners of conscience panel.

Although religious freedom has improved in Vietnam since the 1970s, USCIRF still designates the country as a “country of particular concern” due to ongoing violations of religious freedom within the country.

David Adams, the Cross Catholic Outreach vice president for missions, explained the current situation in Vietnam to CNA.

“On the one hand, churches are allowed to operate with some freedom, depending on where they are located, like in the urban areas. But in other areas, like the Central Highlands where Pastor Chin was ministering to in this case a minority, the Montagnards … the government can get quite repressive and forbid any proselytizing or evangelization or even worship,” said Adams.

Cross Catholic Outreach actively supports Catholic ministries in Vietnam, with an emphasis on potable water, medical aid, and educating young people in the faith.

"Even in the most repressive societies, we have to keep hope alive. There are ways to support freedom, including religious freedom at the grassroots level,” said Adams.

Five things Catholics can do to support international religious liberty

Washington D.C., Apr 19, 2018 / 03:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- At the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Summit on Wednesday, Robert George shared five steps Catholics can take to support religious freedom at home and abroad.

“We need to remember we are our brother's keepers,” George, a Princeton professor who has twice served as chairman of the commission, told CNA.

“That is true whether our brother is someone here at home who is being persecuted and discriminated against or whether that person is in the Sudan or in Syria or Iran or in Vietnam or in China or in North Korea,” he continued.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) marked the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act this year with a summit in Washington, D.C., focusing on the challenges and progress made in the state of religious freedom around the world.

USCIRF is a bipartisan federal commission that monitors global religious freedom violations.

"Whenever I speak about international religious freedom across the country, people always ask me what they can do to help. I always tell them first, to pray,” said current USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark in his closing remarks at the summit April 18.

“First, pray … I want to second that motion,” George told CNA. The first step Catholics must take to address violations of religious freedom is prayer.

“Make your voice heard,” George pointed to as the second way to aid the cause of religious freedom. “Make clear to your elected representatives that religious freedom is a priority to you – domestic religious freedom and international religious freedom.”

“Third, there are wonderful organizations, including some that are Catholic, that deserve our financial support. People ask, ‘What can I do with my charitable giving? I'm not a millionaire. I don't have a lot of money, but I want to give back. I want to thank God for my blessings. I want to help others,’” said George, “I hope that some people think about religious freedom as a cause to support.’

Fourth, “educate yourself and then talk about these issues to people in your parish, people in your family, people in your community,” said George, “We now have the internet. Anybody can learn about religious freedom issues. Go to the USCIRF website.”

Finally, George recommends that religious leaders and communities work together for their shared values. He encourages leaders across historic, theological, and religious divides to communicate and to work together to make a positive impact on civil society.

Former USCIRF chairs Katrina Lantos Swett, Leonard Leo, and David Saperstein spoke on a panel along with George about the current state of international religious freedom.

The panel discussed current threats to religious freedom posed by non-state actors abroad,  such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and al-Shabaab. The mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims in Burma and the Uyghurs in China were also highlighted.

“While we focus on extinguishing the flames of sectarian conflict and oppression in countries like these, we cannot ignore the less-physical deeply religious freedom violations in our own backyard,” said Leonard Leo, who served as the USCIRF chair from 2009 - 2012.

“To maintain our standing in the world as a beacon against oppression, we also must put our own house in order by addressing subtler forms of coercion,” continued Leo.

George told CNA after the panel that the U.S. currently faces serious religious freedom challenges.

“Catholics now are in many cases victims of discrimination from the forces of secular progressiveness in our own country,” said George. “You see efforts to try to coerce Catholics and other pro-life physicians into performing abortions or to shut-down Catholic adoption agencies because they insist on places children with a mom and a dad. Or closing Catholic hospitals because they won't perform abortions. These are serious violations of conscience.”

The current USCIRF chairman, Daniel Mark, is a political science professor at Villanova University. Mark told CNA he is encouraged that the world is “increasingly coming to understand the critical role that religious freedom plays in peace, stability, and prosperity.”

“It is such a foundational freedom,” said Mark. “We see that religious freedom, perhaps more than anything else, is the right that people are most willing to suffer and die for.”

He continued, “There is always the argument that we need to start with democracy and then build toward human rights. We've seen some cases, like Burma, where that hasn't really worked. Maybe it turns out that the direction is the other way … that we need to start by pushing in these countries the core human rights, and from there, the right kind of culture and the right kind of governance will develop.”